UNO Professor Examines Loneliness
In 2019, researchers and the media began sounding alarm bells about a “loneliness epidemic” — a rise in people reporting feelings of isolation that could become a health crisis, leading to increases in heart disease or even shorter life spans.
And that was before COVID-19. Before the world shut itself indoors and government leaders mandated, and pleaded, for everyone to stay at least 6 feet apart.
Isolation and social distancing are terms the world is all too familiar with now.
“I have, for years, been trying to come up with ways to make people more aware,” said Todd Richardson, Ph.D., an associate professor in the University of Nebraska at Omaha Goodrich Scholarship Program who is researching loneliness. “And then this comes around and does it for me.”
What researchers like Richardson have warned of — fraying social connections and the ways people arrange their lives to perpetuate isolation — rocketed to the world’s collective consciousness as COVID-19 spread rapidly across the globe. As cities, states and countries shut down, everyone felt the pain of isolation. People kept friends and family members at bay. They missed play dates, barbecues, birthday parties and graduation ceremonies. They missed the rush and roar of live music, the shared excitement of home runs and 3-pointers. They wondered if the “sea of red” would ever wash over Memorial Stadium in quite the same way.
And everyone felt those things, together.
“It’s ironic that the experience of loneliness unites us, but I think it can in this moment,” said Richardson. “We’re all under threat from something that doesn’t discriminate between human beings. This is an extra-human threat. So we can bond as humans and realize we’re working together in order to resist this. And I think there’s something really, really beautiful in that.”
But there’s a flip side to that potential beauty. The longer people stay apart, the harder it becomes to return to one another.
“There is a period where you acknowledge the loss in your life, and you lament it, and you try and fill it in whatever way you can,” Richardson said. “But the longer you’re away from other people, the less trust you have for other people, so the harder it gets to break out and to reach out. And at that point, loneliness starts feeding in on itself. It becomes a self-perpetuating kind of cycle.”
Richardson said social interaction influences people in ways they’re not even aware of. Seeing another person express emotions, such as joy and pain, sparks a mirror response in the brain.
“The mere fact of making eye contact with them, or being in the same physical space as them, connects us to them in important ways,” he said. “It makes us acknowledge them as people, as fellow humans, as entities worthy of respect and autonomy.”
Fundamentally, Richardson said, it teaches people empathy.
“The longer we retreat from one another,” he said, “the longer we don’t share that physical space, the less empathetic we get, and the less we care about other people.”
There is also risk in social interaction, and humans are inherently risk-averse, Richardson said. People may want to avoid not just the risk of disease, but the risk of shame, embarrassment or rejection that comes with putting themselves out there in the world. The longer people stay protected, the more comfortable they may become.
“I think that when this abates, we’re going to have a lot of work ahead of us reacclimating and coming to terms with the fact that we need one another,” he said, “and that is worth the risks that we take.”
UNL alumna Willa Cather survived a pandemic from 1918-1920
University of Nebraska–Lincoln alumna Willa Cather was not only a famous writer, she also survived a pandemic. The so-called Spanish flu ripped across the globe from 1918 to 1920, its spread accelerated by the troop movements and combat conditions of World War I. At that time, Cather was in her 40s and living in New York City, having left teaching and magazine editing behind to be a full-time writer.
Cather’s letters describe some things that sound familiar today. She wrote to her mother that she needed to spend some time in the hospital, but her doctors suggested waiting until the flu had died down (Letter No. 2414). In the same letter, she added that her friend Ethel Litchfield was exhausted from caring for her sick children, so Cather had her over for a respite, complete with a good meal and a little time to rest by the fire. In a note to her Aunt Frances Smith Cather in November 1919, Cather said that she couldn’t write too much, as she had so many letters of condolence to write “to friends who have been bereaved by this terrible scourge of Influenza” (Letter No. 440).
Cather knew how brutal the flu could be — she caught it herself in September 1919 and had a bad time of it. She wrote to a friend, “I have been in bed with Influenza for two weeks, and it has ended in a stubborn bronchitis which refuses to quit me and keeps hovering on the edge of pneumonia. … I am simply unable to make any plans at present — I’ve had to call off ever so many engagements on account of this stupid illness” (Letter No. 474).
