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Mia Beers: Helping in West Africa to stop the spread of a deadly disease

Mia Beers (Aaron Clamage)
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A year ago, Ebola was raging through West Africa, killing thousands of people and devastating communities — turning a public health problem into a global crisis. The predicament led the United States to launch a massive effort to stop the disease from spreading and protect American and foreign doctors going into the hot zones to assist.

Mia Beers from the U.S. Agency for International Development flew to Monrovia, Liberia, in early November 2014, to lead a 40-person Ebola Disaster Assistance Response Team. Once there, she coordinated thousands of U.S. personnel from five federal agencies, who were working in four countries.

The largest team worked in Liberia, while three smaller teams worked in Guinea, Mali and Sierra Leone, all willing to put themselves at risk to help with the humanitarian mission.

“Mia landed on the ground and helped to create order out of chaos,” said Nancy Lindborg, former USAID assistant administrator. “She crafted the strategy into which everyone could plug.”

Ebola was at its peak in Liberia in September and October of last year, with about 300 new confirmed cases a week. By December, they were down to about 30 per week.

“She provided tremendous leadership during a very crucial time,” said Jeremy Konyndyk, director of USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance. “This outbreak eclipsed the deaths of all previous outbreaks put together. It was just staggering.”

When the team arrived, the U.S. and international governments were looking for cases outside of Monrovia and making treatment options available, explained Beers, who was the third team leader to serve in the country.

Responders set up Ebola treatment units, airlifted personal protective equipment into the region, opened a dedicated medical unit to treat Liberian and international health-care workers and staff, and worked closely with non-governmental organizations, the United Nations and national governments.

One of USAID’s strengths is its knowledge of local cultural issues, such as the Liberians’ custom of washing bodies for burial, a tradition contributing to the rapid spread of the disease, according to Carol Chan, deputy director of the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance.

“Mia understands humanitarian policy and the concept of ‘do no harm.’ We make sure we work with the host government, being respectful of what they need,” Chan said. “We needed the A-team out there, and Mia is A-plus.”

Beers and the response team helped bring case numbers down by providing training for health-care workers, deploying testing laboratories, supporting epidemiological surveillance and doing “contact tracing” to identify and diagnose individuals who might have been in close contact with infected people.

It was a “whole of government effort,” Beers said. The USAID team worked with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Defense, the U.S. Public Health Service and the State Department. Beers coordinated their work, relying on agencies’ areas of expertise, such as DOD’s skills with logistics and construction.

“It was the first time in my career we deployed in support of another federal agency,” said Maj. Gen. Volesky, Joint Force Commander of DOD’s Operation United Assistance, adding that Beers set milestones for solving the crisis and kept everyone informed. “She would define a clear end state and drive toward it.”

When members of Congress, U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power and other high-level officials visited the area, “All of them said, ‘We have not seen this level of interagency cooperation in any other place we’ve been,’ ” Volesky said, adding that Beers “was a great team member as well as team leader.”

Beers made frequent site visits, making sure CDC’s infectious disease expertise melded with the humanitarian response, and led U.S. efforts to provide support, guidance and funding to governments and partners in the region.

With the admiral leading the U.S. Public Health Service in Liberia, Beers helped strategize on operations and policies for health-care workers. She met daily with the State Department’s country teams on response efforts, and supported information campaigns to educate vulnerable populations about prevention and treatment.

Before heading to West Africa, Konyndyk described how Beers was leading interagency engagement as director of Humanitarian Policy and Global Engagement in USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, laying the foundation for the Ebola response.

In West Africa, she had the “opportunity to take all these interagency concepts she had been working on and leading for years and put them into place in the field when it was really crunch time,” he said. “Weaving together a range of interagency capabilities is not an easy thing to do.”

According to Beers, the response was a success due to “the dedication and the passion and knowledge” of many people in her office. “That’s what really made a difference,” she said. “It was an incredible response and brought us all together in one common cause.”

This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Go to the Fed Page of The Washington Post to read about other federal workers who are making a difference. To recommend a Federal Player of the Week, contact us at fedplayers@ourpublicservice.org.

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