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Kansas City Respiratory Therapists Quitting As COVID Kills More Unvaccinated Patients

Respiratory therapists who manage ventilators and assist with intubations have been leaving their jobs during the surge in COVID 19.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Respiratory therapists who manage ventilators and assist with intubations have been leaving their jobs during the surge in COVID 19.

More than a year and a half into the pandemic, respiratory workers are coping with burnout and increasing workloads as unvaccinated patients fill up local hospitals.

More Kansas City health care workers are quitting as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to kill unvaccinated patients.

University of Kansas Health System officials announced Tuesday that 15 respiratory therapists left in the last three weeks, citing exhaustion and frustration from the hospital's surging number of coronavirus cases. Out of any hospital staff, respiratory therapists work the closest with patients experiencing the worst COVID-19 symptoms.

The health system reported that 30 people had already died from COVID this month, compared to 17 deaths in September 2020.

Julie Rojas, a respiratory therapist at the KU Health System, said watching her colleagues leave not only delays patient care, but it takes an emotional toll.

“There's some weeks that I'm here at the hospital more than I'm at home, and your co-workers become like your family and they understand the things that you see and deal with," Rojas said during the system’s daily briefing Tuesday. "And so it's hard for us to lose them."

At Truman Medical Centers/University Health, a spokesman said they're not experiencing the same issue with staffing. But other respiratory therapists say this is a statewide trend.

Curtis Kidwell, president of the Kansas Respiratory Care Society, said 30 respiratory therapists have quit from two of Wichita's major hospitals this year. That adds more pressure on the remaining health care workers, and the increased workload then drives more staff to leave.

Some health care workers have retired while some left health care altogether, but Kidwell said the majority took higher-payer travel jobs across the country.

“That workload has just probably been the straw that broke the camel's back and has pushed a lot of people to [think], ‘If I'm going to work this hard, I might as well go work with COVID patients in Florida, and get paid a lot more money,’” Kidwell said.

Respiratory therapists provide critical care to COVID patients who are often intubated and placed on a ventilator, or are at risk of needing intubation. And they still see a high number of patients die from the disease.

Kidwell said that health care workers face burnout, depression and even PTSD. Along with grief, he said some workers feel particularly frustrated that many of these deaths are preventable.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported that unvaccinated people are more than 10 times more likely to be hospitalized or die from COVID.

“That frustration, along with watching people die, it's just hard to avoid burnout going on a year and a half, almost two years, and to know that there just doesn't feel like there's a complete end in sight,” Kidwell said.

Kidwell said hospitals across the state are doing what they can to attract and retain employees, but it’s difficult when out of state traveling jobs can afford to pay more.

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly announced on Friday that $50 million would be made available for hospitals to improve retention resources and provide premium pay. Kidwell said he’s concerned that money won’t go far when spread across the state’s thousands of health care workers.

Ahead of the allocation’s announcement, Kidwell wrote a letter asking for the money to also be used to increase pay for respiratory therapists.

As hospitals continue to cope with staffing shortages, health care workers are asking for cooperation.

“We're still going to see our patients and I know we're going to give the best care that we can give," Rojas said. "It just might take a little bit more time, and in this environment where we are pretty full, you just got to be patient with us."

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