What it's like inside Nebraska hospital where coronavirus patients are treated

Angela Vasa was there for Ebola and now she's helping people with COVID-19.

March 06, 2020, 7:13 PM

After being quarantined on the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan for nearly two weeks in February, six patients who tested positive for novel coronavirus were taken to a state-of-the-art medical facility in Nebraska that was last used for Ebola patients.

Inside the University of Nebraska Medical Center's National Quarantine Unit and Biocontainment Unit, specially designed rooms ensure the novel coronavirus won't escape through ventilation shafts to other rooms in the building. Specific materials in the walls and ceiling eliminate the virus' chances of hiding in the shadows when the rooms are disinfected.

PHOTO: Angela Vasa, the nurse manager of the Nebraska Biocontainment Unit at the Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha dons protective gear for working with patients with highly infectious diseases in a still made from an undated video.
Angela Vasa, the nurse manager of the Nebraska Biocontainment Unit at the Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha dons protective gear for working with patients with highly infectious diseases in a still made from an undated video.
Nebraska Medicine

Angela Vasa, a nurse manager and director of quarantine services for the National Quarantine Unit at UNMC, has been there since the first patient arrived.

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"We try to really relay facts to our patients. And, you know, when you have individuals who are in a high-risk group, it really is the best. Honesty really is the best policy," she told ABC News.

PHOTO: The building that houses the quarantine unit at Nebraska Medical Center is seen in this Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2020 photo in Omaha, Neb. The center is treating patients potentially exposed to COVID-19 virus.
The building that houses the quarantine unit at Nebraska Medical Center is seen in this Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2020 photo in Omaha, Neb. The center is treating patients potentially exposed to COVID-19 virus.
Josh Funk/AP, FILE

Vasa said they're still in the "containment" phase of their response to COVID-19, trying their best to mitigate the spread of the infection, which has already been diagnosed in over 95,000 people worldwide, killing at least 3,200 of them -- mostly in China.

Each unit at UNMC serves its own purpose.

"The National Quarantine Unit ... is set up to provide isolation care, which means that you would be able to provide accommodation for people who have confirmed infection with a high-risk pathogen," Vasa said, noting that it's the only federally funded quarantine unit in the U.S. "They are people who would otherwise potentially be eligible for home isolation, but for whatever reason, they don't have the capability to remain at home."

PHOTO: American citizens look out from a bus as they arrive at Haneda Airport in Tokyo, Japan, on Feb. 17, 2020.
American citizens look out from a bus as they arrive at Haneda Airport in Tokyo, Japan, on Feb. 17, 2020. The United States has become the first country to offer to repatriate citizens on the Diamond Princess cruise ship while it remains quarantined in Japan's Yokohama port after hundreds of people on board tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images

Although most patients only present mild symptoms of the infection, like cough and fever, others could go on to develop severe and sometimes deadly complications. If they require hospitalization, Vasa said that's when the Biocontainment Unit comes into play.

It's where they "provide the full spectrum of medical care up to and including critical care," Vasa said.

One of the patients at UNMC, 66-year-old Carl Goldman, previously told ABC News that he'd been diagnosed with COVID-19 during his evacuation from the Diamond Princess. He said within hours he began feeling feverish and started coughing up mucus while at the hospital. For the most part, however, he said his symptoms have been mild.

PHOTO: Angie Vasa is the director of quarantine services at University of Nebraska Medical Center's Global Center for Health Security.
Angie Vasa is the director of quarantine services at University of Nebraska Medical Center's Global Center for Health Security.
ABC

The highly trained staff at UNMC has dealt with viral outbreaks of this magnitude before. The Biocontainment Unit was first opened in 2005 "largely as a result of ... the 9/11 attacks," Vasa said.

"There was a lot of concern after that that there was a potential for the weaponization of anthrax. There was potential for the weaponization of smallpox, and the federal government made funding available for hospitals to enhance their capacity," she said.

Later, in 2014 and 2016, Vasa said the facilities were called on again to manage the spread of the deadly Ebola virus and treat patients who'd fallen ill.

"What it takes to activate our unit is really a pathogen that's considered highly hazardous and communicable," Vasa said. "So anything that would be easily transmissible from person to person that doesn't necessarily have a vaccination or a therapeutic -- it's not curable."

PHOTO: A mock-patient is tended to at the isolation unit at the Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Neb., April 12, 2017, during a training exercise.
A mock-patient is tended to at the isolation unit at the Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Neb., April 12, 2017, during a training exercise.
Nati Harnik/AP, FILE

"That's something that is a public health concern because we don't have any immunity or [it] would cause public panic," she continued.

Vasa said the challenge with COVID-19 is that the "spectrum of presentation of symptoms" is so wide that those with mild illnesses might not even realize they have COVID-19, and therefore they might not stay home.

"As people that have jobs and families and responsibilities, people don't always notice that they have an irritating cough, that it might be something that's serious," Vasa said. "And so, I think when we look at the potential community spread for this when you have a large number of people with mild illness, there's potential that they could be spreading it and not even know."

PHOTO: Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts performs 'elbow bump' with Jeri Seratti-Goldman, an evacuee form coronavirus-hit Diamond Princess cruise ship,  after she left quarantine at the Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Neb., March 2, 2020.
Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts performs 'elbow bump' with Jeri Seratti-Goldman, an evacuee form coronavirus-hit Diamond Princess cruise ship, after she left quarantine at the Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Neb., March 2, 2020.
Nebraska Medicine via Reuters

While experts have said a vaccine for COVID-19 might not be available for up to a year, treatments may be available much sooner.

UNMC is working with the National Institutes of Health on a clinical trial to see how effective the antiviral drug remdesivir is against COVID-19. The drug had previously been tested in humans with the Ebola virus, but has also shown promise in animals with SARS and MERS, both of which are also coronaviruses.

In the U.S. alone, at least 188 confirmed cases of the infection have been detected through local public health systems, while 49 other patients had either come back to the U.S. from the Diamond Princess or from Wuhan, China, where the virus originated.

For her part, Vasa said she remains calm in the face of the growing outbreak because of the training, education and exposure she's received along the way.

"It goes a long way toward increasing your confidence in your ability," she said. "It also teaches you a healthy respect for the pathogen."

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