U.S. Plans Worker ‘Surge’ to Aid Ebola Effort in Africa

CHART: Ebola Confirmed Cases & Deaths
Source: WHO (Data as of Sept. 6, 2014)

The U.S. is planning a “surge” of federal workers into West African countries hit by Ebola, and has hired the air-ambulance company that evacuated two infected U.S. citizens in July to support them.

About 1,400 U.S. government employees are in the region now, and more are on the way, the State Department said in a contract document released yesterday. As workers for global aid groups have fled, “the vacuum is increasingly being filled” by U.S. aid providers, the department said.

In July, two U.S. citizens infected with Ebola in Liberia were evacuated to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta by the Phoenix Air Group of Cartersville, Georgia. The State Department now plans to pay the company as much as $4.9 million over six months to evacuate any U.S. workers who become infected in the future, according to the document.

Four U.S. agencies, including the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Defense, are “preparing to surge into the region, significantly increasing the population at risk,” according to the document.

“The world finds itself a bit flat-footed in its ability to move patients infected with these pathogens,” said William Walters, director of the Office of Operational Medicine at the State Department. “That’s something that we at the State Department take very seriously.”

More Workers

The document didn’t put a number on the surge. Walters, who signed the document, said he didn’t know how many more federal workers are headed to West Africa. The Ebola outbreak there, the largest in history, had claimed at least 2,296 lives and infected 4,269 as of Sept. 6, according to the Geneva-based World Health Organization.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has 105 staff members helping fight the disease in West Africa, Tom Skinner, a spokesman for the agency, said in an e-mail. The agency is planning to send more people although it doesn’t have a specific number yet either, he said.

The Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation said yesterday that it would commit $50 million to aid efforts to contain the outbreak, and the U.S. Agency for International Development said it would spend $10 million to transport about 100 health workers provided by the African Union to Liberia, Guinea, Nigeria and Sierra Leone.

U.S. Patients

The two U.S. aid workers infected, Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol, both recovered after treatment with an experimental medicine called ZMapp, made by Mapp Biopharmaceutical Inc. of San Diego. The Obama administration has asked Congress for $58 million to accelerate production and testing of the drug, as well as two vaccine candidates for Ebola.

Two other U.S. citizens have since been infected with Ebola while in Africa and are receiving treatment in Omaha, Nebraska, and in Atlanta, respectively.

Phoenix Air Group maintains the only fleet of planes in the world capable of quarantining and securely transporting people infected with dangerous pathogens, according to the contract document. The governments of Mexico, Japan, the U.K., Canada and the United Arab Emirates have also sought the company’s services, according to the document.

“Had the department not moved very quickly to establish its own exclusive use contract, our negotiation position would have shifted, placing USG personnel and private citizens at significant risk,” according to the document.

Phoenix Air may transport as many as three Ebola patients per month while the outbreak is contained, the State Department said in the document, though not all of them are expected to be U.S. citizens. Other countries will be able to use the planes if they enter into agreements with the U.S. to pay for the service, Walters said.

(Corrects agency in fourth paragraph.)
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