UNMC virus expert: Omaha less than 2 weeks away from overrun hospitals

Published: Nov. 11, 2020 at 4:19 PM CST
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - A medical expert and member of the UNMC Global Center for Health Security is sounding the alarm about hospital capacity in the metro area, saying hospitals will soon be “beyond full” if action isn’t taken now.

Dr. James Lawler, who is also director of clinical and biodefense research at the National Strategic Research Institute, said Wednesday that unless drastic changes are made quickly, the Omaha area is less than two weeks from the point where hospitals will be overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients and are unable to provide appropriate care for any patients — even routine patients — coming into hospitals.

“Within two weeks, our hospitals will be beyond full and to the point where we can no longer staff all of the beds that we need,” Lawler told 6 News on Wednesday.

According to the Douglas County Health Department on Wednesday, the entire Omaha-metro area is at 86% hospital capacity, leaving 215 medical and surgical beds available; and 54 ICU beds available, which amounts to an 82% occupancy rate.

If trends continue without intervention, Lawler said an additional 1,500 to 2,000 beds will be needed — beds we don’t have — in the Omaha area.

He is calling for stricter non-pharmaceutical interventions — like face masks and social distancing — to control community transmission.

“The reality is coming whether people want to acknowledge it or not," he said. “We are going to be facing these dire circumstances within 10 to 14 days.”

Lawler recommends gatherings of more than 10 people be banned, and said restaurants and bars should not be permitting indoor patrons.

“At this point, we are getting to the place where we would just need to temporarily close schools to allow community transmission to subside,” he said.

Nebraska Medicine is already diverting transfer patients — something Lawler said he has never seen happen during his tenure there. And its converting its last available section to care for COVID-19 patients.

“I don’t know where those patients are going to go because it’s not as if there are other tertiary care medical centers that aren’t busy in the region. They are all overwhelmed,” Lawler said.

Hospital leaders are looking at other solutions to deal with what seems likely to happen in the next few weeks, he said, whether its commandeering more space or putting up field hospitals.

“The reality of the hospital healthcare system being completely overwhelmed is beyond anything that we’ve seen," Lawler said. "I think the effects will be beyond anything that people expect or have seen. So it will be, unfortunately, truly devastating.”

Lawler stressed how important it is that state leaders enact strict directed health measures that go much further than the rules that are in place now.

We did reach out to Gov. Pete Ricketts' office. A spokesman responded with a copy of the governor’s latest written update, but did not answer any specific questions about implementing stricter DHMs.

The governor’s post did he is asking people to limit their contact with others. Read the full text below.

Full text of Gov. Ricketts Nov. 11 update

Sometimes the only way out is through. That’s certainly true of the coronavirus pandemic. We can’t stop this virus, but we can slow its spread. Right now, there’s an urgent need for all of us to take personal responsibility for slowing the spread by using the tools we have to protect our healthcare system.

The situation in our hospitals is very serious. The coronavirus not only continues to spread in Nebraska, it has picked up steam. Six weeks ago, we had 200 coronavirus-related hospitalizations in Nebraska. This week, hospitalizations stand at 860 and they are rapidly rising every day.

So far, we have been able to provide hospital beds, ICU beds, and ventilators to anyone who needs care. If trends continue, Nebraska will reach a point where that’s no longer possible. To avoid reaching this point, it’s critical that each person reduce their mobility and contact with others. By doing our part, we can slow the spread of the virus to help our hospitals manage the increased number of patients they’re serving.

While cases of the virus can be mild, some people will suffer very severe illness or even death. This can happen even to people in good physical condition. Kurth Brashear of Seward tested positive for the virus after hosting a gathering at his house in September. Even though he quarantined right away, he initially shrugged off his symptoms as being due to the change of season. They soon worsened, however, and he visited the hospital with joint pain, fatigue, and extremely low blood oxygen levels. Doctors discovered damage to his lungs and prescribed treatment. While Kurth’s health soon improved, he continues to experience back pain and shortness of breath. His experience is a reminder that the impacts of coronavirus can linger long after the virus is gone even for young, healthy people.

