Mass. hospitals face shortage of respiratory therapists during coronavirus pandemic

BOSTON (WHDH) - A thousand ventilators from the federal government are on their way to Massachusetts hospitals as the state prepares for a surge in coronavirus cases; however, some respiratory therapists warn there may not be enough staff to run the machines.

Ventilators are vital in the care of the most seriously ill patients who lose their ability to breathe on their own. The machines provide assistance to the patients by giving their lungs a break while they try to fight off the virus.

“Those will be here by now and between the first week in April a big positive step forward in the right direction,” Gov. Charlie Baker said during a press conference on Monday.

Across the country, the need for ventilators is growing — with New York City reporting shortages, some hospitals have moved to using one ventilator for more than one patient.

This is a last resort effort that Registered Respiratory Therapist Keith Hirst said is not ideal.

“Yes these are desperate times and they call for desperate measures and people want to think outside the box,” he said. “But, the reality is unless they’re the same patient and unless they have the same lung condition and it’s a crapshoot.”

It is not only important to have enough ventilators, but the hospitals also need staff to run those machines.

Former Quality Improvement Coordinator in Respiratory Care, Ed Burns spent 30 years working at Massachusetts General Hospital. He is now retired, but he said the role these therapists play is critical to ensure the machines are fined tuned for each patient’s unique needs.

“There’s more to it than just placing a patient on a ventilator,” Burns said. “Set these ventilators individually for each individual patient they are highly sophisticated microprocessor run medical devices.”

Burns said that one therapist typically handles around five to seven ventilators; however, as the sickness spreads, the number of patients is on the rise and the strain on machines and staff is growing.

“This is an unprecedented time where no hospital is prepared,” Burns explained. “Any avenue as possible to get as many hands on deck it’s going to be a challenge.”

” I know a lot of my colleagues are working double shifts,” Hirst said. “another colleague who’s working in Washington State… He said he had a therapist work 21 of the last 24 days.”

To meet the demand, some hospitals are hiring per diem respiratory therapists, temporary staff and some are even being called out of retirement.

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