Delivering innovative network solutions to the frontlines of COVID-19

COVID-19 demanded rapid actions, including an intensive cross-unit collaboration to develop wired, wireless and telecommunications network connections in MASH-like facilities to treat patients.

By Gretchen Konrady

Suited in personal protective equipment from head to toe, a nurse greets a patient under a big white tent set up outside the emergency department of Harborview Medical Center, one of the emergency triage tents at UW Medicine’s Seattle hospitals that’s part of the rapid response to a surge in COVID-19 cases.

The nurse records patient information on a laptop computer connected to the electronic medical records (EMR) system, which depends on a wireless network designed and built by a team in UW Information Technology (UW-IT) and UW Medicine IT Services to accommodate the mobile needs of frontline health care workers battling the novel coronavirus.

Teams from UW-IT and UW Medicine came together in an intensive cross-unit collaboration to develop wired, wireless and telecommunications network connections in locations never before attempted — in record time.

“Network in a box”

The solution they developed to extend network connectivity to the emergency triage tents was literally contained within a box.

“We were able to effectively extend UW Medicine’s network from the hospital to the tent on the sidewalk with this new ‘network in a box,’” said Peter Krawitz, a network implementation technology manager in UW-IT.

The sturdy box — called a Rapid Response Kit — looks like a large picnic cooler. Repurposed from flight cases that hold computer servers in place for shipping, the kits each contain a network switch. The essential hardware connects the wired and wireless devices and telephones in the triage tent with the rest of UW Medicine’s network.

This allows emergency and acute care staff inside the tents to provide patient care without compromising protected health information, while also supporting critical medical equipment, devices, applications and telecommunications.

Developing this solution required precision work. Teams had to run just the right amount of cables and power into the tents to ensure the connection wouldn’t fail, that patient health data was protected, and that the network could be expanded to support more devices as needed.

Among the devices in the tents are wired printers that produce patient wristbands, labels for swab samples and after-visit summaries, and laptop computers called ‘WOWs’ — wireless on wheels — that access the EMR system.

Tents were erected at Harborview Medical Center, UW Medical Center – Montlake, and UW Medical Center – Northwest.

Each site posed unique challenges for the network team, said Austin Marr, a UW-IT network specialist.

“But we got the job done.”

Connecting a drive-through mobile clinic

Even before the emergency triage tents were operational at the hospitals, the UW Medicine Outpatient Medical Center-Northwest opened a drive-through mobile clinic on March 6 for testing UW Medicine employees with COVID-19-like symptoms. Nurses conducted the quick one-minute nasal swab test while the patients stayed in their cars.

The drive-through clinic and portable lab were set up in a parking lot at the center’s north Seattle location, and required a robust wireless connection, in short order.

Without delay, the cross-unit team from UW-IT and UW Medicine created a microwave wireless solution with a roof-mounted antenna that broadcasts a signal to the drive-through clinic about 500 feet away, said Marr. In case the radio antennas fail, the site is connected to the UW Medicine network via 4G cellular data, Marr said.

Supporting UW Virology, and Harborview Hall

UW Medicine also responded to the coronavirus crisis by tapping into the rapid testing capabilities of a UW lab and transforming a King County-owned building into a recovery center.

The UW School of Laboratory Medicine Virology Lab was making national news headlines for rapidly expanding its coronavirus testing capacity. And behind the scenes, the cross-unit team from UW-IT and UW Medicine was also hard at work. They were connecting the Eastlake neighborhood location to the UW Medicine network for fast, efficient coordination with healthcare workers to deliver test results to patients.

In another effort, UW Medicine converted a 45-bed, 1930s-era building that was recently a Salvation Army homeless shelter into a recovery center. The center serves people with the coronavirus who don’t require hospitalization but need a place to be clinically monitored and to recover. Many of those people are without other housing. The project teams moved quickly to design and configure the network and coordinate contract workers for a connectivity in the unique old building to provide wired and wireless services for clinical needs, telecommunications and a security system.

“We started from scratch on this project and all the other projects too,” said Jack Daviau, a program manager in UW-IT who coordinates teams to support the UW Medicine network and other information technology needs. “The work has been extraordinary — well-coordinated from start to finish. The team has been extraordinary in the face of this crisis.”

Throughout this crisis, IT staff were on site and behind the scenes setting up the infrastructure that made it possible for UW medical teams to respond to COVID-19 pandemic.

Technical staff on the team worked right alongside frontline healthcare workers, Daviau said. Donning personal protective equipment, masks and gloves to protect themselves, they kept right on working, despite the risks.

“The frontline workers are heroes,” Daviau said.“ And these IT staff — they’re also heroes.”