In an odd twist of literary fate, Cather’s bout with the flu ended up strongly influencing the novel she was writing at the time, the story of a Nebraska farm boy serving in what was then called the Great War. The doctor who treated her during her illness had previously been a physician on a troop transport ship that was struck with influenza. Cather borrowed the doctor’s journal and used it extensively when writing her novel.
That novel, “One of Ours,” won the Pulitzer Prize in 1923.
Please visit the Willa Cather Archive at cather.unl.edu to explore more of Cather’s life and letters. Thanks to the support of donors and UNL’s Center for Digital Research in the Humanities and University Libraries, this free online archive shares a vast collection of Cather material with the world. The collection includes not only Cather’s writing but also photos, letters, interviews and biographies.
UNL alumna Willa Cather survived a pandemic from 1918-1920.
UNK’s Big Blue Cupboard helps students in need.
Luis Olivas knows the contours of Grand Central Apple Market well.
He’s learned who the quickest baggers are and who will point out active markdowns.
Rolling through checkout with 45 TV dinners or enough produce to comfortably feed a residence hall typically elicits a second glance, a probing question or two.
Olivas has grown accustomed to the attention. One of his responsibilities as diversity coordinator in the Office of Student Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Nebraska at Kearney is to keep the Big Blue Cupboard stocked. So as the coronavirus emptied businesses throughout the country, Olivas was still making biweekly speed-runs through the grocery store, filling his cart with peculiar quantities of food.
Hundreds of students rely on the Big Blue Cupboard — and, in turn, Olivas — whether learning is remote or not. To keep the cupboard operational during the spring, Olivas alternated shifts with Juan Guzman, director of the Office of Student Diversity and Inclusion.
Both were first-generation, Latino college students who earned associate degrees at Central Community College before attending and serving UNK.
“We have many immigrant and international students as well as refugee and asylum-seeking students,” Olivas said. “Thus, it’s super important for them to be able to see somebody that has been in their shoes to not only create empathy but also to be able to relate on a personal level.”
As an undergraduate student, when Guzman returned to Kearney from weekend trips home to Grand Island, he made sure to have meals in tow.
He vividly remembers the hunger that comes from prioritizing tuition or rent as a month winds to a close. And he remembers the strength of a community that lifts each member in times of need.
“Juan is a big inspiration to UNK students and the UNK community,” said Sergio Ceja, a Loper graduate who’s currently studying at the University of Alabama.
Olivas said, “He’s one of the university’s biggest assets. If it wasn’t for him, dozens if not hundreds of students wouldn’t have been able to come to college or realize their full potential.”
Nineteen years after Guzman arrived at UNK, his most indelible marks can be found in a quiet corner on the first floor of the student union.
After watching a conference presentation on food insecurity, Guzman vowed to bring a food pantry to his alma mater. The Big Blue Cupboard opened in April 2012 and has since served thousands of students, staff and community members, with an average of 1,200 food and hygiene items distributed each month.
“We have many students from different backgrounds, so we always make sure to have certain ingredients, to make sure we meet those cultural needs,” Guzman said.
Students can use a mobile app to shop for items, which in turn helps employees learn the diet of the student body. And understanding that audience is paramount.
“We can have 5,000 creamed corn cans in there,” Olivas said, “but that doesn’t mean students are going to take them.”
That the cupboard is tucked away from the hustle and bustle of campus isn’t by accident. Stigmas can turn hungry students away, so Guzman was careful in the planning phase to mitigate this issue.
Even as students left campus during the COVID-19 pandemic, Guzman and Olivas saw an immediate uptick in demand, with more than 1,000 items leaving the shelves over a single week. Frozen meals went especially fast, as daily food trips were suddenly questionable. So Guzman and Olivas submitted a request for a second deep freezer.
Approval was granted within five minutes.
“We can’t say enough about the leadership here,” Guzman said.
Shortly after Chancellor Doug Kristensen announced that in-person classes would be suspended, he raised an additional $10,000 for the cupboard in private donations.
“Putting food on the tables of students is the most fundamental thing I can do to help,” Kristensen said.
Kristensen has led UNK for nearly two decades. Campus support for The Big Blue Cupboard is on the short list of what makes him most proud.
“When you watch our students give their own time and money to go out and serve those meals, I’ll remember that for a very long time,” he said.
