U.S. Northern Command leaders worked Monday to assemble a team of military Ebola experts who will be on standby if civilian authorities need assistance with an outbreak.
The Peterson Air Force Base Command was ordered by the Pentagon to come up with a 30-member Ebola fighting team that can be quickly flown to the site of an outbreak if civilian health authorities ask for Defense Department help. It is the latest step in a White House push to battle the virus, which claimed its first death on U.S. soil this month.
The command was watching Ebola developments for weeks, said Northern Command spokesman Navy Capt. Jeff Davis. "It's our job here to always plan and be somewhat paranoid and look forward for things that might require assistance to civilian authorities," Davis said.
Unlike the military's assistance in West Africa, Northern Command forces will be prepared to provide direct care for Ebola victims. The team will include five doctors, five disease control experts and 20 nurses. They'll train at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, and be prepared to deploy nationwide.
A former vice commander of Northern Command, retired Army Lt. Gen. Ed Anderson said years of planning and training makes the military particularly qualified to take on Ebola.
"They are good at it and they know what they are doing," said Anderson, who now heads the National Homeland Defense Foundation in Colorado Springs.
For two weeks, the command has been on the sidelines of the Ebola fight. Officials there deflected questions about what role Northern Command could play against the virus and would only say they were monitoring the disease and conducting "prudent planning."
The command is responsible for defending the continent from attack and providing military support to civilians in disasters, including epidemics. Over the past decade, Northern Command has conducted several war games that included mock disease outbreaks, but the command has never exercised an Ebola response.
"It has usually been pandemic influenza and that spreads differently," Davis said.
The command has studied airborne diseases that can be more difficult to stop than Ebola, which is primarily contracted by contact with fluids.
Anderson said part of the command's mission includes countering biological warfare threats to the U.S., like the 2001 anthrax attacks on Congress and others.
"Certainly we prepped for chemical and biological warfare," Anderson said. "We do have a lot of contingency plans and we have done a lot of war gaming."
Northern Command will also have plenty of Ebola expertise on its side.
"We have great experts particularly who are expert at training in viral hemorrhagic fevers," Davis said.
Since World War II, the military has studied ways to counter viruses used as weapons on the battlefield and has built germ warfare defense agencies to deal with outbreaks. The largest of those is the Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Md., which has built Ebola testing kits for military use. Those kits, in use in Africa, have cut the time to diagnose Ebola from days to a couple of hours.
One of the biggest military roles in fighting Ebola could be electronic. The military has spent more than a decade developing software to track epidemics so that they can be contained. The Defense Department's Electronic Surveillance System for the Early Notification of Community-based Epidemics is in use throughout the military, and other agencies are adopting it for civilian use. Davis said it remains unclear, though, if the military will be called to fight Ebola in the U.S. The Northern Command Ebola team will remain on standby for a month.
Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240