As U.S. service members continue to help the international community stop the spread of Ebola, the Department of Defense (DOD) is taking steps to ensure those who deploy in support of Operation United Assistance return home safe.
The senior ranking medical doctors from U.S. Africa Command, Navy Capt. David K. Weiss, and U.S. European Command, Air Force Col. John P. Mitchell, explain how the military medical community is protecting service members before, during and after deploying to West Africa. This discussion is based on recently announced DOD guidance, which also states that component and local commanders can implement more stringent screening criteria, including up to 21 days of controlled monitoring. Bottomline: We will do what is necessary and required to keep our personnel and their families safe.
What is U.S. Africa Command doing to prepare personnel deploying in support of Operation United Assistance?
Capt. David K. Weiss, command surgeon, U.S. Africa Command (DW): “While our mission in West Africa will not include direct patient care, the safety of our men and women in the joint forces remains paramount for us. We’re making sure that the men and women who deploy are provided with the best training and proper protective equipment for the tasks they will be performing. All military personnel, prior to deployment, will go through extensive processing and training to ensure they are prepared to work in West Africa and have a solid understanding of how to protect themselves from contracting the virus. Our training and equipment is the best in the world and our leadership and our discipline will help ensure we accomplish our mission effectively and safely.”
What is being done to protect personnel during deployment for this mission?
DW: “The Department of Defense has implemented a training, screening and monitoring program that meets or exceeds standards defined by the Centers for Disease Control. We will ensure the highest medical and safety protocols are in place before, during and after deployment. During deployment the chain of command will conduct daily temperature and symptoms checks. There will be a fully equipped level 2 medical facility in Monrovia to care for all the medical issues of deployed DOD personnel. I recently returned from Liberia and I felt safe the whole time I was there. There are hand washing stations outside all public places and there are rules that emphasize no hand shaking and no bodily contact. And given the fact that we are not working with Ebola patients, I really was not concerned for my health or safety during my stay in Monrovia.”
What happens if a military member contracts the virus? What will be done then?
DW: “We hope that our extensive training and preparation, combined with the fact that our personnel will not be providing direct care to Ebola patients, will protect our personnel from the virus. If, through our thorough monitoring and screening process, we identify someone with symptoms or who was put at risk for contracting the virus, that person will be isolated and monitored. If it is confirmed that the member has the virus, they will be medically evacuated to the United States to receive care in a medical center specializing in Ebola care.”
How about before personnel return home? Will there be any special screening or procedures prior to departure?
DW: “Prior to bringing them home, we will conduct controlled assessments based on the degree to which they have been exposed and individual risk levels. Medical screening by healthcare professionals will begin 10 days prior to departure and risk levels will be assigned to personnel based on the recently announced DOD policy. The bulk of our personnel will carry paperwork tracking their health monitoring and temperature screenings that will facilitate their return. Screening will continue at home station.”
Are there any issues with return travel? How is U.S. European Command addressing the different screening and monitoring procedures being followed by host nations in Europe?
Air Force Col. John P. Mitchell (JM), surgeon general, U.S. European Command: “As we’ve stated, the screening and monitoring of DOD personnel we are implementing meets or exceeds CDC standards. However, our host nations in Europe will also implement screening standards that will vary from country to country. We are currently working with our European partners and allies to refine those procedures and we are prepared to comply with the requirements of each host nation where we have DOD personnel stationed.”
What happens when personnel return to home station? What further precautions will be taken?
JM: “European Command has hospitals, medical clinics and medical support programs that are well established and provide top notch care to our military personnel, DOD employees and their families. We will help local commanders implement the required post-deployment daily monitoring for 21 days after return to quickly identify any signs of illness. Our medical facilities will be prepared to support all returning DOD personnel and help them with any medical issues they may face post deployment, including the Ebola Virus Disease. We will also work closely with AFRICOM to continue to assess other possible precautions to help protect our service members and their families.”
Anything else you would like to add?
JM: “Given what our personnel will face, I believe we are taking the appropriate steps to protect our troops, our DOD employees and their families. Our primary role is a support role, constructing facilities and providing engineering and training support. We are not providing direct care to Ebola patients. And with the advanced screening and monitoring program implemented by DOD, and with the world class health care professionals and facilities we have within the European Command area, we are more than prepared to tackle any medical issues we face from this deployment.”