The Ebola outbreak started in rural areas, but by June it had reached Liberia’s capital, Monrovia.
By August, the number of people contracting the Ebola virus in the country was doubling every week. The Liberian government and aid workers begged for help.
Enter the U.S. military, who along with other U.S. agencies had a clear plan in mid-September to build more Ebola treatment units, or ETUs. At least one would be built in the major town of each of Liberia’s 15 counties. That way, sick patients in those counties wouldn’t bring more Ebola to the capital.
But it’s taken a long time to build these ETUs; most won’t be done until the end of the year. And now the spread of Ebola changing — clusters are popping up in remote rural areas. So building a huge treatment center in each county’s main town may no longer make sense.
Two hours outside the capital, the Army’s 36th Engineer Brigade just finished erecting an ETU last week. Lt. Abraham Richardson shows me around, first giving me a tour of the triage building where all patients will arrive. Then he leads me to four giant white tents inside what health workers call the “hot zone.”
“That’s where all the confirmed cases will be,” Richardson says. Each tent will house about 25 patients.
This is what the military is good at: landing in a place they’ve never been and building stuff. But some say the size of the ETUs is a problem.
Because it’s taken so long to build the centers, their relatively large size is no longer useful, says Dr. Darin Portnoy, who’s with Doctors Without Borders. He’s just finished caring for two sick children at one of the organization’s original ETUs back in Monrovia.
“ETUs are not needed right now at the same level,” he says. “Right now the construction should be scaled down — fewer beds.”
“Take the amazing capacity that has been brought to bear and direct [it] elsewhere,” he adds.