Stepping into the unknown was an on-the-fly exercise for everyone, Guzman said, but it was deftly navigated, from the top down.
Speaking on the phone at the cupboard, Olivas said, “Even though most of our students may not physically be here, they know that we as staff and faculty are 100 percent there for them. That connection has not been lost.”
The cupboard is home to a thousand ingredients and two eternal vows:
No student should go hungry.
What’s mine is yours.
“I feel like that sets UNK and the University of Nebraska system apart: Even though our buildings may be closed, the learning is still happening,” Olivas said. “Those students are still being provided for. They are still safe.”
UNMC and Nebraska Medicine are among those helping care for people who may be affected in some way by the coronavirus. They expertly handled the treatment of patients with Ebola and are among the leaders in the treatment, training and quarantine methods for highly infectious diseases.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln researchers at the Nebraska Center for Virology want to stop the next pandemic before it starts. Here are three people who want to keep another virus from upending society: a scientist, a graduate student and the founder of NCV.
Meet someone who is absolutely certain he knows what the next epidemic or pandemic will be. His name is Eric Weaver, Ph.D., and he is a UNL biology professor who does research at NCV.
“I know what’s next,” Weaver said. “It’s influenza. There hasn’t been a year on record where we don’t have it. There are hundreds of thousands of deaths worldwide. On average, 30,000 people in the United States die from influenza on a normal year. That’s just something that we have for some reason found OK.”
Weaver has decided that it’s not OK, and he has devoted his career to battling viruses. His current research is based on one key idea: Delve back into the flu’s genetic past to avoid the matching game. Every year, epidemiologists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization pick a strain of the flu to inoculate people with, hoping that they correctly guess which strain is going to be particularly virulent that year. Sometimes they guess wrong, like they did last year. Flu shots help, but Weaver puts their effectiveness at about 74%.
Everyone knows that part of the problem is that the flu mutates constantly. Weaver’s research aims to address that.
“The idea is to design a vaccine through an analysis of the genetic code of influenza,” Weaver said. “We analyze and string together short stretches of the flu virus proteins, termed epitopes. By selecting and stringing together the most common epitopes, we are likely recreating ancestral forms of the flu, and these ancestral sequences can be used to create broadly protective vaccines. So far, our studies indicate that these vaccines do, indeed, induce protection against a wide array of divergent flu viruses.”
The goal: a vaccine that protects against multiple, if not all, strains of the flu and lasts a lifetime. Initial tests in mice and swine show that the idea works, and Weaver and his team are now waiting for funding to take the testing to the next level.
Diseases don’t always receive funding proportional to the number of people they impact, Weaver noted. Every year, a flu epidemic or pandemic has a significant impact in terms of lost working hours and burden on the health care system, in addition to thousands of deaths, primarily among the older population.
“When you’re talking about someone who’s elderly dying from the flu, they shouldn’t be dismissed,” Weaver said. “Why is a day in the life of someone who’s older less valuable than any other day for any other person?”
While he had hoped never to see a pandemic like COVID-19, Weaver knows what he wants people to learn from this experience.
“The main message that I want people to take away from this pandemic is: Let’s not forget,” said Weaver. “Let’s not brush this aside once we get through it. Future pandemics are inevitable, so it’s important to fund the science and do really comprehensive research now, so that in a future pandemic, we have a head start.”
What did you do with your summer vacation?
Four years ago, before she had even earned her bachelor’s degree, Brianna Bullard was able to answer: “Develop a vaccine for the Zika virus.”
In 2016, Bullard was one of two undergraduate students selected out of 500 for a summer immersion experience at NCV. Zika was raging at the time, and she wanted to help fight it. After her work to develop the vaccine, Bullard was hooked. She had found what she wanted to do.
While the Zika vaccine worked splendidly in mice, it never received the funding needed to test it in humans. Undaunted, Bullard returned to UNL, this time for graduate school. She’s back at the NCV working with Weaver to create a better flu vaccine. In May 2021, she plans to graduate with a Ph.D. in virology and find a job where she can continue doing research to produce better vaccines.
So what’s it like studying viruses during the COVID-19 pandemic?
“It’s definitely made me appreciate my decision to go into virology,” said Bullard. “I originally wanted to do science that in the end would help people. I got lucky that I ended up in a lab that works on vaccine development. What can get more applied than that? I want my research to help people, to help the world.”
