The coronavirus outbreak has spread rapidly in the Detroit area, straining the health care system there. Now, as infections continue to surge, so too has the number of health care workers who have fallen ill.
Nearly 3,000 people employed by health care systems in southeast Michigan have either tested positive for the virus or developed symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. At least four have died.
“There has been a shortage of nursing staff throughout the hospital,” said a nurse who works at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit and has contracted the virus. “Oftentimes nurses are being pulled from different units to assist on units with higher numbers of patients,” said the nurse, who spoke on background because she did not have authorization to speak to the media. “I can honestly say the nervousness is apparent in many of us. Seeing each other getting sick just increases the anxiety that one of us might be next and bring it home to our family.”
BuzzFeed News asked the eight major health care systems in the area for data on how the virus has affected their employees, as well as a breakdown by occupation. Among the five health care systems that responded, 2,722 employees are either confirmed or suspected to have the coronavirus — the most comprehensive total to date for the Detroit area and more than the number of infections among health care workers in the entire state of California. Though the number includes all employees, a large portion of them are medical staff, according to two systems.
Among the general population, there are more than 18,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the city and surrounding region. The area represents just 1.3% of the US population but 3.6% of the country’s coronavirus infections, with black people accounting for a disproportionate number of cases and deaths.
The number of health care workers in the region who have contracted the virus is likely significantly higher. Three Detroit-area health care systems failed to provide data — and one of them operates hospitals that have been hit especially hard by the outbreak, where staffers have publicly denounced their working conditions. At another, a surgeon has died and hundreds of nurses have called in sick.
A recent BuzzFeed News investigation found that at least 5,400 health care workers in the US have been infected based on available data collected at the state level — but as the Detroit figures show, the true number is likely much higher due to inconsistent tracking throughout the country. Michigan health officials, for example, have said they are not specifically collecting this information.
Though more than 100,000 people work for health systems in the Detroit area — which includes Wayne, Macomb, Oakland, and Washtenaw counties — the loss of thousands of employees at a time when the system is already strained has contributed to widespread staff shortages and increased fears about the pandemic among frontline medical staff.
Steve Homick, an emergency room nurse at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan, said his hospital has also replaced sick nurses with those from other units to address staff shortages and offered healthy employees incentive pay to take extra shifts.
“I know that nurses have gotten really sick from this. I know that nurses have passed away from it — so for us, every time we hear a name, it’s really concerning to us,” Homick said. “We’re worried about our staff.”
The infections underline the personal risk that frontline health care workers now take each time they report to work; many don’t have enough equipment to protect themselves from a contagious virus that isn’t yet fully understood. The numbers also underscore Detroit’s status as a hot spot for the outbreak in the US.
“This pandemic brings to light the deep problems rooted in the way our health care system functions,” said Jamie Brown, president of the Michigan Nurses Association, adding that the union has been urging lawmakers in Michigan for years to pass a bill to prevent understaffing in hospitals. “This current crisis shows exactly why that is so important.”
Brown said Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer “is doing everything she can” to get medical staff more personal protective equipment, “but a national shortage needs a national solution.”
“It is horrifying that as nurses around our country are falling ill, the federal government refuses to use every single tool at its disposal to produce the necessary amount of PPE,” Brown said.
Nurses in the Detroit area and across the country have had to reuse gowns and different kinds of protective masks — sometimes for up to a week — which they say increases the risk of infection for them and patients.
Like others across the country, health care systems in the Detroit area have been working to find more protective equipment and staff to deal with the swell of COVID-19 patients. Hospitals have received mask donations from the community and are bringing in nurses from other hospitals or outside agencies to try to fill the gaps.
Still, employees have gotten sick and, in some cases, died. That was the case last week, when a longtime nurse working at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit became one of the first nurses in the state to die after contracting the coronavirus. A relative told the Detroit News that the nurse, who was asthmatic, thought she had been infected by a patient while she wasn’t wearing a face mask and couldn’t get tested until she developed symptoms.
The Henry Ford Health System said Thursday that since mid-March, 872 employees have tested positive for the coronavirus and those with symptoms are being prioritized for testing. The system can also deliver staffers their results within 24 hours, senior leaders said during a press call.
Beaumont Health, another large health system serving the region, announced earlier this week that 1,500 of its employees were off work with symptoms of COVID-19 — 500 of whom are nurses. Beaumont did not indicate how many employees have received positive test results.
At veterans affairs medical centers in the Detroit area, 40 employees have tested positive for the coronavirus, the department confirmed in an email to BuzzFeed News this week. Of them, 25 work at the John D. Dingell VA Medical Center in Detroit and 15 work for the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System, located about 40 miles west of downtown Detroit. Two employees, one from each location, have died, a spokesperson said.
Michigan Medicine, the University of Michigan’s health system, also located in Ann Arbor, announced earlier this week that 110 of its employees had tested positive for the coronavirus. Like other health care systems, Michigan Medicine noted that employees could have contracted the virus anywhere — not just at work.
