ATLANTA (AP) — President Barack Obama is ramping up the U.S. response to the Ebola crisis, ordering 3,000 U.S. military personnel to West Africa amid worries that the financial and human cost of the outbreak is growing exponentially in a region overwhelmed by the deadly virus.
The influx is part of a heightened U.S. role that will include erecting new treatment and isolation facilities, training health care workers and boosting communications and transportation support, U.S. officials said.
Obama was announcing the stepped-up effort Tuesday during a visit to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta following appeals for a greater U.S. effort to confront the crisis and alarm that the Ebola virus could spread and even mutate into a more easily transmitted disease.
The new U.S. response came as the World Health Organization warned that the number of Ebola cases in West Africa could start doubling every three weeks and that the crisis could end up costing nearly $1 billion to contain. Joanne Liu, president of Doctors Without Borders, said the global response was falling short. “The window of opportunity to contain this outbreak is closing,” Liu told a meeting Tuesday at the United Nations in Geneva.
Nearly 5,000 people have become ill from Ebola in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Nigeria and Senegal since it was first recognized in March. WHO says it anticipates that figure could rise to more than 20,000. At least 2,400 people have died, with Liberia bearing the brunt.
With the addition of military personnel, administration officials said that the new U.S. initiatives aim to:
—Train as many as 500 health care workers a week.
—Erect 17 heath care facilities in Liberia of 100 beds each.
—Set up a joint command headquartered in Monrovia, Liberia, to coordinate between U.S. and international relief efforts.
—Provide home health care kits to hundreds of thousands of households, including 50,000 that the U.S. Agency for International Development will deliver to Liberia this week.
—Carry out a home- and community-based campaign to train local populations on how to handle exposed patients.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the 3,000 troops would not provide direct care to Ebola patients. A substantial number of troops will be stationed at an intermediate base in Senegal, Earnest said, with others at locations in Liberia where they will provide logistical, training, engineering and other support.
Meanwhile, a Senate panel held an afternoon hearing on the crisis. Expected to testify were Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Dr. Kent Brantly, an American physician who contracted Ebola while working in Liberia but recovered after treatment with an experimental drug. Obama met with Brantly at the White House on Tuesday before departing for Atlanta.
Obama administration officials said money for the stepped-up effort to combat the disease 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. Officials said it would take about two weeks to get U.S. forces on the ground.
Sen. Chris Coons, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations African affairs subcommittee, applauded the new U.S. commitment. Coons earlier had called for the Obama administration to step up its role in West Africa.
“This humanitarian intervention should serve as a firewall against a global security crisis that has the potential to reach American soil,” he said.
But House Speaker John Boehner faulted the administration’s response.
“Frankly, I’m a bit surprised the administration hasn’t acted more quickly to address what is a serious threat, not just to Africa but to others across the world,” the Republican said. He predicted action “in the coming weeks” by the executive and legislative branches of government “to look at how do we best contain this very horrible disease.”
Ebola is spread through direct contact with the bodily fluids of sick patients, making doctors and nurses especially vulnerable to contracting the virus, which has no vaccine or approved treatment.
The U.S. effort will include medics and corpsmen for treatment and training, engineers to help erect the treatment facilities and specialists in logistics to assist in patient transportation.
Obama’s trip to the CDC comes a day after the United States also demanded a stepped-up international response to the outbreak. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, called Monday for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Thursday, warning that the potential risk of the virus could “set the countries of West Africa back a generation.”
Power said the meeting would mark a rare occasion when the Security Council, which is responsible for threats to international peace and security, addresses a public health crisis.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was expected to brief the council along with World Health Organization chief Dr. Margaret Chan and Dr. David Nabarro, the recently named U.N. coordinator to tackle the disease, as well as representatives from the affected countries.
The U.S. has spent more than $100 million responding to the outbreak and has offered to operate treatment centers for patients.