In the United States, we value the lives of those who protect us. According to the FBI, 89 law enforcement officers died in line-of-duty incidents last year. Each of those deaths is a tragedy, often marked by funeral processions of hundreds of squad cars from around the country. We mourn those deaths because we know the officers died protecting us. Perhaps that’s one reason we see so many “Defend the Police” yard signs.
What would the country do if more than 1,000 police officers — more than a tenfold increase — died in a single year? There would be outcries from the White House and both sides of the political aisle. We’d see House and Senate hearings to identify who was at fault, what was wrong and how to safeguard our police. Those hearings would culminate in a bill to provide new funding and equipment to protect our law enforcement officers. The bill proudly would be signed in an Oval Office ceremony amid great fanfare.
Yet during COVID-19, we’re seeing a group of public servants dying in the line of duty with comparatively little fanfare. As of last week, 1,336 health care worker deaths from COVID-19 exposure on the job have been reported to an investigative database. Another study using more inclusive criteria puts the total at hundreds more.
Recipe for disaster, lost lives
The victims range from food service workers to nurses to specialist physicians. Health care worker deaths are not tracked as systematically as law enforcement deaths, but a 2002 study found that 80-260 health care workers die annually of work-related infections. If correct, that suggests COVID-19 has caused about a tenfold increase in those deaths — the same increase that would provoke political outrage if it struck police officers. Yet after the initial flurry of “support our heroes” signs early in the pandemic, health care worker deaths have drawn comparatively little attention.
The obvious question, the one the Trump administration should be asking, is why this is occurring. Several factors contribute, but the most important is that the more COVID-19 cases occur, the more COVID-19 patients require health care, especially those most ill. The more patients are receiving health care, the more health care workers are exposed. And the more health care workers are exposed, the more likely that some of them will acquire on-the-job infections.
The answer to the question “Why have so many health care workers died in the U.S.?” is simple: “Because our national leaders have so mismanaged the outbreak.” When you have an administration that degrades its own public health scientists, denies the value of masks and social distancing that has been so effective around the world, and misleads the public as to the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic, that’s a recipe for disaster that has claimed over 1,300 people who committed themselves to our health.
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America’s own Government Accountability Office