Let us honor our healthcare workers by giving them the protection they need | Andy Slavitt

They chose not to hold their own children’s hands so they could hold ours. They intubated us and kept our ICU rooms germ-free. They brushed our teeth and switched our position so we could be more comfortable. As they always have, they put our health first, although this time it was in place of their own.

The scale of the loss of US healthcare workers in the coronavirus pandemic is hard to imagine. So the Guardian and Kaiser Health News have built a public database of the lives of the doctors, nurses, EMTs, medical technicians, social workers, cleaners and other members of hospital and nursing home staff working on the Covid-19 frontlines that we lost. They are investigating over 900 deaths, and have so far confirmed some 170 of the cases and profiled the victims. This is the most comprehensive count of US healthcare worker deaths to date – and includes the names and faces of the deceased.

Nursing assistant Elva Graveline liked to bring shampoo from home to wash her patients’ hair – she died amid concerns she was forced to reuse personal protective equipment (PPE). Adiel Montgomery spoke up about the lack of personal protective equipment for hospital security guards, because he was one himself. Two weeks after noticing he was unable to taste his lunch, Montgomery experienced intense chest pain, and soon declined. Valeria Viveros, only 20 years old, would bring homemade ceviche for her patients, but fell sick just before an outbreak was reported at her nursing home.

Some were immigrants who learned English at night while they got their nursing licenses in this country of possibility. One internal medicine physician, Alex Hsu, used to talk at the Thanksgiving dinner table for at least 10 minutes about how grateful he was to be in America. Debbie Accad was one of tens of thousands of Filipino nurses who moved to the US, and cared for US veterans for decades.

These are names that our nation must know. The caring professions have been thrust into a war zone.

The median age of the confirmed victims in the database is only 57. And a number were under the age of 30, like Joshua Obra, 29, who worked in a nursing home with his younger sister and was adored by co-workers for always thinking of them, bringing them boba on busy days. The database reveals that many of the healthcare victims were people of color, reflecting the toll of the virus in the nation at large.

Even so, when you enter a room day in, day out with a mask that you were supposed to replace last week, your race or your age or your healthiness are less of a defense. The first known emergency room physician to die in the US, Frank Gabrin, sent the following text message to a friend: “Don’t have any PPE that has not been used.” He passed away only four days after developing symptoms, telling his husband in his final moments, “Baby, I can’t breathe.”

The database reveals how often a simple lack of very basic gear is implicated in so many deaths. The degree to which they fought for our lives is nothing new. The degree to which they were abandoned is.

I was the head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services under President Barack Obama. As much of a challenge as Covid-19 is, as many lives as it has cost, we know that we can virtually eliminate the virus any time we decide to, and as other nations have done, in just a matter of weeks. By closing all the hotspots – restaurants, bars, churches and the like – and instituting universal mask-wearing, we can save so many lives. As Bernie Sanders and I have outlined, and he has proposed, let’s use our productive capacity to have masks for all. Why not throw the kitchen sink at this virus?

As long as the patients keep coming, there will be someone to care. Let’s give nurses and doctors a chance to catch their breath and go about healing our other issues. Let’s not ask more medical professionals to pay the price we don’t need to pay. They aren’t just medical professionals. They are our neighbors who get the early bus, our friends who always pick up the phone, our sisters who make us laugh, our dads who always know what to say.

They have their own lives and we must give them that chance.

Nurses in New York, techs in Florida, first responders in Arizona, home nurses in New Jersey, and doctors in the Rio Grande Valley. They never abandon us.

And we should never abandon them. The losses here should be inscribed in our memory, in our oral traditions, in our places of honor, in the names of our buildings and clinics, and in the hearts of a grateful nation. We can best honor them by making it stop.

Andy Slavitt is the host of the In the Bubble podcast and was the former acting administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. He is the founding board chair of United States of Care