Taken from NorthJersey.com
By Lindy Washburn
March 10, 2021
Barbara Birchenough was working the night shift when COVID-19 made its stealthy entrance at Clara Maass Medical Center a year ago. She was a 46-year veteran of the Belleville institution, a graduate of its nursing school who had raised four kids while commuting from Midland Park. Retirement — and a normal schedule with time for her grandchildren — beckoned on the horizon.
“Six more shifts for me!” the nurse texted a friend on March 21. “Will I make it virus free?”
She would not.
Like many New Jersey health care workers during the first wave of the COVID pandemic, Birchenough labored without adequate protective gear while caring for patients whose virus status was unknown — but whose coughs and fevers indicated infection. Despite her increasing worry, she kept going to work — even when she felt feverish.
She told her family that the pandemic was sweeping through Clara Maass, as two floors, then three, and finally four filled up with COVID patients. “We are running out of supplies,” Birchenough texted her daughter on March 25. Nurses in the intensive care unit made gowns out of garbage bags, she wrote. “Dad is going to pick up large garbage bags for me.”
But before she could use them, Birchenough became a patient in the very hospital where she worked.
She died on April 15, one of more than 200 front-line health care workers in New Jersey who perished in the pandemic. But a year later, a question remains unanswered: How many other health care workers died?
There is no answer.
Thousands of fading lawn signs honor the sacrifices of our “health care heroes,” but no one knows how many made the ultimate sacrifice. Not the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Not New Jersey’s Department of Health.
Many were immigrants who came to America for a better life, but ended up sacrificing their lives to save others.
The state’s hospitals generally do not disclose COVID illnesses or deaths among their employees, and legislative efforts to require such disclosures have been gutted. Hospitals, unlike nursing homes, are not required by Medicare to report their staff illnesses and deaths each week. And there’s no registry of pandemic deaths for other medical professionals, such as physicians, paramedics and physical therapists.