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June Health Matters: Nebraska researchers help develop portable isolation units

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Just before the COVID pandemic broke out, the University of Nebraska Medical Center's Global Center for Health Security received a grant from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to strengthen infection control training, education and tools.

The program was targeted to small, rural hospitals across the country that face some of the most persistent challenges in infection prevention and control, said Dr. Jana Broadhurst, director of UNMC's emerging pathogens laboratory.

Broadhurst said the nation doesn't have enough airborne isolation rooms to meet a surge in demand from the threat of an airborne pathogen. Keeping up with training for such situations, finding protective gear — especially the complex kind needed for such high-risk pathogens as Ebola — and disposing of or decontaminating it after use also pose challenges.

Isolation tents

Researchers at the University of Nebraska Medical Center helped develop isolation tents called Carecubes, which have clear, flexible plastic walls so care providers can interact with patients without protective gear.

So the researchers partnered with a San Francisco-based engineering firm called Otherlab to develop new patient isolation care devices that addressed some of those challenges.

Some testing was done on an isolation tent device during the West Africa Ebola epidemic in 2014 to 2016. That device, however, didn't make it into development.

The researchers used that idea as a starting point. When COVID-19 arrived, the CDC expanded the scope of the program.

The researchers and engineers now have laid the groundwork for four products in a family of devices called ISTARI devices, or Isolation System for Treatment and Agile Response to high-risk infections. The first device now has undergone all the testing and validation required for federal regulatory review as a medical device. It is being marketed under the commercial name Carecube by a company called Carecubes.

"That's really exciting," Broadhurst said. "We feel close to having a revolutionary infection-control tool available, designed by intent for small rural critical access hospitals across the country."

Specifically, the devices are negative air pressure tents, with air filtered though HEPA-grade filters and exchanged the number of times needed to meet hospital requirements for airborne infection isolation rooms.

They have clear, flexible plastic walls so care providers, even family members, can interact with patients without protective gear. Also included are lean-in ports with arms and gloves and a hug suit, a full-length, flexible gown with its own filtration system that a provider can step into and reach the patient in the tent. The tent also has ports through which food, medications and other items can be passed without breaking containment and an interface for medical equipment that eliminates the need for complex decontamination or disposal.

The original unit, Broadhurst said, is sized to be set up inside a typical hospital room. Smaller units are designed to be set up in an emergency room, and a transport device fits in the back of an ambulance or helicopter.

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Julie Anderson is a medical reporter for The World-Herald. She covers health care and health care trends and developments, including hospitals, research and treatments. Follow her on Twitter @JulieAnderson41. Phone: 402-444-1066.

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