The coronavirus pandemic has taken the lives of Michigan police officers, politicians, postal service workers and auto workers.
Now, it's beginning to kill the health care workers who've cared for the sick filling metro-Detroit’s Michigan's hospitals to capacity.
The state Department of Health and Human Services says it does not track how many health care workers have contracted the disease. Nationally, it’s much the same, with state and federal agencies not uniformly reporting their deaths.
Hospital workers have been outspoken on social media and in interviews with Free Press and Bridge Magazine reporters about their concerns about the lack of protective gear, such as masks, gowns, face shields and hand sanitizer, that is needed to keep them from falling ill, too.
Stories from the front
Bridge Magazine and the Detroit Free Press are teaming up to report on Michigan hospitals during the coronavirus pandemic. We will be sharing accounts of the challenges doctors, nurses and other hospital personnel face as they work to treat patients and save lives.
Nine health care systems were sent emails from the Free Press Monday asking about staffing levels, illness among employees and their preparedness for the expected surge in coronavirus cases. Some did not respond. Others provided varying levels of detail.
Only one — Beaumont Health — provided information about sick workers.
Aaron Gillingham, senior vice president and chief human resources officer at Beaumont Health, said the system of eight hospitals is assessing staffing every day. So far, he said "only a few dozen of our employees have tested positive for COVID-19.
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"When our employees develop COVID-19 symptoms, we treat them just as we would any patient. We assess their health and determine whether they should be tested for the virus."
It's clear many on the front lines of the worst health crisis of our lifetime already are sick.
These are the stories of the Michigan health care workers, all Detroit nurses, who are known to have died.
Lisa Ewald, Henry Ford Hospital nurse
Juleen Miller remembers the last time she saw her friend Lisa Ewald, a nurse at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.
It was three weeks ago, and they met at Secret Recipes Family Dining in Taylor for breakfast.
Miller had no way of knowing it would be the last time she'd ever see her high school friend again.
Ewald died this week of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, Miller said. This Saturday would have been her 54th birthday.
Henry Ford Health System President and CEO Wright Lassiter III confirmed on Friday the death of an employee.
“There are not adequate words to describe how saddened we are," he said. "Our hearts ache for our employee's family, friends and colleagues. As health care providers on the frontlines of this pandemic, we know we are not immune to its traumatic effects.
"We continue to fight with every resource we have to protect our employees and provide the safest care to our patients. Because of patient privacy obligations, we cannot share additional information.”
Ewald lived in Dearborn and spent 20 years as a nurse at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, most recently working in post-surgery rehab. Her niece and nephew, Mandi and Micah Standifer of Shelby Township, said she was a jokester and “a nerd in the best way.”
She attended the Motor City Comic Con every year and loved Harry Potter books and Star Trek. She was an active, optimistic person with no known health problems, they said.
“It’s hard to believe this even happened, because she was so full of life,” said Micah Standifer, 35. “She’s the person you would expect to beat it.”
Ewald also loved to travel and was an active member of the Wayne County Republican Party. They became friends at Inter-City Baptist School in Allen Park, where they both went to school.
Miller said they stayed in touch over the years, and last week, they exchanged text messages about how the pandemic was adding a new element of danger to the nursing profession.
Ewald assured Miller that she was fine. Miller planned to text Ewald again this week to wish her a happy birthday.
But now, she'll never get that chance.
“The worst part,” Miller said, “is that you can’t even really honor her with a funeral because of this stupid thing."
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has banned large gatherings, including funerals, in hopes of slowing the virus’ spread.
Ewald told her niece she was not wearing a mask and had asked to be tested, but hospital officials told her she couldn’t get a COVID-19 test until she began to experience symptoms of the disease.
Ewald learned Sunday that the illness she was experiencing was COVID-19, said Mandi Standifer. By Tuesday, she was dead. Ewald’s neighbors and a fellow Henry Ford nurse found Ewald lifeless in her living room Wednesday morning.
The Standifers said they can understand the unique complications posed by a viral pandemic that caught the whole country off guard. They can understand that personal protective equipment and test kits are in short-supply. Still, they said, it’s frustrating that Ewald was forced to wait so long for testing, and then was instructed to go home and wait out the illness on her own.
“It’s just wrong,” Micah Standifer said. “You would think they would take care of their own.”
Henry Ford’s Lassiter said the hospital system adheres “strictly” to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines when it comes to testing employees for COVID-19.
