The commander of U.S. forces deployed to an Ebola outbreak in West Africa says troops are finishing much of their work in the country and will expect new direction by month’s end.
Seven Ebola treatment units have been turned over to Liberian officials, and another 10 will be finished by the end of December, said Maj. Gen. Gary Volesky, the joint force commander for Operation United Assistance. Troops are still training local health care workers and performing lab work to diagnose the disease — tasks increasingly assumed by U.S. and international aid workers.
“The decision point there is what’s next after those tasks are done,” said Volesky, who also commands the 101st Airborne Division. “I’ll have a lot of soldiers, sailors or marines without a lot to occupy them once that time comes.”
New cases of the infectious disease have fallen in recent months in Liberia, where the bulk of the military’s roughly 2,700 troops are based. The international and local response has grown since troops first arrived in October. The United Nations, the World Food Program and task forces from other countries — including the U.K., France and China — have all expanded their role.
Volesky’s boss, U.S. Africa Command chief Gen. David Rodriguez, said last week that many of the deployed units could soon either return home or be deployed elsewhere in the region. As of last week, infection rates were climbing in Guinea and parts of Sierra Leone, including the capital of Freetown, according to the World Health Organization.
The role, if any, of U.S. military units in other parts of the region is still under discussion, said Mia Beers, head of the USAID Disaster Assistance Response Team, which is leading the U.S. response in the region. Volesky, who spoke from Monrovia in a telephone interview with Stars and Stripes, said he would expect force size to fall in January if current progress in Liberia holds.
Some units have already gone home, including a Seabee unit and a Marine tilt-rotor Osprey unit. The Pentagon has named the new headquarters unit to take over for the 101st, as well as the Reserve and National Guard units to rotate into the region. Their deployment status is now unclear, although Volesky said he remains in close contact with them.
There have been more than 17,000 confirmed cases of the Ebola virus and more than 6,000 deaths since January, according to the WHO.
The military expected a mission lasting as long as six months and requiring as many as 4,000 troops when it began deploying soldiers this fall. It later capped the force at 3,000 as the situation improved and aid organizations expanded their reach in Liberia.
The UN is now responsible for moving the bulk of materials throughout the region, including protective gear and medical equipment. It began airlifting supplies into West Africa in November and is now using helicopters to fly blood samples to labs for faster diagnosis. The UK is leading operations in Sierra Leone, while France is working closely with Guinea. China opened a treatment center in Monrovia.
Trends in Liberia are generally positive. Infection rates are holding steady, and the country is now isolating 70 percent of new Ebola patients and burying 70 percent of victims, important benchmarks for turning the disease back, according to the WHO. Volesky said there were only nine confirmed infections and 30 possible cases last Thursday versus 52 confirmed and 80 possible in September.
Officials warn that infection rates remain higher in rural areas of the country and that gains can quickly be lost. Aid workers are now focusing on the county and local level, where isolation centers are being built to stage patients before they can be taken to a treatment center. The military is also training health workers in rural areas of the country instead of having them travel to Monrovia.
“We’re out at a point where we’re aggressively hunting the disease,” said Beers.
Volesky said he’s encouraged by the progress but remains cautious.
“No one’s declaring victory,” he said.
It’s good to know our troops are making progress and faster than expected, thanks to the outside help. The bad part is that I had to search for this information because it’s not in the headlines or even the small print at any of the media sites I visit. You’d think keeping tabs on our troops in an Ebola infected area would have a higher priority. Even Fox had nothing on their status, although they did report on the increase in deaths in Sierra Leone, as mentioned above.
Hopefully our guys can come home soon, but it doesn’t look like it will be in time for Christmas. Come home healthy, boys.