Some 115,000 health care workers died from Covid-19 from January 2020 to May of this year, according to a new World Health Organization estimate, as the agency pushed once again for efforts to address vaccine inequity.
Globally, 2 in 5 health care workers are fully vaccinated, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a briefing Thursday. But, he added, “that average masks huge differences across regions and economic groupings.”
In most high-income countries, more than 80% of health care workers are fully vaccinated, Tedros said. But in Africa, the rate is less than 1 in 10.
“The backbone of every health system is its workforce — the people who deliver the services on which we rely at some point in our lives,” Tedros said. “The pandemic is a powerful demonstration of just how much we rely on health workers and how vulnerable we all are when the people who protect our health are themselves unprotected.”
The 115,000 figure comes from a working paper that has a broader estimate of 80,000 to 180,000 health care worker deaths through May 2021. The numbers are based on the total reported death toll at that point of 3.45 million, which is an underestimate given that some deaths are not reported. The current death toll stands at 4.92 million.
Tedros called for countries to prioritize health care workers in their vaccination rollouts, but the clear message underlying the WHO’s updated data Thursday was that there remain massive disparities in vaccine access globally. The WHO has called for countries to postpone the delivery of booster shots until supply improves in countries that have had limited deliveries.
“More than 10 months since the first vaccines were approved, the fact that millions of health care workers still haven’t been vaccinated is an indictment on the countries and companies that control the global supply of vaccines,” Tedros said. He added that high- and upper-middle-income countries have now administered almost half as many booster shots as the total number of shots low income countries have administered. And he urged the countries headed to the G20 summit later this month in Rome to tackle vaccine inequity.
WHO officials estimate that Western countries have hundreds of millions of doses sitting unused, swathes of which face upcoming expiration dates. They’re urging countries to find ways to transfer their vaccines and switch delivery contracts to move their excess supplies to other countries.
Annette Kennedy, the president of the International Council of Nurses, argued that governments had forsaken their duty to protect health care workers and warned that pandemic would have long tail effects, with many nurses considering leaving the workforce. She also noted that the high-income countries that were hoarding vaccines and had started booster campaigns “aggressively” recruit nurses from other countries “who cannot afford to lose their nurses or their health care workers.”
“I wish it was a better day today, I wish it was a day that we would celebrate that all health care workers had been vaccinated or that we had come to the end of Covid-19,” Kennedy said. “But it is not that day. It is a day when we are hearing about 115,000 health care workers who have died, many needlessly, many we could have saved.”