Maine CDC Director Nirav Shah gives his daily COVID-19 press briefing in Augusta on Monday inside the Maine Emergency Management Agency.

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As of Thursday, 68 people in Maine have been hospitalized for COVID-19.

Among those who care for them are respiratory therapists, who manage the ventilators that help patients breathe. But in Maine — and across the United States — there’s a shortage of these workers. And with cases of COVID-19 expected to continue to rise, hospitals are trying to find more of them, as respiratory therapists now on the front lines face significant risks.

[Our COVID-19 tracker contains the most recent information on Maine cases by county]

Once the coronavirus hit Maine, respiratory therapist Brittany Cyr says her work changed overnight.

“It really kind of went from a dull roar and stuff we were kind of thinking about in the backdrop to literally the very next day at work, things changing so quickly.”

Cyr works at Maine Medical Center in Portland, where she says equipment had to be moved to create new ICU beds, and staffers trained to properly gown up with personal protective equipment. Now she is taking care of patients with COVID-19. The sickest of the sick, she says, who need ventilators to help their damaged lungs breathe.

“It’s not a situation where patients are getting better in one to two days. We’re talking weeks. And throughout that whole time period, we can’t have any visitors in the hospital. So these patients don’t have family members that can come and visit them.”

The patients are heavily sedated, Cyr says, but do wake up from time to time.

“I’m sure there are points where they wake up very confused and don’t know what’s going on, and there’s nobody around them that is familiar. And I can’t imagine what that feels like.”

Cyr’s skills as a respiratory therapist are in high demand as the state prepares for a surge of COVID-19 cases. But it’s a profession that’s in short supply.

“It’s really hard to quantify this.”

Kathy Roy-Gosselin is the director of clinical education at Southern Maine Community College and the president of the Maine State Society for Respiratory Care. Gosselin says according to state licensing figures, Maine has about 800 respiratory therapists and technicians. But she says that number actually includes people who are retired or work in other states.

“I know we don’t have enough. We absolutely do not have enough respiratory therapists in Maine.”

In fact, in his daily press briefing Thursday, Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah gave the current tally of respiratory therapists actively practicing in Maine hospitals: “And that number as of today is 127.”

The shortage is something that’s loomed on Don Cotta’s mind for years.

“We’ve always feared this day.”

Cotta, who is a respiratory therapist and the director of clinical operations for Regional Home Care, says he has had to free his own staffers to work on the front lines.

“I’ve furloughed two of my respiratory therapists to work at a local hospital here in Maine.”

Re-deploying skilled health care workers to areas of the state with the highest demand is one of the state CDC’s strategies. And if there aren’t enough available, Dr. Shah says one back-up plan is to cross-train individuals in similar fields.

“The second is to see if other states have a surplus of respiratory technicians who may want to deploy to Maine.”

SMCC’S Kathy Roy-Gosselin says she’s also worried that the existing number of respiratory therapists could be depleted by illness. She says some hospitals are already rationing the limited supply of personal protective equipment. And the job itself of managing ventilators makes therapists particularly vulnerable.

“They’re on the frontlines. They’re aerosolizing medication. They’re aerosolizing things with oxygen delivery. And so they are prime candidates for contracting this because of the airborne nature of what we do.”

Getting sick with COVID-19 is always on Brooke Nadeau’s mind. She’s a respiratory therapist and clinical education coordinator at Central Maine Medical Center.

“The fear of bringing this home to family members or my children is really scary. I have to go to work and I have to do my job, but it comes with a large risk.”

She says that risk is magnified by the fact that her husband is a hospital pharmacist who also works with COVID-19 patients. But Nadeau is committed to her work, despite the unknowns.

“Do we need weeks or months of PPE? And are we going to be able to get more ventilators if they were needed? Just the ‘what if’s’ of not knowing.”

As she and other respiratory therapists witness the experiences of their counterparts in states like New York, they say they hope that people in Maine practice physical distancing and stave off the worst of what the coronavirus pandemic could bring.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.