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Health care workers demand more protective gear, staff at UM rally

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Health care workers and supporters rallied in Ann Arbor on Wednesday night to demand better and faster distribution and manufacture of medical supplies as well as enhanced protections to help first responders during the COVID-19 crisis.

Health care workers and supporters protest at the Rogel Cancer Center in Ann Arbor on April 15, 2020. Among several issues, the health care workers express that every health care worker be provided the PPE they need to keep themselves, their families, and their patients safe.

The demonstrators at the event, which was among others organized at health care facilities across the country through a “national day of action” calling for major structural changes, said they are raising awareness about the critical needs for those on the front line in the pandemic.

"Right now, health care workers are working without the proper or adequate supplies of (personal protective equipment) and also working understaffed," said Bret Kelly, a registered nurse who works for the University of Michigan health system and joined the rally. "There are people concerned about these really important issues. It’s about building momentum and thinking about the mid term and long term to build these policies. We’re not going to be able to do that overnight, but we have to start somewhere."

Medical personnel demonstrated outside Rogel Cancer Center, which is affiliated with the UM system officially known as Michigan Medicine, some wearing red and standing six feet apart to follow social distancing guidelines.

It also drew supporters from labor and other groups who participated in a "car caravan" near the property, coordinators said.

The protest came together in the last two weeks as COVID-19 cases climbed nationwide along with concerns about the pandemic's impact on those in the health care industry, said Anne Jackson, another registered nurse who works for UM.

She pointed to a media report Wednesday about Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figures this week showing nearly 9,300 COVID-19 cases reported among health care personnel in the United States.

Locally, a resident surgeon at Ascension Macomb Hospital recently died of suspected COVID-19 and a longtime Henry Ford Health System nurse died after telling relatives she had been exposed at work without proper protection. Also this month, a woman died of COVID-19 some two weeks after working two shifts as a surgical technologist at Detroit’s Harper Hospital.

A sign that reads "PPE Over Profit" in a car driven at the protest. Health care workers protest at the Rogel Cancer Center in Ann Arbor on April 15, 2020.

The national stockpile of emergency medical supplies is nearly depleted, the Associated Press reported last week. Meanwhile, hard-hit hospitals in southeast Michigan have started rationing N95 masks, and the Michigan Health and Hospital Association said last week that some hospitals had as little as three days' worth supply of protective health gear for employees treating COVID-19 patients. 

"The people taking care of the patients shouldn't be catching the disease," Jackson said. "... This problem has got to get fixed or health care workers will continue to get sick and some will die. We are a finite resource. We need PPE now."

The demonstrators seek proper personal protective equipment for all health care workers and upgrades in the health care system nationwide to better coordinate resources so hospitals and states won't have to compete.

"We don’t have to have a health care industry that has a scarcity of supplies and materials," Kelly said.

In an email to The Detroit News Wednesday, Michigan Medicine director of public relations Mary Masson said: "We are extremely grateful to all of our employees for their hard work and dedication throughout the COVID-19 pandemic."

She added the system "has the resources we need to provide care for every patient and keep our healthcare personnel and our team members safe. Because we cannot guarantee PPE acquired elsewhere is clean, properly fitted, and meets FDA requirements, Michigan Medicine will not permit our team members to use masks brought from home in our facilities. ... Before any equipment, PPE or otherwise, is deployed to our team members it is subject to thorough inspection by our Supply Chain team, who is working tirelessly to accept new shipments and donations, assess for FDA regulations, and get quality product into our hospitals."

Last week, UM said it was working on ways to disinfect masks.

Among the demonstrators' other demands Wednesday: ensuring minimum mandatory staffing levels; boosting critical care training; providing childcare; and offering housing for health care workers who have been exposed or are symptomatic.

Ted McTaggart, a registered nurse at the Northville Health Center, holds up signs. Health care workers protest at the Rogel Cancer Center in Ann Arbor on April 15, 2020.

"We know what is safe for our us, our patients and our families," Kelly said, adding he and other protesters wanted to send the message: "Listen to the health care workers and what they’re trying to tell you. We need to enact changes in overall policies."

Masson said Michigan Medicine offers daily training and "we have redeployed staff and have been able to provide adequate staffing." She also said "employees are encouraged to contact Occupational Health Services for information about testing or concerns."

The protest came as the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Michigan rose to 28,059 through Wednesday with 1,921 deaths.

It also followed staffers at DMC's Sinai-Grace hospital last week staging a sit-in to demand more support to treat a surge of COVID-19 patients.

Michigan Medicine announced in late March that it would open a field hospital at the indoor track at the South Athletics Facility on State Street to handle overflow from its 1,000-bed capacity hospital system. The site was supposed to open Friday, but those plans were on hold since the curve of coronavirus cases “is significantly flattening,” officials told The News.