NEW YORK – In yet another Obama administration reversal adding to the confusion surrounding the mission of U.S. troops in West Africa, Defense Department officials said Gen. David M. Rodriguez misspoke when he told reporters Tuesday that U.S. troops would be in direct contact with Ebola patients.
Rodriguez, commander of U.S. African Command, said at a Pentagon news conference Tuesday that teams of U.S. soldiers will work alongside Liberian troops and will staff mobile medical labs that will test people for Ebola.
The Defense officials, however, now insist U.S. military lab technicians will only be testing specimen samples from suspected Ebola victims.
But earlier Tuesday, Rodriguez said: “These are the U.S. troops that will be involved testing directly people in Liberia suspected of having the disease.”
Meanwhile, the Daily Observer of Monrovia, Liberia, reported Tuesday that eight Liberian soldiers who contracted the Ebola virus have died.
Rodriguez had told reporters the U.S. military had put “two additional mobile medical labs” in operation last week in Liberia, “significantly increasing our capacity for rapidly diagnosing Ebola.”
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The general said the mobile labs “are for testing people, and some of the people tested will have Ebola.”
He quickly added that “the U.S. troops staffing these labs are trained at the highest level of nuclear, biological and chemical readiness, so they are all trained to operate in nuclear, biological threat and chemical threat environments.”
Rodriguez said the soldiers “will be tested continuously for symptoms of Ebola.”
He addressed the issue of what will happen if a member of the U.S. military in Liberia contracts Ebola.
“If one of the U.S. troops develops symptoms of Ebola, they will be handled just like you’ve seen with the other Americans that contracted Ebola who were returned to the United States in specially designed aircraft designed to isolate the disease,” he said. “Any U.S. troops that develop Ebola will be brought in the United States to one of the medical centers that is specially designed to handle Ebola patients.”
The general said a U.S. military medical mobile laboratory has been operating in Liberia for several years, but he gave no other details.
He was asked to give an estimate of the number of U.S. troops that would work with the mobile medical labs in Liberia and to describe the type of protective equipment they would have.
“There is between a three- and a four-person team that operate each mobile medical laboratory, and we have three labs deployed right now,” he replied.
“We will probably deploy several other mobile medical laboratories. Each lab adds three-to-four additional U.S. troops involved, and, again, those troops are trained to the very highest level of operating in a nuclear, biological and chemical arena.”
WND reported Monday that Fluor Corp., a Texas-based global construction company, has been contracted by the Pentagon to build temporary housing for U.S. troops in Liberia, raising further questions about why military personnel are needed for construction work in the Ebola hot zone.
As WND reported Tuesday, Congress members are pressing the Obama administration to define the military mission to West Africa.
The World Health Organization warned Tuesday that the spread of Ebola across Europe is “quite unavoidable” after a Spanish nurse became the first person known to have contracted the virus outside Africa and three other people were being monitored in a hospital.
Alongside Liberian troops
Rodriguez further disclosed at the Tuesday press conference that U.S. troops will be working alongside Liberian troops and U.S. private contractors to build hospital facilities and housing for U.S. troops.
“We will make sure all Liberian troops and U.S. private contractors that come into contact with U.S. troops will be tested to make sure they do not have Ebola,” Rodriquez said. “Continued daily checks are also part of the protocol for all Liberian and U.S. private contractor personnel that come into contact with U.S. troops. We have sufficient protective gear for all U.S. troops involved.”
Rodriguez indicated that some U.S. troops deployed in Liberia will be stationed at the Liberian Ministry of Defense and Liberian army military facilities already in existence. Some are currently being housed in “tent city” facilities.
The general said the “protocols for daily health monitoring the U.S. troops in Liberia are built around the multiple washings that you have to do with your hands and feet and everything else.”
“When you go on one of these Ebola treatment units, you’re going to wash your hands and feet multiple times,” he said. “You’re going to get your temperature taken going in and out of the testing facility. Then there is a checklist of everything to ask each of the personnel based on the virus and any other sickness that could be occurring.”
He said most of the U.S. troops who will be in contact with potential Ebola victims will be equipped with gloves and mask. But he specified the troops will be equipped with full protective gear only if they are are expected to come into contact with known Ebola victims.
Rodriguez admitted the medical mobile labs were not in the initial deployment plans, resulting in a need to spend more than the $750 million cost originally projected and communicated to the U.S. public and to Congress.
He declined to give specific additional cost estimates.