Respiratory therapists overwhelmed by COVID-19 hospitalizations

As director of the Cystic Fibrosis Clinic at Gundersen Health System, Dr. Todd Mahr oversees a team of providers in specialities from pharmacy to social services to dietary. But in recent weeks the clinic’s respiratory therapists have been a scarcity, pulled to assist in the main hospital as the number of coronavirus inpatients rises.

Anywhere from 25 to 35 COVID patients are being hospitalized at Gundersen on a given day, with the hospital’s COVID unit at full capacity. The intensive needs of these patients means other areas are short-staffed, and now some 18 months into the pandemic, burnout among employees is inevitable.

Director of pediatric allergy/immunology at Gundersen Health and medical advisor for the Wisconsin Society for Respiratory Care, Mahr has seen firsthand the strain the resurgence of the pandemic has put on the health care system. Her presented his findings at the North Regional Respiratory Care Conference.

Clinics around Wisconsin and Minnesota are finding respiratory therapists in high demand, and Mahr says on three occasions already those working in the Cystic Fibrosis Clinic at Gundersen have been called away to help with COVID patients. Respiratory therapists are under such pressure, Mahr notes health care facilities "don’t want to add to that stress level by having them need to staff us in the Cystic Fibrosis Clinic if they need to be in the ICU and with COVID patients."

For respiratory therapists, the hours are long and the mental taxation is extreme, the La Crosse Tribune reported.

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"They are having to take care of patients who (likely) could have prevented this hospitalization with a vaccination, and so it’s pretty frustrating to a lot of them," Mahr says.

Courtney Snorek, respiratory therapist at Gundersen, in a video on the hospital’s Facebook page shared, "I am seeing patients come in horribly short of breath -- we do everything we can to save them, we get to the point where (we need to intubate them). The last two questions they ask me before this happens (are), ‘I’ll take the shot, I’ll take the shot, can I get the shot?’ and also, ‘Am I going to die?’"

Added Snorek, "I would like to see this change and I need your help. I would like to see more people get their vaccine and follow the protocols in place (to prevent) COVID-19."

With misinformation sparking vaccine hesitancy, Mahr says health care workers need to be speaking with all patients to help them understand the "why." The message extends to providers who have thus far abstained from getting the shots, including respiratory therapists.

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"We acknowledge their fears and the issues that they have and get them the right scientific answers," Mahr says. "This (virus) is going to be here for quite some time. This isn’t going to go away right away, and that’s what people need to (grasp)."

During his presentation, Mahr covered vaccine rates and data and noted that, worldwide there are "188 vaccines in the pipeline" in some stage of development, though only 20 are approved for use on a global level and three in the U.S. Also touched on were common myths associated with vaccines -- that the shots contain microchips, can cause infertility, that they alter ones DNA -- and how providers can dispel these misconceptions with facts based in science.

Those who have already had the virus also need to get their shots, Mahr stresses, citing a study in Kentucky which looked at individuals who were previously infected in 2020 and then became reinfected with the delta variant in May-June 2021. Those who had not been vaccinated were 2.34 times more likely to re-contract the virus.

Mahr iterates that vaccines are not touted as being foolproof. But while you may still become infected, "vaccination decreases hospitalizations and bad outcomes." Because the delta variant has increased breakthrough infections, masking and distancing remain imperative, Mahr says.

To drive home the importance of precautions, Mahr references a recent incident in which an unvaccinated teacher in California infected half her elementary school class when she took off her mask -- going against school policy, per the CDC report -- to read to the students.

Currently, individuals 12 and older are eligible for the Pfizer vaccine, and those 18 and older can receive Pfizer, Moderna or Johnson and Johnson. Visit or call 1-800-232-0233 for information on providers near you.


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