“The story of the Nebraska Center for Virology is really about donors. Donors made this happen.”
Charles Wood, Ph.D., is a UNL biology and biochemistry professor and NCV researcher who holds the Lewis Lehr/3M University Professorship. He helped found the NCV in 2000, bringing together scientists from Creighton University and the University of Nebraska Medical Center to study viruses in humans, plants and animals.
The NCV story begins with UNL alumnus and businessman Lewis “Lew” Lehr. In 1986, Lehr had endowed a chair in molecular genetics and biology, hoping to attract a top-notch scientist to the University of Nebraska. It worked. In 1996, Wood came to UNL, in part because the fund supported by Lehr through the University of Nebraska Foundation would enable him to take the first steps toward starting the NCV and also to continue his work fighting HIV in Africa.
“I came here with the goal of building a program that Lew had envisioned, focused on human genetics, more biomedical,” Wood said. “I was able to use the initial support to recruit a couple of researchers in virology, expanding and supporting the work that I do.”
The fellowship money enabled Wood to lay the groundwork for a strong research program, which then meant he was able to successfully apply for a $10 million grant from the National Institutes of Health. The NCV was off to a great start, but Wood knew it needed a building of its own. He wanted to bring together the UNL scientists who were scattered all over campus in different buildings because they were affiliated with different departments.
Another donor stepped forward to make that happen. Thanks to Hastings, Nebraska, businessman Ken Morrison (1921-2015), the NCV brought together all of the UNL scientists in 2008 in the new Ken Morrison Life Sciences Research Center, which was expanded in 2014.
“We were able to build a cluster strength in plant, animal and human virus research and to build a very strong training environment for the next generation of researchers and scientists,” said Wood. “We are known as one of the strongest virology programs in the country.”
The NCV’s projects are varied and include everything from plant defensive systems to viruses that attack swine, cows and other animals. One lab has developed a vaccine for porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus which has been licensed to a pharmaceutical company for commercialization. Another team is studying a smallpox-like virus and how it evades the host’s immune system. Human diseases under the microscope at NCV include HIV, herpes, many strains of influenza, human cancer viruses like the papillomavirus that causes cervical cancer, and emerging diseases such as Zika.
“The environment is wonderful for the research,” Wood said of the Ken Morrison Life Sciences Research Center. “And I think that plays a big part in our successes.”
On Jan. 1, Walter “Ted” Carter became the eighth president of the University of Nebraska. He came to Nebraska from the U.S. Naval Academy his
Last updated April 1, 2020 This is information about how the University of Nebraska Foundation is responding to the COVID-19 public health crisis as we
How UNMC and Nebraska Medicine became the nation’s first responders in the fight against COVID-19.
For 15 years, the University of Nebraska Medical Center and Nebraska Medicine prepared for this moment.
They trained their physicians, nurses and staff to wear personal protective equipment — the heavy hazmat-style layers that protect against dangerous pathogens — perfected medical procedures under the weight of those layers and ran drills on providing care in areas of deadly contamination.
In the wake of 9/11, as the country scrambled to respond to a new, devastating threat, hospitals, universities and state governments were called on to prepare. For what was unclear. The veiled, recondite threat of terrorism meant unknown dangers, including the possibility of biological warfare, thrown into sharp relief by the series of anthrax attacks that followed the World Trade Center’s fall.
Few responded to the call with the diligence of UNMC and Nebraska Medicine. Immediately, their leadership began drawing up plans for a biocontainment unit: a 10-bed facility, the largest of its kind at the time, fitted with negative air flow, a pressurized entrance and decontamination autoclaves, which would provide a safe environment to deal with the world’s worst pathogens.
“We took it seriously,” said Ken Bayles, Ph.D., executive director of basic science research for UNMC’s Global Center for Health Security. “Not only did we stand it up and invest in and build this structure, but we prepared year after year.”
The Nebraska Biocontainment Unit officially opened in 2005. Then it sat empty, as the world waited and attention drifted to other things. But it was never unused. UNMC and Nebraska Medicine continued to prepare — training staff, running drills, learning and getting better.
