Seeming to contradict the White House, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered firm restrictions for U.S. troops returning from West Africa, saying the military men and women helping fight Ebola must undergo 21-day quarantines.
President Barack Obama has pushed back against states, most notably New Jersey and New York, that have ordered mandatory quarantines for people arriving from the region, which is the epicenter of the Ebola outbreak, whether or not they show signs of infection. He says he is concerned that ordering them into isolation, rather than following a federal recommendation of monitoring for symptoms, will discourage volunteer health care workers from answering the call to come to West Africa and help fight the disease.
“We can’t hermetically seal ourselves off,” he declared as he met Wednesday with health care workers at the White House.
“We need to call them what they are, which is American heroes,” he added. “They deserve our gratitude, and they deserve to be treated with dignity and with respect.”
However, he has said he believes the military’s situation is different because the soldiers are under orders, rather than volunteering to go to Africa.
“It’s part of their mission that’s been assigned to them by their commanders and ultimately by me, the commander-in-chief,” USA Today quoted him as saying.
The U.S. military has nearly 1,000 troops in Liberia and just over 100 in Senegal supporting efforts to combat the virus. The total could grow to 3,900 under current plans, although none of the military members is intended to be in contact with Ebola patients. The virus spreads through direct contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person, and all of the U.S. citizens who have so far contracted it have been health care workers who treated Ebola patients.
Hagel’s restrictive policy for U.S. troops was a response to a recommendation sent to him Tuesday by Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on behalf of the heads of each of the military services.
In his memo to Hagel, Dempsey said the military chiefs felt compelled to take greater precautions in light of “recent uncertainty surrounding domestic Ebola cases.” He cited growing concern among military families and their neighbors.
“As we order our young men and women forward to execute this important mission, we owe it to them, their families, and their communities to take these prudent measures to ensure that should a member return with Ebola, we will prevent further transmission of the virus,” Dempsey wrote.
Announcing his decision in Washington, Hagel said, “This is also a policy that was discussed in great detail by the communities, by the families of our military men and women, and they very much wanted a safety valve on this.”
Pentagon officials said it was too early to know exactly how the quarantine would work. Hagel said he directed the Joint Chiefs to work that out within 15 days. A Pentagon spokesman, Col. Steve Warren, said it is yet to be determined whether the new policy applies to Defense Department civilians returning from Liberia and to military air crews who fly in and out of the area without staying overnight.
Among projects U.S. troops have undertaken in African is setting up a 25-bed hospital to be operated by U.S. Public Health Service medical workers, and personnel from the U.S. Naval Medical Research Center are operating three mobile medical laboratories in Liberia to test blood sample for the virus.
As originally envisioned, Pentagon policy called for troops returning to their home bases from Ebola response missions to undergo temperature checks twice a day for 21 days to ensure they were free of symptoms and to refrain from traveling widely during that period. But they were not to be quarantined.
The Army, however, acting on its own this week, put under quarantine in Italy the first group to return from West Africa after Ebola duty, including a two-star general.
Arthur Caplan, director of medical ethics at New York University’s Langone Medical Center, told U.S. News & World Report that he believes Hagel and the governors who have imposed quarantines are “pandering in the face of Ebola” and doing more harm than good.
But Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said Hagel had made “the right call.”
“Here the secretary is acting not only to protect our forces but the larger military family,” he told The Hill.
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