Report from National Nurses United reveals government failure to track, report COVID-19 deaths, testing, infections

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MEMBERS OF NATIONAL NURSES UNITED laid pairs of shoes representing their colleagues who have died while treating coronavirus patients on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol during a demonstration there this summer.

National Nurses United (NNU) recently released a report, Sins of Omission: How Government Failures to Track COVID-19 Data Have Led to More Than 1,700 Health Care Worker Deaths and Jeopardize Public Health and a statement on COVID-19 data transparency.

In both, NNU condemns the failure of federal and state governments to track and publicly report transparent, accurate, and timely data on the COVID-19 pandemic. The continued lack of detailed, consistent data endangers the health and lives of nurses, other health care workers, and their patients.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, NNU has been tracking the deaths of U.S. registered nurses as well as the COVID-19 infections and deaths of health care workers because no one was reporting this information. The Sins of Omission report has researched and confirmed the deaths of more than 1,700 health care workers. The report includes a list of the known names of 213 registered nurses who died of COVID-19 as of Sept. 16, as well as the known names of 617 additional health care workers.

“We cannot forget the deaths of so many health care workers, which includes 213 nurses,” said Zenei Cortez, RN, and co-president of NNU. “These deaths were avoidable and unnecessary due to government and employer willful inaction. Nurses and health care workers were forced to work without personal protective equipment they needed to do their job safely. It is immoral and unconscionable that they lost their lives.

“Our state and federal governments must require hospitals and other health care employers to publicly report infection rates and deaths of their workers,” Cortez said. “We have the right to a safe workplace under the Occupational Safety and Health Act. Information is a part of safety. But some employers are not telling nurses when they have been exposed or who has been infected. This is irresponsible and dangerous for nurses, health care workers, and patients.”

INFORMATION IS CRUCIAL
“Up-to-date information is crucial for the nation to effectively respond to this pandemic,” said Jean Ross, RN and co-president of NNU.

“Nurses know that we need detailed, consistent data to understand how and where the virus is spreading, who is most vulnerable to infection, and whether interventions are effective. We can use this information to learn how to prevent the spread of future pandemics. Unfortunately, instead of tracking and reporting COVID-19 data, federal and state governments have ignored, hidden, and manipulated COVID-19 data.”

There is widespread resistance on the part of health care employers to transparently provide information on nurse and other health care worker COVID-19 infection rates and fatalities. Meanwhile, federal, state, and local governments have failed to compel health care facilities to provide this data. If hospitals are not widely required to publicly disclose their deaths and infection rates, they have no incentive to avoid becoming zones of infection.

Most states report only a limited subset of COVID-19 data. But comprehensive reporting is necessary to fully grasp the scope of the COVID-19 pandemic and respond effectively. Only 15 states are providing infection numbers for all health care workers on a daily, semiweekly, or weekly basis.

In May, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) began requiring nursing homes to provide COVID-related health care worker infection and mortality data, which is publicly available from CMS.

For the hospital industry, however, data collection on health care worker infections and deaths has been woefully inadequate.

ADMINISTRATION KEEPING DATA HIDDEN
At the federal level, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been primarily responsible for tracking and reporting COVID-19 data, including information on testing, cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. But the Trump administration has moved hospital COVID-19 data reporting from the CDC to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which has hired private companies under nondisclosure agreements, keeping the majority of the data collected hidden from public view. Trump appointees within HHS’ communications staff have reviewed and edited the CDC’s weekly scientific reports to downplay risks.

The politicizing of government agencies, such as the CDC, must stop. On Oct. 2, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar testified before the House Oversight and Reform Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis. The hearing examined the Trump administration’s “unprecedented political interference in the work of scientists and public health experts” at the CDC and Food and Drug Administration, the administration’s “refusal to provide accurate and clear public health information,” and its failure “to develop and implement a comprehensive national plan to contain the coronavirus.”

While the CDC has been deficient in accurately and transparently collecting and publishing data related to COVID-19, it is still the most appropriate federal agency to do so based on its clear subject matter expertise in infectious diseases response. The CDC must be able to track and report COVID-19 data free of corporate or political influence.

“The United States needs transparent, accurate, and timely publicly reported data on COVID-19 immediately,” said Deborah Burger, RN, and another co-president of NNU. “Nurses call on the Trump administration to restore hospital COVID-19 data reporting to the CDC immediately. The CDC must then strengthen, improve, and expand its data tracking.”


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