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Deputy HHS Secretary highlights University of Nebraska Medical Center's role in pandemic response
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Deputy HHS Secretary highlights University of Nebraska Medical Center's role in pandemic response

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The deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services finally got a look Saturday at the new training and simulation center the federal government helped build at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha.

After touring the Davis Global Center, Eric Hargan, the department’s No. 2 official, highlighted the role Nebraska has played in the nation’s pandemic response from its earliest days, when the agency was seeking to quarantine American citizens from China and a stricken cruise ship, to the state’s ongoing role in developing treatments and vaccines for COVID-19.

Hargan recalled having conversations with officials in a lot of states while seeking a place to bring those Americans.

“Whenever we called here,” he said, “it was, ‘Send them on, send them on.’”

Hargan’s tour included the National Quarantine Unit, which housed some of the passengers from the Diamond Princess cruise ship. The unit is the nation’s only federally designated quarantine facility.

In addition to that center, the $121.8 million Davis Global Center is also home to iEXCEL, a high-tech training center for health professionals; and the Global Center for Health Security, which encompasses biopreparedness functions. The facility was built through a public-private partnership comprised of the state, city and federal governments and philanthropists. Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts also participated in Saturday’s event.

Hargan noted that the trial of remdesivir, an antiviral drug the Food and Drug Administration just approved for treating severe cases of COVID-19, began Feb. 25 at UNMC.

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In addition, he said, the biodefense capabilities the university has built have proven “incredibly valuable” in the fight against the coronavirus. UNMC, among other things, has developed and provided training programs to help other health care providers safely transport and care for people infected with the virus.

Now the university is contributing in the race for a safe and effective vaccine through its partnership with the biotech firm COVAXX, which has a vaccine candidate in early trials.

Hargan said there are now four vaccines in Phase 3 or late-stage trials. “We believe there is a real likelihood of delivering substantial quantities of a safe and effective vaccine by the end of this year,” he said.

Hargan noted that efforts to develop vaccines and treatments come as the nation is seeing rising case counts.

Nebraska has seen record numbers of cases and hospitalizations in recent weeks. On Friday, the U.S. hit its highest daily number of coronavirus cases since the pandemic began, tallying at least 82,900 new infections, the Washington Post reported.

“That means that we need to redouble our efforts to take the simple, smart public health measures that we have been implementing across the country so we can keep ourselves and our communities safe,” he said.

Those measures include wearing masks, keeping our distance, washing our hands and avoiding situations where we can’t follow those steps, such as crowded indoor spaces. States that have adhered to those steps, such as Arizona, have been able to reverse surges in cases, he said.

Dr. Jeffrey Gold, UNMC’s chancellor, thanked Hargan for the work they’ve done together in fighting the pandemic.

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He said he is also grateful for partnerships with the agency and others regarding Project NExT, a proposed public-private partnership to build a $2.6 billion center on UNMC’s campus to respond to pandemics, bioterrorism and natural disasters.

In August, Ricketts signed a bill that pledges $300 million in state money to the project if the federal government and private donors come up with $1.3 billion.

Gold said money that could go toward the project is included in several pending pieces of federal legislation.

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