Why Are Healthcare Workers Still Dying of Covid-19?

Around the world, many don’t have access to a vaccine. That’s scandalous.

Photo: John Cameron/Unsplash

My heart sank when I heard Romeo “Romy” Agtarap died of Covid-19. He had recently retired from nursing after two decades in the emergency room. But when Covid-19 surged into New York City last spring he joined us again on the frontlines. In April 2020, the virus that brought Romy out of retirement took his life.

Over 115,000 health care workers around the world have died from Covid-19. We must make sure no more fall victim to this virus. That should be easy, as vaccines provide near-perfect protection against severe disease and death from Covid.

That’s why we should immediately ensure every health care worker around the world has access to a Covid-19 vaccine. Sadly, that isn’t happening.

Globally there are approximately 59 million health care workers. This includes both the doctors and nurses who treat patients as well as the laboratory technicians, pharmacists, and other professionals indirectly involved in patient care.

It’s impossible to overstate the impact of losing 115,000 health care workers. That’s the equivalent of losing all the doctors in California, the state with the most physicians. And it’s more than the number of active nurses in each of 42 U.S. states.

For health systems already buckling under the weight of Covid-19, the death of a single health care worker presents immediate challenges. Their surviving colleagues — exhausted and traumatized — will undoubtedly wonder “Am I next?” And fewer providers means patients will receive lower quality care.

In the first year of the pandemic, Covid took the lives of 3,600 health care workers in the U.S. The death toll among providers has now shifted to countries hardest hit by Covid-19.

The recent surge in India has claimed the lives of over 500 physicians since March — including more than 50 in a single day — according to the Indian Medical Association.

This risk to providers working on the frontlines isn’t new. But the unprecedented scale of the pandemic made it harder for health care workers to access the supplies needed to safely do our job. This was especially true in low- and middle- income countries that saw their supply chains constrained as wealthier nations bought up the global stock of personal protective equipment (PPE).

Now the great global inequity is vaccines. Even though wealthy countries like the U.S. started vaccinating frontline providers like myself in December 2020, the majority of health care workers around the world still aren’t vaccinated against Covid-19.

The constraint isn’t vaccine supply. There is more than enough to vaccinate every health care worker in the world. But the doses are being hoarded in wealthy countries. The U.S. alone has 1.2 billion doses on order, more than enough to inoculate every American many times over. And the U.S. is already sitting on a surplus stockpile of vaccines.

Wealthy nations like the U.S. who gobbled up the global vaccine supply should commit to getting the world’s healthcare workers vaccinated immediately. One way to do this is donating more doses to COVAX, the global vaccine equity initiative established by the World Health Organization. COVAX distributes doses to countries around the world with an expectation that priority groups — foremost among them frontline health care workers — are immunized first.

Currently COVAX is 140 million doses short of its projected supply. Donating our vaccine surplus would help fill that gap and prevent more frontline providers from dying from Covid-19. But we must act fast. The world can’t afford to lose any more of my health care colleagues.

During the pandemic, many compared working on the Covid-19 frontlines to serving on a battlefield. We put our lives on the line to protect others and keep our families safe. And we are still at war with a virus, even if vaccines have made victory all but certain.

We set aside holidays to honor those we’ve lost in battle. When this pandemic is over, we should do the same for Romy and other health care workers around the world we’ve lost to Covid-19.

But an even greater honor would be protecting them from dying in the first place. Vaccinating every health care worker should be an immediate global priority. This pandemic has already given us too many lives to mourn.

NYC ER doctor | Ebola Survivor | Director of Global Health in Emergency Medicine at Columbia University | Public Health Professor | Doctors Without Borders BoD

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