Health Care Worker Deaths; The Global Race For A Vaccine : Consider This from NPR According to Johns Hopkins University, more than 100,000 people have died in the United States from COVID-19, and experts at the World Health Organization warn a second peak of COVID-19 infections could occur during this first wave of the virus. Meanwhile, the global race for a vaccine is generating competition between nations, mainly the U.S. and China.

New numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveal more than 60,000 health care workers have been infected with COVID-19, and almost 300 have died. This is a dramatic increase since the CDC first released numbers six weeks ago.

Bangladesh has extended its coronavirus lockdown — except for the garment factories. But with big brands canceling orders, workers face pay cuts, hunger and little to no social distancing.

Plus, an obituary writer reflects on COVID-19 deaths.

Find and support your local public radio station

Sign up for 'The New Normal' newsletter

This episode was recorded and published as part of this podcast's former 'Coronavirus Daily' format.

Global Vaccine Competition; More Than 100,000 Dead

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


The United States has a little more than 4% of the world's population. But almost 30% of the people who have died of COVID-19 worldwide have died here. That's now a hundred thousand people. And that is despite the fact that the U.S. spends more money on health care per person than any other country in the world by far. Coming up, some health workers still say, almost 80 days into this pandemic, they do not have what they need to stay safe. This is CORONAVIRUS DAILY from NPR. I'm Kelly McEvers. It's Wednesday, May 27.


MCEVERS: OK. So we know that most scientists are warning about a second wave this fall. But now they're also talking about the possibility of a second peak this summer.


MARGARET HARRIS: What needs to be understood is this coronavirus is not the flu.

MCEVERS: Dr. Margaret Harris is a member of the WHO's coronavirus response team.


HARRIS: So a lot of people have put what I'd call a flu lens on their expectations. They keep on thinking it's seasonal. But if you look around the globe, we've got countries in the middle of their summer and autumn having large, large outbreaks. So we're not seeing a seasonal pattern.

MCEVERS: What public health officials do see is a predictable rise in cases where countries open up too quickly.


HARRIS: We certainly don't say you have to be in lockdown, but we're saying ease carefully.

MCEVERS: But even as countries are learning from each other about how this virus spreads, they're also competing with each other to find a vaccine.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Today, I want to update you on the next stage of this momentous medical initiative.

MCEVERS: The Trump administration's vaccine effort is called Operation Warp Speed.


TRUMP: That means big, and it means fast - a massive scientific, industrial and logistical endeavor unlike anything our country has seen since the Manhattan Project.

MCEVERS: The idea is to develop a coronavirus vaccine for Americans as soon as possible. But when the science and business of vaccine development requires international cooperation, the question for countries and corporations around the world is, what if one country gets a vaccine first? Here's Nancy Kass. She's a professor of bioethics and public health at Johns Hopkins University.


NANCY KASS: The challenge is going to come in what will be at least the first year in terms of capacity combined with disagreements about who should be first, second and third in line.

MCEVERS: Wealthy countries like the U.S. and China will be at the front of that line, and big drug companies will hold a lot of the power.


KATE ELDER: It's up to them at what scale they produce these vaccines, at what price they set them at.

MCEVERS: Kate Elder is vaccines policy adviser with Doctors Without Borders.


ELDER: We can design things as a global community. But ultimately, since the power is in the pharmaceutical corporations' hands to make those decisions, it's up to them who are the first customers, so to speak, that they'll cater to.

MCEVERS: Kate Elder and Nancy Kass talked to NPR's Greg Myre. A link to his reporting on the global race for a vaccine is in our episode notes.


MCEVERS: We're learning more about just how hard health care workers have been hit by the coronavirus in the last few months. New data from the CDC shows 60,000 have been infected in the U.S., and almost 300 have died. Those numbers are a big jump from when the CDC first released that kind of data six weeks ago. Reporter Will Stone explained why the numbers are going up on All Things Considered. He talked to host Ailsa Chang.


