Respiratory therapy students enter the workforce early to help with COVID-19 patients

On April 17, 2020, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam signed Executive Order 57, “Licensing of Health Care Professionals in Response to Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19).” The order, issued in response to the state of emergency ordered earlier in the month, contains several directives aimed at “marshaling all resources and appropriate preparedness, response and recovery measures to respond to the emergency.”


Among the directives is one allowing Radford University Carilion (RUC) Bachelor of Science in Respiratory Therapy students to begin helping with patients now, even though they would not normally graduate until May and then must take the certification and licensing exams.

The order states that “individuals who have completed an accredited respiratory care program may practice respiratory therapy and for ninety (90) days thereafter or until the individual has passed the National Board on Respiratory Care licensure examination and been issued a license or has failed the examination, whichever occurs first.”

“This is a critical time in healthcare, and it is vital to have as many professionals on hand as possible that can help care for patients and help them recover,” said Chase Poulsen, Ph.D., program director of the RUC respiratory therapy program and chair of the department of clinical health professions. “Right now, we need all hands on deck, and our seniors are fully prepared to meet the challenges we are facing during this crisis in this region and across the nation.”

Though the senior respiratory therapy students have not yet graduated, they are very close to completing their four-year curriculum and have spent most of their time at RUC learning in state-of-the-art labs at Carilion Roanoke Community Hospital. In addition, the students have had the opportunity to participate in clinical activities at some of the country’s most advanced and innovative healthcare facilities, including at Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital, located about a mile from RUC.

“The other valuable experience our students take with them is learning from faculty with years of practical, relatable experience,” said Linda Cochran, M.S., RRT, director of clinical education for the respiratory therapy program. “Our faculty are active professionals, treating patients every day in first-rate healthcare systems. In this unprecedented time, the benefit of being exposed to that experience and the skills the students have learned can be invaluable.”

Even before the arrival of the COVID-19 crisis, respiratory therapy was a rapidly growing area of healthcare. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of respiratory therapists is expected to increase by up to 26% in coming years. With demand on the rise, salaries are following suit. A recent study found that respiratory therapists beginning their careers can expect to earn between $42,000 and $47,000 annually, and an experienced respiratory therapist in the U.S. earns an average of $62,223.

With that demand and the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, respiratory therapy graduates will be some of the most sought-after healthcare professionals this spring. The Commonwealth of Virginia has seen nearly 10,000 coronavirus cases, over 1,500 hospitalizations and over 300 deaths by late April, according to the Virginia Department of Health.

“COVID-19 is primarily centered in the respiratory system,” Poulsen said. “That makes our graduates, and respiratory therapists as a whole, essential to the treatment and recovery of these patients. Even when this crisis is over, the need for respiratory therapists will still be there.”

To prepare the respiratory therapy students for this step, RUC will graduate eligible individuals prior to the scheduled commencement in May, enabling them to the workforce immediately to help with the COVID-19 crisis.

The Governor’s Executive Order remains in effect until June 10, unless the COVID-19 crisis eases and the order is amended or rescinded by further executive order.

May 1, 2020
Mark Lambert