They stood on cold concrete at dusk, in masks and heavy coats, just around the corner from the hospital where every day more patients succumb to the virus.
Mercy Health in Muskegon has been one of the hospitals hardest hit by the surge of COVID-19 patients that hit West Michigan this fall. At one point, five floors of the hospital were devoted to caring for patients who had the disease, with even more patients waiting in the emergency room for beds to open up.
Officially, the number of COVID patients at the hospital has been declining since late November. But nurses and other staff at Mercy Health say the intensive care unit is still nearly full, and patients continue to die. It’s taking a toll on them, and they say the hospital’s management hasn’t done enough to help.
“I’m struggling. I have to admit. I’m struggling,” said Cyndy Zeanwick, a respiratory therapist whose says she’s done the job for more than 30 years. “When you see two to three people die every single day, how can that not affect you?”
Muskegon County has recorded 224 deaths from COVID-19, roughly equal to one out of every 1,000 residents in the county. Most of those deaths have come in November and December.
“I have gone two months without a single one of my patients making it out of the hospital,” said Elise Pavlige, a nurse who works in the COVID ICU. “Not one.”
Pavlige and Zeanwick were among dozens of staff who gathered Wednesday evening to demand more personal protective equipment and other support from Trinity Health, the parent company for the hospital.
They say in recent weeks, hospital management has ignored their concerns as they’ve been told to re-use masks and gowns because of dwindling supplies. According to the state’s PPE tracking website, Mercy Health Muskegon had less than a week’s supply of masks, gowns and gloves as of Monday.
“The reuse of PPE and the lack of enough PPE makes me fear for the safety of my patients, myself and you, the community we serve,” said Darla Gallegos, a phlebotomist who says she travels between COVID and non-COVID units at the hospital. She says she worries that practice can spread the virus to both coworkers and patients.
Workers at the hospital are union members of SEIU Healthcare Michigan, which organized the event Wednesday night. Union leaders say they’ve been taking their concerns to management at Trinity for weeks, but those concerns have been ignored.
The union is calling on the company to supply more PPE for workers, hire more full-time workers to staff the hospital and offer hazard pay to staff who’ve been on the frontlines of the pandemic.
In a statement, the hospital said it has had an “adequate” supply of PPE throughout the pandemic, and continues to monitor supplies daily.
“While staffing remains a challenge, we have secured some additional agency and traveler resources to alleviate some of the strain on our care teams,” the statement said. “We are paying premium rates to colleagues who pick up extra shifts, and we have brought on over 80 agency staff recently to help. Additionally, we continue to recruit more staff and have hired 78 more employees since mid-October.”
At the end of Wednesday night’s event, a few staff carried a long banner, with small lights arranged to spell out “UNITED FOR SAFETY AT MERCY.”
They walked the banner past the hospital and held it along a highway overpass to spread their message to more people, driving past in cars.