Nearly 2,200 U.S. troops are in West Africa today, working to stop the spread of Ebola, and that number will peak just short of 3,000 next month, according to the task force commander.
"We will top out in the middle of December just short of 3,000 and that's the most we'll bring into the country," said Maj. Gen. Gary Volesky, commander of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), and Joint Force Command - Operation United Assistance.
That is about 1,000 troops less than a previous estimate, but Volesky said there's more capacity in Liberia than planners thought because of the U.S. Agency for International Development, known as USAID, whose personnel have been in Liberia for months, and because of efforts by the government of Liberia and many non-governmental organizations.
Volesky spoke during a teleconference from Monrovia, Liberia, with the Pentagon press corps, Wednesday (Nov. 12).
The rate of increase of Ebola is much lower than it has been over the last couple of months, "but there are new cases every single day here in Liberia, so we are supporting USAID in building Ebola treatment units, training health care workers," and sustaining treatment units, Volesky said.
Thanks to pre-deployment and continuous training and monitoring, he said, no military personnel have shown symptoms of Ebola.
"We continue to sustain their training and talk about how to make sure they don't put themselves at risk. And our chain of command and leadership are very involved in making sure our [Service members] are adhering to those standards," Volesky said.
"You won't see Soldiers roaming all over Liberia," he added. "We've got it very controlled. They go places where there's a mission and we make sure we're following all those protocols."
On the ground in Monrovia, the first two treatment units have opened.
The Monrovia medical unit for health care workers opened its doors a week ago. Volesky called it a strategic treatment unit "because it is hopefully giving the international community confidence that if they have people come to Liberia [who] get infected, there's a place for them."
Another unit, the Tubmanburg Ebola Treatment Unit, opened a few days ago -- a joint venture with members of the Liberian armed forces, who Volesky said did much of the work, with U.S. oversight for electricity and plumbing.
Eventually, there will be 17 treatment units, with three or four more completed before the end of November and, depending on weather and other considerations, the rest should be completed before the end of December, the general said.
In addition to treatment units, an increase in mobile diagnostic labs in and around Monrovia has been a game-changer, he added.
It used to take days to determine from a blood sample whether an individual had Ebola, Volesky said. "Now that's determined in a few hours," he added, reducing the chances that people waiting for diagnoses might infect each other with Ebola or another disease.
Of the nine labs in or near Monrovia, Volesky said, seven are DOD labs, one is a Centers for Disease Control-National Institutes of Health mobile lab, and the other is a European Union-donated mobile lab.
Liberia also has a permanent national reference laboratory that DOD and National Institutes of Health have supported to help build the facility's testing capacity. A reference lab is one that performs quality, high-volume or specialty testing of biological samples for physicians, hospitals and other laboratories.
SOLDIERS' PARTNERSHIP EFFORT
The effort to stop the spread of Ebola is testing Soldiers' agility and ability to work with multiple partners.
Dr. Rajiv Shah, the administrator for USAID, described the effort as "the largest U.S. response to a global health crisis in history."
Shah and others spoke at a House Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing on "Combating Ebola in West Africa," today.
He termed the effort a "whole-of-government approach," during his opening testimony. Besides USAID, the Army and the other services, he said partners on the ground in West Africa include the Department of State, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Forest Service.
International partners include the World Health Organization, the World Food Program, and UNICEF, and non-governmental organizations such as International Medical Corps and Global Communities," he continued.
"Ultimately, the ramp-up of civilian, [non-governmental organization], host country, and international partner capacity will enable our military to transition home," he added.
Now and in the coming years and decades, Soldiers will increasingly serve with counterparts from the other services as well as multinational and interagency partners, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno announced last month in his keynote address at the opening of the Association of the United States Army's annual meeting.
He was referring to the new Army Operating Concept that provides a blueprint for the way ahead in a complex and dangerous world, a world in which an epidemic like Ebola, as well as trans-national terrorism, can pose a national security threat for the U.S. in unpredictable ways.
Michael D. Lumpkin, who also testified, said the Ebola epidemic "is not only a global threat, but a national security priority for the U.S."
Lumpkin is the assistant secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict.
The military's "unique capabilities, specifically speed and scale," give USAID and other agencies "the time necessary to expand and deploy their own capabilities," he said.
Also, "U.S. military efforts are helping galvanize a more robust and coordinated international effort, which is urgently needed to contain this threat and reduce human suffering in West Africa," he added.
Lumpkin reiterated that the safety and well-being of the U.S. military in West Africa is of utmost importance. Although U.S. military personnel are not in direct contact with Ebola patients, should a Service member be exposed to the virus "we have procedures in place to evacuate [them to Centers of Disease Control and Prevention]-designated advanced care facilities in the U.S."
In conclusion, Lumpkin applauded the Army's role.
"Volesky and the deploying elements of his command bring not only significant operational capabilities to support the mission's lines of effort, but also the command-and-control structure necessary to coordinate U.S. military efforts with other entities," he said.
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