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Respiratory Therapists Are On The Frontline Of Coronavirus Battle


Let's face an overlooked fact about ventilators. The machines can save some people severely ill with COVID-19, which is why officials are pushing so hard to make up a shortage of them. Elsewhere in today's program, our Planet Money team reports on one company's high-speed effort to help manufacture more of them quickly. But the machine is useless without a qualified person to run it. Dr. Tom Barnes of Northeastern University trains people to do that.

TOM BARNES: The control panels for the ventilators are quite complex. Or, like, some people have compared them to the panel on a small aircraft in terms of the complexity of them.

INSKEEP: What are you hearing from your former students who are out there working now?

BARNES: They're looking to the day where they're going to run out of ventilators. And they're trying to figure out whether - you hear a lot in the press, people think that you can try to ventilate two patients on one ventilator. And that's quite controversial. So there's a lot of chatter right now on whether - they're not doing that yet, but whether they will have to do that and how they're going to do it and whether they should even do it in the first place.

INSKEEP: So you've got people typically working 12-hour shifts with increasing numbers of patients and looking forward to the moment when they run out of equipment?

BARNES: That's what it comes down to. And we're talking about, basically, doubling and tripling the number of patients that the respiratory care department would have to take care of. So they're bringing people out of retirement. There are - some states are giving special student licenses to let students that were a few months from graduating to go into practice even though they haven't graduated yet. And they're trying to beef up the therapist workforce so they can handle it.

INSKEEP: You know, when you talk about people who haven't graduated, bringing them out to do this work, I'm reminded of World War II. The Army normally takes four years to make an Army officer. But they didn't have four years, so they did 90-day courses.

BARNES: Yeah. That's what's happening. And they're letting medical students graduate - that are two or three months from graduation, they're letting them begin to practice before they've actually graduated from medical school. So you got a therapist who's got the knowledge, the specialized knowledge. He's in a position where he needs to try to train, as quickly as they can, critical care nurses, residents and other physicians because they literally don't have enough people.

INSKEEP: The more I listen to you, the more I'm realizing that for any given patient, there is one way for the technician to help save that person's life, and probably quite a few ways that they could harm the patient or even kill them.

BARNES: They really have to know what they're doing. And if - the patients are very, very sick.

INSKEEP: You know, this is making me think. We hear so much about the numbers of ventilators. We hear Governor Cuomo of New York saying we need 40,000 ventilators. We hear there are 12,000 ventilators in a national stockpile or that the Pentagon is giving over 2,000 ventilators. It makes me wonder if there would be people to run those ventilators even if they were all upfront and available.

BARNES: You know, that's exactly the point. I'm glad you recognize that. So what are you going to do in that situation? You're going to have to quickly train more people. They won't be as good as a registered respiratory therapist. But they will have some basic knowledge where they can take - perhaps, take care of some of the people on ventilators that are as not as complicated.

INSKEEP: How upsetting is it to you, as someone who specializes in this field, to hear so much of the national discussion revolving around ventilators, the lack of them, the lack of personnel?

BARNES: I mean, it's extremely frustrating when they go on for 10 or 15 minutes discussing the ventilator shortage and don't even acknowledge that there's a specialized health care professional - 75,000 or more of them out there - working with the ventilators. And they don't even mention that they exist.

So we need more people to go to the respiratory therapy schools, get the education and come out and be available. And people are talking about preparing for the next pandemic. Or if COVID, too, recycles itself next fall, how can we get ready for it? Well, one of the things we can do is to try to train more people.

INSKEEP: Tom Barnes of Northeastern University, thanks so much.

BARNES: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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