Then, in 2014, Ebola hit West Africa, and U.S. physicians and a journalist who had been exposed to the deadly virus were flown to the place best equipped to treat them: Nebraska.
Two patients were treated and discharged; one, whose disease was advanced by the time he arrived, didn’t make it home. It was a defining experience for the team. It gave them practical knowledge that advanced their understanding of pathogens and how to treat and contain them. It also led to further federal partnerships and the establishment of the National Ebola Training and Education Center (NETEC), which trains health professionals nationwide to prepare for catastrophic diseases.
“One thing we learned from taking care of the Ebola patients,” said Cheryl Rand, clinical operations lead of the Nebraska Biocontainment Unit, “is no one got sick. The disease didn’t spread anywhere from here. So we knew we could do that again.”
They continued to prepare. NETEC grew; it has now reached more than 120 hospitals nationwide, and NETEC staff has trained more than 8,000 health professionals on deadly pathogen preparedness.
“I would say the majority of hospitals in the country in one way or another have benefited from NETEC training,” said James Lawler, M.D., executive director of international programs and innovation at the global center.
Few could have predicted how necessary that training would prove to be — the devastating scale of what was to come as COVID-19 began to ravage communities around the world.
But UNMC and Nebraska Medicine’s preparedness and expertise have helped not just Nebraska or even just the U.S. but the whole world battle the pandemic. They treated some of the U.S.’s first COVID-19 patients. They conducted some of the earliest virus tests and clinical treatment trials. Their leadership ran models of the virus’s spread and was critical in informing state and federal policy.
Fifteen years of gathering expertise, running drills over and over and preparing for every scenario put UNMC and Nebraska Medicine in a position to make a substantial difference in one of the world’s most deadly and dramatic crises. They were front and center in the global fight — right here in Nebraska.
Carl Goldman and his wife were sitting at dinner when the captain of the Diamond Princess cruise ship made an announcement. A passenger, who had recently visited Hong Kong, had come down with a new form of coronavirus — the same virus that had led to a lockdown in Wuhan, China, and was slowly drawing the world’s attention. It was Feb. 3. They were docked in Yokohama, Japan, and it was their last night of a trip around Southeast Asia. Goldman, who owns a radio station in Santa Clarita, California, said Japanese officials began working their way through the passengers, taking temperatures and logging their travel histories.
But that was before anyone knew how quickly and easily this virus could spread.
By the next day, 10 passengers were reported to have a fever, and everyone was told to go into quarantine in their cabins.
“Each day, the numbers went up,” Goldman said, as more and more passengers were taken off the ship. “It put us into a definite tense, tense situation.”
By Feb. 11, 135 passengers were infected.
The next day, Lawler, who has a long career working on pandemic preparedness in the federal government and field experience treating Ebola patients in sub-Saharan Africa, was asked to fly immediately to Japan to assist an operation to evacuate every American on board.
“It was a hastily assembled team that went out there to manage a situation that nobody ever had before,” Lawler said.
Lawler’s team, equipped with special helmets and breathing air from portable PAPRs (powered air-purifying respirators) boarded the ship Friday, Feb. 14. They were tasked with locating every American, screening and testing them, and moving them to cargo jets set to arrive two days later.
By 10 p.m. Sunday night, Lawler and the team had tracked down and briefly assessed the more than 400 Americans on board the ship.
They rushed the passengers to the waiting cargo planes. It was a chaotic departure, but Lawler knew if he could just get them to Omaha, they would be safe and UNMC could contain the virus.
Finally on the plane, Goldman, who had fallen asleep after an exhausting few days, woke with a fever of 103. He and the other 12 sick passengers were routed to Omaha, where they landed Feb. 17.
Inside the Nebraska Biocontainment Unit, UNMC’s nurses and physicians were ready for the patients to arrive. They waited, encased in full-body suits of impermeable material, three layers of nitrile gloves, knee-high protective boot covers and PAPRs pulled overhead with clear face shields and tubes pumping in clean air.
“We’ve been training for years and years for all of this,” Rand said. “Our staff was ready.”
Some patients were treated in the BCU; others were taken to the 20-bed National Quarantine Center — the nation’s only federal quarantine facility — which, along with a state-of-the-art simulated biocontainment unit for advanced experiential training, is housed on the ground floor of the Dr. Edwin G. & Dorothy Balbach Davis Global Center.
