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Remembering Front-Line Workers Lost To COVID-19

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

America marks the loss of 200,000 lives to the coronavirus this week. Looking back to the early days of the pandemic, there was a realignment in who we thought of as a front-line worker.

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Nurses and doctors certainly made that list; so did delivery drivers and grocery store workers, some of the lowest paid people in the country, people like Leilani Jordan of Largo, Md.

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ZENOBIA SHEPHERD: She'd say, but, Mommy, I need to work and help people, Mommy.

KELLY: Jordan's mother, Zenobia Shepherd, told TV station WUSA that Jordan had a disability that caused cognitive delays and impaired her vision. But despite being in a high-risk category, Jordan wanted to keep working. The store needed people for the early shift, a time reserved for seniors to come in and shop, so Jordan volunteered.

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SHEPHERD: She just loved her little job doing whatever they needed, helping people.

PFEIFFER: But Jordan soon became ill, and she died on April 1 at the age of 27.

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SHEPHERD: I know she's in heaven, and she's there welcoming everybody.

KELLY: More than six months on, front-line workers are still dying of COVID-19. Cheryl Morrow of Blytheville, Ark., was a nurse who was passionate about her job.

TIFFANY PAYNE: She always told me all my life growing up that she wanted to be a nurse, and she's only - my mom has only been an LPN for five years, so she got her nursing license when she was in her 40s. She put herself through college after her kids were grown, and that's what she did.

PFEIFFER: That's Tiffany Payne, Morrow's daughter. Morrow died earlier this month at the age of 53.

KELLY: When she wasn't with patients at the clinic where she worked, Morrow was with her family. She had five grandchildren, three kids of her own.

PAYNE: We spent every Sunday in the end - she would come over, you know, two times during the week or I would go over to her house during the week after she got off work or, you know, but we talked every day on the phone. She always called me right before bed, and we would talk.

KELLY: And Morrow was quite the talker.

PAYNE: Her work colleagues would probably say that she is loud and outgoing.

PFEIFFER: She was nervous about going to work early in the pandemic, but the patients needed her, so she showed up each day despite having to be in close proximity to sick patients. Then on August 16, Morrow woke up and felt off.

PAYNE: Sunday morning, she calls me at, like, I think 7:15, and she was crying. And I said, Mom, what's wrong? And she said, I had to go get tested for the virus. And I said, OK. I said, why? And she said, I woke up sick. And I said, it's going to be OK. I said, we'll wait for your results to get back, you know, and then we'll go from there.

KELLY: But it wasn't OK. The test results were positive. Payne believes her mom contracted the virus at work. Within a week, Morrow was in the ICU on a ventilator.

PAYNE: I mean, my mom, she was so afraid to get this virus. She was so afraid to get it.

PFEIFFER: Morrow ended up spending 13 days in the ICU by herself, her family unable to visit her. And on Sunday, September 5, she died.

PAYNE: I never thought at 31 that I'd have to bury my mama.

KELLY: More than 1,200 health care workers in America have now died of COVID-19. Payne says she wants to raise awareness about what health care workers continue to face half a year into this pandemic.

PAYNE: Just because they're a frontline worker and they're working and they haven't caught it yet doesn't mean that they can't. Just always be protective. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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