After the SARS outbreak of 2003, its staff began specifically preparing for emerging infections. The center has the nation’s only federal quarantine facility and its largest biocontainment unit, which cared for airlifted Ebola patients in 2014. They had detailed pandemic plans. They ran drills. Ron Klain, who was President Obama’s “Ebola czar” and will be Joe Biden’s chief of staff in the White House, once told me that UNMC is “arguably the best in the country” at handling dangerous and unusual diseases. There’s a reason why many of the Americans who were airlifted from the Diamond Princess cruise ship in February were sent to UNMC.
In the past two weeks, the hospital had to convert an entire building into a COVID-19 tower, from the top down. It now has 10 COVID-19 units, each taking up an entire hospital floor. Three of the units provide intensive care to the very sickest people, several of whom die every day. One unit solely provides “comfort care” to COVID-19 patients who are certain to die. “We’ve never had to do anything like this,” Angela Hewlett, the infectious-disease specialist who directs the hospital’s COVID-19 team, told me. “We are on an absolutely catastrophic path.”…
A full hospital means that everyone waits. COVID-19 patients who are going downhill must wait to enter a packed intensive-care unit. Patients who cannot breathe must wait for the many minutes it takes for a nurse elsewhere in the hospital to remove their cumbersome protective gear, run over, and don the gear again. On Tuesday, one rapidly deteriorating patient needed to be intubated, but the assembled doctors had to wait, because the anesthesiologists were all busy intubating four other patients in an ICU and a few more in an emergency room.
None of the people I spoke with would predict when UNMC will finally hit its capacity ceiling, partly because they’re doing everything to avoid that scenario, and partly because it’s so grim as to be almost unthinkable. But “we’re rapidly approaching that point,” Hewlett said.