UNMC wants to build national training center for contagious diseases in Omaha

(Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)
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March 5, 2015 - 5:10pm

The University of Nebraska Medical Center wants to build a training center for health professionals from around the country concentrating on treating highly contagious diseases like Ebola.

UNMC Chancellor Jeffrey Gold appeared before the Legislature’s Health and Human Services committee Thursday to ask senators help in getting federal funds for the training center. Gold said the biocontainment unit in Omaha was begun 10 years ago and reflected the times. "The unit was built shortly after the 9/11 tragedies when the concerns about SARS, Ebola, monkey pox, anthrax, and other highly contagious agents were very much the rage," he said.

The unit received international attention last year when doctors and nurses there successfully treated two Ebola patients. A third patient died, and a fourth sent there for observation did not have the disease.

Although the Ebola epidemic in West Africa seems to have peaked, Sen. Kathy Campbell asked about reports it may be coming back. Gold said it’s hard to tell. "The public health measures that have been put into place are believed to be extremely effective in West Africa. And indeed controlling the disease outbreak in West Africa is key to controlling the safety of the rest of the world, as we have learned," he said.

"But there’s a seasonal nature to this. It has to do with the rainy season in West Africa. So it’s hard to know whether as we get into the next season, which is when the epidemic really exploded last spring, whether we’ll see some recrudescence of that or not," he added.

Campbell said she was impressed by the dedication of the unit’s staff. "What is so distinctive to me is that unlike other hospitals who struggle to find staff people to be a part of a containment unit, at UNMC the staff had a great number of volunteers and the commitment of the whole staff to this," she said.

In a later interview, Kate Boulter, lead nurse on the biocontainment unit, described how people become part of the team. "We just put the call out and the staff in the hospital, they apply. They go through a formal interview process to be on the team. When we’re interviewing them, we’re wanting to know why they’re wanting to be on the team. We want to make sure they’re not just joining for name recognition," she said. "These are people that are highly motivated. They enjoy a challenge in their career. And they also have to be very good at what they do.

Gold said the staff has trained many others. "The biocontainment unit staff has trained 29 health systems comprising nearly 40 hospitals in 27 states and in three countries around the world. Plus, the leading personnel from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Johns Hopkins, the Mayo Clinic, and a long, long list of other prestigious institutions who have come to Omaha to be trained in our facilities," he said.

And Gold said he’s gotten a sense of how special that staff is when people from other states have come to Nebraska for training. "Their biggest concerns are, will they be able to muster a team of people who will volunteer to care for patients in (the) event that this actually occurs," he said.

"Our entire team is a volunteer team. And all I can say is that this is Nebraska in the best possible sense of a group of human beings who understand what their role is, recognize this is high risk, but have courage to stand up and do the right thing to care for other human beings," Gold added.

Now UNMC wants to expand the training it provides and is seeking federal funding to create a national training center for highly infectious diseases. Gold said right now, the training UNMC provides is done in other university buildings and in the actual biocontainment unit. "What we would like to have is essentially a simulated or virtual biocontainment unit, where we could effectively … do the initial training," he said. "At some point somebody’s going to have to do the credentialing and certification of skills and knowledge. And we think that having a designated -- one or two or three designated -- national centers where that occurs would be a wise thing," he added.

Gold said the idea would be to use $50 million to $75 million in federal funds to add two additional floors to a proposed three-story training facility UNMC is hoping to build, using private donations and state funds.

That’s where things could get tricky. UNMC is asking the Appropriations Committee for $25 million in state funds for the facility. That money is not in the committee’s preliminary budget recommendation. So it would have to compete for favor with other legislative priorities, ranging from prison reform to property tax relief.

At this point, only about $41 million total is expected to be available for all those competing proposals. The committee will make its final budget recommendations at the end of April.

 

 

 

 

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