“We have approximately 30,000 employees, so the number testing positive has not yet affected our ability to respond to the outbreak,” a spokesperson told BuzzFeed News by email.
In the McLaren Health Care system, which operates hospitals across the state, more than 500 employees had confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19 as of Wednesday morning, 200 of whom work in southeast Michigan, spokesperson Kevin Tompkins wrote in an email. “And the majority of these employees are clinical care providers,” he said.
Ascension, a nationwide health care system, operates hospitals in and around Detroit but did not respond to multiple requests for information. More than 200 nurses at one of its hospitals reportedly called in sick recently, largely due to the coronavirus, and a surgeon at an Ascension hospital just north of Detroit died last week due to complications related to COVID-19.
The Saint Joseph Mercy Health System, which employs more than 12,000 people in southeast Michigan, refused to provide data about how many of its staffers have gotten sick as a result of the virus. “We respect the privacy of our colleagues, and we do not share that information publicly,” spokesperson Laura Blodgett said by email on Friday. She added that no employees had died.
The Detroit Medical Center also refused to provide data about its employees to BuzzFeed News, saying that it is “not providing patient numbers related to COVID-19.” The system’s hospitals are short on protective equipment and have been overwhelmed by the outbreak — one, DMC Sinai-Grace, is reportedly so short-staffed that patients are dying in the hallway before nurses can get to them. The health system fired a nurse last month after she pressured management to address the shortages, and on Sunday emergency room nurses staged a sit-in to call attention to their working conditions.
The DMC’s Harper University Hospital in midtown Detroit has also experienced severe equipment shortages, BuzzFeed News reported last week. A nurse who works there said this week that staff shortages haven’t been as extreme as Sinai-Grace but a few colleagues on her floor are off sick “and it definitely makes staffing harder.”
She said her hospital is trying to make sure that nurses aren’t attending to more than three or four patients at a time because of how critically ill they can be. “It’s hard when we are short-staffed and have to take up to five patients each,” the nurse said, speaking on background.
The DMC did not address questions about what kind of support it offers staffers who have caught the coronavirus. The nurse said she doesn’t believe the staff have been offered extra time off but that management has mentioned mental health services are available.
At other health systems, the support provided to employees who get sick varies. The University of Michigan is giving staff who need to self-quarantine an additional 10 days of paid time off. VA employees, like all those who work for the federal government, get paid annual and sick leave. They can also get weather and safety leave if they have the virus but don’t show any symptoms and can’t work from home, the VA spokesperson said. And at Beaumont, staffers have to self-quarantine for seven days if they have symptoms, and that period doesn’t eat into their regular paid time off, a spokesperson said.
At McLaren, employees use their paid time off to cover their days in quarantine and can receive mental health services. “We are looking every day at what we can be doing to better support our employees,” Tompkins wrote.
St. Joseph Mercy, which provides two weeks of paid administrative leave for those in quarantine, also provides mental health support, with counseling services and a “Colleague Hotline” staffed by human resources employees and others, Blodgett wrote. “The team provides support many different ways and one in particular is to be a calming voice and help colleagues navigate through the challenging time by answering questions they may have.”
Henry Ford’s support for employees impressed the nurse who has contracted the virus. She said employees receive an extra nine days of paid time off if they get sick with COVID-19 and can also call a hotline if they feel stressed or anxious.
“Testing was very quick and I got my results fast,” she added, noting that she was initially denied a test because she wasn’t exhibiting enough symptoms. “But the testing guidelines are provided by CDC and that’s what they were following, so I don’t blame them.”
The Michigan Nurses Association says that health systems in the area are generally not doing enough to support employees. Brown, the union president, said nurses should be able to wear their own protective equipment if the hospitals don’t have enough, get tested if they need it, not have to care for COVID-19 patients if they have underlying health conditions or other vulnerabilities, and be allotted extra hours of paid time off for COVID-19 reasons in addition to paid leave for those who have to self-quarantine. Brown added that nurses who have been recently laid off should be trained to help those working in intensive care units.
“By raising our collective voice as nurses and frontline health care workers, we have been able to win many of these gains from hospitals, including full paid time off for nurses exposed to COVID-19 and protections for immunocompromised nurses,” Brown said. “However, in most instances, this was only won after nurses came forward publicly to pressure the health care system into doing the right thing. Hospital executives should be seeking to work collaboratively with their frontline staff instead of dismissing us.”
Testing for health care workers has varied in its speed and availability among systems. Some nurses still can’t get tested, Brown said.
But among the systems surveyed, the rules for when nurses can rejoin the front lines after getting sick are largely the same and based on guidance from the CDC: Employees must stay home for at least seven days and be symptom-free for three before going back to work.
“I don’t agree with that,” the Henry Ford nurse said. “By doing that, we risk more staff getting sick. I understand there’s a shortage of staff currently and it’s probably a way to replenish that, but it just puts everyone else at risk. ... It’s not just a simple cold, you know. It’s a brand-new disease that we barely know anything about.”