American Opinion: The risk of being a health care worker during the COVID-19 pandemic
We got a sad reminder of the precarious place health care workers put themselves in as they carry out the duties of their profession during a pandemic by the July 25 death of Joseph Costa, chief of the critical care division at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. He was one of the tens of thousands of health care workers on the front lines of the country’s COVID-19 fight who risk their own lives to save the lives of others.
While people throw temper tantrums over the inconvenience of having to wear a mask for a 30-minute shopping trip, medical workers like Costa don layers of protective gear for hours on end knowing it might not be enough to prevent them from getting the highly contagious virus ravaging the country. Upset about wearing one mask? How about wearing two or three for an entire shift. A mask is not an inconvenience for health care workers, but a matter of life or death.
The faces and memories of these health care workers who don’t win the battle against COVID-19 have often gotten lost in the politicizing of the pandemic. Their stories are overshadowed by valid debates over reopening schools and ridiculous ones over the validity of COVID science, and the numbers of those medical workers dying are growing. As of Friday, Kaiser Health News and The Guardian had identified 878 such workers who likely died after helping patients during the pandemic. Through a project called “Lost on the Frontline,” the news organizations are trying to make sure these workers aren’t forgotten and bring some context into why and how they died. They had profiled 164 of these workers as of Friday and they came from all walks of life, but with the common thread of going into a career where they choose to sacrifice for others.
In Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan said that contact tracing in the state found that health care workers have made up 25% of COVID-19 cases. Baltimore, home to more hospitals than any other city in the state, has been hit particularly hard with Health Commissioner Dr. Letitia Dzirasa calling on people not to think they are “immune and untouchable” and heed restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
We must all do our part to protect health care workers. Yes, what we do matters. As hospitals fill up, we need healthy medical workers to take care of sick patients. Perhaps David Hart, husband to Costa for 28 years, summed it up best when he said: “I kept thinking, now there is one less ICU doctor to care for pandemic patients in Baltimore.”
That means wearing a mask, social distancing and limiting gatherings, even with family members. Stay away from states with large outbreaks as well. As we learn more about the disease, a growing body of evidence shows these preventive measures work, and more than we even once thought. As much as we are inconvenienced and miss the old way of life, most of us are not sacrificing as much as those workers taking care of COVID patients on hospital wards and intensive care units.
Many of these workers choose to live separately from their families to protect their spouses, children and other relatives from the virus. The least we can do is skip the crowded birthday party or summer cookout and wear the annoying mask. The social media photos of large outdoor gatherings of maskless guests is disconcerting to say the least. We can have dinner with our loved ones each night and that is something to be grateful about.
And it’s not just doctors who are on the front lines taking the risk. Nurses, social workers, respiratory therapists, cleaning staff and the nutritional team all make up the teams that are keeping hospitals churning during these tough times — and hoping they don’t end up in one of the beds.
As Costa lay in a bed at Mercy Medical Center dying, 20 colleagues held a vigil and placed their blue-gloved hands on him. He had spent two decades at the hospital treating the most critically ill patients. His husband said he loved his job more than anything else in the world.
Doctors and other medical workers know they are at risk and take precautions to mitigate it. The rest of us need to take precautions as well. We are not just protecting ourselves from the disease, but preventing the spread to others.
This editorial is the opinion of the Baltimore Sun Editorial Board.