Memorial Day Musings in the Shadow of COVID-19

Frank Diamond

Frank Diamond has been with Infection Control Today since November 2019. He has more than 30 years of experience working for magazines, newspapers, and television news.

Frontline health care workers have given their lives and livelihood for our safety and need to be remembered during this Memorial Day.

We do what we do every Memorial Day: Honor the men and women who’ve made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. They did this since the founding of the United States in 1776 during the Revolutionary War and in every other war that we’ve had to fight since then. Drawn from every ethnic, racial, and religious group, they died to preserve what President Lincoln called “the last best hope of earth.” They fought for our flag, and America is still the “last best hope of earth,” a point borne out very much between Memorial Day 2021 and Memorial Day 2020.

American ingenuity spearheaded the drive to find vaccines for COVID-19 in record time. The administering of those vaccines to the public, after a shaky start, has been a logistical miracle, a miracle that’s now become one of our most important exports for which we expect nothing in return.

American ideals continue to inspire those who hunger for freedom across the globe, and feed those who just hunger. As an article a few years back in the New Yorker pointed out, newspapers could have used this same banner headline every day for over the last 25 years: The number of people in extreme poverty in the world fell by 137,000 since yesterday. American farming innovations, and the ideals of America’s free-enterprise system did this.

COVID19 makes Memorial Day 2021 especially heart-wrenching, though. We emerge from a history-shaking pandemic that has challenged us almost as much as any of the wars we’ve had to fight. In its own way, it was a war. As of this writing, 593,962 of our fellow Americans have died of COVID-19. And though the death rate has plummeted, that number will almost certainly be higher when you read this.

And among those who’ve died from COVID-19 are health care workers. According to Kaiser Health News and the Guardian, 3642 health care workers in the United States have died from COVID-19, but the real number is certainly higher, and probably much higher.

As Kevin Kavanagh, MD, a member of Infection Control Today®’s (ICT®) Editorial Advisory Board (EAB) put it, we still don’t know the actual number of health care workers who’ve died from COVID-19 because “no one is truly counting. The reporting of their deaths is voluntary.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) cites 503,276 cases of COVID-19 in health care workers with 1,629 deaths.

“But of the over 26 million total COVID-19 cases reported to the CDC, in less than 20% was the health care personnel status known,” says Kavanagh. “Thus, the number of health care workers affected could be greater than 5 times that which was voluntarily reported.”

As Kavanagh has pointed out, surviving COVID-19 should not be the sole benchmark. Of the health care workers who’ve gotten mild to moderate COVID-19, between 10% and 30% can be expected to have long-term symptoms. “In addition, the reported deaths would mainly represent those who died in the acute phase of the illness,” Kavanagh says. “It has recently been reported that 8 deaths per 1000 of non-hospitalized cases of COVID-19 can occur between 30 to 180 days after diagnosis. These cases died from detrimental effects on multiple organs and may not have been counted as COVID-19 deaths. All of these frontline workers have given their lives and livelihood for our safety and need to be remembered during this Memorial Day.”

Other members of ICT®’s EAB describe the special bond between health care systems and the American military and their own reflections about the sacrifices made by the men and women in uniform, including the uniforms of hospital scrubs, personal protective equipment, and surgical gowns.

“My son-in-law is a graduate of West Point,” says EAB member Sharon Ward-Fore, MS, MT(ASCP), CIC. “He did a tour as a medic in Afghanistan. several years ago. His sense of duty to our country humbles me.”

Ward-Fore also points out that members of America’s armed forces sacrificed their lives for our freedom, displaying courage and selflessness while charging into situations in which they knew they might not survive.

“Health care workers, during the pandemic, displayed these same qualities, placing themselves at risk to help care for the sick and dying,” Ward-Fore says. “It takes a special person to be willing to take these risks. Their selflessness to serve, no matter the cost, is something we should all be grateful for.”

EAB member Linda Spaulding RN, BC, CIC, CHEC, CHOP, says that while she salutes America’s military and health care’s first responders for a “job well done,” she also honors health care workers across the globe who paid the ultimate price. “I will keep in mind … the over 115,000 health care workers around the world who lost their lives caring for COVID-19 patients.”

EAB member Saskia v. Popescu, PhD, MPH, MA, CIC, talks of the healthy working relationship between America’s health care system and America’s military. “Many hospitals coordinate with military branches to form partnerships,” says Popescu. “These relationships are so beneficial and have taught us a lot about how to handle emergencies and coordinate with our partners. I’m eternally grateful for the emergency preparedness lessons and strategies I’ve learned from those military partners as I’ve applied them to biopreparedness efforts that are even more poignant during COVID-19.”

Let’s close with words for two former Commanders-in-Chief. President Reagan said that “freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it on to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.”

President Obama said that “a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense.”