Soldiering through: Respiratory Therapists Battle Third COVID-19 Surge

When you’re coping with a major challenge, do you ever wish someone understood just what you’re going through? Anyone who doubts the gravity of the pandemic should speak to Valory Peeples, MBA, RRT, Director of Cardiopulmonary Services at Southeast Georgia Health System. “I would ask them to follow one of my respiratory therapists for the day as they care for 12 patients on ventilators in the Critical Care Unit, then run over to the St. Simon’s Tower to give breathing treatments to 15 patients, then get called to the Emergency Care Center when a patient codes and needs to be intubated. As respiratory therapists, we see the fear and anxiety in people’s faces when they can’t breathe,” Peeples says.

The pandemic has highlighted the heroism of respiratory therapists in caring for patients infected with COVID-19. This time-consuming task is done while also caring for patients with asthma, COPD, and other respiratory ailments.

The Disease is Prepared
Peeples says the current COVID-19 surge is hitting the Health System harder than when the pandemic first broke out. There are new treatments and vaccines now, but she says, “The disease is prepared. It struck respiratory harder this time. Last year, we had 29 patients on vents, compared to 62 now. My staff wasn’t prepared for that, or to see so many deaths. I came into work one day and my team had eight codes; six of those patients passed away in one night.”

And yet, they carry on, fighting the good fight.

Perhaps because the Delta variant tends to make people sicker, patients now require more time on ventilators – usually about three to four weeks. Stocking enough equipment and retaining enough therapists is difficult. “We only keep enough vents on hand for an average patient census. We own 22; we have to rent the rest, along with supplies like IV poles. COVID has taken things to a whole new level.”

Nationwide, hospitals are struggling with staffing shortages. Nurses and respiratory therapists are in high demand; some are wooed away by financial incentives. Some travel nurses earn as much as $30,000 to $40,000 per month, depending on the location. The Health System has provided bonuses to frontline health care providers and hired agency nurses and therapists to support frontline workers. However, that is not financially sustainable over the long run.

Advocates at the Top
As grueling as this pandemic has been, Peeples feels supported. “I’ve been in health care since I was 17. I’m 55 now. I’ve worked in many hospitals and I’ve never seen one that takes such good care of their employees. Mr. Scherneck, our CEO, and our board, are exceptional advocates for our employees.”

To forge a path forward, Peeples believes the Health System and the community must stay vigilant. “As a community, we let our guard down and as a result COVID-19 came right back.” She urges the public to educate themselves about the virus from reliable sources such as versus social media or the general internet.

Week in and week out, the respiratory team fights the virus. Depending on caseload, those work weeks can stretch to six or seven days. The tragic part of this public health crisis is that the worst of it could have been avoided. “Most of the deaths we see from COVID are preventable. There are behavioral changes we have to make. We don’t have to agree with each other, but we do have to respect one another. If you love each other, do the right thing,” Peeples says.

The Health System offers free COVID-19 vaccinations at the following locations:
• Brunswick Campus: Tuesdays, 8 a.m.-3 p.m.; Thursdays, 4-6 p.m.
• Camden Campus: Mondays, 8 a.m.-3 p.m.

Appointments are strongly encouraged; walk-ins are allowed based on vaccine availability. To schedule an appointment, visit The vaccine is also available at Georgia Department of Public Health vaccination clinic locations. To find a clinic, go to or call 912-230-5506.