Michigan coronavirus medical deaths at 16, more than some hospitals say

The Detroit Medical Center is reluctant to acknowledge the healthcare workers who have died during the coronavirus outbreak. (Shutterstock)

Health care workers fighting the coronavirus pandemic are paying with their own lives — yet 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 DMC suspected that COVID-19 contributed to the deaths of three employees: one who died at home, one who died at another regional health system, Michigan Medicine, and a third who died in a DMC hospital, according to a source who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect their job. 

Stories from the front

Bridge Magazine, Detroit Free Press and Michigan Radio 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. If you work in a Michigan hospital, we would love to hear from you. You can contact reporters Robin Erb rerb@bridgemi.com at Bridge, Kristen Jordan Shamus kshamus@freepress.com at the Free Press and Kate Wells katwells@umich.edu at Michigan Radio.

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 in an email.

He pointed out that he did not indicate a cause of death in his statement. 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 and 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, Bridge Magazine and Michigan Radio, 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 COVID-19 fatalities within their ranks.

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 facility 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 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.

Other health systems are more transparent. One of them was Wayne State University's Medical School, which lost one of its senior residents as the surge of COVID-19 cases hit Southeast Michigan.

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 their 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."

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Comments

Todd
Mon, 04/27/2020 - 9:28am

I'd like the media to report on REAL causes of death rather than these COVID deaths that are just listed as the cause because they happened to have the virus. I could be asymptomatic and get hit by a car and die and the death will be ruled as COVID related. That makes ALL COVID death numbers invalid. They admitted as much in Illinois. https://twitter.com/mrctv/status/1254077961369608192?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw...

D Trump
Mon, 04/27/2020 - 1:10pm

Todd, what if someone has COVID19 and injects their lungs with bleach? Is that a COVID19 death or presidential manslaughter?

Ben W. Washburn
Mon, 04/27/2020 - 9:57am

Employers are well advised to exercise caution in requiring their employees to continue to work or to come back to work in circumstances which may be hazardous to their health. Down the road, the families of breadwinners who are lost to this epidemic may have a winnable and expensive negligence claim against the enterprise. This could turn, for instance, upon whether the enterprise is considered an essential or non-essential one. It could also turn upon how the victim contracted the disease. And as always in negligence cases, it could depend upon how the claim will look to a sympathetic jury.

No kidding
Mon, 04/27/2020 - 1:02pm

As an employer, this worries me more than anything else, protecting my customers, employees, and facing lawsuits.

Ben W. Washburn
Mon, 04/27/2020 - 6:35pm

No Kidding:
Thanks for responding to my comment. I am a lawyer, but was a lawyer for a county. I have not practiced negligence law, although thousands of my colleagues thrive upon it. But, I know the basic theory, and it tells me that if you are a business owner or manager, even when you are faced with a disaster to your business, then you will need to consult with an attorney who practices negligence law before you act. None of the media coverage that I have seen has addressed this set of impending issues.

J Hendricks
Tue, 04/28/2020 - 8:58am

Lovely. Just as a business is on its last legs trying to survive, it gets to face the American legal system (its always somebody else’s fault) who come in as vultures to bayonet the wounded and then pick over the carcass.

Jake K.
Mon, 04/27/2020 - 10:20am

The reporting of deaths within the health care field fails to identify the function of the deceased and whether they were active as a front liner or active only as a member of the general society. Th e"broad brush" reporting lends no validity to the stats.