Protecting patients and caregivers
There is no question that health care workers carried a heavy load through the worst months of the pandemic. Many of them worked to the point of exhaustion and burnout. Some were the only conduits between isolated patients and their families, holding hands and mobile phones so distanced loved ones could video chat. Many were left inadequately protected because of shortages of masks, gowns, gloves, and other gear.
An investigation by Kaiser Health News and The Guardian recently revealed that more than 3,600 health care workers died in COVID’s first year in the United States.
Vaccination of health care workers is important to protect these frontline workers and their families who will continue to be at risk of coming into contact with the infection, even as the number of cases falls.
Hesitancy in health care is also dangerous because these clinicians and allied health workers – who may not show any symptoms – can also carry the virus to someone who wouldn’t survive an infection, including patients with organ transplants, those with autoimmune diseases, premature infants, and the elderly.
It is not known how often patients in the United States are infected with COVID in health care settings, but case reports reveal that hospitals are still experiencing outbreaks.
On June 1, Northern Lights A.R. Gould Hospital in Presque Isle, Maine, announced a COVID outbreak on its medical-surgical unit. As of June 22, 13 residents and staff have caught the virus, according to the Maine Centers for Disease Control, which is investigating. Four of the first five staff members to test positive had not been fully vaccinated.
According to HHS data, about 20% of the health care workers at that hospital are still unvaccinated.
Oregon Health & Science University experienced a COVID outbreak connected to the hospital’s cardiovascular care unit from April to mid-May of this year. According to hospital spokesperson Tracy Brawley, a patient visitor brought the infection to campus, where it ultimately spread to 14 others, including “patients, visitors, employees, and learners.”
In a written statement, the hospital said “nearly all” health care workers who tested positive were previously vaccinated and experienced no symptoms or only minor ones. The hospital said it hasn’t identified any onward transmission from health care workers to patients, and also stated: “It is not yet understood how transmission may have occurred between patients, visitors, and health care workers.”
In March, an unvaccinated health care worker in Kentucky carried a SARS-CoV-2 variant back to the nursing home where the person worked. Some 90% of the residents were fully vaccinated. Ultimately, 26 patients were infected; 18 of them were fully vaccinated. And 20 health care workers, four of whom were vaccinated, were infected.
Vaccines slowed the virus down and made infections less severe, but in this fragile population, they couldn’t stop it completely. One resident, who had survived a bout of COVID almost a year earlier, died. According to the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 47% of the workers in that facility were unvaccinated.
In the United Kingdom, statistics collected through that country’s National Health Service also suggest a heavy toll. More than 32,300 patients caught COVID in English hospitals since March 2020. Up to 8,700 of them died, according to a recent analysis by The Guardian. The U.K. government recently made COVID vaccinations mandatory for health care workers.
COVID delays cancer care
When Mr. Oswalt, the Fort Worth, Texas man with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, contracted COVID-19, the virus took down his kidneys first. Toxins were building up in his blood, so doctors prescribed dialysis to support his body and buy his kidneys time to heal.
He was in one of these dialysis treatments when his lungs succumbed.
“Look, I can’t breathe,” he told the nurse who was supervising his treatment. The nurse gestured to an oxygen tank already hanging by his side, and said, “You should be OK.”
But he wasn’t.
“I can’t breathe,” Mr. Oswalt said again. Then the air hunger hit. Mr. Oswalt began gasping and couldn’t stop. Today, his voice breaks when he describes this moment. “A lot of it becomes a blur.”
When Mr. Oswalt, 61, regained consciousness, he was hooked up to a ventilator to ease his breathing.
For days, Mr. Oswalt clung to the edge of life. His wife, Molly, who wasn’t allowed to see him in the hospital, got a call that he might not make it through the night. She made frantic phone calls to her brother and sister and prayed.
Mr. Oswalt was on a ventilator for about a week. His kidneys and lungs healed enough so that he could restart his chemotherapy. He was eventually discharged home on January 22.
The last time he was scanned, the large tumor in his chest had shrunk from the size of a grapefruit to the size of a dime.
But having COVID on top of cancer has had a devastating effect on his life. Before he got sick, Molly said, he couldn’t stay still. He was busy all the time. After spending months in the hospital, his energy was depleted. He couldn’t keep his swimming pool installation business going.
He and Molly had to give up their house in Fort Worth and move in with family in Amarillo. He has had to pause his cancer treatments while doctors wait for his kidneys to heal. Relatives have been raising money on GoFundMe to pay their bills.
Months after moving across the state to Amarillo and hoping for better days, Tim said he got good news this week: He no longer needs dialysis. A new round of tests found no signs of cancer. His white blood cell count is back to normal. His lymph nodes are no longer swollen.
He goes back for another scan in a few weeks, but the doctor told him she isn’t going to recommend any further chemo at this point.
“It was shocking, to tell you the truth. It still is. When I talk about it, I get kind of emotional” about his recovery, he said.
Tim said he was really dreading more chemotherapy. His hair has just started growing back. He can finally taste food again. He wasn’t ready to face more side effects from the treatments, or the COVID – he no longer knows exactly which diagnosis led to his most debilitating symptoms.
He said his ordeal has left him with no patience for health care workers who don’t think they need to be vaccinated.
The way he sees it, it’s no different than the electrical training he had to get before he could wire the lights and pumps in a swimming pool.
“You know, if I don’t certify and keep my license, I can’t work on anything electrical. So, if I’ve made the choice not to go down and take the test and get a license, then I made the choice not to work on electrical stuff,” he said.
He supports the growing number of hospitals that have made vaccination mandatory for their workers.
“They don’t let electricians put people at risk. And they shouldn’t let health care workers for sure,” he said.
A version of this article first appeared on.