Christina Jewett, Kaiser Health News - Why counting casualties from COVID among healthcare workers is so hard

Christina Jewett, Kaiser Health News
Why counting casualties from COVID among healthcare workers is so hard


All good stories start from facts, but most big stories, about complicated causes and widespread effects, need to verify their facts with numbers. Facts can’t add up to judgment or even understanding, without some statistics to back them up.

So, here’s a story — taken from reporting for The Guardian and Kaiser Health News  — a.k.a. — done by our guest today Christina Jewett.

Back in the early days of the Coronavirus pandemic in America, in March and April and May of 2020, when there was no vaccine and deaths from COVID-19 were coming at a terrifying rate, the most drastic choice for patients on the brink of death was intubation, insertion of a breathing tube down the trachea of a patient would then be attached to a respirator.

For this special procedure, most hospitals had special teams who did intubations. They got the best protection.  At a time when PPE, personal protective equipment was in short supply and N95 masks were even harder to find, the intubation teams had priority.

That’s because it was assumed, without evidence, that when it came to transmission of aerosols from someone with COVID to someone working in the hospital, the intubation team was at the highest risk.

Enter some facts, evidence quantified in numbers. Turns out actual aerosol exposure from intubations is next to nothing. A cough could generate 20 times as much risk, and just being around someone with COVID breathing or talking was much more dangerous.

So who were healthcare’s most endangered workers? Nurses and support staff who are with a patient for long periods during transportation and admission and at or near the bedside once that patient got a bed.  By and large, these were the very people who got shorted on PPEs and high-quality masks that were being diverted to the intubation teams.

But here’s where the numbers, the statistics, verify and amplify the story.  According to the best tally available, Lost on the Frontline, put together by KHN and The Guardian, the preference for elite teams had fatal consequences.  Nurses and healthcare support staff suffered the most COVID deaths in the industry — more than half of all healthcare deaths between them. 32 percent of deaths were among nurses. As of six months ago that was 1200 nurses.

Those are facts, but the numbers sure give them some reverberation.



Christina Jewett, Senior Correspondent with the KHN enterprise team, is writing about health care workers dying of COVID-19 for the Lost on the Frontline project. Her reporting on secretive FDA device-reporting loopholes resulted in the release of 5.7 million records and was recognized with the Barlett & Steele Gold award, the SPJ Sunshine Award and an Edward R. Murrow award and was a Goldsmith Award finalist, among others. She previously worked at Reveal/The Center for Investigative Reporting, where her work on hospital billing practices with colleagues was recognized with a George Polk Award. Before that, she worked at ProPublica and The Sacramento Bee. She is a graduate of Indiana University.



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