NEW YORK – While the State Department denies its medevac plan for health-care workers in Ebola-stricken West Africa would bring infected foreigners to the U.S., a World Health Organization announcement indicated the U.S. and its advanced health-care system is crucial to a program designed to attract workers from around the world by guaranteeing they would receive the best care available should they become infected.
At a news conference in Geneva Tuesday, Bruce Aylward, the WHO director-general in charge of the operational response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, pointed to the website of the U.S. Agency for International Development, USAID, for details of the program, which includes evacuating foreign workers, without specifying where they would be taken for treatment.
The WHO made clear Tuesday, however, that a major goal of medevac efforts is to make sure there is sufficient hospital capacity in the U.S., Europe and the United Kingdom to provide treatment for any infected international health-care workers in West Africa, regardless of citizenship.
“We have all talked about the challenge of getting additional foreign-national medical teams into the West African countries affected by the Ebola outbreak,” Aylward said.
“One of the key challenges all along has centered around medevac, getting people out if they got sick, getting them somewhere to where they could get the level of care they have wanted.”
On its website, USAID says the State Department has a commercial contract providing the capability to evacuate two Ebola-infected patients per week and plans to expand the capacity with a second medevac aircraft by early November.
“The Department of State may make this service available on a reimbursable basis to International Organizations, to partner foreign governments, to private voluntary organizations registered with and approved by USAID, and to the American Red Cross,” the USAID site states.
An internal State Department memo recommends admitting non-U.S. citizens to the U.S. for treatment, but a State Department official denied there is any such plan.
Fox News obtained from a Capitol Hill source a “sensitive but unclassified” memo with the stated purpose of coming to “an agreed State Department position on the extent to which non-U.S. citizens will be admitted to the United States for treatment of Ebola Virus Disease (EVD).”
The memo recommends bringing non-citizens to the U.S. under the plan, arguing the U.S. has an “obligation” and “needs to show leadership and act as we are asking others to act by admitting certain non-citizens into the country for medical treatment for Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) during the Ebola crisis.”
A State Department official told Fox News the department is only considering letting other countries use U.S. planes to transport Ebola patients to their own home countries.
“There are absolutely no plans to medevac non-Americans who become ill from West Africa to the United States,” the official told FoxNews.com.
However, Tom Fitton, president of Washington watchdog group Judicial Watch, told WND the State Department’s internal memo and other communications along with “our own understanding comports perfectly with the notion that the United States has an agreement already in place that if certain foreign-national health-care workers in West Africa come down with Ebola as a result of treating Ebola patients in West Africa, those foreign-national health-care workers have a path open into the United States.”
Fitton said he’s concerned that the authority cited in the internal memo “is sufficiently broad so that there is nothing to prevent the Obama administration from letting anyone who is a foreign-national infected with Ebola in West Africa from coming into the United States.”
“This is the threat to the public health,” he said. “President Obama has this well-known record of abusing his authority or acting where no authority really exists to implement a policy like this.”
Referring to Obama’s recent clash with Govs. Andrew Cuomo and Chris Christie over the quarantine of a U.S. health-care worker who returned from West Africa, Fitton said he “could see how governors taking steps to protect their state populations from Ebola could conflict with Obama’s desire to open the United States to foreign-nationals infected with Ebola.”
“Every Ebola victim brought to the United States poses a health risk to U.S. citizens here,” Fitton told WND. “The president seems willing to risk the lives of U.S. citizens to save the lives of foreign-nationals. Who’s on President Obama’s roulette wheel implementing this policy?”
‘Pleading’ for hospital beds
The WHO’s Aylward reiterated Tuesday the medevac program “is a huge priority for the WHO and also for the international Ebola response coalition.”
He emphasized the need for additional hospital beds for workers who must be evacuated for treatment.
“All of us at the WHO, including the director-general and myself – everyone in every forum – we are working with those countries that have the capacity to manage cases. We are advocating for, pleading for additional beds and predictability in terms of our ability to medevac out people who need to be treated outside the affected West African countries.”
Aylward said the EU is developing an “integrated medevac system that looks at the capacity right across Europe both in terms of hospital beds and flight capacity, then how the EU can set up a roster system to make that available to WHO to help coordinate with the responding medevac agencies as needed.”
He admitted the WHO international medevac plan was a work in progress.
“We are all working on that piece,” he continued.
“I’d like to say it was 100 percent locked in place, but there are still questions about who exactly will qualify for medevac, across what scope of work they will be doing, where will they be repatriated or sent – a lot of the detail is still getting sorted,” he said. “The current status of play is usually up on the websites of one of the three groups I referred to (USAID, U.K. and EC). A huge amount of work is ongoing, in the right direction. But we are not there yet with the 100 percent predictable system people want to see in place before they commit.”
Aylward ended the medevac discussion by stressing international health-care workers may be reluctant to go to West African unless there was assurance medevac capabilities were sufficient to bring them to the U.S., U.K. or EU.
“More and more NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and others are looking at the data and saying, ‘OK, all international health workers in West Africa that become infected with Ebola have to be taken out of West Africa by medevac efforts, if they require care outside.’ So they are looking at that.”
Enter billionaire Paul Allen
Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen recently announced the establishment of a fund to support the medevac program, stating in a news release that one of the “key challenges” in the recruitment of health-care workers in the fight against Ebola “is the lack of a clear medevac pathway should they become infected and require treatment.”
The statement said Allen “has partnered with the World Health Organization to increase its capacity to coordinate the logistics required to transport international aid workers.”
As part of his $100 million donation to fight Ebola, Allen has established “the Ebola Medevac Fund, designed to address the gap between what insurance will cover and the actual transport costs.”
“The $2.5 million fund is designed as a dollar-to-dollar matching grant with the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation.”
Allen will partner with the State Department and WHO to “evacuate and treat infected humanitarian worker” in collaboration with the University of Massachusetts Medical School, which will provide training and equipment.