They say improvements are needed to make it safer for them as they care for COVID-19 patients.
About 70 people took part in a demonstration Wednesday evening in the parking lot of SEIU Healthcare Michigan, a union representing 1,800 Mercy Health employees. Battery-operated candles were dotted throughout the crowd, which union leaders described as a way to “shine a light” on conditions at the hospital located nearby.
In response, Mercy Health Muskegon says it is working on the staffing levels, pointing to recent hiring of new employees and use of traveling nurses, and disputes the allegations of not having an adequate amount of PPE.
Staff described being “exhausted” by 16-hour shifts and the emotional weight of caring for critically ill patients during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fred Wyese, an RN at Mercy Health in Muskegon, said the hospital was inundated with COVID-19 cases in the fall.
“We filled the hospital with COVID patients,” he said. “And all the time, Mercy never said anything about hazard pay. They were constantly short on staffing. They were constantly short on PPE.”
Muskegon County experienced a surge in COVID-19 cases this fall, prompting Mercy Health to put out a call for nurses amid a staffing shortage and open an overflow unit at Hackley Hospital. The Mercy Health Mercy Campus on East Sherman Boulevard remains at 97% capacity as of Dec. 14.
Stacey Dundon, a nurse of 17 years, told MLive/Muskegon Chronicle her concerns about understaffing have escalated as cases rose. She says each nurse is responsible for up to six critical care patients.
“It’s just not safe. You can’t give the care the patients need,” Dundon said.
Two respiratory therapists teared up when addressing the crowd. One said her dad recently died from COVID-19, and the other therapist described the “amount of death” she sees with her patients dying every day.
Three therapists staff the ICU floor and manage between five to 10 ventilators, according to Cyndi Zeanwick, who’s been a respiratory therapist for 30 years.
“It’s too much for one person to handle,” she said.
Mercy Health Muskegon, in a statement issued in response to the demonstration, said staffing “remains a challenge,” but the health system has hired 80 agency and traveling nurses to “alleviate the strain.”
Mercy Health also said 78 employees have been hired since October.
Those protesting also raised concerns about dwindling supplies of PPE, claiming they are short on N95 masks and asked to wear surgical masks and reuse gowns.
Wyese said he wants some “real protection” and “real safety” for all the staff at the hospital.
Mercy Health refutes that claim, saying the hospital has maintained an “adequate supply” of PPE throughout the pandemic.
“We monitor our supplies daily to ensure we’re meeting the safety needs of our frontline staff,” Mercy Health said in the statement.
The hospital reports having a four to six day supply of N95 masks, surgical masks, gowns and exam gloves on hand.
Mercy Health’s inpatient COVID-19 cases have dropped from its peak in mid-November. The hospital most recently reported having 90 COVID-19 patients with 21 in the ICU.
For Muskegon County, 8,652 coronavirus cases and 224 deaths have been recorded as of Wednesday.
Elise Pavlige, a nurse who’s worked in the COVID-19 unit since March, used the demonstration to urge Mercy Health for action.
“Today, we call you to hear our cries for help,” Pavlige said, reading from a letter she wrote to the hospital administration.