AFRICOM Clarifies: Some U.S. Military Personnel Will Be Testing Lab Samples, Not Patients, in Liberia

By Susan Jones | October 8, 2014 | 8:16am EDT

Health workers in protective gear remove the body of a woman suspected to have died from the Ebola virus, near the area of Freeport in Monrovia, Liberia, Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2014.  (AP Photo/Abbas Dulleh)

(Editor's note: Following the press briefing described in this report, Gen. Rodriguez said he wanted to clarify his remarks about U.S. military personnel potentially coming into direct contact with Ebola-infected individuals:

"U.S. military personnel working in the labs are not interacting with patients, only samples. The testing labs are manned by highly skilled and trained personnel from the U.S. Naval Medical Research Center. These labs provide 24-hour turnaround results on samples received from area clinics and healthcare providers, with the capability to process up to 100 samples per day.")

( - General David Rodriguez, commander of the U.S. Africa Command, told a Pentagon briefing on Tuesday that as the U.S. military helps contain the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa, "the health and safety of the team supporting this mission is our priority." But he also said a small number of Americans working in mobile testing labs could have direct contact with sick people, a comment he later corrected (see above).

"As we deploy America's sons and daughters to support this comprehensive effort, we will do everything in our power to address and mitigate the potential risk to our service members, civilian employees, contractors, and their families."

Rodriguez said "the majority" of the 3,000 to 4,000 U.S. military personnel will not have direct contact with Ebola patients.

"Now the mobile labs are different," he said. "The mobile (labs) are testing people, OK? And some of them will have the Ebola virus. Now, those (U.S. military personnel) are trained at the highest level of something like nuclear, biological and chemical. So they're all trained at a very, very high level. And they've been -- the one (mobile unit) from Walter Reed has been operating there for many years, for example. And the two (mobile labs) that we just deployed meet those standards of training."

Rodriguez said that three- or four-person teams will be working in the mobile labs. "We have three labs deployed right now. We will probably deploy several others...And again, those people are trained to the very highest level ... and they are tested continually, and they are the ones who are testing all the people. They will be the primary ones that come in contact with anybody."

At a Sept. 19 press briefing, Pentagon spokesman Adm. John Kirby told reporters the U.S. effort in Liberia "does not include U.S. military personnel treating Ebola patients; we're going to be in support of other healthcare workers that -- that are experts at doing this...But there's no -- there's no intent right now for them to have direct contact with patients."

(After the press briefing, Rodriguez clarified his remarks, saying Americans working in the mobile labs would have contact with "samples," not patients, as noted above.)

Rodriguez told reporters that if any American service member does contract Ebola, they will be returned to the United States on specially designed aircraft for treatment, just as several other Americans were handled when they fell ill.

A reporter asked if U.S. military personnel will be working side-by-side with Liberian troops to build the medical units. "I thought we had been told that they would be separate the Liberian forces. Is there a risk of contamination by working closely with the partner nation's troops?" Fox News's Jennifer Griffin asked.

"We are -- we have people that will be working with and observing the other people who are building the ETUs (Emergency Treatment Units), whether it be the armed forces of Liberia or contractors, to ensure that they're meeting the standards and oversight," Rodriguez said.

"All the people who are doing that are tested and meet all the medical protocols to ensure that they do not have the disease. And then the continual daily checks are also a part of it. So all the people that we're working with go through that -- those medical protocols."

Rodriguez said there is "sufficient personnel protective equipment for ourselves, and we will continue to make sure that that's the way throughout the process." He said most Americans working in Liberia will wear gloves and masks but not full body suits, "because they're not going to be in contact with any of the people."

But Americans working in the mobile labs will wear full protective gear and observe other protocols: "You're going to wash your hands and feet multiple times. You're going to get your temperature taken in and out. And then there is a checklist of things to ask each personnel..."

At the beginning of the briefing, Rodriguez urged reporters to get an "important" message to the public:

"Now, this is very important, and I want you to help us to tell our families and the American public the health and safety of the team supporting this mission is our priority. Let me assure you, by providing pre-deployment training, adhering to strict medical protocols while deployed, and carrying out carefully planned reintegration measures based on risk and exposure, I am confident that we can ensure our service members' safety and the safety of their families and the American people."

President Obama announced on Sept. 16 that at the request of the Liberian government, the U.S. would establish a military command center in Liberia to fight the Ebola epidemic. "And our forces are going to bring their expertise in command and control, in logistics, in engineering."

Obama said "the safety of our personnel will remain a top priority." And in that same speech, he called it "unlikely" that someone with Ebola would reach the U.S., something that happened just a week or so later.

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