President Obama has assured Americans that none of the nearly 4,000 U.S. troops heading to Liberia will treat Ebola patients, but 70 uniformed officers of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps will.
The corps, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, will open a clinic outside the Liberian capital, Monrovia, this weekend and is tasked with treating Liberian doctors and nurses who contract the deadly disease. It is the first time U.S. government personnel have been given that assignment, although all volunteered.
For those local medical personnel willing to treat Ebola patients — among the most dangerous of jobs — the new clinic is a means of support, Rear Adm. Scott Giberson, acting U.S. deputy surgeon general, said Wednesday in a phone interview from Liberia.
“We’re here to bring safety and security to those courageous responders,” Giberson says. “They have to feel secure that there will be a high level of care provided if they do fall ill of Ebola.”
About 310 health care workers are among 4,808 people who have died from Ebola in the current epidemic, according to the World Health Organization. More than half of those medical personnel were working in Liberia.
The high risk of infection among medical workers has discouraged professional volunteers from helping out. The result has been the creation of fewer treatment facilities for lack of staffing, according to the WHO.
Obama asked Congress on Wednesday for $6.18 billion to contain and end the epidemic.
The clinic staffed by U.S. Public Service doctors, nurses and other medical personnel will provide treatment to medical workers – both domestic and international – who have become sick with Ebola, Giberson said.
The 25-bed facility, called the Monrovia Medical Unit, was built by sailors, soldiers and airmen and is located about 30 miles outside Monrovia. Giberson said it’s unclear how many patients, if any, will be admitted when it opens.
While the 6,800-member U.S. Public Health Service is not technically part of the armed forces, its members look very much like military personnel, wearing uniforms similar to U.S. Coast Guard fatigues and carrying military titles.
“We’re a fully uniformed service with all the same customs, courtesies, rank,” said Giberson.
Among other duties, it is the health care service for the Coast Guard and falls under command of the U.S. Surgeon General. The Public Health Service is one of the nation’s seven uniformed services, which include the five armed military branches along with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.