Amid criticism that the U.S. has not done enough to block the spread of the Ebola virus across West Africa, President Obama will announce a “significantly ramped up” campaign Tuesday that relies heavily on the U.S. military, senior administration officials said.
The Defense Department will work with local governments to plan and build 17 new Ebola treatment units, for a total of 1,700 new beds, while military medical staff will begin training a target of 500 healthcare providers per week in care and prevention of the lethal virus, an official said.
The scaled-up effort, along with current programs, will be run through a U.S. joint command center to be set up in Monrovia, Liberia, the country facing the most troubling transmission rate, officials said.
Pentagon officials expected the command center to eventually oversee about 3,000 military personnel on the ground handling logistics, engineering, distribution of supplies, and coordination with other government agencies and international organizations, one official said.
That additional Pentagon help will come on top of an announcement last week that it would send a 25-bed, $22-million hospital to Liberia to help care for sickened medical workers.
Officials said the medical training could begin within two weeks, but they gave no time frame on how soon the new treatment facilities will open.
The administration officials demanded anonymity to discuss the details of the plan ahead of a formal announcement. Obama is scheduled to travel Tuesday to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta to promote the new commitment, which comes amid rising alarm that the outbreak is overwhelming local health systems and the international aid response.
The president considers the outbreak to be a “national security priority,” one official said, and the stepped-up effort was an attempt to back up that priority. So far, the U.S. has dedicated $175 million to combating and containing the virus, and Obama has requested another $88 million be added to a spending bill making its way through Congress, the official said. The increased Pentagon involvement will be funded by $500 million already allocated to the department and repurposed, an official said. Administration officials briefed lawmakers on the plan Monday.
The possibility that an Ebola outbreak could result in high death rates and bring about panic makes it a national security concern, the CDC said.
World Health Organization Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan issued a warning Friday that cases of the disease are increasing faster than health officials are containing them, raising the prospect that the epidemic will get far worse before it gets better.
WHO officials estimate the death toll at about 2,400 out of 4,784 suspected and confirmed cases.
But many experts believe far more people are sick. And the outbreak continues to overwhelm hospitals, clinics and health centers in the three countries at the center of the outbreak – Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea.
There are also worrying signs that the outbreak is spreading in Nigeria, as well. U.S. officials said Monday that the administration continued to believe that the probability of the virus spreading to the United States was “very low.”
Chan issued a call last week for other countries to step up aid and send more medical personnel to the region. Officials suggested that the increased U.S. involvement may be a catalyst for other countries to increase their contributions.
Christi Parsons and Noam N. Levey contributed to this report from Washington.
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