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High-Tech Electronic ICU Unit In San Francisco Reducing COVID-19 Exposure

By Elizabeth Cook and Molly McCrea

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) -- When it comes to the COVID-19, the Bay Area and California are faring better than the rest of the country.

Even so, there are no guarantees that this virus is going away or is under control. Infectious disease experts expect a fall and winter uptick in cases, especially as friends and families begin to gather during the holidays.

But a high-tech solution is available and gearing up to help dozens of hospitals that may have to cope with any new surge on the horizon.

You can find this innovative key inside a building in downtown San Francisco.

At the SF location, a team of men and women sit behind rows of computers, scanning video monitors, on alert for any alarms.

They're part of an expert team of doctors and nurses who are trained to save the lives of patients who are dozens if not hundreds of miles away in a variety of ICUs. This team is an integral part are of the e-ICU or electronic Intensive Care Unit.

"We're 24/7: holidays, weekends, doesn't matter. We're always here," noted registered nurse Lisa Ochoa. Ochoa heads up the Bay Area effort.

The San Francisco e-ICU is one of 2 central hubs operated by Sutter Health. The second one is located in Sacramento. They were set up more than a decade ago to assist rural hospitals that traditionally have no critical care specialist on site.

At the time, they were the first of its kind on the West Coast. When the pandemic hit earlier this year, the e-ICU quickly proved its value.

"We're innovative. It's like what can we do with what we have and what can we do have that can expand that," explained Ochoa.

The hub is integrated with 22 Sutter hospitals in Northern California, including Sutter Lakeside Hospital near Clearlake.

"I use it every day we all use it every day", said Sutter Lakeside ICU charge nurse Najia Sadiq. She spoke to KPIX via Zoom.

The e-ICU team uses interactive video, diagnostic tools, and other high-end specialized technologies to immediately assess and address any critical changes in a patient's condition. Ochoa noted that since its inception, the e-ICU has saved over 5,000 lives. Not only do the patients in the network have a second set of expertise eyes on them, the cameras are all high definition,

"We've had physicians who have been able to do pupil checks with the assistance of the bedside nurse. You can zoom in that far!" exclaimed the director.

On the day KPIX 5 visited the Bay Area hub, we met ICU patient Jenni. She was hospitalized with sepsis.

Registered Nurse Isabel Reza She showed us how the interactive system worked. She electronically rang a bell that started the visit.

Jenni was in good spirits and allowed Reza to show off the high-def camera, tilting, panning, and zooming into to see the details on the equipment in the room. Jenni told KPIX 5 that she liked the idea and felt safe and in good hands.

Charge Nurse Sadiq said both her patient and she remain impressed.

"I can actually call in to the ICU nurse. And what she does is she's able to zoom in and look at the charting that I'm doing, look at my pump, the patient identifiers and do everything that a bedside nurse would do with me," said Sadiq.

If a patient is in distress, the technology saves time.

"The great thing about the camera is that you don't have to try to explain that or impress upon the physician how bad it is. They can actually see the patient and then immediately turn to another monitor on their workstation, and open up the electronic health record, immediately enter an order and a note that is immediately available to the bedside nurse to implement," said Ochoa.

During the pandemic, the e-ICU decreased the use of PPE as well as the level of exposure to the virus.

The Bay Area hub team sees about 130 patients a day and can monitor over 300 beds. They get roughly 90 calls a night. They say they are ready for any new surge in cases.

Charge nurse Sadiq is often alone in a room with COVID patients.

"If that patient is coding or going into a rapid response and we need to get hold of somebody, all I have to do is push a button and they're available to me," she said.

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