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After three COVID-19 deaths, group calls for Detroit nursing home to do more to protect workers

Detroit — A caravan of cars honked in protest Thursday outside a Detroit nursing home to raise awareness about the deaths of three people who lived or worked there from COVID-19.

The Rev. W.J. Rideout III, pastor of All God’s People Church in Detroit, led the procession of vehicles and a group that included workers represented by the Service Employees International Union. They called on the owners of the Ambassador Nursing Home and Rehabilitation Center to adjust its policies following the death of a nurse and two residents from the virus.

A worker inside the building wears PPEs while pulling back a curtain to watch the protest.

The facility is on East Jefferson Avenue near Van Dyke on the city's east side.

Rideout claims the nursing home has little or no personal protective equipment for its employees.

"We stand in solidarity with the workers so they know we want changes and safety measures put in place," the pastor said. "They need gloves, masks and everything to keep them safe from harm's way. These are first responders and if they’re trying to keep people alive, they deserve our best to stay alive as well."

The nursing home is operated by Skokie, Illinois-based Villa Healthcare. The company also owns and operates a dozen similar facilities in Metro Detroit and others in Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio and northern Michigan.

Company officials did not immediately respond to phone calls and an email seeking comment. 

Nursing home workers at Ambassador have a "no media policy" and are unable to call attention to what's been occurring inside, according to Rideout and the SEIU. They didn't expect workers to leave the facility to join them.

"They're hard workers who want to care for others and don't want to lose their jobs," Rideout said. "They’ve sent people back to work sick, unprepared and unprotected. We can’t put dollars over safety. Nothing over a human's life."

Protesters, including, Jonathan Nunoo, left, of Westland, practice social distancing as they stand in solidarity with nursing home workers.

Workers filed complaints about the conditions with the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs.

"We are not given sufficient personal protective equipment," a licensed practical nurse wrote in a complaint. "We were told that we could not wear masks, up until about Saturday, March 28th. We have never been given gowns or eyewear."

On Monday, the department's Bureau of Community and Health Systems Division notified the union it received the complaints and that they would be investigated by the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

On Saturday, SEIU Healthcare Michigan President Andrea Acevedo sent a letter to city of Detroit officials detailing the conditions at Ambassador and asking them to intervene.

Union officials said Mayor Mike Duggan quickly responded to the SEIU's letter and announced Wednesday a policy to deploy 15-minute tests at every nursing home in the city. 

Kevin Lignell, a spokesman with SEIU, said the union's lawyer investigated the nursing home and interviewed workers who notified them of the deaths.

"A lot of stuff that happened at this home was preventable," Lignell said. "One of our members passed away and we want to show the rest of the workers that we stand with them."

SEIU Chief of Staff Scott Holiday, left, hands packages of masks to Ambassador nursing assistant Mary McClendon as state Sen. Adam Hollier, center, looks on. Hollier brought 400 masks to the nursing home Thursday.

Lignell said the issues at Ambassador are not unique in Detroit.

"Obviously, PPE is an issue everywhere but it's also training and taking precautionary measures to make sure people are safe," he said. "The same scenario is happening at other nursing homes in the city. We want to make an example of them."

Union officials said they could not release the names of the workers without permission from their families.

Rideout said the virus is more widespread in the city than it may seem.

Rev. W.J. Rideout, III, pastor of All God's People Church in Detroit and Roseville and civil rights activist leads the solidarity movement in front of the Ambassador Nursing and Rehabilitation Center.

"We have people in my family who have been infected and I've lost two relatives this past week to the virus," he said. "We've had two members that have died from the church and not to mention all the clergy who are hospitalized and died because of this.

"This has been very crucial and devastating to me and the workers. It’s important we do what we can."

Twitter: @SarahRahal_