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Coronavirus takes heavy toll on Michigan health care workers, causing dozen-plus deaths

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Health care workers fighting the coronavirus pandemic are paying with their own lives — and their employers are often reluctant to disclose these deaths.

A Free Press investigation finds that the coronavirus is the suspected cause of death in Michigan for at least 16 people who worked in hospitals, nursing homes, group homes and health insurance — more than the six workers their employers have previously acknowledged. A union official confirmed a seventh.

For example, Audrey Gregory, the chief executive officer at the Detroit Medical Center, said in an interview Thursday with the Free Press that she didn't know whether any employees had died from COVID-19 or suspected complications.

"I don't know yet what cause of death is for employees who have passed away. I do not have any employees who have passed away in our hospitals. And so I wouldn't be able to tell you exactly in terms of employee deaths tied to COVID," Gregory said in the interview.

The Free Press later learned that the DMC suspected that COVID-19 contributed to the deaths of three employees: one who died at home, one who died at Michigan Medicine and one who died in a DMC hospital, according to a source who spoke on condition of anonymity for job protection reasons.

Asked about those fatalities, Brian Taylor, a spokesman for the DMC, told the Free Press: "We were saddened to learn of the passing of our friends and colleagues. Our thoughts and deepest sympathies go out to their family, friends and co-workers. They all will be truly missed.

"Out of respect for the privacy of our colleagues and their families, this is the only information I can provide," Taylor said an email.

He pointed out that he did not indicate a cause of death. And he declined to explain why Gregory said the hospital system didn't have any employees die in its own hospitals.

Mary Masson, a spokeswoman for Michigan Medicine was also reluctant to acknowledge the death of an employee at the Ann Arbor health system. 

"To protect our employee's privacy, I'm unable to answer your questions or share any further details," she said in an email to Free Press, which provided her with the name and date of the death of the employee.

She later issued this statement: "We at Michigan Medicine extend our condolences to this employee’s family, friends and colleagues. This pandemic has had a devastating impact for many in our community."

Other employers did not return phone calls for comment, including a company that operates a group home in Warren that had an employee die of suspected coronavirus complications.

Jamie Brown, a critical care nurse who is president of the Michigan Nurses Association, the largest union and professional association representing registered nurses in the state, said in a statement that "it's outrageous that the deaths of front-line workers are not being disclosed to the public.

"No one should become numb to the fact that this virus continues to kill people, including nurses and other workers. There’s no doubt that some of these deaths could have been prevented if appropriate steps had been taken. Employers and the federal government must do more to provide the life-saving personal protective equipment and policies workers need to stay safe," Brown said.

The nurses association, which, like the Free Press, is tracking COVID-19 deaths among health care workers, has found 16 fatalities so far. 

A Detroit Medical Center doctor, who spoke on condition of anonymity for job protection reasons, said she agreed with Brown that health care providers should be more transparent about their COVID-19 fatalities.

She said acknowledging the deaths also acknowledges something else: the risks doctors, nurses and other workers are taking as they care for COVID-19 patients.

"It's not like it's unexpected," the doctor said. "There's no reason not to acknowledge the risks people are taking, and that some have succumbed."

Wellspring Lutheran Services is another employer that cited privacy when it declined to confirm the death of an employee at a residential foster care campus in Farmington Hills. 

"Wellspring Lutheran Services takes the privacy of our employees and their families very seriously. Therefore, to respect the confidentiality of our staff, we don’t comment about employee-related matters," according to a statement sent to the Free Press by the statewide nonprofit, which provides a variety of housing and social services.

The Free Press confirmed the death through the employee's union, UAW Local 600.

But other health systems are more transparent. One of them was Wayne State University's Medical School, which lost one of its senior residents.

In a letter to the "School of Medicine Family,"  Dean Jack Sobel said: "It grieves me greatly to inform you that a recent graduate of our School of Medicine has died, presumptively due to complications of COVID-19.

"Chris Firlit, M.D., was a senior resident in the oral maxillofacial surgery program at Ascension Macomb Hospital. The 37-year-old resident of Berkley, Michigan, was a member of our Class of 2018. He is survived by his wife and three children," Dr. Sobel said in his letter.

"Dr. Firlit’s death obviously hits very close to home. His dedication to assisting patients during this pandemic drives home the seriousness of this virus, and is emblematic of the fortitude and commitment of the physicians we train."

Spokesmen for Veterans Administration hospitals in Detroit and Ann Arbor also confirmed a COVID-19 death at each facility, without revealing the employees' identities. A son of the nurse who died at the John D. Dingell VA Medical Center in Detroit contacted the Free Press to identify his mother, Divina Accad of Taylor.

Another company to acknowledge a coronavirus-related death was Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.

"Sadly, one employee who worked in Detroit passed away. We are saddened by the loss and our deepest sympathy to their family during this difficult time," said Blue Cross spokeswoman Helen Stojic.

Peter Dooley, senior project coordinator for the National Council on Occupational Safety and Health, an organization dedicated to promoting safe and healthy working conditions through organizing and advocacy, said some health care employees are working in extremely dangerous conditions.

He said it's about more than a lack of personal protective equipment for workers. Also at issue is how hospitals and health care providers are managing the risks and the environment in which people are working. 

"There's a lot of really, really, really life-threatening, dangerous situations out there in many of these health care facilities. ... The environment is incredibly stressful," Dooley said.

"The front-line emergency workers, health care, public safety, emergency responders, every worker that is having to report to work is in danger from getting exposed to the virus — in many ways, as part of their job. It's a very, very serious crisis."

Contact Jennifer Dixon: 313-223-4410 or jbdixon@freepress.com.

Get involved: The Detroit Free Press, Bridge Magazine and Michigan Radio are teaming 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 kshamus@freepress.com, Robin Erb at rerb@bridgemi.com or Kate Wells at Katwells@umich.edu at Michigan Radio.  

Michigan Radio listeners, readers, and reporters are rising to the challenge every day. If you can, please support essential journalism during this crisis.

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