Respiratory therapists have been providing critical care during the coronavirus pandemic. Among other duties, they’re trained to operate ventilators, a machine needed by some of the sickest COVID-19 patients.
Even before the pandemic, the lesser-known profession experienced a shortage in workers — a deficit that has become more apparent amid the coronavirus, respiratory therapists say.
“Our respiratory therapists have been asked to work a lot of hours, shifts they don’t normally work,” said Brady Scott, a respiratory therapist at Rush Medical Center and director of clinical education for respiratory care at Rush University.
Naida Perez, a respiratory therapist at UI Health, said she and others are working 12 to 16 hours, five to six days a week. That’s compared to a typical three to four days a week.
“We’re working normal shifts and covering extra shifts. Some of our staff tests positive and then they’re gone for two weeks at a time, so we’re picking up the slack from that. Or there’s just so many people on ventilators,” Perez said. Sometimes the number of patients require more respiratory therapists than available.
Respiratory therapists care for patients with lung illnesses and infections, such COPD, asthma, lung cancer, Perez said.
Patients with COVID-19 often are in severe respiratory failure, Scott said, and they decline very quickly.
“Individuals with COVID-19, I have to be frank, some of those individuals deteriorate very, very quickly with us,” Scott said. “Some folks come to the emergency room and they are very sick and deteriorate very quickly, and they have to be placed on those ventilators in the emergency department, even before they’re admitted to the floor of the hospital or an ICU bed.”
As coronavirus vaccines begin to be distributed, a new, more contagious strain of the virus is spreading across the U.S. It has now been identified in Indiana and Wisconsin. Perez said she is concerned about what that might mean for Illinois, especially since some residents aren’t following guidelines, wearing masks and are hesitant to get the vaccine.
She hopes more people will choose to get the vaccine to begin to develop herd immunity, but she says that UI Health is prepared for any potential surge that may come from the new variation.
“We’re fully staffed, we got our ventilators and we’re ready, we’re ready to take on the fight,” Perez said.