The family of a registered nurse at Research Medical Center who died after contracting COVID-19 is seeking death benefits under Missouri’s workers’ compensation law.
Celia Yap-Banago died on April 21 after caring for a patient who was later diagnosed with COVID-19. A fellow nurse told KCUR the following day that she and Yap-Banago had worked without N95 respiratory masks or other personal protective equipment.
Yap-Banago was planning to retire this year after working as a nurse for about 40 years. She was 69.
The workers compensation claim was filed on behalf of Yap-Banago’s husband of 34 years, Amado Banago, and her two sons, Jhulan, 28, and Joshua, 26.
In Missouri, the survivors of an employee who dies as a result of a work-related injury are entitled to two-thirds of the employee’s weekly wage. If the family prevails, Amando Banago would be entitled to benefits for the rest of his life or until he remarries.
Kansas City lawyer Brent Welder, who along with his wife Kristie Welder represents the family, said he hoped the case would set a precedent for health care workers who contract the coronavirus, which causes COVID-19.
“The family hopes to really set a national precedent for all health care workers since this is the first situation the public has seen of such a blatant, obvious situation of a health care worker contracting coronavirus at work,” Welder said.
“They want to make sure that health care workers and first responders around the country are protected with laws that remove unnecessary barriers for these kinds of claims.”
The workers’ compensation system aims to ensure that employees who suffer work-related accidents or illnesses are compensated while protecting employers from lawsuits by those same employees.
Last month, the Missouri labor department issued an emergency rule allowing firefighters, police and other first responders to receive workers' compensation if they are diagnosed with COVID-19 or are quarantined as a result of the disease.
But no similar rule has been enacted for hospital workers, meaning they would have to show that it was more likely than not that they contracted COVID-19 as a result of their work environment.
In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order making any COVID-19 infection diagnosed within two weeks of an individual working outside of their home presumptively work-related. A similar presumption has been adopted in Minnesota.
“What you run across in Missouri in general is whether the risk from the workplace is greater than the risk elsewhere in other walks of life,” said Wilson Stafford, a Kansas City workers’ compensation attorney.
Kristie Welder said Yap-Banago’s family hopes that Research Medical Center, her employer, “will do the right thing and honor the family by agreeing to a swift and just resolution of this case so the family can move on with their grieving process.”
Christine Hamele, a spokeswoman for Research Medical Center, said in an email statement:
"We are heartbroken by the passing of Celia Yap-Banago, a 40 year veteran nurse. It is difficult to put into words what Celia meant to our hospital and to the countless number of patients she cared for. Her impact on the nursing profession and to those whom she worked with will be everlasting due to the mentorship, training, support and guidance she provided our colleagues. We offer our deepest sympathies to her family and friends, and all who she blessed along the way. We look forward to a swift resolution, working within the State of Missouri’s workers’ compensation system."
Because the patient whom Yap-Banago was treating was not thought to have COVID-19, Yap-Banago was not given a mask or other protective equipment used by workers who treated COVID-19 patients.
But after she went into quarantine at home in late March, Research’s parent company, HCA Health Midwest, implemented a new policy requiring health care workers to wear masks in all patient areas. Before then, only employees who worked with COVID-19 patients or those suspected of having the disease were required to wear them.
Yap-Banago began exhibiting coronavirus symptoms shortly after she went into quarantine. She tested positive for COVID-19 and died after battling the disease for nearly a month. Another nurse who treated the same patient also was infected but she recovered.
Following her death, about 80 nurses and health care workers held a candlelight vigil organized by the National Nurses United union to honor Yap-Banago. The union said her death might have been prevented if she had adequate personal protective equipment.
Research, which is a Level I Trauma Center, has been designated as a hub for COVID-19 care by HCA, which also operates Menorah Medical Center, Overland Park Regional Medical Center and other hospitals in the Kansas City area.
This story has been updated to include the comments of a spokeswoman for Research Medical Center.