The Pentagon is beginning a new chapter in its broadening efforts to fight Ebola. A 30-person team of medical specialists training at Fort Sam Houston in Texas are expected to wrap up on Saturday, DOD spokesman Lt. Col. Tom Crosson said.
The group, the Pentagon’s equivalent of a medical SWAT team, consists of 15 members of the Army, nine from the Navy and six from the Air Force. They will then enter “on-call status,” ready to deploy within a 72-hour notification anywhere in the United States to train and assist civilian medical personnel should Ebola emerge, as it did at the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas in late September.
“There is a huge nucleus of joint military medical knowledge and training resources that exists in the San Antonio community,” said Air Force Col. John DeGoes, command surgeon for U.S. Northern Command, including the Defense Health Agency’s Medical Education and Training Campus and the Brooke Army Medical Center.
Seven mobile laboratories are planned for construction in Liberia, as well as 17 Ebola Treatment Units, or ETUs, in at least seven of the West African nation’s 15 counties. A team from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers just deployed to Liberia to help construct the ETUs—which aren’t scheduled to be completed until at least November. The Liberian Defense Ministry already has teams of their own engineers working alongside American troops building those 100-bed ETUs.
There are now almost 700 U.S. troops in Africa helping in the effort to build up Liberia’s lagging medical infrastructure for the Ebola fight —581 are in Liberia and another 117 are helping with logistics in Senegal, according to the Defense Department.
President Barack Obama has approved up to 3,200 troops for the mission, called “Operation United Assistance.”
On Friday, members of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform Committee will hear from U.S. officials helping coordinate efforts to stop Ebola. The witnesses include Marine Corps Maj. Gen. James Lariviere, the Defense Department’s deputy director of political and military affairs for Africa, and Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict Michael Lumpkin.
Ebola has claimed nearly 5,000 lives in Africa—though World Health Organization officials said Wednesday that number could be closer to 15,000. There has been just one confirmed death in the U.S.
In Liberia, Navy teams from the U.S. Naval Medical Research Center in Silver Spring, Md., have reduced the wait time for diagnosing Ebola from two to five days down to three to five hours, according to WHO, the result of the mobile laboratories processing blood specimens from the Island Clinic in nearby Monrovia.
“The first thing we do with a blood sample is inactivate the Ebola virus, making the virus non-infectious and safer for testing,” said Chief Petty Officer Jerrold Diederich, a command chief at the Naval Medical Research Center currently in Liberia.
From there, they extract the genetic material from the blood before making enough copies that the presence of Ebola can be confirmed. As many as 16 samples can be tested in each of the three mobile labs currently up and running.
The Army is also sending a three-year $8.5 million grant to Baltimore biotech company Profectus and Galveston National Laboratory researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. The grant will help fund the development of a vaccine for both the Ebola virus and Marburg viruses. The Pentagon, in partnership with the National Institutes of Health, has already begun work toward testing a second vaccine initially developed in Canada.
In a video address to troops on Tuesday, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said, “We are doing what we do best—leveraging our unique capabilities to support the international and the U.S. effort in response to this crisis.”
“This mission is a national security priority,” he said.
Maj. Gen. William, commander of U.S. Army Africa, said they’re being careful about the risks involved to troops. “Yesterday, I had my temperature taken, I think, eight times, before I got on and off aircraft, before I went in and out of the embassy, before I went out of my place where I’m staying,“ Williams said last week. “As long as you exercise basic sanitation and cleanliness sort of protocols using the chlorine wash on your hands and your feet, get your temperature taken, limiting the exposure, the—no handshaking, those sorts of protocols, I think the risk is relatively low.”
Maj. Gen. Gary Volesky, the commander of the 101st Division, will be replacing Williams in the coming days, taking charge of the Joint Forces Command for Operation United Assistance in Liberia. Approximately 1,800 soldiers from the 101st have been activated to help with the Ebola mission in West Africa. On Monday, Volesky and approximately 30 of his 101st troops landed in Liberia to begin transitioning out with Williams’s headquarters element currently in place.
Concerns about troop exposure to the virus grew when AFRICOM Commander Gen. David Rodriguez said at a Pentagon briefing two weeks ago that incoming U.S. troops will not be deploying with full Tyvek hazmat suits. He also said Navy lab workers would come into contact with Ebola patients.
Rodriguez clarified his comments in a statement shortly after the briefing.
“In response to comments I made today about U.S. military personnel potentially coming in direct contact with Ebola infected individuals, specific to lab testing, I want to clarify my remarks. U.S. military personnel working in the labs are not interacting with patients, only samples. The testing labs are manned by highly skilled and trained personnel from the U.S. Naval Medical Research Center. These labs provide 24-hour turnaround results on samples received from area clinics and healthcare providers, with the capability to process up to 100 samples per day,” he said.
Col. Christopher Warren, the division surgeon, told The Leaf Chronicle in Clarksville, Tenn., Chronicle that troops will not deploy with Tyvex suits, but will be issued them upon arrival to Liberia.
“People hear ‘fighting Ebola’ and they can’t visualize what that involves,” division spokesman Lt. Col. Brian DeSantis told the paper. “Our job is to build Ebola treatment units and train health care workers. There is no mission for us to handle infected people, human remains or medical waste… We will have our own facility separate from the population where we will handle force protection and life support, similar to our facilities in Iraq or Afghanistan.”
The same concerns are reaching back to American families in Europe as well. “The risk of our soldiers catching Ebola is very low,” Col. Pedro Almeida, U.S. Army Africa chief of staff, said during one of two town halls in Vicenza, Italy, on Wednesday. Ramstein Air Base in Germany, too, will host a town hall meeting on Ebola on Thursday, with two more town halls scheduled for Monday, according to the Defense Department.
The rest of the 3,200 U.S. troops on call for the mission will be drawn from Fort Bliss, Texas (aviation support); Fort Carson, Colo., (engineers); Fort Bragg, N.C.(engineers and public affairs troops); Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md. (biological, chemical, nuclear, explosives and radiological specialists); and civil affairs and combat support troops from Virginia’s Fort Eustis and Fort Stewart and Fort Benning in Georgia.
This article originally appeared in Defense One.