UNMC by Don Leuenberger

UPDATE: Don Leuenberger just sent a link to a very interesting article that discusses UNMC's development of a clinical testing device for COVID-19.    Just click on the blue UNMC to read the article.


Our classmate, Don Leuenberger, was a former vice chancellor at the University of Nebraska.  The medical center at University of Nebraska is heavily involved in trials on the therapies—not vaccines—for treating COVID-19. I asked him to explain how both he and UNMC became involved in treating infectious diseases in the United States and around the world.  It is exciting that one of our classmates has played a role in combating infectious diseases.

Patty Lewton Horoho


Patty suggested I put something together about the University of Nebraska Medical Center given its prominence in infectious disease and given the current COVID-19 situation. You may have read that patients from the Diamond Princess were quarantined in Nebraska under UNMC’s care.  UNMC’s main campus is in Omaha and is one of the four Nebraska University campuses governed by a Board of Regents. UNMC is a graduate campus with colleges in the health professions and various specialized institutes and is a PhD. granting institution. I served as Vice Chancellor for Business and Finance from 1989 to 2015 and again (not by design) for 2017/2018. During the mid-nineties, I also served for a bit as Sec. for Health and Human Services in Nebraska. This qualifies me for absolutely nothing as a source for any medical or health information. It has given me a profound appreciation for nurses and local public health professionals, the services they provide and the risks they take, and health educators and researchers.

Before anything else, there is a daily update on COVID-19 at the University of Nebraska Medical Center website for those of you who might want current information. It does change daily. Also, the National Ebola Training and Education Center formed by UNMC, Emory University and NY’s Bellevue Hospital is a trusted source for current information on COVID-19.

Sunday, March 15 60 Minutes will feature a segment on UNMC and bio-security.

UNMC has a long history in infectious disease. After the SARS scare, UNMC together with NE Health and Human Services built a biocontainment unit at UNMC. It went unused for basically the next decade although UNMC staff were sent to the East Coast after 9/11 to help coordinate anthrax testing. Nevertheless, training and simulation exercises were kept up through the H1N1 and MERS scares. In 2014, UNMC had approximately half of all biocontainment beds available in the U.S. and the largest group of Ebola patients were sent to Omaha. I should say at this point that Omaha and Nebraska have been immensely supportive of UNMC and have been active in hosting these infected individuals and their families.

The Ebola experience and the lack of capacity it highlighted led the Federal Govt.—largely the Department of Defense and the U.S. HHSS—to begin investing in education, training and research in infectious disease, bio-preparedness and health security. The Global Center for Health Security was created at UNMC and is now home to the national Training, Simulation and Quarantine Center, the National Quarantine Unit and the National Disaster Medical System which provides training for federal response teams. This center was opened just after I stepped down at UNMC for the last(!) time. Significant expansion of these resources as a site for national health security costing over $1bn was being planned before COVID-19 became the current news.

I mentioned nurses and my respect for them. I recall sitting with a large group of nurses and others at a briefing before we accepted the first Ebola patient. Obviously, there was great concern. There were lots of unknowns and most of them potentially fatal. A group of nurses who had served during the early days of spreading HIV when contracting it was considered a virtual death sentence expressed overwhelmingly their willingness to serve and confidence that they would be supported. The significance was this: nurses attending Ebola patients, fully garbed and checked out in biocontainment gear, had to be switched out every two hours and then safely disrobed while the next shift took over. Each step in this process, robing, caring and disrobing carried its own significant risks, and had to be repeated time and again as patients, thankfully, recovered. A bed was kept open in the biocontainment unit for staff in case any of these safety protocols failed. Thankfully, none did.

UNMC is now participating in clinical trials on therapies—not vaccines—for treating COVID-19.

The only thing I think to close with is keep safe. Our age group, no matter how young we feel, is particularly vulnerable to this virus. While there is a lot of speculation on how long this will last, etc., information will change as more is learned. The best guidance on keeping safe is your local public health group and the CDC.