Ontario college sends respiratory therapists to work ahead of schedule

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The regulatory body for Ontario's respiratory therapists is fast-tracking the graduation 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 3,500, including 35 deaths. In Ontario alone, there were upwards of 850, with 13 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.

Forty-three third-year students at the London, Ont., school will be allowed to finish their studies online while working on the front lines of the pandemic, the college said.

The students have completed 36 of 40 weeks in "clinical hospital and community placements," it said.

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

Nicole Thompson, The Canadian Press

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