Mercy Health Muskegon’s Mercy Campus / Courtesy Mercy Health (Photo: Supplied)

Inside Mercy Health’s gleaming new hospital tower along U.S. 31 in Muskegon, four full floors are now filled with COVID-19 patients.

More people are in the emergency room, waiting for beds to open up. Nurses are working grueling 16-hour shifts, racing between rooms, trying to keep up with the growing onslaught of sick patients.

This story was co-published with Bridge Magazine.

“It has been so stressful and chaotic and heartbreaking, to say the least,” said one hospital worker who helps treat COVID-19 patients at Mercy Health Muskegon.

“You have to put aside the tears, the heartbreak, because that’s when your patients need you the most. You kind of have to put aside everything to focus on them,” the hospital worker said.  

The worker didn’t have permission from the hospital to speak publicly, and asked that their name not be used in this story, out of fear of being fired.

On Monday, the hospital reported 129 coronavirus patients, more than two and a half times the number it reported just two weeks ago.

“There’s no question that this is a strain on the health system,” said Dr. Justin Grill, chief medical officer for Mercy Health Muskegon.

But the union that represents workers at the hospital blames leaders for not doing enough to prepare for a fall surge in coronavirus cases that many saw coming. Union representatives say the hospital’s failures are putting staff and patients at risk.

Tinitco Moore said some workers have decided it’s more than they can handle. Moore works at the hospital and serves as a union steward. She says her phone starts going off at 6 a.m. with notices from coworkers who are having problems.

“The workers are — they’re exhausted,” Moore said. “So you’re getting people just walking out, or people just quitting.”

Others plan to stay, but can’t work because they’ve gotten sick, too.

“Workers are dropping like flies getting COVID,” said Andrea Acevedo, president of SEIU Healthcare Michigan, the union that represents workers at the hospital. “I am getting calls — upwards of 50 a day, with workers scared of wanting to help the community but not having the proper training.”

Acevedo said, as of Thursday, 179 workers at Mercy Health Muskegon were out with the COVID-19 virus.A spokesperson for the hospital says 111 workers have tested positive.

Acevedo said even though the hospital seems to have ample supply of personal protective equipment for its healthcare workers, it hasn’t given them the training for how to use the PPE properly to protect themselves.

One issue, she said, is fit-testing, a procedure to make sure N95 masks are properly fitted to each worker’s face, so that the virus can’t enter around the edges.

“You can have a stockpile of 200,000 N95s,” Acevedo said, “but if you have not fit tested every single worker that needs those N95s, that is where you get into unsafe care.”

A spokesperson for the hospital said it’s not true that workers have not been fit-tested for their masks, saying the practice started in the spring and has continued throughout the pandemic. The spokesperson says more than 1,000 workers have been fit-tested for N95 masks so far.

And the hospital said workers were all trained in handling COVID-19 at the start of the pandemic. That training has been ongoing, and will continue with “refresher education” training this week, according to the hospital.

Hospital leaders do acknowledge the current surge of cases has been a strain on the system, and that’s made life difficult for staff.

“There’s no question that this is hard for everybody,” said Grill.

“People are having to work extra hours, oftentimes being put into new situations, caring for different types of patients than what they would normally care for,” he said. “And our staff is really doing a tremendous job adapting to that and providing excellent care to our patients.”

Grill said the hospital tried to prepare over the summer by stocking PPE and formulating surge plans. But the speed and intensity of the current surge has been more than any hospital system could handle.

“It escalated really very quickly, just over the past couple of weeks,” he said.

The hospital is preparing for even more patients to show up.

The hospital said 39 additional temporary workers are starting Tuesday to help. And, by the end of this week, the hospital says it will re-open its nearby Hackley campus to provide more room for COVID-19 patients. Trinity Health, the parent organization for Mercy Health Muskegon, is also holding a virtual career fair Tuesday through Thursday  to try to attract more workers.

Meanwhile, SEIU Healthcare Michigan said it’s presented hospital leaders with a list of demands to try to address worker safety and support during the surge.

The list includes:

  • Adequate PPE.
  • Safe staffing levels.
  • Hazard pay.
  • Proper training and fit testing of N95 masks.
  • Taking volunteers before mandating overtime.
  • Include front-line staff in decision-making.
  • Provide key information regarding current supplies and orders of PPE, and a list of all job postings.

The hospital said it’s already offered a “financial appreciation award” to employees, plus “premium pay” for workers who are adding extra shifts. It says it’s also offering additional counseling and support for workers.

But inside the hospital, there’s little anyone can do to stop the growing tide of new patients sick with the virus.

All they can do is ask for people on the outside to do their part to stop the spread — social-distancing, mask-wearing, hand-washing, and putting off social gatherings are their only hope for relief.

Even if there’s a change, workers say they expect the situation will get worse before it gets better.

The Detroit Free Press, Bridge Magazine and Michigan Radio have teamed up to report on Michigan hospitals during the coronavirus pandemic. If you work in a Michigan hospital, we would love to hear from you. You can contact Kristen Jordan Shamus at [email protected], Robin Erb at [email protected] or Kate Wells at [email protected].  

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