Current RT Students Helping Battle Coronavirus

Second-year PCC Respiratory Therapy students Nikole Inman and Tyler Brooks have joined the fight against the coronavirus as Respiratory Care Assistants, thanks to a decision the N.C. Respiratory Care Board made in March. Both Inman and Brooks are working at Vidant Medical Center in Greenville.

WINTERVILLE—The N.C. Respiratory Care Board made a noteworthy decision last month that has enabled current Pitt Community College respiratory therapy students to join the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

As the number of positive COVID-19 cases climbed, the board held an emergency meeting March 18 and reinstated the Respiratory Care Assistant (RCA) program, which allows respiratory therapy students to work under the supervision of licensed respiratory therapists. Dr. William L. Croft, the board’s executive director, says the measure gives health care facilities the option of addressing staffing shortages by utilizing students enrolled in programs accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care.

According to Croft, UNC-Chapel Hill’s Sheps Center for Health Research conducted a study March 26-30 and concluded April 3 that there is “a significant need for respiratory therapists across the state.” Citing the study, he said North Carolina needs another 765 respiratory therapists (RT) to join the current workforce.

Even though the respiratory care board approved additional measures to maximize the number of available RTs, including rules regarding retirees and respiratory care practitioners (RCP) whose licenses expired less than three years ago, Croft said there would still be a shortage of respiratory therapists to combat a virus that attacks the lungs.

“For these reasons, the need for the RCAs was even more significant, since we would not be able to recruit enough from the pool of prior licensees,” he said, adding that as of April 15, 109 students had been activated as RCAs in North Carolina.

PCC Respiratory Therapy Program Director Rusty Sugg says eight of his second-year respiratory therapy students have accepted RCA positions with Vidant Health. Seven, he said, are working at Vidant Medical Center (VMC) in Greenville, and one is working at Washington’s Vidant Beaufort Hospital.

VMC Respiratory Therapy Manager Skip Bangley says the RCAs have arrived at just the right time to fill the void left by traveling respiratory care practitioners, some of whom left the hospital for more money in COVID-19 hot spots, like New York, and others who took time off over concern of catching the virus.

“I cannot thank Bill Croft and the N.C. Respiratory Care Board and the local respiratory therapy programs for being quick to act and supportive of this temporary license for the soon-to-be (RT) grads,” Bangley said. “The timing was outstanding.”

Bangley said 14 of the 17 RCAs the hospital has hired thus far had already been offered jobs by Vidant and accepted, pending graduation. He added that he has been very pleased with what he has seen from them thus far.

“They came in very excited to be able to work, very positive and engaged,” Bangley said. “We have been able to have them cover the general floors with RCP back up, and this has been working out well.”

Sugg said he was happy PCC Respiratory Therapy students could support the program’s clinical training affiliates during the current health care crisis. He added that the program also donated its entire supply of personal protective equipment used for training—including N-95 masks, surgical masks and gloves—to the facilities.

“We were happy to answer the call to assist these facilities,” Sugg said. “All of our clinical sites play an extremely important role in the education and professional development of our students.”

Sugg said Pitt’s RT program has also loaned two of its ventilators to Wayne UNC Health Care and one to UNC Lenior Health Care to help them treat patients. Another five, he said, have been secured for VMC to use, if needed.