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Maine facing respiratory care specialist shortage amid coronavirus pandemic

Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah is urging all with experience operating ventilators to consider volunteering their services as COVID-19 pandemic increases.

MAINE, USA — We often hear about a shortage of ventilators across the country. That's the life-saving machine that's crucial in helping those with serious respiratory symptoms while infected with the coronavirus. 

While that issue does exist in Maine, there's also a shortage of people to operate them. 

During a Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention press briefing last week, director Dr. Nirav Shah spoke on the importance of respiratory therapists, who are typically the ones operating ventilators.

"Respiratory therapists across the state are part of that backbone. That human resources backbone that we know we will have to rely upon as we move forward," said Shah. 

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Along with speaking of the importance of those respiratory care specialists, Dr. Shah called for those with experience operating ventilators to consider volunteering their services as the demand continues. 

"You need the people to operate that ventilator," said Dr. Shah. 

Right now in Maine, there are 833 licensed respiratory therapists, technicians and trainees licensed by the state, according to the Maine Department of Professional and Financial Regulation. 

While that number may seem high, many respiratory care specialists do not work in hospitals. Many of them work in home care, or places like sleep labs. Also many licensed in Maine practice outside of the state. 

According to the Maine CDC, there are 88 respiratory care specialists in the state capable of operating ventilators on a single day. That comes from a survey taken of hospitals and healthcare providers that participate in a daily inventory of assets as part of the Maine CDC's emergency preparedness response. 

At places like Central Maine Medical Center, respiratory care specialists typically work in teams of five. Overall, there are a total of 42 CMCC, but not all work at the same time. That number is also high because of the use of traveling respiratory therapists and added therapists from the home care industry. 

"We are using our travelers, and we are also using a lot of respiratory care specialists that worked in the home care industry. Recently they were laid off so I'm putting a lot of those therapists to work," said Christy Baker-Eble, Respiratory Systems Director for Central Maine Health. 

Baker-Eble says right now staffing is sufficient, and their team is able to care for the six patients currently requiring ventilators. As the need increases, however, they would welcome additional respiratory care specialists. 

This issue is highlighted because of the expected number of patients suffering from COVID-19 will need to be on ventilators. 

Some in the industry say this has been an issue for some time. 

"In Maine, we have a significant challenge because prior to this event we still had a critical shortage of respiratory therapists," said Kathy Roy-Gosselin, the president of the Maine Society for Respiratory Care. 

Roy-Gosselin says her group has more than 250 members of respiratory care specialists in the state, and many are discussing volunteering their services to assist during this crisis. 

"We work closely with the nurses, we work closely with the doctors, and we are trained to work as a team. So the therapists out there know this is a problem. They will heed the call, that’s what they do," said Roy-Gosselin. 

For those skilled in operating ventilators who currently are not working on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic, Dr. Shah of the Maine CDC is urging them to visit maineresponds.org and consider volunteering their services as the need increases. 

Dr. Shah says the state would welcome respiratory care specialists currently working in home care or other fields, recent retirees, pulmonologists and anesthesiologists. 

"They are our front line workers that are at high risk of getting exposed. So as our numbers are low, and they become ill or have to be in self-quarantine, we need the replacement troops in the background ready to step in," said Gosselin.

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Those skilled in operating ventilators who are not currently working the front lines of the pandemic are asked to go here ➤ www.maineresponds.org.

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At NEWS CENTER Maine, we’re focusing our news coverage on the facts and not the fear around the illness. To see our full coverage, visit our coronavirus section, here: www.newscentermaine.com/coronavirus

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