WILL STONE: Unfortunately, they show a really big increase from when the CDC first released these numbers. That was in mid-April. And at that time, fewer than 30 health care workers had died, and under 10,000 had been infected. Now we have 291 deaths and more than 60,000 infected.

But if anything, you know, the real numbers are probably much higher. CDC collects the data, but most of the reports don't actually include whether that person is employed in health care. So the numbers are probably much higher for deaths from COVID. In fact, a major nurses' union has been tracking medical deaths, and their count is much higher than 291. They've counted 530 health care workers who've died from this disease. So whatever the real count is, it's clear that health care workers are still catching the virus. They're getting sick, and some are dying.

AILSA CHANG: And why do we think that they're still being exposed, still getting sick, still dying? - because, yes, from the very beginning of the outbreak here, there were lots of stories about shortages of masks, of gloves, of gowns. But then there were stories about hospitals or states getting huge shipments of supplies. So is the lack of personal protective equipment still a big problem?

STONE: It is. Months into the pandemic, I'm hearing from many health care workers. They say they're still not getting enough protective equipment, or they're simply having to reuse it - you know, wear the same mask for an eight-, even 12-hour shift, which is not how these products are supposed to be used. And that's risky.

I spoke to Zenei Cortez. She's president of National Nurses United. Their member nurses are having to push for proper masks and equipment because there's still a scarcity. Some hospitals have this equipment locked up, actually. They're rationing it. And she thinks that's led directly to some deaths.

ZENEI CORTEZ: We had one nurse in Southern California who had to respond quickly because a COVID-19 patient had stopped breathing. So she rushed into the room using only a surgical mask, and 14 days after that incident, she died because she contracted the virus.

STONE: And Cortez thinks that nurse might have lived if she had the proper kind of mask, the N95, right there when she needed it. So even now, I'm still getting notices about memorials and vigils for nurses who've died from COVID and protests over inadequate protection.

CHANG: Well, this is really concerning because much of the country is trying to reopen right now, and that could obviously lead to more waves of infection. But if the supply chains, as you say, for hospitals, for nursing homes are still a problem, what do health care workers say they need to feel safer?

STONE: They say the workarounds need to end. They want the right masks every time, just as they had before the pandemic. And many say it's time for new regulations or industry standards to make that happen.

Pat Kane is head of the New York State Nurses Association, and she says when the AIDS epidemic happened, health care adapted with new equipment and protocols for working with patients.

PAT KANE: We need an enforceable standard precaution for COVID. A lot of us lived through HIV/AIDS and the evolution of bloodborne pathogen precautions, and it really made a difference. That's what we need to do here to keep everyone safe.

STONE: Kane says in some parts of the country, like New York, there's a lull, and so we have a chance to make sure we're ready to keep health care workers safe when the next round of infections come.

MCEVERS: Reporter Will Stone talking to All Things Considered host Ailsa Chang.


MCEVERS: The pandemic has hit clothing stores especially hard. Sales were down nearly 80% last month. Again, that's 80 - eight, zero. Now the effects of that are being felt around the world. In Bangladesh, the garment industry is so central to the economy that factories have reopened even though the rest of the country is still under lockdown. But here's the problem - neither the factories nor the mostly women who work in them are guaranteed they will be paid. Here's NPR's Lauren Frayer.


LAUREN FRAYER: Sampa Akter works 12 hours a day at a factory in Bangladesh's capital. She sews denim jeans destined for the U.S. and Europe. Earning $95 a month, she's been able to support her disabled brother, her sister and their parents - that is, until late March when her factory closed because of the coronavirus. Bangladesh has had about 500 COVID-19 deaths in a population of 160 million.

SAMPA AKTER: (Through interpreter) My factory was shut for six weeks. I fell behind on rent. I couldn't pay my brother's medical bills. I'm very scared and vulnerable. It's not only me. All my co-workers are in the same position.

