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CDC Reports A Spike In COVID-19 Deaths Among Health Care Workers

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

There are new and troubling numbers out from the federal government. Nearly 300 health care workers in the U.S. have died so far from COVID-19, and more than 60,000 have been infected. That is a drastic increase since the CDC first released these numbers six weeks ago. Here to help us understand these sobering statistics is health reporter Will Stone, who's been covering the pandemic from Seattle.

Hey, Will.

WILL STONE, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

CHANG: So NPR has been reporting all along on health care workers who have gotten sick, who have even died. But these new figures - I mean, they give us a sense of how serious the risk still is to the frontline. Can you talk about what we're learning from these newest numbers?

STONE: Yes. Unfortunately, they show a really big increase from when the CDC first released these numbers. That was in mid-April. And at that time, fewer than 30 health care workers had died, and under 10,000 had been infected. Now, we have 291 deaths, and more than 60,000 infected. But if anything, you know, the real numbers are probably much higher. CDC collects the data, but most of the reports don't actually include whether that person is employed in health care. So the numbers are probably much higher for deaths from COVID. In fact, a major nurses union has been tracking medical deaths, and their count is much higher than 291. They've counted 530 health care workers who have died from this disease. So whatever the real count is, it's clear that health care workers are still catching the virus. They're getting sick, and some are dying.

CHANG: And why do we think that they're still being exposed, still getting sick, still dying? Because, you know, yes, from the very beginning of the outbreak here there were lots of stories about shortages of masks, of gloves, of gowns. But then there were stories about hospitals or states getting huge shipments of supplies. So is the lack of personal protective equipment still persisting? Is that still a big problem?

STONE: It is. Months into the pandemic, I'm hearing from many health care workers, they say they're still not getting enough protective equipment, or they're simply having to reuse it - you know, wear the same mask for an eight, even 12-hour shift, which is not how these products are supposed to be used. And that's risky. I spoke to Zenei Cortez. She's president of National Nurses United. Their member nurses are having to push for proper masks and equipment because there is still a scarcity. Some hospitals have this equipment locked up, actually. They're rationing it. And she thinks that's led directly to some deaths.

ZENEI CORTEZ: We had one nurse in Southern California who had to respond quickly because a COVID-19 patient had stopped breathing. So she rushed into the room using only a surgical mask. And 14 days after that incident, she died because she contracted the virus.

CHANG: Wow.

STONE: And Cortez thinks that nurse might have lived if she had the proper kind of mask - the N95 - right there when she needed it. So even now, I'm still getting notices about memorials and vigils for nurses who have died from COVID and protests over inadequate protection.

CHANG: Well, this is really concerning because much of the country is trying to reopen right now, and that could obviously lead to more waves of infection. But if the supply chains, as you say, for hospitals, for nursing homes, are still a problem, what do health care workers say they need to feel safer?

STONE: They say the workarounds need to end. They want the right masks every time, just as they had before the pandemic. And many say it's time for new regulations or industry standards to make that happen. Pat Kane is head of the New York State Nurses Association. And she says when the AIDS epidemic happened, health care adapted with new equipment and protocols for working with patients.

PAT KANE: We need an enforceable standard precaution for COVID. A lot of us lived through HIV/AIDS and the evolution of bloodborne pathogen precautions, and it really made a difference. That's what we need to do here to keep everyone safe.

STONE: Kane says in some parts of the country, like New York, there's a lull, and so we have a chance to make sure we're ready to keep health care workers safe when the next round of infections come.

CHANG: All right. That's health reporter Will Stone in Seattle.

Thank you, Will.

STONE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.