WASHINGTON — The U.S. military has begun setting up operations in Liberia to help fight the Ebola epidemic in the West African country, the Pentagon said Friday.
A budget reprogramming request of $500 million earlier this week could push Pentagon spending to fight the disease as high as $1 billion, Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said.
A C-17 U.S. military transport aircraft landed Wednesday carrying Army Maj. Gen. Darryl Williams, who will command Operation United Assistance, along with a team of 12 military personnel to conduct site surveys and planning for construction of Ebola treatment units in Liberia.
The team is also evaluating what’s required to sustain a six-month military mission in the country — a term that could be extended, Kirby said.
Williams and U.S. diplomatic personnel have met with Liberian officials, including President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, to discuss how to tame the outbreak that has killed more than 2,600 people across West Africa. More than half the deaths have occurred in Liberia.
Another C-17 with a forklift and other heavy equipment, accompanied by a crew of seven, arrived Thursday, Kirby said. Two more C-17s with 45 troops are scheduled to arrive this weekend to begin establishing Williams’ command headquarters, he said.
Speaking to reporters Friday, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno said thousands of promised American troops will be moving into Africa over the next 30 days to set up facilities and form training teams to help the Africans treat Ebola victims.
Before troops are sent in, Odierno says the Army needs to make sure they are prepared to operate in that environment, which includes health care safety. The military units expected to deploy have not been identified.
Kirby said U.S. troops -– operating in support of Liberian government and the U.S. Agency for International Development -– would not be in direct contact with Ebola sufferers. Instead they’ll be providing logistics, engineering and other non-medical support.
“Right now the effort does not include U.S. military personnel treating Ebola patients,” he said. “We’re going to be in support of other health care workers who are experts at doing this.”
Defense Department personnel will be sent in with the training and equipment needed to protect themselves from the disease, Kirby said. Should troops contract Ebola, DOD will be ready to evacuate them for treatment, he said.
“We are in effect deploying them into harm’s way, we are aware of that, they are aware of that,” he said. “Should any of our troops fall ill, we’re going to do everything we can to make them better and to get them back to the treatment that they need.”
President Barack Obama on Tuesday announced the United States is sending 3,000 troops to help fight the Ebola outbreak.
In addition, thousands of health workers began knocking on doors across Sierra Leone on Friday in search of hidden Ebola cases, with the entire West African nation locked down in their homes for three days in an unprecedented effort to combat the deadly disease.
Authorities hope to find and isolate Ebola patients who have resisted going to health centers, which are often seen only as places to die. International health experts, including Doctors Without Borders, have warned such a strategy could backfire especially if there are not enough beds at treatment centers for all the new patients.
In an address to the nation late Thursday, President Ernest Bai Koroma said health workers would be handing out soap and that once a house had been visited, it would be marked with a sticker. He urged Sierra Leoneans to abide by the order.
“The survival and dignity of each and every Sierra Leonean is at stake; all that we have toiled for as a people is at stake; this is a fight for each and every one of us; this is a fight for this land that we love,” he said.