The VA Nebraska-Western Iowa Health Care System has completely changed its operations this week to cope with an expected rush of COVID-19 cases later this month.

The system’s main hospital, in Omaha, is in the process of more than doubling its number of beds and retraining its outpatient staff to handle inpatient care. It is screening patients outside the VA Medical Center in Omaha and the system’s clinics. Elective surgeries have been scrubbed at the Omaha hospital and patients rescheduled for “telemedicine” appointments using video links. Friends and family are prohibited from visiting.

“The campus has gone through huge change in what we’re used to,” director B. Don Burman said during a video town hall meeting this week on the health care system’s Facebook page. “We’re in some very interesting times.”

Nationwide, 1,602 veterans had tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by exposure to the novel coronavirus, as of Wednesday, including 118 in New York City and 255 in New Orleans. Fifty-three had died.

There have been no cases in the Nebraska-Western Iowa system, but authorities don’t believe that will last.

“We look toward New York and New Orleans,” said Dr. David Williams, the system’s chief of staff. “We’re very worried that might come to Nebraska. That’s why we’re making all these preparations.”

Already, people are being met in their cars at the medical center by VA staffers and sent to different parking lots according to their needs.

Veterans suspected of having COVID-19 after being screened will enter via the emergency department, while veterans receiving treatment unrelated to COVID-19 will enter near the outpatient lab and exit near the anticoagulation clinic. Lab draws are being done in Building 8, near the Center Street entrance.

Pharmacy pickups are being done in the traffic circle near the main entrance.

“When you come on campus, someone will escort you to the right entrance,” said Julie Rickert, associate director of operations.

Similar screenings are taking place in Lincoln, North Platte and Grand Island.

Most of all, the VA is asking people to stay away from the hospital and clinics except for emergencies or essential care.

“Only in the cases where it’s absolutely necessary do we want to see you face-to-face,” Williams said. “It’s not worth your good health to risk your life to come into this building.”

Dr. Marvin Bittner, a specialist in infectious diseases, said the key symptoms defining COVID-19 are fever, cough, achiness all over and shortness of breath. Most patients don’t require a visit to the clinic.

“Most people are going to be able to deal with it at home,” Bittner said. “The worrisome sign is when you have shortness of breath.”

At the moment, the Omaha VA center can process about 20 tests a week. So far, only sick people have been tested, Williams said, and they have tested positive for seasonal flu viruses rather than COVID-19.

Although it’s quiet now, Williams said the surge of cases is almost certain to come.

“We’re going to get hit in a couple of weeks,” he said.

And he dismissed out of hand the idea that the coronavirus pandemic is being hyped.

“It’s not a deep state conspiracy,” Williams said. “It’s the real thing.”

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