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Kansas City Nurses Mourn A Colleague's Death From COVID-19

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Across the show today, we're trying to take the measure of COVID-19 deaths in the United States, looking at the people who've died through the lens of race, age, geography and occupation. Nearly 60,000 people in America have lost their lives to this disease. Many spent their final moments in hospitals, separated from loved ones. Instead, health care workers were by their side, which makes people who work in hospitals uniquely vulnerable.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

While the data are limited, a CDC report found that health care workers could account for more than 1 in 10 COVID-19 cases. On Thursday night in Kansas City, a crowd of friends and family gathered outside a hospital to remember a nurse who died after contracting the disease.

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CHARLENE CARTER: We are here to honor our fallen NNU sister and health care warrior Celia Yap-Banago.

SHAPIRO: As the evening light faded, colleagues shared memories of Celia Yap-Banago. They stood six feet apart, wearing masks, holding candles and a framed portrait. Charlene Carter worked alongside her for seven years.

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CARTER: Celia was a little fireball. Every time she'd come to work, she would always be picking on someone or making us laugh somehow, some way. And we'd love to see her. And we hoped that she would be coming back with us, but she didn't make it.

SHAPIRO: Dozens of others joined the vigil remotely on a video call organized by the union National Nurses United. They sat in living rooms, at kitchen tables, in backyards. Some wore scrubs. Some closed their eyes. Some wiped away tears. Pastor Joe Walker led a prayer.

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JOE WALKER: Tonight we cannot embrace Celia's family, but even as physical distance separates us, our hearts are united with Celia's beloved husband Amado and her sons Jhulan and Josh and all of her family.

SHAPIRO: Celia Yap-Banago was the youngest of seven kids. She came to the U.S. from the Philippines in 1970. She had worked at Research Medical Center Hospital in Kansas City for decades. Today would have been her 40th anniversary as a nurse. She spent the last month self-isolating to protect patients and her family. She contracted COVID-19 after treating an infected patient, according to National Nurses United. When Celia Yap-Banago died last week at home, she was 69 years old. Her oldest son Jhulan said he and his brother always thought of his mom as their hero, and he knows that she was a hero to others, too.

JHULAN BANAGO: You're either really not smart to be in this field for 40 years or you are so compassionate and selfless that you would dedicate your entire life to helping others.

SHAPIRO: Yap-Banago's colleagues said she was a proud union nurse. Her union says like so many other health care workers around the country, she expressed concern about inadequate measures to protect health care staff from COVID-19. Here's Leo Fuller, another nurse.

LEO FULLER: She didn't have to die if she had the proper PPE. So from now on, we nurses should be fighting for proper PPE so that none of us will also die.

SHAPIRO: The hospital where Yap-Banago worked says that since the outset of the pandemic, it has followed guidelines on PPE from infectious disease experts, including those at the CDC. The day of the vigil, nurse Jenn Caldwell worked a shift in Yap-Banago's unit. I spoke to her the next day.

JENN CALDWELL: Everybody looked shell shocked. Everybody was - we would go in between telling funny stories about her that made us laugh to being upset and angry.

SHAPIRO: And this is what makes the death of health care workers especially unsettling. Their colleagues keep going back to work at the same place day after day, knowing that they are doing the same thing that led to the death of their friend.

CALDWELL: It's difficult to go back and work knowing that you - because it's this surreal, conceptualized idea of, I could get sick. But then when it's that close, it's a little bit more intense.

SHAPIRO: So why do you go back?

CALDWELL: I go back because I love being a nurse, you know? It's part of an oath that I took not necessarily to lay down my life for them but to be there and ease suffering.

SHAPIRO: Caldwell says Celia Yap-Banago loved being a nurse, too. Even as she fought COVID-19, she was in touch with her bosses, asking when she could get back to work.

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