UHF is proud to present the 2021 Health Care Leadership Award to New York's million-plus health care workforce, in recognition of their courage, compassion, and commitment during the pandemic.

On March 1, 2020, the New York region’s one million-plus health care workforce confronted the first confirmed case of COVID-19. They did not yet realize the enormity of the pandemic or the courage, commitment, and compassion that would be required of each one of them from that day forward. 

One month later, New York State had 161,607 confirmed cases, more than any country outside of the United States, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. There were more than 70,000 cases and at least 2,500 deaths in New York City alone. By August 2021, New York State had reported over 2 million cases and more than 55,000 deaths.

The New York region faced an unprecedented crisis, calling for an unprecedented response from its health care delivery system. The pandemic demanded sacrifice, innovation, and resilience to confront so much human need and such unspeakable heartache. 

Most tragically, health care workers didn’t just care for the sick and dying—they risked their own lives. At least 453 New York State health care workers had died from COVID-19 by May 2021, the highest of any state. Yet they continued to show up, doing all they could to ensure needed care. 

The region’s health care workers tackled the challenges head on, responding to unrelenting demands and providing a beacon of hope. They launched large-scale testing programs, searched out and secured PPE and ventilator supplies, implemented innovative telemedicine processes, came up with new procedures to prevent deadly hospital-acquired infections, turned operating rooms into intensive care units and regular rooms into negative pressure rooms so air could flow in but not out. 

They also demonstrated an extraordinary level of teamwork that was critical to support all these efforts. Staffers in every department stepped out of their regular jobs to help lead the COVID response. Medical specialists worked nights in emergency departments and picked up shifts in intensive care units. People in finance volunteered to help in morgues—unimaginable but true. Administrators set up mass COVID-19 vaccination sites, in as little as 48 hours.

By September 2020, 1.9 percent of COVID-19 cases resulted in death, compared with 6.7 percent six months earlier, according to the CDC. Ashish K. Jha, MD, MPH, Dean of the School of Public Health at Brown University, attributed most of that extraordinary drop in mortality to the quality and process improvements put in place by health care workers. “What I am absolutely crystal clear on is that the work you have done on the frontlines has been central to saving hundreds of thousands of lives,” he said.

Health care workers also addressed the extreme unfairness of COVID-19. The highest rates of hospitalizations and deaths were experienced by Black, Latino, and Indigenous New Yorkers, and the poorest and frailest suffered the worst. To address these vast inequities, health care workers toiled day and night at nursing homes, hospitals, health centers, and homes to care for the neediest and most affected communities.

They met people where they lived, teaming up with community-based organizations, faith leaders, care providers, social workers, and trusted nonprofits to turn things around. Together they set up COVID-19 testing sites and connected residents to needed resources, including food pantries, mental health services, and health insurance. Within weeks, testing rates went up and new cases declined. 

And when the vaccine became available, health care workers quickly established vaccination sites in hospitals, clinics, schools, pharmacies, and community centers throughout the region, and staffed them seven days a week, offering hope to millions of New Yorkers. By September of 2021, 10.7 million doses of the vaccine had been administered in New York City and more than 65 percent of New York City residents had received at least one dose of the vaccine, compared with 52.6 percent nationwide—and health care workers continue to provide this life-saving vaccine. 

“When New York City was the epicenter of the worst global pandemic in a century, our hospitals and their extraordinary workforce kept the health care system from collapsing,” said Kenneth E. Raske, president of the Greater New York Hospital Association (GNYHA).

Each individual who makes up our health care workforce is essential, part of the team that faces life’s challenges with a particular focus and expertise—whether it’s at the bedside, in the community, or everything in between. For their unwavering commitment to our region and its people during a time that tested us all, and for their courage, great competence, and deep caring, United Hospital Fund is proud to award the 2021 Health Care Leadership Award to New York’s health care workforce.