FRAYER: Some relief came in early May when her factory reopened. Her manager gathered all the sewing machine operators together.

S AKTER: (Through interpreter) He told us we'll be paid 60% of our salaries for the days we missed. But he also said global orders have basically stopped, and he doesn't know how long he'll be able to keep paying us at all.

FRAYER: In Bangladesh, where there are no unemployment benefits, any pay cut or furlough can literally lead to starvation.

NAZMA AKTER: No job, no money, starving, hunger.

FRAYER: Nazma Akter - no relation to Sampa - is a former child laborer and now president of one of the largest union federations in Bangladesh. The last time she saw such desperation was seven years ago when a garment factory called Rana Plaza caught fire and collapsed, killing more than a thousand people.

N AKTER: When Rana Plaza collapsed, many days factory was closed, many days...

FRAYER: Survivors were left with nothing. But back then, big fashion brands stepped up. They paid compensation, full wages and implemented new safety standards. Akter says that's not happening now. Global brands are obsessed with their own pain. They're canceling orders in Bangladesh, where they typically don't have to pay until they take the goods. And now clothes are piling up in warehouses.

AYESHA BARENBLAT: Gap has yet to pay a penny for back orders. JCPenney, Kohl's, Mothercare...

FRAYER: Ayesha Barenblat in California is an activist behind the #PayUp campaign. She's petitioning big fashion brands to pay for whatever they ordered before the pandemic broke out. NPR contacted those brands. Gap and Kohl's did not respond. JCPenney has declared bankruptcy and says it hopes to make some vendor payments. Mothercare says it's working very closely with manufacturing partners but didn't respond when asked for specifics. Barenblat says that's not enough.

BARENBLAT: These are mothers, sisters, wives who've kept these brands profitable for decades. And this is not the time, in a global pandemic, for these brands to turn their backs on the women who make our clothes.

FRAYER: She says some brands, including H&M, Adidas and Nike, have agreed to pay for $7.5 billion in back orders. Factories are reopening to fulfill those, with some help from government loans.

S AKTER: (Speaking Bengali).

FRAYER: Sampa Akter says her factory gave her a mask and installed a hand-washing station at the door. But her sewing machine is just inches from the next one - no social distancing. And that is the least of her worries. She just hopes the factory stays open.

S AKTER: (Speaking Bengali).

FRAYER: "I need to work," she says. "I'll die of hunger before I die of this virus."

MCEVERS: NPR's Lauren Frayer.


MCEVERS: Emilia Pontarelli immigrated to the United States from Italy. She came to Chicago and moved to the city's northwest side and worked at the family business, Tony's Italian Deli.


MAUREEN O'DONNELL: And Emilia Pontarelli would often comment as people came through the cash register where she was stationed. She'd look at what you were buying and say, mama's cooking for you tonight.

MCEVERS: Maureen O'Donnell wrote Emilia Pontarelli's obituary for the Chicago Sun-Times. Emilia got the virus and died on April 10. She was 93.


O'DONNELL: Nothing stopped her. Even when she was into her 80s, she would challenge relatives to arm-wrestle.

MCEVERS: Maureen's job writing obits for the paper has been a lot busier the last few months. She can't write about every person who has died. But she says when she does, she tries to focus on their lives.


O'DONNELL: When you're writing about an octogenarian who's had a chance to, you know, have a career and get married and achieve their goal of going to Antarctica and seeing their great-grandchildren grow up and having the best pumpkin pie recipe for 40 miles - all those things temper the sadness of the end of a life. And I think a good obituary brings them back to life again.

MCEVERS: Maureen O'Donnell talked to host Mary Louise Kelly on All Things Considered. And from earlier in this episode, Dr. Margaret Harris talked to Morning Edition host Rachel Martin. For more on the coronavirus, you can stay up to date with all the news on your local public radio station. We'll be back with more tomorrow.

I'm Kelly McEvers.

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.