The New Zealand Herald
Time to honour the true heroes of US’ deadly Covid pandemic
Shocking death toll would be far higher without them 1413 doctors, nurses, hospital staff and first responders have died.
Every war produces dead heroes. The war on Covid in the United States has produced at least 1400 of them so far. And with the darkest days ahead of us, with medical staff exhausted and in short supply, with hospital systems in real danger of Italy-style collapse in several US states — this might be a good time to honour them.
They are the selfless doctors, nurses, staff and first responders who died while our President lied. Heroes he never, ever properly protected, equipped or honoured. Who nonetheless saved his wretched life when he got Covid. And without whose sacrifice the shocking American death toll of about 270,000 so far would be greatly higher.
They include folks like Penny Scarangella Smith, a 48-year-old registered nurse in Barstow, Florida, who loved her daughter and Duran Duran. Yolanda Coer, 40, a tiny 150cm-tall nurse manager in Atlanta who left a husband and two young sons. Michael Willis, a respiratory therapist in Bisbee, Arizona, who had returned to work in 2017 to pay his wife’s medical bills. Jose Perez, a 44-year-old Los Angeles firefighter and paramedic, who doted on isolated seniors, picking up their prescriptions. He found and delivered mattresses for families without beds. He bought footballs for children in public housing. People would call the 911 emergency line, asking for him by name, his partner said.
Some of these heroes were as young as 28-year-old Adeline Fagan, a Houston physician who wanted to be a doctor since she was 11. And some were as old as Sam Scolaro, a 75-year-old Riverview Florida MD who refused to give up his practice when Covid appeared, despite his age and high risk. A practising Catholic, he made a promise to God that if he got into medical school he would help his patients until the day he died. That day was August 7.
This remarkable list and these remarkable stories have been assembled by a partnership project of the Kaiser Health Foundation and the Guardian newspaper. Because our President’s policy has been to consistently diminish the Covid threat, lie about its danger, discourage masking and refuse other mitigation, it’s not surprising these stories are not nearly as well known as they should be. By the project’s count, 1413 doctors, nurses, hospital staff and first responders have died from Covid contracted on the job in the States.
This, of course, doesn’t include an incalculable number of other essential non-medical workers who died while working at markets, meat plants, power companies and other jobs that needed doing.
Alas, it’s probably about to get much, much worse. Several states are out or almost out of ICU and Covid beds, particularly in the red Republican states that have opened widest and masked the least. For example, South Dakota’s right-wing governor refused to ban a maskless gathering of 400,000 motorcycle goons in August. Now it has one of the highest Covid death rates in the entire world. Its neighbour just north, the aptly named North Dakota, is the very worst. In mid-November, it had the highest daily mortality rate of any state or country on Earth — 18.2 deaths per 1 million people, according to an analysis by the Federation of American Scientists.
Arizona, where another Republican governor presides, will run out of ICU beds statewide in two weeks and out of all hospital beds in a month. If that happens, there could be a medical system collapse.
Without hospitals, people will begin to die from treatable heart attacks, appendicitis and other previously non-lethal emergencies. Think life expectancy in 1850.
In a letter that went viral over the weekend, the Covid-19 modelling team at the University of Arizona begged the Trumpist governor to institute an immediate three-week lockdown at what Kiwis know as alert level 4.
“If action is not immediately taken, then it risks a catastrophe on a scale of the worst natural disaster the state has ever experienced,” the letter read. “It would be akin to facing a major forest fire without evacuation orders.” Emergency field hospitals can be built, and will be. But you can’t build people. There is a staff shortage among the relatively small cadre of Covid-facing medical heroes in each state.
In addition, largely hidden from public view, thousands of doctors and nurses with Covid skills have been travelling from state to state, like forest firefighters. After months of non-stop work, they are exhausted. And although the small army of travelling US nurses has grown from about 39,000 to perhaps 50,000 during the pandemic, there are still not nearly enough to handle the huge spike in cases — an astounding 205,000 new cases on Saturday [NZ time]. And yet our President has time to tweet and whine endlessly about the election he lost, but will not invoke a national lockdown, mandatory masking or the sort of emergency military assistance needed. The Republican governors who follow his cues are still moving way too slowly to contain this tidal wave of cases.
So these are our darkest hours in many decades. We are facing a medical Dunkirk this winter. Studies suggest we may lose as many as 440,000 Americans by the time the vaccines turn the tide. It could get much higher if our hospitals collapse like in Bergamo or Wuhan.
Whether or not modern medicine is available at all in many places next month will depend on a thin, tired, dedicated line of heroes, who have already lost at least 1413 of their number to save us.
How we get through this will now depend on them. This is their finest hour.
Dick Brass was vice-president of Microsoft and Oracle for almost two decades. His firm Dictronics developed the first modern dictionary-based spellcheck and he was an editor at the Daily News, NY