The American strategy on Ebola is two-pronged: step up desperately needed aid to West Africa and, in an unusual step, train U.S. doctors and nurses for volunteer duty in the outbreak zone. At home, the goal is to speed up medical research and put hospitals on alert should an infected traveler arrive.
Amid criticism that the world still is not acting fast enough against the surging Ebola epidemic, President Barack Obama travels today to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to discuss the outbreak with health officials who’ve been there. The Obama administration is ramping up its response to West Africa’s Ebola crisis, preparing to assign 3,000 U.S. military personnel to the afflicted region to supply medical and logistical support to overwhelmed local health care systems and to boost the number of beds needed to isolate and treat victims of the epidemic. Pres. Obama planned to announce the stepped up effort today during his visit to the CDC amid alarm that the outbreak could spread and that the deadly virus could mutate into a more easily transmitted disease.
The officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the plans ahead of Obama’s announcement, said the cost of the effort would come from $500 million in overseas contingency operations, such as the war in Afghanistan, that the Pentagon already has asked Congress to redirect to carry out humanitarian efforts in Iraq and in West Africa. The officials said it would take about two weeks to get U.S. forces on the ground. The U.S. has spent more than $100 million responding to the outbreak and has offered to operate treatment centers for patients.
While at the CDC, Obama also will be briefed about cases of respiratory illness being reported in the Midwest, the White House said. Public health officials are monitoring a high number of reported illnesses associated with human enterovirus 68 in Iowa, Kansas, Ohio and elsewhere.
Also today, a Senate hearing will examine the U.S. response. An American missionary doctor who survived the disease is scheduled to testify.
“This is also not everything we can and should be doing,” Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., who chairs a Foreign Relations subcommittee that oversees African issues, told the Senate last week.
He called for expanded military efforts and for Obama to appoint someone to coordinate the entire government’s Ebola response.
“I’ve heard from organizations that have worked to transport donated supplies and can fill cargo plane after cargo plane but are having difficulty getting it all to West Africa,” Coons added, urging government assistance.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Monday that the U.S. “responded pretty aggressively” when the outbreak first was reported and “since that time, our assistance has steadily been ramping up.”
Supplies aren’t the greatest need. “Trained health professionals for these Ebola treatment units is a critical shortage,” said CDC’s Steve Monroe.
Aiming to spur them, the CDC is beginning to train volunteer health workers headed for West Africa on how to stay safe, Monroe said. CDC sent its own staff to learn from Doctors Without Borders, which has the most experience in Ebola outbreaks. CDC will offer the course at a facility in Anniston, Alabama, for the next few months, teaching infection-control and self-protection and letting volunteers—expected to be mostly from nongovernment aid groups — practice patient triage.
“It’s gone beyond an Ebola crisis to a humanitarian crisis. It does require more of a U.S. government-wide response, more than just CDC,” Monroe said.