Dr. Anthony Fauci thanked US healthcare workers who “put themselves at risk every day” during the pandemic, even as he acknowledged that shortages of PPE had contributed to the deaths of more than 3,600 of them.
“We rightly refer to these people without hyperbole, who are true heroes and heroines,” he said in an exclusive interview with The Guardian. The death of so many healthcare workers by Covid-19 is “a reflection of what healthcare workers have done historically, but putting themselves in danger, honoring the oath they take when they become doctors and nurses,” Fauci said. .
The Guardian and Kaiser Health News have tracked the deaths of health care workers during the pandemic in the Lost on the Frontline database. More than 3,600 health worker deaths have been counted in the database, which is considered the most authoritative accounting in the country.
Personal protective equipment, including critical gloves, gowns and masks, has been in short supply since the pandemic began and the death toll increased. America is the biggest in the world importer of PPE, which made it especially vulnerable to the impact of demand and export restrictions that hit the world market last spring.
“During the critical moments when there was a shortage, it was when people had to use whatever was available,” Fauci said. “I’m sure it increased the risk of infection among healthcare providers.”
The shortage was compounded by the failure of the federal government to maintain a national stockpile of personal protective equipment and the Trump administration’s refusal to order more domestic manufacturing of PPE. That caused healthcare workers to wear garbage bags as gowns, reuse N95s for weeks, and sometimes go completely without gloves.
The shortage sparked protests from health workers, who said that working in the midst of the pandemic without equipment left them like “sheep going to slaughter.” Nina Forbes, a nurse at an assisted living facility, was sometimes forced to use a garbage bag, according to her daughter, and later died. One year after the pandemic, gowns and gloves are still in short supply, according to the Food and Drug Administration.
More than 555,000 Americans have died in the Covid-19 pandemic, and many more have suffered from the long-term symptoms of Covid-19.
Healthcare workers have been especially vulnerable throughout the pandemic, having treated patients during the early waves when the lack of personal protective equipment was especially acute, through the summer waves and a disastrous peak in winter.
A study of healthcare workers in the US and UK in the lancet found that healthcare workers are three times more likely than the general public to be infected with Covid-19, with a disproportionate impact on minority healthcare workers.
“It’s very clear when you go to the media and you see the images on television – the stress and tension on the faces of the healthcare providers, nurses, doctors and other people involved in the healthcare business,” Fauci said.
However, the United States government has not systematically accounted for the deaths of healthcare workers. Members of Congress, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and academic reports have cited the Guardian and KHN reports as the most comprehensive. A growing chorus of policy and union experts have called for a full count of health worker deaths.
“We certainly want to find an accurate count of the people who die,” Fauci said, without noting when the government should undertake such an effort. “Certainly that’s something that I think would be under the auspices of the federal government.”
Even as the launch of the vaccine accelerates, healthcare workers remain at risk. More than 400 died between the time the launch began and the end of February. Infections among vaccinated healthcare workers have dropped dramatically, but because deaths are a lagging indicator of the spread of Covid-19, some healthcare workers will have fallen ill before widespread vaccination.
At the same time, immunity to coronaviruses generally declines over time, and variants can reduce the effectiveness of some vaccines. The global shortage of vaccines means that dozens of poor countries have not vaccinated a single person. Proponents argue that this has led to global “vaccine apartheid,” which will contribute to the continued emergence of variants. Both scenarios could put health workers in danger again and require a new round of mass vaccination of adults.
Studies are underway on the duration of immunity of vaccines and the impact of variants on vaccines. “If we’re going to need to boost with a variant-specific boost, [we] he will be prepared for it because we are already doing a study, ”he said, and that research is being carried out at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which he directs. Still, “it appears that our ability to protect ourselves against variants with the standard vaccine could be better than we anticipated.”
Regardless of how future vaccination campaigns play out, Fauci said US lawmakers should learn from last year.
“We better make sure that the lesson we will learn is that we will never again be in a situation where people who are risking their health and safety do not have the proper equipment to protect themselves safely,” he said.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism