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How the pandemic has affected local NICUs: More COVID-19 positive moms, machines replace cuddlers

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Posted at 4:49 PM, Feb 02, 2022

The pandemic has forced staff at neonatal intensive care units in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties to change their operations.

Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center in San Luis Obispo is the only level III NICU in San Luis Obispo County.

With the omicron variant, Clinical Nurse Specialist for the NICU and Pediatrics at Sierra Vista, Donna Loper, says more and more pregnant women are coming in COVID-19 positive.

“We've actually had mothers who've been quite sick and so we've actually delivered kids early in order to promote the health of the mom and actually for her to get well,” Loper said.

As of Tuesday, Feb. 1, 44 San Luis Obispo County residents were hospitalized due to severe COVID-19 with six of those in the ICU.

In the NICU, however, Loper says barely any babies are positive with COVID-19.

Overall, the percentage of babies in the NICU has been on the decline for the last decade or so.

“It's probably at least 40 to maybe 45, some place along in there,” Loper said.

The County of San Luis Obispo has had a flat birthrate for years. With that said, health experts say the population has had fairly good access to obstetrical care and a high percentage of women who get good prenatal care.

“Consequently, the number of kids that actually get born that are extremely premature or are sick or those kinds of things are smaller than they used to be,” Loper added.

Meanwhile, the cuddler program which operated around the clock has come to a halt due to COVID-19.

“It's been a significant impact for us,” said Emily Hosford, Women and Children’s Services Manager at Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center.

Instead, nurses have relied more heavily on rocking machines and staff from other departments.

Visitation has also been reduced to just parents or guardians.

“So we haven't had the grandparents, and the aunts, and the uncles and support people be able to come and visit within the unit,” Hosford said.

The hospital is one of several NICUs in California that’s launched cameras that allow the parents to share a password so extended family can see the baby in real-time.

At Marian Regional Medical Center in Santa Maria, their cuddler program is no longer active, either.

Visitation is limited during major surges and at all hospitals, parents that are positive for COVID-19 must quarantine and are unable to visit their baby until that quarantine period ends.

The average time a baby stays in the NICU at Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center is about 10 days.

We’re told, in general, the number of community level III NICUs or specialized care units like at Sierra Vista have decreased over the years because of lower birth rates and good prenatal care.

The NICU at Cottage Children’s Medical Center in Santa Barbara has cared for a steady number of newborns throughout the pandemic.

They’ve limited the number of visitors to their NICU based on community COVID-19 transmission rates as well.

Parents and guardians are screened for COVID-19 prior to their visits to the NICU and maintain masking, hand hygiene and other precautions inside the hospital to help protect babies receiving intensive care.