In light of increasing hospitalizations, I have issued two Directed Health Measures (DHMs) since October 16th. The most recent DHM will remain in place until at least November 30, 2020. It requires masks where staff and patrons are within six feet of each other for 15 minutes or more. We’re also requiring six feet of separation between parties at businesses, churches, restaurants/bars, gyms/fitness clubs, and other gatherings. Additionally, we’re reducing occupancy to 25% at indoor venues such as theaters, arenas, and large event conference rooms. We’re limiting attendance at youth extracurricular sports. To recap, the main changes are as follows:

  • Masks are required for staff and patrons at salons, barbershops, massage therapy, bowling alleys, pool halls, body art establishments, and any other indoor businesses where staff and patrons are within six (6) feet of each other for 15 consecutive minutes or more.
  • An exception will be made for all services performed on faces. Patrons will be permitted to remove their mask while receiving services directly. The mask must be worn by the patron at all other times while on the premise.
  • Six (6) feet of separation between parties is required in all instances for the following: gyms/fitness centers, health spas, restaurants, bars, gentlemen and bottle clubs, weddings, funerals, indoor gatherings, and churches.
  • INDOOR gatherings will be limited to 25% of rated occupancy.
  • OUTDOOR gatherings remain at 100% of rated occupancy.
  • Gatherings include but are not limited to Indoor or Outdoor Arenas, Indoor or Outdoor Auctions, Stadiums, Tracks, Fairgrounds, Festivals, Zoos, Auditoriums, Large Event Conference Rooms, Meeting Halls, Indoor Theaters, Libraries, Swimming Pools, or any other confined indoor or outdoor space.
  • Extracurricular Activities (school and club sponsored)
  • Fan attendance for all indoor youth extracurricular activities is limited to household members of participants only.

An outline with all of the DHM changes is available by clicking here. Official DHMs for each county are posted on the DHHS website.

We cannot wait to slow the spread of the virus. Our hospitals need our help right now. If we as Nebraskans redouble our efforts, we can successfully slow the spread of the virus. Keep six feet of distance from others. Wear a mask. Wash your hands often for 20 seconds at a time. When possible, work remotely. Shop once a week and go alone rather than taking the kids with you. Stay at home when sick. All of these behaviors help to slow the rate of infection.

Nebraska’s health professionals are also encouraging all Nebraskans to avoid the “Three Cs.” They are crowded places, close contacts, and confined spaces. Avoid groups where you can’t maintain six feet of distance from others, including private gatherings. Our local public health departments report that many cases of coronavirus have been traced to informal get-togethers such as baby showers, slumber parties, or birthday parties. Avoid prolonged, face-to-face interaction with people outside of your immediate household. Wear a mask in public places where social distancing isn’t possible. Avoid enclosed spaces with poor ventilation. When weather permits, gather outdoors with friends and family.

Nebraskans are encouraged to take advantage of free coronavirus testing. Visit to take a simple health assessment and schedule an appointment. In recent weeks, Test Nebraska has delivered test results within 24-36 hours of the initial swab. For individuals testing positive, please cooperate with the contact tracing process. It’s a simple way to slow the spread of the virus. This allows close contacts to quarantine so that we can limit the spread of the virus. Our public health teams have tough jobs, and they’re working hard to help everyone stay healthy. Please answer their phone calls, and treat them respectfully. Let’s leave space for grace as we go through this together.

If you have questions about Nebraska’s coronavirus response, please email or call 402-471-2244. For generations, Nebraskans have endured whatever nature throws at us—whether long winters, droughts, or floods. I’m confident we’ll get through the virus as well. Let’s look out for our neighbors, especially those at risk from the virus, and do our part to protect our hospitals.

Digital Director Gina Dvorak contributed to this story.

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