After housing up to three patients being treated for the novel coronavirus in recent weeks, the Nebraska Biocontainment Unit by the end of last week had been cleaned and made ready for future use if needed.

The three are among 15 Americans who arrived in Omaha after being evacuated from a stricken cruise ship off the coast of Japan. Thirteen of the 15 tested positive for the virus; two were negative.

The 10-bed unit, on the seventh floor of the Nebraska Medical Center’s University Tower at 44th and Emile Streets, is set up like a hospital ward with advanced infection controls.

The three received care and monitoring there for a time while experiencing more serious symptoms of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus.

By the middle of last week, all had improved and had been transferred to the nearby National Quarantine Unit, joining the rest of the evacuated travelers in that 20-bed unit.

Kate Boulter, nurse manager for the biocontainment unit, said Omaha residents can be confident that the staff is taking all necessary precautions — and then some — to keep themselves and the community safe. They demonstrated that when they cared for patients with Ebola virus disease in 2014.

“I have no worries on that,” she said.

Interest in working in the unit, in fact, is up. Staffers volunteer to work there. Unit leaders have interviewed eight potential additions to the group since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus began, Boulter said. They saw a similar surge in interest in 2014.

Patients enter through two sets of double doors. No one can pass through the second set until the first set closes. Ventilation systems for the secure unit operate under negative pressure, which pulls air in like a vacuum.

Staff members change out of regular garb and into separate scrubs in a separate “clean” area when entering. They reverse the process when they leave. Over the scrubs, they don protective gear.

Levels of protection vary according to the disease they’re dealing with and with their activities. Staff train quarterly to properly don and doff the gear, and they train others across the country.

After the COVID-19 patients transferred to the quarantine unit last week, patient trash in the biocontainment unit was double-bagged in biohazard bags for separate pickup and disposal. Surfaces were cleaned with disinfectant wipes. Staffers use a special technique for mopping floors to ensure that they don’t miss any spots.

“The good thing about viruses is they’re pretty easily killed,” Boulter said.

Then they bathed the rooms in microbe-killing ultraviolet radiation. Walls are coated with a reflective paint to make sure the light isn’t blocked from reaching any areas. Sensors are placed in dark corners to make sure those, too, are covered.

“For the biocontainment unit,” she said, “we’ve always gone above and beyond for safety’s sake.”

Julie Anderson is a medical reporter for The World-Herald. She covers health care and health care trends and developments, including hospitals, research and treatments. Follow her on Twitter @JulieAnderson41. Phone: 402-444-1066.

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