By Justin Sink, Elise Viebeck - 09/16/14 06:00 AM EDT
President Obama will announce new steps in the fight against the Ebola epidemic decimating West Africa on Tuesday amid criticism the White House hasn’t paid enough attention to the crisis.
The president will travel to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) headquarters in Atlanta, where he will outline new plans to surge supplies and medical care to treat victims of the deadly disease.
The U.S., working with international partners, will also help distribute some 400,000 home health care kits in West Africa with disinfectant, sanitizers, medications, and information about transporting those who have contracted Ebola to care units. And the U.S. will establish a regional staging base and command headquarters to help coordinate U.S. and international work to contain the disease.
The Pentagon is allocating up $500 million from its overseas contingency fund to back the effort, which it has dubbed Operation United Assistance.
Separately, the president will also urge Congress to approve a request for $88 million earmarked to combat the outbreak and develop Ebola treatments. Those funds are included in a stopgap spending measure to fund the government that Congress is expected to approve this week.
And U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha PowerSamantha PowerFormer Portuguese leader, refugee chief primed to be new UN head Dem urges support for UN human rights resolution on Yemen Obama’s November surprise MORE will lead a meeting of the Security Council on this topic later this week.
Tuesday’s announcements comes after weeks of pleading from global health officials and aid workers in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, where cases of Ebola are concentrated. It could help shape Obama's legacy on global health amid criticism that America's first black president has not focused enough on Africa during his tenure.
The unprecedented Ebola outbreak poses little immediate threat to the United States but has overwhelmed the fragile health systems of West Africa, where cases have grown exponentially.
Nearly 4,800 individuals have been infected with Ebola this year, and half of that group has died from hemorrhaging related to the virus, the World Health Organization said this week.
World leaders are wrangling over how to address a dangerous vacuum of leadership and resources in the region.
The White House is facing sharp criticism over its previous actions in the outbreak, which aid workers have lamented as insufficient half-measures given rapidly deteriorating conditions on the ground.
So far, the Obama administration has committed roughly $175 million for multiple agencies specifically to fight Ebola. The CDC has deployed about 100 healthcare workers to the region, USAID has its own teams on the ground, and the Pentagon is working to establish a 25-bed temporary hospital in Liberia to treat ill healthcare workers.
Aid workers saw these actions as token gestures, however, given the need for literally thousands of hospital beds and healthcare workers on the ground.
The 25-bed temporary hospital is a particular sore spot given its small size and the fact that it could take more than one month to arrive in West Africa.
Administration officials say it will also be weeks before U.S. military personnel are fully deployed to the region, although the Pentagon hopes to have a general officer overseeing the coordinated effort in place by the end of this week.
Even now, some experts warn that it may be too little too late.
“The mobilization that is happening is coming late, and it's coming while exponential growth of the virus itself is just outstripping everyone,” said J. Stephen Morrison, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“The collapse of security and flight access, the closure of borders, the regression of the economy, the fear of the people — all of those things create this absolutely formidable environment.”
“I'm very distressed,” said Laurie Garrett, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations. “I don't think we're even close to playing catch up, much less mount a response that will get us ahead of the virus.”
The White House on Monday defended its efforts on the crisis so far, saying it had been early to sound the alarm.
“The United States responded pretty aggressively to this back in March, when this outbreak was first reported,” White House spokesman Earnest said. “And since that time, our assistance has been steadily ramping up.”
But Earnest acknowledged the unique role the United States will have to play in responding to the outbreak, saying America is the “only nation in the world” with the “unique capabilities to respond to this.”
An administration official said Tuesday's announcement reflected the priority President Obama had placed on combating the disease.
"If we do not arrest that growth now, we could be looking at hundreds of thousands of cases," the official said.
Experts say that the plans for a U.S.-led military command-and-control system could help supersede haggling among governments.
The idea that U.S. infusions of support could help without centralized management of the epidemic is the “height of folly,” Garrett said.
“Even if we do airlift massive supplies, who in the hell is going to make sure that things don't end up on the black market?” she said.
“Who is going to make sure they're divided equitably and not based on politics? Who is doing that? Who is in charge? We have nobody in charge.”
African officials, while conscious of maintaining sovereignty, appear to be increasingly more open to a centralized response. Administration officials said they had worked with regional partners while developing the response.
Notably, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf suggested last month that she would never surrender her government's role to international partners.
In a dramatic departure, Johnson Sirleaf begged Obama for help in a letter obtained on Friday by the New York Times.
“I am being honest with you when I say that at this rate, we will never break the transmission chain and the virus will overwhelm us,” Johnson Sirleaf wrote.