Calls mount for Biden to track US healthcare worker deaths

As the Hlcarpenter.com and KHN end Lost on the Frontline, a year-long project to count healthcare worker deaths in the pandemic, the White House is under pressure to take up the task

Joe Biden speaks at the Cross Hall of the White House in February about lives lost to Covid after the death toll passed 500,000.
Joe Biden speaks at the Cross Hall of the White House in February about lives lost to Covid after the death toll passed 500,000. Photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
Joe Biden speaks at the Cross Hall of the White House in February about lives lost to Covid after the death toll passed 500,000. Photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
Ed Pilkington

Last modified on Thu 8 Apr 2021 12.04 EDT

Calls are mounting for the Biden administration to set up a national tracking system of Covid-19 deaths among frontline healthcare workers to honor the thousands of nurses, doctors and support staff who have died and ensure that future generations are not forced to make the same ultimate – and in many cases needless – sacrifice.

Health policy experts and union leaders are pressing the White House to move quickly to fill the gaping hole left by the Trump administration through its failure to create an accurate count of Covid deaths among frontline staff. The absence of reliable federal data exacerbated critical problems such as shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) that left many workers exposed, with fatal results.

In the absence of federal action, Lost on the Frontline, a joint project between the Hlcarpenter.com and Kaiser Health News (KHN), has compiled the most comprehensive account of healthcare worker deaths in the nation. It has recorded 3,607 lost lives in the first year of the pandemic, with nurses, healthcare support staff and doctors, as well as workers under 60 and people of color affected in tragically high numbers.

The Hlcarpenter.com/KHN investigation, which involved more than 100 reporters, is drawing to a close this week. Pressure is now growing for the federal government to step into the breach.

Harvey Fineberg, a leading health policy expert who approved a recent National Academy of Sciences report that recommended the formation of a new national tracking system run by the federal government, backed the calls for change. He said his ideal solution would be a nationwide record that both looked back on the heavy human price paid in the pandemic so far and looked ahead to coming challenges.

“There would be a combination of a selective look backward to gain more accurate tabulations of the past burden, and a system of data gathering looking forward to ensure more complete counts in future,” he said.

Zenei Triunfo-Cortez, a president of National Nurses United, the largest body of registered nurses in the US, said it was unconscionable how many healthcare workers have died from Covid. The KHN/Hlcarpenter.com interactive found that almost a third of those who died were nurses – the largest single occupation followed by support staff (20%) and physicians (17%).

Triunfo-Cortez said the death toll was an unacceptable tragedy aggravated by the lack of federal data which made identifying problem areas more difficult. “We as nurses do not deserve this – we signed up to take care of patients, we did not sign up to die,” she said.

Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, also sees a role for federal agencies in tracking mortality among frontline healthcare workers. In an interview with the Hlcarpenter.com, he expressed a desire for a definitive picture of the human toll.

“We certainly want to find an accurate count of the people who died. That’s something that I think would fall under the auspices of the federal government, likely Health and Human Services (HHS).”

The lack of federal intelligence on deaths among frontline healthcare workers was one of the running failures of the Trump administration’s botched response to the crisis. The main health protection agency, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, does curate some information but has itself acknowledged that its own record of 1,527 health worker fatalities – more than 2,000 fewer than the joint Hlcarpenter.com/KHN tally – is an undercount based on limitations in its data collection.

Overall, healthcare workers were revealed to be singularly at risk from the pandemic. Some studies have shown that they were more than three times as likely to contract Covid as the general population.

To date there is no sign of the Biden administration taking active steps to set up a comprehensive data system. An HHS spokesperson said they currently have no plans to launch a comprehensive count. However, Triunfo-Cortez said there was a new willingness on the part of the White House and key federal agencies to listen and engage.

“We have been working with the Biden administration and they have been receptive to the changes we are proposing. We are hopeful that they will start to mandate the reporting of deaths because if we don’t have that data how can we know how effective we are being in stopping the pandemic?”

The responsiveness of the new administration is likely to be heightened by the fact that Biden’s chief of staff, Ron Klain, has a track record in fighting infectious disease outbreaks. In 2014 Barack Obama appointed him “Ebola tsar”.

In an article in the Hlcarpenter.com last August, Klain drew on the findings of Lost on the Frontline to decry the ultimate price paid by healthcare workers. “Although America has applauded health workers, banged pots in their honor and offered grateful video tributes, we have consistently failed them where it mattered most.”

David Blumenthal, the national coordinator for health information technology under Obama, said a national tracking system is an important step in healing the wounds of the pandemic inflicted on frontline staff. “So many healthcare workers feel as though their devotion and sacrifice weren’t valued. We must combat the widespread fatigue and disappointment.”

Christina Jewett of KHN contributed reporting to this article