While their patients grasp for oxygen, respiratory therapists are at a high risk for contracting COVID-19
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to strain hospitals and stretch already thin staffing resources, Governor Pritzker has asked retired healthcare workers to aid in the fight against the Coronavirus. “We’re in the middle of a battle, and we need reinforcements,” Pritzker stated during a press conference. (source)
Among those answering this call are respiratory therapists. (source) Along with nurses, doctors, and other medical personnel, respiratory therapists are on the front line of this pandemic. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, chief among the responsibilities of respiratory therapists are performing diagnostic tests – such as measuring lung capacity – administering chest physiotherapy, nebulizer treatments, and aerosolized medications, performing intubations and connecting patients to ventilators.(source) In the words of one doctor, respiratory therapists “serve as the glue that brings everything together when doctors manage patients with respiratory illnesses.”(source) This expertise makes respiratory care practitioners especially essential during this current crisis because they are operating the ventilators that are keeping Coronavirus patients alive. Operating ventilators is an intensive process, requiring significant time in the proximity of critically ill patients, creating a higher risk of exposure.
For those retired therapists returning to the work force in the midst of this pandemic, it can be a particularly worrisome time. Many of those answering the call and returning to the front line after years of retirement may be at a higher risk because they may fall into one or more high risk categories. (source) Additionally, while the public has become well aware of the critical need for ventilators, many may not understand the intubation process required to connect a patient to one. This process involves exceptionally close contact with an ill patient, including lifting the patient’s chin or jaw to open their airway, using a laryngoscope to view a patient’s airway, inserting an endotracheal tube into their trachea, and taping the tube to their face. Such close contact can expose respiratory therapists and other medical personnel involved to patient’s airways, aerosolized droplets, condensate from tubing, and other risks associated with tending to critically ill patients.
Respiratory care practitioners are putting themselves in harm’s way to help save lives and are rightly deserving of whatever protections the law can afford. To that end, the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission recently amended its rules to better protect healthcare and other front-line workers. According to the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission, COVID-19 “has necessitated the modification of evidentiary rules regarding practice before the Commission to ensure first responders and essential front-line workers, who are most susceptible to exposure to COVID-19, are afforded the full protections of the Workers’ Compensation Act in the event they are exposed to or contract the virus.”(source) This rule change means that respiratory therapists who become sick at work may have a somewhat easier time proving they contracted COVID-19 through workplace exposure by creating a rebuttable presumption that such exposure is work-related. A rebuttable presumption is not a guarantee that a case is going to win, and employers will likely fight any claim that a case of COVID-19 is the result of workplace exposure.
Katz Friedman is currently representing many injured healthcare employees in work accident cases against their employers and will continue to investigate claims being made by healthcare workers whether it takes place from lifting, slipping, falling, or contracting COVID-19. When making decisions regarding a work injury sustained while working as a health professional, it is wise to consult an attorney to protect your interests because it is clear that the hospital or clinic already has their lawyers working trying to defeat your claim. If you or someone you know works in health care and suffers from COVID-19, the attorneys and staff of Katz Friedman are here to help with obtaining proper compensation.