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Our COVID-19 Response

two female students in medical scrubs
Patricia Chesnutt and Kaci Kemp

Texas State Students rise to the occasion during COVID-19 pandemic

By Jayme Blaschke

Hospitals came calling for respiratory therapists

At the start of January 2020, seniors in the College of Health Professions at Texas State University had no idea how the coronavirus would impact their final semester of school. It would put them on the fast track.

When the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the globe in February and March, it put unprecedented strain on medical centers. There were not enough nurses to deal with the sudden influx of patients. Even worse, there were even fewer respiratory therapists available, medical specialists who operate the ventilators that the most critically affected COVID-19 patients need to survive.

female student in ppe
Alexandria Cox

For Alexandria Cox, a respiratory therapy student from Arlington who graduated from Texas State on May 16, the opportunity came sooner than expected. Because of the critical shortage of respiratory therapists in Central Texas, Ascension Seton Williamson medical center in Round Rock hired 10 seniors in April — including Cox — as respiratory therapy assistants (RTAs) to help shore up the staffing shortage.

“It’s been crazy. We’ve mostly been helping in acute care settings so that therapists who are trained in the intensive care unit can step up and help out more,” Cox says. “The medical center is having more patients who need ventilators, so they need more ICU therapists for that.

“We [students] came on to help with people who have COPD or rib fractures, patients who need breathing treatments,” she says. “We’re doing these routine things while the trained therapists can do more with COVID patients. Other respiratory needs haven't gone away during COVID.”

In response to the critical personnel shortfalls, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott temporarily waived some requirements for nursing and respiratory therapy graduates to be fully licensed prior to joining the healthcare workforce. This enabled thousands of new nurses and 800 respiratory therapists graduating in May from all the different programs in Texas to immediately begin work during the pandemic. Of those newly minted healthcare workers, 101 nurses and 32 respiratory therapists came from Texas State’s Round Rock Campus.

“Basically, the governor has done exactly what we asked — he is allowing our graduates to immediately go to work before sitting for their board exams. He has waived the need for a state license for them because they’re new graduates,” says Dr. Gregg Marshall, chair of the Department of Respiratory Care. “This is huge, because that removes a 30- to 45-day wait after graduation, so that the graduate can immediately go to work. When things calm down, then they’ll go back and take their board exams to get their license. The requirement is still there, it’s just deferred.”

The 10 respiratory therapy seniors continued their work as RTAs through graduation until their temporary licenses were approved. Those positions were considered outside employment by the university and not part of their formal education, although the students gained valuable experience in their chosen profession.

“We were very fortunate enough in our program to have lots of internship hours. We have three semesters’ worth of internships,” Cox says. “I do feel like I am prepared to start working. My co-workers seem to be stressed out, the ones dealing with COVID patients. The ones in the ICU are constantly busy. It’s a stressful time for them.”

With cases of COVID-19 still on the rise as the state reopened, the demand for more new respiratory therapists such as Cox increased. As she transitions into her full-time role at Ascension Seton, Cox won’t be assigned to a specific medical center. Instead, she and other new respiratory therapists will be dispatched to various Ascension Seton locations in the Central Texas area as the need arises.

“They could send us to Dell Seton, Seton Main, or anywhere that has a need,” Cox says. “That’s the job, as needed. We'd be sent wherever we're needed at the time.” ✪