“Currently, the CDC recommends testing employees only when they become symptomatic,” he said. “Whether at work or at home under self-isolation, if an employee begins experiencing symptoms, they are urged to contact Employee Health and arrange for immediate testing. Meantime, we strongly urge anyone who is at home with symptoms to go to their nearest emergency room immediately if symptoms worsen, including a rising fever, uncontrolled cough or respiratory problems.”
Because the virus is highly contagious, Ewald’s house is under quarantine. The Standifers must wait until Monday, after the home has been sanitized, to retrieve the two pet cats Ewald left behind.
Instead of the large funeral they would have planned if a pandemic didn't make group gatherings risky, five family members are attending a small closed-casket burial service. They’ll stand six feet apart and watch as Ewald’s casket is lowered into the ground. A gathering for the rest of Ewald’s loved ones will wait until the pandemic has ended.
“It feels like a nightmare,” Mandi Standifer said. “I feel like I’m going to wake up and have a text message from her saying ‘I’m fine. I love you guys, too.’ But I’m not.”
Divinia 'Debbie' Accad, 72, who worked at the VA’s John D. Dingell Medical Center in Detroit, had talked recently about retiring (Courtesy photo)
Divinia 'Debbie' Accad, Detroit VA Medical Center nurse
Divinia Accad, a long-time nurse at the VA’s John D. Dingell Medical Center in Detroit, died Monday of complications of the coronavirus.
She was 72, and had begun talking about retiring, her son, Mark Accad, told the Free Press on Friday.
He said his mother was hospitalized with pneumonia, and spent 11 days at a Taylor hospital before she died. He said he was able to see her twice, but was denied a third visit. His final visit with his mother was at the morgue.
Dr. Pamela Reeves, Detroit VA Medical Center director, confirmed that an employee died of complications from COVID-19.
"We offer our deepest condolences to the employee’s family and loved ones at this difficult time,” Reeves said.
The VA said in a statement that "those who may have been in contact with the employee have been informed to report any symptoms and have either gone into self-quarantine or been placed into quarantine by their provider."
Divinia Accad, who went by Debbie, was the mother of three sons and a daughter, and grandmother of five. She lived in Taylor with her husband, William Accad.
Mark Accad said he hopes her death raises awareness of the risks that healthcare workers face during the pandemic.
“She sacrificed her life for our troops. I want my mom to be known for what she did,” Mark Accad said.
James House, 40, had been feeling sick for weeks. On Tuesday his illness took a turn and he was hospitalized. Within hours, his sister said, he was gone. (Courtesy photo)
James House, Omni Continuing Care nurse
James House, a nurse at a Detroit nursing home, died earlier this week after falling ill.
Although he had not been tested for COVID-19, his sister Catrisha House-Phelphs told the Free Press Friday that her brother worked at Omni Continuing Care on Conner in Detroit, and had classic symptoms of the disease — cough, low-grade fever, shortness of breath.
She said her brother, a 40-year-old Warren resident, started feeling sick two weeks ago.
He went to a drive-up site that was taking samples for coronavirus tests, but was turned away.
House-Phelphs said her brother was told to stay home for seven days and wait it out.
On Tuesday, House went back to work but quickly fell ill, needed oxygen and was rushed to the hospital, House-Phelphs said.
She said her brother texted her and said he was going to be intubated.
“Things moved so fast,” she said. “It was like within a couple of hours of him being admitted, he had passed away.”
Omni Continuing Care issued the following statement Friday night:
"It is with great sadness to report the recent passing of one of our employees at Omni Continuing Care. Our thoughts are with the family at this difficult time. This individual was a beloved, long-time employee, who will be greatly missed. We have brought in grief counselors to assist our staff and residents. ...
"The employee was last at work on March 31. He reported for work that day after being off since March 20 for an unknown illness. Upon arrival to our facility, he was still unwell, prompting immediate transfer to the hospital prior to starting his shift.
"As always, the health and safety of our residents and staff is our top priority. We continue to work with the local health department, and have implemented procedures consistent with CDC and CMS (Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services) guidelines and direction and are continuing to monitor residents and staff for any signs and symptoms of COVID-19."
House-Phelphs described her brother, a father of five who grew up in Benton Harbor, as a committed nurse, a great brother and her best friend.
“He was a great man,” she said. “I mean, it’s a huge loss.”
Bridge Magazine writers Robin Erb and Ashley Wong contributed to this report.
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