Fighting EbolaMar 09, 2015 09:00AM ● By Anthony Flott
Ten years ago, Ebola was known, but not feared. Just 17 people were infected with the virus in 2004, all in the Sudan. Seven of them died.
That same year, PRIMUS Sterilizer Company in Omaha completed a project that, in 2014, helped the University of Nebraska Medical Center (now called Nebraska Medicine) successfully treat two patients with the virus, putting the center at the forefront of the Ebola battle in the United States.
The fight took place in Nebraska Medicine’s Nebraska Biocontainment Patient Care Unit, designed to provide the first line of treatment for people affected by bio-terrorism or extremely infectious, naturally occurring diseases. It’s the largest facility of its kind in the U.S.
PRIMUS, founded in Omaha in 1990, provided the facility with its sterilization unit. President Michael Douglas is proud of the role his company played in the fight against Ebola here, though he’s cautious about overstating the effort.
“We did help, but we don’t want to overplay our help in the grand scheme,” Douglas says. “We were fortunate enough to have our sterilizer there. We are proud of being in Omaha and proud of the success they had at the hospital. They’re just outstanding people and considered the best in the world right now.”
Still, Douglas concedes, the PRIMUS equipment used was “a piece of the puzzle” in the secure, air-locked facility.
For the facility, PRIMUS built a double-door sterilizer that is 20 inches wide, 20 inches high, and 38 inches long. Material used during the treatment of Ebola-infected patients was put into one end of the chamber, sterilized by a process involving heat, pressure, and steam, then pulled out the other door completely sterile. Those materials—protective clothing, instruments, tools, food trays, etc.—then were incinerated.
If anything could have been improved, it might be that the sterilization chamber was bigger.
“They didn’t anticipate the amount of materials that had to be sterilized,” Douglas says. “It was a surprise even to them. There were 30 to 40 people being used in the treatment of one Ebola patient. That can generate a lot of protective clothing waste and other general hospital waste.
“I think it’s an evolutionary thing. Everybody is learning about it—how to treat it, what generates survival rates. There’s all sorts of learning, including disposal of all these materials and how to generate less waste.”
That PRIMUS was up to the task at providing cutting-edge equipment for such a dangerous health risk is no surprise. Since being formed 25 years ago, originally as Phoenix Medical Services, it has grown to become the industry’s leading U.S. manufacturer with more than 1,000 clients in 48 states and 23 foreign countries. That includes Stanford University, Seoul National University in Korea, Schering-Plough and, most recently, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration.
PRIMUS has 54 employees, one third in Omaha and the rest in Great Bend, Kansas, where its equipment is custom-manufactured in a certified pressure-vessel factory. PRIMUS serves four vertical markets: healthcare (hospitals, dental offices, surgery centers, etc.); laboratory research (food companies such as Cargill and Tyson Foods); bio-pharmaceuticals (Novartis, Merck); and vivaria (animal research facilities).
Douglas takes pride in the many ways PRIMUS equipment is being used. That includes for humanitarian efforts around the world in places such as Kenya, New Guinea, and elsewhere. A foundation started by Billy Graham is among the clients.
“It’s quite interesting to sell into these countries and see what these sterilizers are used for,” Douglas says. “We like to think they’re saving lives throughout the world.”