Ontario college sends respiratory therapists to work ahead of schedule

The regulatory body for Ontario's respiratory therapists is fast-tracking the certification of final-year students as officials warn the COVID-19 pandemic could stretch the medical field too thin.

The College of Respiratory Therapists of Ontario has reached out to the seven programs that train students for the profession and asked if those expected to graduate this year can get to work immediately, said Kevin Taylor, the organization's CEO and registrar.

"If there's going to be a shortage of ventilator operators, tapping into this year's graduating workforce is the best resource we have right now," Taylor said, noting that there are about 117 students within weeks of their scheduled graduation.

That's compared to the 3,650 respiratory therapists already working in Ontario, who manage the technical side of treating respiratory conditions.

They treat breathing conditions through oxygen or intubation and ventilation.

Taylor said each worker manages between five and eight patients, so a boost of just 100 respiratory therapists could help hundreds of sick people.

The organization is also calling for retired or inactive registered respiratory therapists to return to work.

"Everybody is planning for the worst and planning for what may come if the numbers keep rising," he said.

By Thursday, the number of COVID-19 cases in Canada had climbed past 3,800, including 39 deaths. In Ontario alone, there were upwards of 850, with 15 deaths.

While most who are diagnosed with COVID-19 experience only mild symptoms, some suffer more severe respiratory effects, making respiratory therapists more crucial than ever, Taylor said.

Fanshawe College, for one, has answered the regulator's call and will send the 43 third-year students from the London, Ont., school to work.

The students have completed 36 of 40 weeks in "clinical hospital and community placements," it said, and will finish their studies online while working in hospitals.

"I have been in this profession for more than 20 years and have never seen this happen, not even during SARS," said Julie Brown, co-ordinator of the Respiratory Therapy program.

Brown said the students typically would have spent the remaining four weeks of the program practising their skills in a clinical setting. But now, they're being thrust onto the front lines of the pandemic to treat those most gravely affected.

"While they're all frightened and nervous — they're nervous to start the profession at any time, but a little extra nervous right now — they were all eager and happy to jump in and help," Brown said.

The job, she noted, is not easy at the best of times, so beginning during a pandemic adds another layer of stress and anticipation.

"As respiratory therapists, we deal with death and withdrawal of life support and we may go to a newborn delivery where the baby doesn't make it," Brown said. "We have to cover a lot of these things with our students beforehand, so it's part of our program, but not pandemic planning, really."

Keanna Alcock, 21, who's among the graduating class, said she's been preparing for her first day of work for three years and has known it would likely take place during an outbreak for three months.

"Especially during this pandemic crisis right now, everything's a little bit heightened for everybody. We have that in the back of our minds, let alone starting a new job," she said. "Not to say it's sink or swim, but we're kind of going into these hospitals and these clinics at a little bit of a faster speed than we would have starting a new job."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 26, 2020.

Nicole Thompson, The Canadian Press