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Mexico Records The Highest Number Of Health Care Worker Deaths From COVID-19


COVID-19 has taken a heavy toll on health care workers around the world. Amnesty International reports that Mexico has recorded the highest number of health care worker deaths from the coronavirus - 1,400. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports on how that country came to lead the world in this grim statistic.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: It's a regular scene in the courtyard of the Siglo XXI medical complex in Mexico City.


KAHN: Dozens of the public hospital staff break into applause to encourage patients struggling with COVID and honor those who died - and there are many. Mexico now ranks fourth in the world in deaths from the virus. And of the nearly 700,000 infected, 1 in 7 has worked at a hospital or clinic.


KAHN: Like Angel Gutierrez, a pediatric nurse at the Siglo XXI hospital. He first felt COVID symptoms back in July.

ANGEL GUTIERREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "I felt really bad. My whole body hurt. I had a terrible headache. And then I infected my wife and two girls," he says. As his two weeks of paid sick leave was running out, he was tested a second time - again positive. But five days later, he was ordered back on the job.

GUTIERREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "I guess we can still infect others at that point," says Gutierrez. But he says by then, his symptoms weren't that bad. Two months later, though, he still has a cough. There are many reasons why so many health professionals in Mexico are getting sick and dying - lack of quality protective equipment, long workweeks that extend exposure to high viral loads, and Mexico quickly hired tens of thousands of professionals to boost staffing. Critics say they haven't gotten proper training.

Sofia Ramirez of the nonprofit Mexicans Against Corruption says in the early days of the pandemic, health care workers were dying at rates five times higher than in the U.S.

SOFIA RAMIREZ: If we don't take care of our health care personnel, I'm not sure how they're going to take care of all of us.

KAHN: The numbers have improved somewhat in recent weeks, but health care workers still account for nearly 16% of all infections in the country. This month, Dr. Carissa Etienne, head of the Pan American Health Organization, made an urgent plea.


CARISSA ETIENNE: Countries must ensure that health workers can do their job safely.

KAHN: Carlos Eduardo Perez Palma, a radiologist, couldn't agree more.


KAHN: He says he spends at least $1,500 on protection equipment for himself - goggles, masks, face shields - every three months. He works at two of the biggest public hospitals in Mexico City. Perez also leads a group of health care workers fighting for workplace protections.

PEREZ PALMA: (Through interpreter) The authorities like to call us heroes, but in practice, they sure don't treat us like heroes.

KAHN: Mexican authorities insist their COVID protocols are up to international standards, and they dispute that the country ranks first in the world for COVID deaths among health care workers. In a briefing, the government's lead epidemiologist, Jose Luis Alomia, said it's unfair to make this claim because, he asserted, not all countries report deaths among medical staff.


JOSE LUIS ALOMIA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Alomia said data show health care workers actually don't get as sick or die as frequently from COVID as the general population, but his data may be misleading because of Mexico's low rate of testing. Mexicans are generally tested only after they're hospitalized with serious symptoms, but health care workers are supposed to get tested as soon as they feel sick. Mexico's Health Ministry declined to respond to NPR's questions and interview requests. Dr. Uriel Guzman, a doctor in Mexico's public health system, was just 38 when he died.

FATIMA CANDELAS: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: His wife Fatima says he fell ill on a Sunday in May. He spiked a fever. Four days later, he was admitted to a hospital, struggling to breathe.

CANDELAS: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "The hospital administrator handed me his belongings at the door, and that was it. I never saw him again," she says. Fatima Candelas is now hard-pressed to support herself and her two small girls. She hasn't been able to get benefits. Her husband's death certificate stated that he died of atypical pneumonia, suspected COVID. He was never tested. A new law in the works would guarantee benefits to all health care workers who die during the pandemic of COVID-like symptoms, regardless of whether they were tested. Fatima Candelas supports the bill.

CANDELAS: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: She says she's speaking out now because she doesn't want other widows to be in her same situation, and she wants the sacrifices her husband made for his patients to be remembered.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Mexico City.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.