While the biocontainment unit had been operational since 2005, the quarantine center had opened Jan. 29 — less than three weeks before the first COVID-19 patients arrived.
“We ended up housing people (in the quarantine unit) who needed a relatively significant amount of medical attention,” Lawler said. “The staffing plan had to be reinvented on the fly. And I think it’s a testament to the flexibility and just the quality of our team that our folks are able to do that so quickly.”
For the health care workers in the units, the first days were stressful, but the muscle memory ingrained by years of training quickly took over.
The staff routinely put in 13-hour shifts or longer, and when they left the hospital, the work never really left them.
“It’s the two o’clock in the morning conversation you’re having with yourself about things that you want to make sure that you get done,” said Morgan Shradar, clinical education coordinator for the Nebraska Biocontainment Unit.
But they felt privileged to be doing something so important. The challenging days fell away in their memories. Talk to them now, and all they will recall are the high points: the days when patients got to go home and they succeeded in keeping people safe.
“We were here as long as it took,” Shradar said. “I hate to quantify it. It doesn’t matter. We were here.”
Goldman, who spent 10 days in the BCU and 19 more in quarantine, said the nurses and physicians who cared for him were his “angels.”
“They were just unbelievable,” he said. “All of the staff in Nebraska have that Midwest, really wonderful attitude of looking you in the eye and really caring and being sympathetic and compassionate.”
The staff helped the patients talk to each other about their experiences and eased their feelings of fear and isolation as much as they could. Goldman spent his 67th birthday in the BCU, and the staff brought him a slice of cake, wrapped in plastic, and a balloon that hung in the corner of the room throughout his stay.
“The whole time I was there, I kept thinking … that if I had to be anywhere in the world, it would be here,” Goldman said. “I ended in the right spot at the right time.”
On March 18, the last passenger of the Diamond Princess left quarantine. But by that time, there were 6,520 known cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. and more than 205,000 worldwide. The focus shifted from containing the virus to “flattening the curve.”
UNMC and Nebraska Medicine prepared the hospital and intensive care units for an influx of patients. For the biocontainment team and global center experts, that meant shifting to a training role, not just for other areas of their own hospital, but for hospitals state- and countrywide.
That meant taking their training on the road to hospitals and essential workplaces that stayed open while schools and many other businesses had closed. It also meant turning their attention to testing, treatment and every other aspect of fighting a global pandemic.
Once again, they led the way. The Nebraska Public Health Laboratory, which is partially housed in the biocontainment unit, was one of the first to be licensed to run COVID-19 tests. UNMC was the first site of a federally sponsored trial, which ultimately expanded to 68 sites, of remdesivir, a promising COVID-19 treatment, which was fast-tracked for approval by the Food and Drug Administration in late April.
“We were the first site in the world to activate that critically important study,” said Chris Kratochvil, M.D., executive director of clinical research for the global center. “Because patients came here for care early in the outbreak, we were teed up for it.”
Meanwhile, Bayles worked with a team in South Dakota to develop virus antibodies, which could be used therapeutically or to protect health care workers. John-Martin Lowe, Ph.D., executive director of training and education at the global center, developed a system to decontaminate health care workers’ safety respirators using ultraviolet light that was a breakthrough with worldwide implications as hospitals everywhere battled with supply shortages. Lawler developed virus models that guided state and federal policies on social distancing and curbing the virus.
“I think it’s clear that the vision of university leadership has always been to create UNMC as an international leader,” Lawler said. “The prescience of that vision is now playing out.”
As COVID-19 and the vast economic toll it has taken on the world play out, the leadership, physicians, nurses and staff at UNMC and Nebraska Medicine credit teamwork for helping them succeed in this crisis.
“None of what we’ve done could have been done alone,” Kratochvil said.
Now they hope there’s time to take stock before the next crisis hits.
“These sorts of scenarios don’t happen in isolation of one another,” said Shelly Schwedhelm, executive director of emergency management and biopreparedness at Nebraska Medicine. “We need to pause, and we need to learn from what went on, and do that in a big way … to understand what we need to do better next time and try to get things put in place for whatever is the future.”
Because Schwedhelm knows, as everyone does at UNMC and Nebraska Medicine, that whatever comes, they will be there.
On the front lines.