COVID-19 death count of health care workers remains inaccurate, investigation finds

ATLANTA — Bruce Davis died alone in an Augusta hospital. It was in March. He was 90 miles from his Milledgeville home, his wife of nearly 24 years, their four children and the church he presided over each Sunday.

“It hurt really, really bad because I wanted to be able to see him,” said his widow, Gwendolyn Davis, as she cried. “But I couldn’t, so I just had to deal with it.”

Bruce Davis was a supervisor at Central State Hospital where he worked in mental health, serving Georgia inmates. For 27 years, he avoided calling into work sick unless his wife needed something. It was rare.

“He poured his life into that job,” Gwendolyn Davis recalled.

When the coronavirus began showing up in the state, Bruce Davis would come home and talk to his wife about his uneasy feeling in the facility.

“He said, ‘Me and a couple of people are going to the manager to ask, can we start wearing masks,’” Gwendolyn Davis said. “And they were turned down.”

As recently as last week, the state denied what local media reports said their staffs had verified through documents and emails, and what Davis’s daughter—also a Central State employee—said: In the early stages of the pandemic, Personal Protective Equipment, such as masks, was considered a violation of dress code.


The 57-year-old’s death followed that of a colleague, Mark Delong, who worked in the same building. Delong, 53, was a licensed practical nurse.

Their deaths add to a growing, but far from accurate, list of COVID-19 fatalities among health care workers. While the federal government has started tracking some of the occupations within the field, it’s an anesthesiologist from Richmond, Virginia who may have one of the most accurate counts.


Dr. Clair Rezba saw herself in Diedre Wilkes. Like Rezba, Wilkes was a young health care worker with a family.

“It was one of the first (deaths) that I noticed in the news,” Rezba said. “And if you know anything about her, you know it’s an incredibly tragic story.”

A mother in her 40s, the mammogram technician for Piedmont Hospital was found dead in her Newnan County home in March. Her four-year-old daughter was nearby. The coroner believes she died of COVID-19 between 12 and 16 hours before her body was discovered.

“So her story just really touched a nerve,” Rezba said.

She began to scour obituaries, newscasts and articles to compile a registry of health care workers who died because of COVID-19.

Each has a name, a photo, a personal description and a hashtag, #WearAMask. Rezba’s list can be found on a Twitter account, “@CTZebra -US HCWs Lost to COVID19”.

Each listing humanizes the people who had the most exposure to the novel coronavirus that killed them.

“So, at first it started as, you know, therapy for me, or coping for me, for my own anxiety about COVID and what that pandemic was going to be (like) for myself and my family,” Rezba said. “But then, in mid-April, it sort of shifted.”

That’s when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a count of estimated hospital worker deaths. Their list included 27 people. Rezba’s topped 150.

“And at that point ... it became more of a mission for me to find these people because there was such a discrepancy. And there was no accountability and it made me very angry, upset.”

Today, Rezba’s list hovers around 1,200. The CDC’s is closer to half of that. There is no uniform way to track the deaths. Methodologies differ from state to state. Some facilities don’t report employee deaths, and that is the information used by the CDC to draw their figures.

In those counts, governments can vary on who they classify as a health care worker, often excluding occupations outside of doctors and nurses. Rezba’s list includes anyone who works within the hospital or facility, from physicians to security.

“I think not tracking it gives some of these institutions and corporations an easy way out,” Rezba said. “They don’t have to take any ownership of what’s happening to their employees.”

“I think in some ways there’s some willful decision making to not look at the data,” she continued. “I also think there’s just some confusion about collecting the data, you know, the CDC form itself only lists for occupations for health care workers, and then this other category.”

A recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation found Georgia officials undercounting health care workers by as much as 30 percent.

In a statement, the Georgia Department of Public Health notes “health care worker” is a reportable variable requested by labs and providers, but not required.

“Many times, the information is incomplete or unclear,” the statement reads. “Even if occupation is filled (on the form), it isn’t always clear how that occupation may be related to a health care setting. For example, if the death certificate lists the person as a ‘lab technician,’ we don’t know what kind of lab technician that may be, or if it is related to a health care setting versus a chemical company or environmental agency.”

“DPH regularly works with facilities to ensure that the information they are submitting is complete, whether it is for cases or deaths,” the statement continues. “DPH also has a data quality team that reviews submissions for accuracy and completeness, as well as case(s of infections) and death data review.”

Complaints have been filed with OSHA from roughly 70 Georgia health care workers.

Many of the complaints mirror what a metro Atlanta nurse came to Channel 2 Action News about over the summer: concerns at having to re-use PPE. She shared video of a supply closet in her hospital, narrating the reported complaint. She asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation.

“We’re using them between patients,” the nurse says in the video. “I think this is poor patient care. I think this is not safe for the patients or for the employees.”

Back in Milledgeville, Gwendolyn Davis is preparing to sell the home she shared with her husband, and move her kids closer to her own family outside metro Atlanta. The entire family recovered from COVID-19 in the weeks surrounding Bruce Davis' death.

Gwendolyn Davis said she just recently received a letter from Central State Hospital offering condolences for her husband’s death.

“I had to lose my husband because of (this) disease. That hurts,” she said looking off into the distance from her front yard. “Nobody should have said, ‘wear a mask.’ You work in a hospital.”