Nebraska’s first coronavirus disease patient — a 36-year-old Omaha woman who recently returned from the United Kingdom — was transferred to the Nebraska Biocontainment Unit on Friday evening.

The woman, who is “very seriously ill,” had been at Methodist Hospital in Omaha before being taken by ambulance to the biocontainment unit, which is on the University of Nebraska Medical Center campus.

Earlier Friday, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts and health officials announced that the woman is the state’s first confirmed case of a person with the coronavirus disease, COVID-19.

The woman, who had traveled with her father to England from Feb. 18 to 27, became ill Feb. 25, said Dr. Robert Penn, an infectious disease specialist at Methodist. She returned to Omaha on Feb. 27. Her symptoms remained relatively mild until Thursday, he said. A chest CT scan has shown that the disease is evolving into acute respiratory distress syndrome, Penn said.

Dr. Gary Anthone, Nebraska’s chief medical officer, said epidemiologists were arriving in Omaha to begin tracing the woman’s movements and her contacts. Where she might have gone and with whom she might have been in contact were unclear.

“We don’t know those answers right now, I’m afraid,” he said.

Officials said there is no evidence yet that the virus has spread in the state. But despite efforts to contain the disease, it’s possible “we may see additional confirmed cases in Nebraska,” said Dr. Tom Safranek, Nebraska’s state epidemiologist.

The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services is working with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Douglas County Health Department to identify people who came in close contact with the woman in order to decrease the spread of the illness, Ricketts said later Friday. “These people will be self-isolated and actively monitored twice daily by public health officials for fever and respiratory symptoms.”

Reminders, which include a survey, are sent twice a day via email or text message.

If they start experiencing symptoms, they will immediately undergo further testing, officials said.

A number of other questions remain unanswered, Anthone and Penn said, including how long the woman might have been exposing others to the virus.

If the woman is unable to provide a history of her movements and her contacts, investigators will interview family members. It was unclear how many people, if any, she lived with.

When the woman arrived Thursday in the emergency room, health care professionals were concerned that she might have the virus and took precautions aimed at protecting themselves and other patients, including placing her in a negative pressure room.

Hospital workers who treated the woman wore appropriate protective gear, including masks, eyewear, gloves and gowns, Penn said.

Methodist Hospital officials contacted local health officials about their concerns and began screening for other circulating viruses, such as influenza.

Penn said the woman was tested for COVID-19 — the disease caused by the novel coronavirus — on Thursday. The test results came back positive for the disease on Friday.

Shelly Schwedhelm, executive director of emergency management and biopreparedness at Nebraska Medicine, said the woman joins one person already in the 10-bed biocontainment unit, which is set up like a hospital ward. That person is one of eight passengers from a stricken cruise ship. Seven others from the ship are being monitored in the nearby hotel-like National Quarantine Unit. Seven passengers already have been released from quarantine.

Very few people with the coronavirus disease will be treated in the biocontainment unit, Nebraska Medicine officials said. The unit is reserved for people with the most severe cases of COVID-19 or for cases such as the cruise ship passengers. Patients can be safely treated in other areas of the Nebraska Medical Center if necessary, officials said.

Dr. Angela Hewlett, medical director of the biocontainment unit, said unit staff was obtaining the woman’s medical history from Methodist staff.

Penn said the woman was being treated with intravenous antibiotics because she is thought to have developed a secondary bacterial infection.

Acute respiratory distress syndrome occurs when fluid builds up in the tiny, elastic air sacs in a person’s lungs, according to the Mayo Clinic’s website. The fluid keeps the person’s lungs from filling with enough air, which means less oxygen reaches the bloodstream. This deprives the person’s organs of the oxygen they need to function.

Ricketts reminded people to take common-sense steps to mitigate the spread of the virus, such as covering one’s cough, refraining from shaking hands and staying home if sick. Businesses, he said, should think about how to operate if their workers become ill and parents should consider how to handle child care if schools close.

The governor said Nebraska has been a leader in addressing the coronavirus and will take additional measures as necessary to keep the state’s residents as healthy as possible.

“We’re looking at ways to help slow this virus,” he said.

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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