The men and women were clustered in groups around the employes' entrance to Prince George's General Hospital, some with tears in their eyes. They spoke in hushed tones of only one thing: the largest mass firing of public workers here in recent history, 615 employes of the county's financially troubled public hospital system suddenly out of a job.

"It's almost like a grieving time," said Mary Beth Zobrak, 27, a licensed practical nurse with two years at Prince George's General who had just gotten the green folder containing her walking papers. "I just want to be alone."

"It's unbelievable," said Alice Moore, a respiratory therapist who had been hired to work at Prince George's General two months ago. "Everybody's crying."

Hospital officials said that services to patients in the system's three hospitals would improve through more efficient use of resources, but employes and leaders of the Maryland Nurses Association disagreed.

Carol Bragg, head of the Prince George's General chapter of the association, said the hospital has abolished the unit of 16 nurses that insert intravenous tubes in patients and has sharply reduced the number of technicians that operate breathing machines for respiratory patients.

While hospital officials are saying the system is overstaffed, remaining employes are being told to cancel vacations so that their wards will be covered, she said. Seniority was not honored in all dismissals, she said: "Some with 18 years here are being fired."

To help displaced workers, the hospital administration has arranged for representatives of 20 agencies to meet with the newly unemployed next week at the Cheverly American Legion post and to extend health benefits for a month.

But blue-collar and medical workers, comprising most of those discharged, face an uncertain future in a contracting hospital economy: Since 1983, 140,000 hospital jobs have been eliminated nationwide, reducing the number employed to 3,050,000, according to the American Hospital Association.

"There have been cutbacks and reduced hours for hospital employes across the board," said Nancy Perrin, of the American Nurses Association, but she noted that registered nurses have been least affected by the cuts. Cutbacks have come as hospitals around the country have had fewer patients and shorter patient stays.

The firings here were approved Monday night by the board of the nonprofit Community Hospital and Health Care Systems Inc. (CHHCS), which since 1982 has leased the three public facilities, Prince's George's General, the Greater Laurel Beltsville Hospital and the Bowie Health Center.

Of the 615 dismissals, 459 (including 59 nurses) came at Prince George's General, 128 at Laurel and 10 at Bowie. The discharges include 18 managers in the corporate office, hospital officials said.

This summer, CHHCS, torn by internal bickering and public controversy, hired the Hospital Corporation of America to take over day-to-day management of the system, which has nearly 800 beds and had 2,824 employes before the firings. The system experienced a net deficit of $2 million to $3 million in the last fiscal year.

Corbett A. Price, an HCA vice-president and acting chief executive officer of CHHCS who has overseen the firings, defended the drastic cutbacks as long overdue and in the long-term interests of the system.

"Many will be disgruntled; I recognize that," he said. "Some will be angry. But this is something happening naturally because of the pressure on us as managers to cut hospital costs . . . .

"We recognize it is very traumatic for people to lose their jobs. Many have said, 'Why this timing?' Some have said it's taking too long, they wished Friday were here. Things of this nature have to be done appropriately but in an expedited way so things can get back to normal."

Corbett confirmed that vacations had been curtailed "at this point in time . . . until we get things back to normal."

He defended the abolition of the IV units, maintaining that a separate team of nurses to administrate intravenous tubes was "somewhat archaic." "It allows nurses to . . . . wait for the IV team to come around when the patient might need one right away."

Corbett said combining the respiratory therapy and electrocardiogram units would require fewer technicians and increase efficiency.

But Moore, the dismissed respiratory therapist, said, "That's absurd because there are not enough people to do respiratory care. The season for chronic lung patients is coming up. The census is going to go sky high. There's no way they're going to handle it."

Lawyers for the nurses association were reviewing legal options yesterday, according to Bragg. "It's been very frustrating because there is no rhyme or reason" to the firing decisions, she said.

It has been frustrating, too, even for some survivors. "Last night, everybody was just real depressed about this business," said Pamela Williams, a nurse who was reporting for her regular shift. "Some nursing assistants who were fired over the phone were told not to report to work. It was like they didn't have a chance to say goodbye."