Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease expert in the U.S., admitted in an interview with The Guardian Thursday that major shortages of masks, gloves, and other personal protective equipment under the Trump administration contributed to the deaths of more than 3,600 healthcare workers during the first year of the coronavirus pandemic.
"Nobody chooses to go to work and die. We need to be more prepared, and the government needs to be more responsible in terms of keeping healthcare workers safe."
—Mary Jane Abt-Fagan
"During the critical times when there were shortages was when people had to use whatever was available to them. I'm sure that increased the risk of getting infected among healthcare providers," said Fauci, who served as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases under former President Donald Trump and remains in that role under President Joe Biden.
"We rightfully refer to these people without hyperbole—that they are true heroes and heroines," Fauci said of healthcare workers who continue to put their health and lives at risk on the frontlines of the deadly pandemic.
According to a yearlong joint investigation by Kaiser Health News and The Guardian, more than 3,600 healthcare workers died of Covid-19 during the first 12 months of the crisis—with lower-paid workers such as nurses, nursing home employees, and support staff far more likely to lose their lives than physicians.
"Many of these deaths could have been prevented," the outlets noted. "Widespread shortages of masks and other personal protective gear, a lack of Covid testing, weak contact tracing, inconsistent mask guidance by politicians, missteps by employers, and lax enforcement of workplace safety rules by government regulators all contributed to the increased risk faced by healthcare workers."
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Despite widespread calls to take swift and decisive action, Trump dragged his feet in invoking the Defense Production Act (DPA) to facilitate mass production of PPE during the early months of the pandemic, a failure that forced many healthcare workers to reuse masks, go without gloves, and wear trash bags as gowns.
"I think that right now people think of us as heroes, but we're feeling like martyrs," one nurse said during a protest outside the White House last April. "We're feeling like we're being left on the battlefield with nothing."
While healthcare worker deaths have slowed since coronavirus vaccines were made available in December, KHN and The Guardian counted "more than 400 healthcare worker deaths since the vaccine rollout began"—a signal that more needs to be done to ensure frontline employees are adequately protected. In total, the U.S. has reported nearly 31 million coronavirus cases and more than 558,000 deaths.
"Nobody chooses to go to work and die," said Mary Jane Abt-Fagan, the mother of a Texas OB-GYN resident who lost her life to Covid-19 in September. "We need to be more prepared, and the government needs to be more responsible in terms of keeping healthcare workers safe."