As new Nebraska quarantine group awaits tests, first group prepares to head home

UNMC Quarantine Unit. (File Photo/Graphic: NET News)
February 18, 2020 - 10:36pm

The Americans quarantined at the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) must wait "several more days" for a definitive word on whether they contracted COVID-19, the disease borne of the new strain of coronavirus. That announcement came Tuesday from a spokesperson at Nebraska Medicine.

Former cruise ship passengers arrive at UNMC for medical treatment. (Photo: Courtesy UNMC)

National Quarantine Center at UNMC (UNMC File Photo)


Tests on the sample swabs taken from the 13 former passengers of the Diamond Princess cruise ship were sent to the Nebraska Public Health Lab on the UNMC campus. The results of those tests must be confirmed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

The group arrived on two planes chartered by the U.S. government as part of the plan to end their confinement aboard the contaminated ship with dozens of diagnosed cases of the highly contagious illness.

The process of getting the 300 Americans off the luxury liner docked in Japan took days of planning, according to the news accounts. A joint statement from the U.S. Department of State and the Department of Health and Human Services called it "voluntary repatriation," to make clear the government did not force the citizens to leave Japan.

The New York Times reported, the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo told passengers that no one infected with the coronavirus would be allowed to board charter flights to the United States, only to reverse that decision as the passengers were preparing to leave. Many of the other passengers on the two flights didn't become aware they would be sharing the plane with those who had an uncertain diagnosis until they got on board. There they discovered a section of the cargo plane enclosed with plastic sheets.

At least one couple did not tell the truth about their status. California resident Jerri Seratti-Goldman told Fox News she and her husband, Carl lied about the status of their test results to get on the plane.

"We were tested in Japan and never got the results back," Seratti-Goldman told Fox host Bill Hemmer in an interview via a computer in quarantine. "We made up the story that we were clear. And then on the flight overnight, (Carl) came down with a fever."

Jeri Seretti-Goldman, speaking from her quarantine room, on Fox News. 

For more information on the UNMC biocontainment unit

This NET News documentary shares the stories of the team who, in 2014, treated Ebola patients at the Nebraska Biocontainment Unit in Omaha.


She is now in the National Quarantine Unit at UNMC. Carl was taken to a different building housing the Biocontainment Unit. Doctors were concerned his exposure to the virus could be aggravated by an on-going condition, Guillain-Barré Syndrome, which can impact the immune system.

(The first night of her stay, Seratti-Goldman, a radio station owner, broadcast her confinement live on Facebook, attracting over 4000 viewers)

Most of the 300-plus passengers transported from Japan disembarked at military bases in California and Texas. They will remain under quarantine for an additional 14 days. 

The thirteen former cruise travelers remained on board the charter flight and arrived in Omaha on Monday. After landing, busses in a police convoy transported them to the University of Nebraska Medical Center. 

There are indications the Med Center had not been part of the original plan to move the cruise ship passengers.

At a news media briefing after the arrival, members of the UNMC quarantine team said the situation was "a bit confusing" early on, leading the medical team in Nebraska to "start from scratch" with the testing for the virus.

The group in the Quarantine Unit will "be self-isolated to their rooms" until the testing is complete, according to Shelly Schwedhelm, UNMC's director of emergency management.

"Their rooms have engineering controls to have separate Hepa-filtration and all the things that would make that room very safe and make every other space in that building safe."

Schwedhelm emphasized that air handling and filtration systems also protect the mid-town neighborhood around the medical center campus. 

"All of the healthcare workers involved in this mission are very skilled, and we practice and train and teach on these topics related to infection prevention and control," she said, "so we have a lot of confidence in our people and our team."

Here are some of the other questions being asked about Nebraska's role in the coronavirus crisis:

Charter aircraft delivers first group of quarantined Americans to Omaha's Eppley Airfield.

Busses with an emergency vehicle escort prepare for trip to Camp Ashland, Nebraska. (Photos: Bill Kelly/NET News)


What made this group arriving at the Med Center different from the group who arrived two weeks ago?

At the time they were evacuated, the group brought to Camp Ashland had been living in their own homes in and around Wuhan, China. Most had isolated themselves, and there was much less risk they had been exposed to coronavirus. 

By comparison, the group on the cruise ship were interacting with over 3000 passengers and crew in a confined space. Some of those on board had already tested positive. 

Because risks to the group of 13 were much more significant and they began showing symptoms, the decision was made to send them straight to quarantine.

What is the status of the group that was taken to Camp Ashland?

They are scheduled to be released and heading out town at 9:00 AM Central Time on Thursday morning. Many in that group of 57 people will be heading out to stay with family or friends since most of them were living in Wuhan, China, when evacuated and did not have a full-time home stateside. 

The woman who was briefly transferred to the quarantine unit at the Medical Center will also be allowed to leave?

Yes. She had reported a cough during a routine daily exam, but a later laboratory test indicated she was not carrying the virus.

What has life been like at Camp Ashland?

News media have not been allowed to visit Camp Ashland, nor have the public health officials released photos since the quarantine began. Those in isolation have granted interviews to reporters via phone and video-chat and say living quarters are basic but were remaining upbeat after the uncertainly of life in China during the crisis.

The picture painted by the CDC and public health officials emphasized the visitors have been getting along pretty well. The visitors are sleeping modest quarters ordinarily used by visitors to the national guard facility. The commander of the National Guard described them as "modest hotel rooms."

Haz-Mat style protective gear and face masks are the required wardrobe for most interactions outside their quarters. 

"Morale remains high of staff and of the residents," said Captain Dana Hall, a doctor with the U.S. Public Health Service supervising administration of the operation. 

There have been efforts to keep a regular schedule, including daily "town meetings" to update the residents on developments and answer questions. There are families and couples among the group, and efforts were made to provide a variety of activities, including birthday and Valentine's Day parties.

"There's things to do," Hall said. "They have gym equipment, a Sega Game station. They have a guitar now (and) there's a gentleman playing music for the children."

From the start, a strong Wi-Fi signal and computer connections were available, allowing residents to stay in contact with family and the outside world.

Is Nebraska likely to host additional people in contact with coronavirus in the coming weeks?

There is no telling, but the longer this public health crisis continues, and should more Americans find themselves in contact with this virus, the higher the chances are the specialized facilities and staff in Nebraska will be called into service.

Is the Medical Center equipped to handle more cases?

The administrators of UNMC's emergency planning group say they are. Still, much of how the facility could be utilized and the extent of the resources to be deployed depends on where the demands of this specific public health crisis.

"We always need to think about if somebody gets sick, then how do we accommodate that," said Schwedhelm. "The quarantine unit is really for folks that don't have enough symptoms to really require inpatient admission."

The facilities at a location like Camp Ashland can be used to isolate those kept separate when the exposure of contagion was possible. 

There is also the new 20-bed Quarantine Unit for those showing symptoms and the super-secure biocontainment unit for the most contagious cases or those needed special attention. That unit, with a capacity of ten, was last used for treating the Ebola patients airlifted out of Africa.

The emergency planning extends to scenarios when there may be a local diagnosis of a contagious or highly infectious disease that requires isolation. 

"We just always want to make sure we've got capacity to be able to accommodate that," Schwedhelm said. "In addition to the biocontainment unit, we have another unit that is what we call our surge location; additional rooms that we can utilize if we needed to."



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