Pentagon: US troops to have contact with Ebola virus
Several dozen U.S. troops could come into contact with Ebola while testing for the deadly disease in Liberia, the Pentagon said Tuesday.
The highly trained troops will help operate seven mobile labs, where they could be working with the blood of infected patients, Army Gen. David Rodriguez said. The new details on the military’s response to Ebola reveals a riskier operation than previously announced by the White House, surfacing fresh concerns of troops entering high-risk zones.
The U.S. response did not previously involve military members helping to diagnose patients, though Rodriguez maintained that troops will be adequately protected against the disease.
“I am confident that we can ensure our service members’ safety and the safety of their families and the American people,” Rodriguez, who leads the U.S. Africa Command, said at a Pentagon briefing.
U.S. troops are already running three mobile testing labs, doubling Liberia’s lab capacity, and plan to set up four more. The labs will receive up to 100 samples per day from local clinics and will be able to give a diagnosis in hours, instead of several days.
Military personnel who work in the laboratories are trained “at the very, very high level,” Rodriguez said. He added that the troops will wear protective suits and be constantly monitored.
“They will be the primary ones that come in contact with anybody,” he added.
During the briefing, Rodriguez said the military’s trained health workers could come into contact with infected patients. But he later corrected the record, stressing that military personnel would work only with samples.
Pentagon officials say as many as 4,000 U.S. troops will deploy to West Africa to contain the spread of the virus, which has killed 3974 people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and could infect as many as 1.4 million.
They say most of the troops will work on constructing treatment centers, training local healthcare providers and helping with the logistics of the global effort — away from the general population.
But Dr. Bill Miller, an infectious disease expert and scientific adviser with OmniBiome Therapeutics, warned some troop members would still face “enormous” risk.
He questioned the use of the military to prevent the spread of the disease, describing the strategy as “an extreme measure at an extreme moment.”
“This is not the proper way to use the military,” Miller said. “If we had done our jobs properly, nationally and internationally, these would not be the people that we would normally use.”
The U.S. military is expected to play a crucial role in the fight against Ebola in West Africa, where waves of volunteers have abandoned their posts out of fear and exhaustion.
Though the African Union deployed what it termed “healthkeepers” last month, nearly all healthcare providers on the ground are volunteers.
So far, 350 military personnel and 130 other U.S. workers are on the ground in West Africa, which the White House called the largest-ever U.S. response to an international health crisis. The United Kingdom is also gearing up to send about 100 military medics to help build treatment facilities in Sierra Leone.
Obama’s plan to send up to 4,000 troops to the front lines of the outbreak has raised safety concerns among top lawmakers, including House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).
Paul said last week that he feared troops in West Africa could spread the disease into the U.S., where one patient has already been diagnosed with Ebola.
“If you’ve ever been on a Carnival cruise line and seen a virus spread on a Carnival cruise line, imagine what it’d be like on our military ships,” Paul told conservative talk show host Laura Ingraham.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, dismissed Paul’s concern during an interview with “Face the Nation” on Sunday.
“I’m sorry, but that’s really not a concern,” Fauci said. “First of all, the troops that are going over there are going to be fundamentally for logistic purposes — command, control, engineering, setting up the hospitals. They’re well trained. They will not be in direct risk in the sense of contact with individuals.”
If troops are infected with Ebola, the Pentagon said they would be flown back to the U.S., where five Ebola patients have already been treated.
Federal officials have described the response to Ebola as largely humanitarian-driven. The White House said last month that U.S. efforts would “entail command and control, logistics, expertise, training and engineering support.”
The only time U.S. officials had mentioned the possibility of U.S. military personnel coming into contact with Ebola was in the context of 65 trained public health corps officers overseeing care for other healthcare workers who had become infected.
There was no mention of direct diagnostics at any of the labs. Rodriguez said Tuesday that the labs “were not in the initial plan.”
Concerns over troop safety from the top Republican on the Senate Armed Force Committee continue to hold up millions of federal dollars to combat Ebola.
Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) is refusing to sign off on the $1 billion budget — which comes from redirected funds within the Department of Defense — until he learns how the military will be protected from the virus.
Inhofe has yet to receive a response, a spokeswoman said Tuesday, though she said it’s expected to come by the end of the week.
International aid groups have warned that staffing and supplies to fight Ebola remain critically low as U.S. help continues to trickle slowly into the region.
The federal government has so far spent just $208 million, with most of the money going toward disease detection, potential treatments, improving field hospitals and training community health workers.
The United Nations has called for at least $1 billion to stop Ebola, though just one-quarter of that amount has been spent.
This story was updated at 5:28 p.m.