Nebraska Drills for Bioterror Attack

OMAHA, Neb., Jan. 22, 2006 — -- At the largest biocontainment facility in the country, they are preparing for the worst -- anthrax, smallpox, a bioterror attack or the avian flu.

"This is for the tip of the iceberg, the most dangerous, most contagious patients," says Dr. Philip Smith, chief of infectious diseases at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. "They can be taken care of in a place like this."

The 10-bed unit, the only one built for public use, is Smith's brainchild. But it is located nowhere near the previous anthrax attacks on the U.S. East Coast or outbreaks of the avian flu in Asia.

It is in Omaha, Neb.

This past week, Osama bin Laden warned the U.S. to be ready for another assault from al Qaeda. Nobody knows if, when and where it will come.

"We're not immune from attack," said Gov. David Heineman. "Every American needs to understand, we don't know where the next terrorist attack is coming."

Nebraska spent nearly $1 million, most of it from Homeland Security funds, to build the biocontainment facility.

"They [officials] have done a unique assessment of what their threats are," Smith said, "and Nebraska has felt like this is one that … they needed to devote resources to."

Complete Lockdown

The facility's specially trained staff of 30 all volunteered for dangerous duty.

"We're prepared to isolate ourselves from the rest of the hospital and the community," nurse coordinator Pat Lenaghan said, "to make sure that we are safeguarding the community."

Once a patient enters the secure unit, everything goes into complete lockdown. The heavy doors that close behind them are locked and alarmed.

"Will I have butterflies the first time I walk through that door -- and I'm going to -- or a patient comes through that door?" asked Kris Donlan, a critical care nurse. "You bet."

Specialized filters kill germs in the air. Blood samples, X-rays and everything else that leaves the unit will be sterilized first.

To deal with what could be weeks of isolation, video phones will link patients with their families.

Registered nurse Cheryl Rand believes it is just a matter of time before the unit will be activated.

"It's such a possibility," she said. "It's just always in the back of my mind."

For Smith, that's not a problem. When you look at the unit and see the empty beds, he said, "I think that's fine, I think we're ready."

Ready, no matter how far from danger Omaha may seem.

ABC News' Barbara Pinto reported this story for "World News Tonight."