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Quarantine unit prepares for wave of infection

/ Source: The Associated Press

Consider it a biomedical Fort Knox, a fortress for germs instead of gold.

On a quiet floor of the Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, the most advanced containment system available forms a bulwark against the release of deadly infectious diseases such as the feared bird flu.

The Nebraska Biocontainment Unit has only 10 beds yet is the largest of three quarantine facilities in the country. They would be of no use once a flu pandemic was raging. But if someone shows up with an unusual contagious killer, they might help avert an outbreak.

Nothing is left to chance.

“If we ever had a situation, they certainly would be equipped to handle it,” said Von Roebuck, a spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A special set of double doors is installed, with one door closed and locked at all times to prevent bad air from escaping. Hospital staff can use an access system to safely drop off medical supplies or meals by leaving items between the doors for employees inside the unit to retrieve.

A separate staff entrance allows doctors and nurses to walk directly to a locker room where they can change into sterile scrubs. Hooded suits with self-contained air systems are available for cases of severe risk.

A decontamination shower is a required stop before anyone can re-enter the locker room.

The unit’s separate air system uses High Efficiency Particulate Air filters and ultraviolet rays to destroy germs. The filtered air is released outside rather than into the hospital’s ventilation system.

Then there are the tornado-proof windows and fire walls.

The Nebraska facility and two-bed germ-containment units at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Md., and Emory University Hospital in Atlanta are meant to nip a dangerous outbreak in the bud.

It is not known how many beds are enough to isolate the very first carriers of disease. Early detection will be critical if bird flu or any such deadly disease comes to the United States.

But these defenses, and plans to turn more space into quasi-containment units should the need arise, would be quickly overrun in a widespread outbreak.

In the event of a bird flu pandemic, federal officials estimate 30 percent of the population could fall ill — perhaps 90 million people.

Depending on the severity of the strain, 865,000 to 9.9 million could require hospitalization and 209,000 to 1.9 million could die, according to these estimates.

The Nebraska unit has not been used since it opened in 2005. The Fort Detrick one has been activated 20 times in 34 years for quarantine of people under observation for exposure to exotic hemorrhagic viruses such as Lassa fever and Ebola. The Atlanta unit, operated by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has been used twice since it opened in 2002.