More than 900 US healthcare workers have died of Covid-19 – and the toll is rising

Danielle Renwick and Shoshana Dubnow
<span>Photograph: Jeenah Moon/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Jeenah Moon/Reuters

More than 900 frontline healthcare workers have died of Covid-19, according to an interactive database unveiled today by the Guardian and KHN. Lost on the Frontline is a partnership between the two newsrooms that aims to count, verify and memorialize every US healthcare worker who dies during the pandemic.

It is the most comprehensive accounting of US healthcare workers’ deaths in the country.

Related: Lost on the frontline: US healthcare workers who died fighting Covid-19

As coronavirus cases surge – and dire shortages of lifesaving protective gear such as N-95 masks, gowns and gloves persist – the nation’s healthcare workers are again facing life-threatening conditions in southern and western states.

Through crowdsourcing and reports from colleagues, social media, online obituaries, workers’ unions and local media, Lost on the Frontline reporters have identified 922 healthcare workers who reportedly died of Covid-19.

A team of more than 50 journalists from the Guardian, KHN and journalism schools have spent months investigating individual deaths to make certain they died from Covid-19, and that they were indeed working on the frontlines in contact with Covid patients or working in places where they were being treated. The reporters have also been investigating the circumstances of their deaths, including their access to PPE, and tracking down family members, co-workers, union representatives and employers to comment about their deaths.

series box

Thus far, we have independently confirmed 167 deaths and published their names, data and stories about their lives and how they will be remembered. We are continuing to confirm additional victims and are publishing new names weekly.

The tally includes doctors, nurses and paramedics, as well as crucial support staff such as hospital janitors, administrators and nursing home workers, who put their own lives at risk during the pandemic to care for others.

The early data indicates that dozens have died who were unable to access adequate personal protective equipment and at least 35 succumbed after federal work-safety officials received safety complaints about their workplaces. Early tallies also suggest that the majority of the deaths were among people of color, and many were immigrants. But because this database is a work in progress the early findings represent a fraction of total reports and are not representative of all healthcare worker deaths.

Of the 167 workers added to the Lost on the Frontline database so far:

  • A majority – 103 (62%) – were identified as people of color.

  • At least 52 (31%) were reported to have inadequate personal protective equipment (PPE).

  • The median age was 57 and ages ranged from 20 to 80, with 21 people (12%) under 40 years of age.

  • About one-third – at least 53 – were born outside the United States, and 25 were from the Philippines.

  • The majority of the deaths, 103, were in April, after the initial surge on the east coast.

  • Roughly 38% – 64 – were nurses, but the total also includes physicians, pharmacists, first responders and hospital technicians, among others

  • At least 68 lived in New York and New Jersey, two states hit hard at the outset of the pandemic, with Illinois and California following.

Some of these deaths were preventable. Poor preparation, government missteps and an overburdened healthcare system increased that risk. Inadequate access to testing, a nationwide shortage of protective gear, and resistance to social distancing and mask-wearing have forced more patients into overburdened hospitals and driven up the death toll.

Gaps in government data have increased the need for independent tracking. The federal government has failed to accurately count healthcare worker fatalities. As of 3 August, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 592 deaths among health workers – but the organization does not list specific names and has conceded that this is an undercount.

Recent moves by the White House underscore the need for public data and accountability. In July, the Trump administration ordered health facilities to send data on hospitalizations and deaths from Covid-19 directly to the Department of Health and Human Services, bypassing the CDC. In the following days, vital information on the pandemic disappeared from the public eye. (The data was later restored following a public outcry, but the agency indicated it may no longer update the figures due to a change in federal reporting requirements.)

Lost on the Frontline reporters have compiled hundreds of potential cases through crowdsourcing and reports from colleagues, social media, online obituaries, workers’ unions and local media. They are independently confirming each death before publishing names, data and obituaries.

Exclusive stories by the reporters have revealed that many healthcare workers are using surgical masks that are far less effective than N-95 masks and have put them in jeopardy. Emails obtained via a public records request showed that federal and state officials were aware in late February of dire shortages of PPE.

Further investigations found that health workers who contracted the coronavirus and their families are now struggling to access death and other benefits in the workers’ compensation system. Our reporting has also examined the deaths of 19 healthcare workers under age 30 who died from Covid-19.

We are continuing to gather the names of healthcare workers who have died and dig into why so many are falling ill. We welcome tips and feedback at frontline@theguardian.com and covidtips@kff.org.

Melissa Bailey and Christina Jewett contributed to this story.