UNMC keeping up COVID safety, campus growth

Jane Meza, PhD, interim executive director for health security for UNMC, joined UNMC Chancellor Jeffrey P. Gold, MD, in Monday's virtual forum.

Jane Meza, PhD, interim executive director for health security for UNMC, joined UNMC Chancellor Jeffrey P. Gold, MD, in Monday's virtual forum.

As the COVID-19 pandemic faces a fourth wave and a new variant threat, UNMC will continue its COVID precautions on the campus, Chancellor Jeffrey P. Gold, MD, said during his latest all-campus forum.

But the chancellor also made clear that the pandemic is not stopping UNMC from advancing with a series of ongoing and new campus development efforts.

In Monday’s virtual forum, Dr. Gold offered encouraging updates on Project NExT, three important efforts that the university has proposed to receive federal pandemic relief funding and the UNMC development plans along Saddle Creek Road.

Throughout the forum, Dr. Gold and Jane Meza, PhD, interim executive director for health security, addressed numerous issues around the pandemic.

Dr. Gold said he didn't need to tell the UNMC community that the pandemic is clearly not over.

The chancellor warned the UNMC community that the delta coronavirus variant is causing the latest pandemic surge in cases and hospitalizations. Delta alone is reported to be three to four times more infectious than early SARS-CoV-2 variants, Dr. Gold said.

Now the omicron virus spreading in the United States and around the world, and it is estimated to be two times more transmissible than delta, the chancellor said.

Dr. Gold and Meza said UNMC will continue requiring masks on campus, testing for the virus as a surveillance mechanism and holding off having on campus events with food.

Dr. Gold said UNMC has not decided whether to require a booster dose as part of its vaccine requirement. Current data, he said, shows that the existing vaccines offer a significant benefit in preventing delta variant COVID hospitalizations.

As long as that remains the case, Dr. Gold said, "we’re probably going to sit tight." Even so, he acknowledged the university could rethink that policy if the omicron variant begins to cause another wave across the region.

Dr. Meza commended the university community’s response to the vaccine and mask requirements.

"I'm always impressed with how we've all come together to fight COVID. Whether it's masking or vaccinations or other COVID precautions," Dr. Meza said.

Dr. Gold thanked the university community for its work during the pandemic. In particular, he recognized front line health care workers who are stretched thin and exhausted.

When the health care system is so stretched, Dr. Gold said, the entire community is shaken.

To everyone dealing with the challenges and tragic losses of COVID-19, Dr. Gold said, "I want to take this opportunity to thank you, to tell you how much that means to all of us. Our entire community is grateful to you and will be so in an enduring way."

He added, "We will get through this. We will get through this better and stronger together," then have much to learn from and much to celebrate on the other end.

Dr. Gold also commended the winter graduating class of 2021, which finished their degrees through the pandemic and will go through commencement ceremonies Friday.

"It's nothing short of an amazing feat that all of these young women and young men have been able to continue their academic journey," Dr. Gold said, "and be successful to receive their degrees this winter." He added that we need them to join the team.

Dr. Gold also highlighted other ways UNMC is moving forward through the pandemic.

Strategic planning

Last Friday, UNMC leadership held a strategic planning session — socially distanced and with safety protocols in place — to analyze and set university goals for 2030. The aim of the session: Planning the academic health center of the future.

Project NExT

Discussions are moving along on UNMC’s Project NExT, the multibillion-dollar federal disaster response center and state-of-the-art medical research and training facility proposed for the UNMC and Nebraska Medicine campus.

In recent weeks, the Omaha City Council and NU Board of Regents approved a $93 million funding agreement for the proposed project. Dr. Gold said UNMC continues to discuss funding with the State of Nebraska, Douglas County and private philanthropic donors.

Dr. Gold said important discussions continue on the federal level, including with the Nebraska congressional delegation, the U.S. departments of defense, health and human services, homeland security and the Veterans Health Administration.

ARPA proposals

Three UNMC projects are among nine University of Nebraska funding proposals that will go before the Nebraska Legislature in its upcoming session, which starts in January. Those three are:

  • Construction of a rural health complex in partnership with the University of Nebraska at Kearney;
  • Research expansion at UNMC’s Pancreatic Cancer Research Institute; and
  • Expansion of UNMC Global Center for Health Security programs.

Dr. Gold said UNMC has been working with numerous state senators who will co-sponsor legislation being brought forward on distributing federal American Rescue Plan Act funding.

Saddle Creek development

Numerous projects are advancing along UNMC’s Saddle Creek expansion, Dr. Gold said.

One is a new administrative building complex southwest of Saddle Creek Road and Farnam Streets. That building could stretch between 12- to 15-stories high, the chancellor said. Plans are being discussed for a new campus childcare center, possibly in cooperation with Nebraska Medicine, he said.

Another project is the renovation of the former Omaha Steel Works property west of Saddle Creek near Farnam Street. The multi-use development will include an innovation hub, food hall and market, event center and collaborative office space.

Said Dr. Gold, "It is hard to believe that you could convert an old steel castings building into a magnificent, multifunctional economic development site. But lo and behold, the creativity of these designers is truly amazing."