The Pentagon announced Sunday that it will create a 30-person team of medical experts that could quickly leap into a region if new Ebola cases emerge in the United States, providing support for civilian doctors who lack proficiency in fighting the deadly virus.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered the Pentagon’s Northern Command, which has a prime focus on protecting homeland security, to send this new team to Fort Sam Houston in Texas for high-level preparations to respond to any additional Ebola cases beyond the three confirmed in the country.
The announcement came as federal health officials tried to calm the nerves of Americans rattled by Ebola’s arrival on U.S. soil. In Texas, dozens of health workers and others who came in contact with the lone man to die in the United States from Ebola are in the final stage of an emotional three-week isolation from the public, hoping that by early this week they can resume their lives if they show no hint of the virus.
“To be on the safe side, we stay home. . . . In my community, people used to come in and out of my house. Because of all the news [about Ebola], no one comes around,” Aaron Yah said in a telephone interview from his two-bedroom Dallas apartment, where he and his wife, Youngor Jallah, and their four children have cloistered themselves, skipping work and school until health officials assure them they are safe.
Jallah’s mother was engaged to Thomas Eric Duncan, the Liberian man who died Oct. 8 in a Dallas hospital. “People don’t have education about it, and if they knew we didn’t touch anything [in her apartment], maybe they be different,” he said.
U.S. medical officials also called for more expertise and training to fight a virus that the overwhelming majority of local doctors and hospitals are not prepared to handle. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, appeared on the Sunday talk shows, noting that there are just four medical facilities — in Maryland, Nebraska, Montana and Georgia — that are equipped to treat Ebola patients.
“We need to have more than just the four in which you have people who are pre-trained so that you don’t come in and that’s the first time that you start thinking about it,” Fauci said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Fauci also said that previous protocols for health-care workers handling potential Ebola patients were based on standards given by the World Health Organization and left some areas of skin exposed and potentially put medical workers at risk, in part because the protocols were intended for countries that are less technologically advanced. On ABC’s “This Week,” Fauci vowed that new safety standards will require that all skin be covered when providing medical care for patients with Ebola.
He also said that the first Dallas nurse who contracted Ebola, Nina Pham, was “stable and she’s comfortable.” He predicted that she would in the “reasonable future” walk out of the hospital in good health.
Meanwhile, the Spanish government announced Sunday that a nurse who contracted Ebola while caring for two priests with the disease was given a preliminary bill of good health after being administered a human serum from antibodies of those who have survived after contracting the virus.
Despite the apparent control health officials have over Ebola’s spread, military officials decided to take no chances and are now constructing the equivalent of a medial SWAT team. Five military doctors, five trainers and 20 nurses will begin training at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio within the next week, according to Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon’s spokesman.
Kirby called the move “an added prudent measure to ensure our nation is ready to respond quickly, effectively, and safely in the event of additional Ebola cases in the United States.”
The military medical experts would then be in a “prepare to deploy” status for 30 days. U.S. officials have said that the incubation period for Ebola is 21 days. The team would not be sent to West Africa, where the virus has spread to thousands of people and more than 4,500 have died.
Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a spokesman for the U.S. Northern Command, said members of the medical team could directly provide care to Ebola patients. The military team would work in support of civilian physicians.
The team will operate on a “72-hour tether,” meaning that each member must be ready to be en route to an Ebola site within 72 hours if the Obama administration decides to deploy them, Davis said.
“These are not first responders,” he said. “These are people who would fall in upon a hospital or medical facility where a case or cases had already been identified. They could come in and provide an additional level of support, expertise and assistance.”
In his television appearances, Fauci offered another reason the Texas hospital was unprepared for handling Duncan when he arrived there in late September. He said that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was operating off WHO protocols that were adopted for handling Ebola outbreaks in the deserts and forests of African nations.
“They did it in the bush. It wasn’t when you were giving people intensive care” in hospitals, he said. “And it became very clear right away that we needed to modify that protocol.”
In Texas, the family of Amber Vinson, the other nurse who contracted Ebola, released a statement explaining that health officials repeatedly cleared her to fly from Cleveland back to Dallas because she was symptom-free — her elevated temperature, according to the statement, did not occur until the day after she landed in Dallas.
“Suggestions that she ignored any of the physician and government-provided protocols recommended to her are patently untrue and hurtful,” the Vinson family statement said. Billy Martin, the lawyer whose clients have included Monica Lewinsky’s family, has been retained to provide legal advice to Vinson.
Virtually all people who had contact with Duncan have had their lives upended.
Cooped up with his family for almost three weeks, Yah said there have been difficult times. Occasionally he took the children to play in the yard beside their Dallas apartment building, but never with others.
A thunderstorm knocked out electricity for two days, and a broken refrigerator made for hungry children. When Yah told the leasing office at the apartment complex about the refrigerator, the manager refused to send a repairman into the apartment, Yah said. Instead, he offered the family the use of a refrigerator in an empty apartment on the same floor. Yah refused.
“If they are not safe to come into our apartment, it is not safe for someone to go into the apartment next door after us,” Yah said.“We don’t know who will be going in there.”
For the most part, the family has relied on donations, although the groceries from the Red Cross were underwhelming.
“Some of the food was expired,” he said, ticking off items such as juice, cereal and applesauce. “Some didn’t even have expiration dates.”
On Sunday evening, CDC officials visited Yah and Jallah and their children and gave them all a clean bill of health. They also received written releases for their employers and school officials saying they were no longer in danger of an Ebola infection. On Monday, the couple will return to work and the children will go back to school.
On Sunday, Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas issued a formal apology in ads in the state’s newspapers, echoing a statement that Daniel Varga, the clinical director of the hospital’s parent company, made last week about the hospital’s initial missed diagnosis in the Duncan case.
“As an institution, we made mistakes in handling this very difficult challenge,” the hospital said in its letter to the public. “We did not correctly diagnose his symptoms as those of Ebola. For this, we are deeply sorry.”
Wesley Lowery and Missy Ryan contributed to this report.