OMAHA — Nebraska has its first case of coronavirus disease — a 36-year-old Omaha woman who had traveled to the United Kingdom, Gov. Pete Ricketts said Friday.
The woman, who is "very seriously ill," is at Methodist Hospital in Omaha, officials said, and is being transferred to the Nebraska Biocontainment Unit on the University of Nebraska Medical Center campus.
The woman, who had traveled with her father to England from Feb. 18-27, 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.
"We don't know those answers right now, I'm afraid," he said.
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 in a Friday evening press release. "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 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 will join one person already in the biocontainment unit. 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.
Schwedhelm said the Nebraska Medicine team was working Friday afternoon to brief emergency management, fire and police officials about how transporting the woman would be handled.
Dr. Angela Hewlett, medical director of the biocontainment unit, said unit staff were preparing to receive the patient, including obtaining her medical history from Methodist staff. "We are ready to receive the patient when transport is prepared," she said.
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.