Claire Rezba, an anesthesiologist, has been working at a hospital in Richmond, Virginia for years. As the pandemic hit the United States, elective surgeries have been canceled and rescheduled, giving her time to worry about her peers. Her sister is a nurse practitioner, her husband a physician, many of her friends work alongside her.
As Rezba scrolled through the news one day, she discovered a news story that spoke to her: the death of Deidre Wilkes. Wilkes was a mammogram technician at a hospital in southwest Atlanta and a victim of COVID-19. Rezba was moved by this story and began to keep count of all the other healthcare workers that had passed away due to COVID-19.
As Rezba found more and more obituaries, she felt as though she had control over her fears, “it’s a way of coping with my feelings.”
On April 14, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention published a count of health care workers lost to COVID-19. According to the report, 27 healthcare workers had been lost. But Rezba disagreed with these numbers, upset that they had been published. She said “I mean, I’m, like, just one person using Google and I had already counted more than 200 people and they’re saying 27? That’s a big discrepancy.”
This report began to fuel Rezba’s rage, as she began to see how quickly healthcare workers, who were framed as heroes, were forgotten and ignored once they had given their lives. After some time researching online, she got the sense that “hospitals and nursing homes were trying to hide what was happening” to healthcare workers, making it seem like they weren’t being incredibly impacted by the pandemic. Meanwhile, government and public health officials were primarily silent about the many deaths.
Rezba also started looking for data and studies, hoping that there were lessons being learned from these deaths. She could not find any, but she began to notice her own patterns: many of those who had passed worked two or three jobs but had no insurance, had gotten their families sick, were young parents, were Black or brown, or were immigrants. These patterns make sense, as these are the identities that force people to be less safe and work in more high-risk jobs.
Rezba was saddened and enraged. She felt the least she could do was show the government and the public how many people had passed, telling their stories, demonstrating how avoidable their deaths had been. “I feel like if they had to look at the faces, and read the stories, if they realized how many there are; if they had to keep scrolling and reading, maybe they would understand.”
Through the end of July, the CDC reported that nearly 120,000 medical personnel had contracted the virus and at least 578 had died. These numbers are a “gross underestimate,” according to Kent Sepkowitz, an infectious disease specialist. Sepkowitz has studied medical worker deaths from tuberculosis, hepatitis, HIV, and the flu. Based on past epidemics and state data, he expects health care workers to make up 5 to 15 percent of all COVID-19 infections in the U.S. This would mean that the number of healthcare workers who have contracted the virus would be over 200,000 and maybe much higher.
Other organizations have been counting different numbers. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has reported at least 767 deaths among nursing home staff, numbers which indicate that this job is “the most dangerous job in America,” according to the Washington Post. National Nurses United, a union composed of more than 150,000 members, has counted at least 1,289 deaths, with at least 169 of those being nurses.
Christopher Friese, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Nursing points out how these deaths are not only the “tragic loss of that individual,” but also “one less person we have to take care of our loved ones.” He says “we had tools at our disposal” to prevent mass sickness and death. One tool that he feels that the U.S. has largely ignored is reliable data about infections and death. “We don’t really have a good understanding of where healthcare workers are at greatest risk,” Friese said. “We’ve had to piece it together. And the fact that we’re piecing it together in 2020 is pretty disturbing.”
The CDC’s basic mechanism for collecting data about health care workers has been through the coronavirus case report form, a standard two-page document filled out by local health departments. The form doesn’t ask for much detail, and the agency doesn’t know the occupations of almost 80% of people infected. The data among nursing home staff is a bit more robust, due to a rule that requires facilities to report directly to the CDC.
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has prioritized COVID-related cases within the healthcare industry. But, it has suggested that employers are “unlikely to face any penalties,” according to ProPublica. More than 4,500 complaints have been submitted to OSHA about COVID-related working conditions in the medical industry and has closed nearly 3,200 of these cases. States have also failed to collect and report information about healthcare workers, with many not even documenting occupation.
With these huge rifts, people like Rezba have decided to make their own databases. Late at night, Rezba starts Googling local news stories, eventually turning to Legacy.com, an obituary site. With names on a list, she begins to look them up on Facebook, trying to find their occupation. Doctors and nurses are the easiest to find but Rezba is especially interested in those often overlooked: the intake coordinators, supply techs, the food service workers, and the janitors.
Once Rezba has found someone who belongs on her list, she finds a photo of them and writes a few words in their honor.
“As a child, she would wrap her clothes around Dove soap so they would smell like America. This poor baby should have his mother in his arms. Instead, he has her in an urn,” she wrote on one post.
By the end of July, Rezba had posted almost 900 names and faces of U.S. healthcare workers who had passed away.