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Pentagon's Ebola Monitoring Policy For Soldiers Under Review


One event that has added to the president's current unpopularity has been the administration's handling of the Ebola crisis. So before heading off to Wisconsin, Mr. Obama made the case that there is a plan for handling health care workers who might have been exposed to the virus.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Yesterday, the CDC announced that we're going to have new monitoring and movement guidance that is sensible, based in science and tailored to the unique circumstances of each health worker that may be returning from one of these countries after they have provided the kind of help that they need.

MONTAGNE: But it's not just American health workers over in West Africa. American soldiers are also helping there. And now the Army has ordered troops who were deployed in West Africa to undergo 21 days of monitoring, even though they might not have been in direct contact with any patients. NPR's Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman, has been following the military's response as it played out. And he joins us now in the studio. Good morning.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now, give us a quick review, first, of what American soldiers are or will be doing in the Ebola zone.

BOWMAN: Well, Renee, they basically have two missions. The first is to construct a 25-bed field hospital that would be used by health workers who have been infected by Ebola. And they're also in the process of constructing 17 clinics across Liberia that'll be used by locals who become infected. Now, the Army is not staffing these facilities. They'll be staffed by volunteers from around the world. So again, they're building facilities, not dealing with patients. So the risks are pretty low.

MONTAGNE: OK, let's get then to the Army's quarantine plan, which it has had to come up with a bit on the fly.

BOWMAN: That's right. This all started Friday afternoon, by the way, at the Pentagon. The Joint Chiefs of Staff met, and they all decided this is a good idea, to have a 21-day quarantine for all military personnel heading to the Ebola zone in West Africa. And they all agreed to make a recommendation to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, but the Army chief of staff was there, Gen. Ray Odierno. And he said, listen, I don't want to wait. I have troops leaving West Africa right away, heading back to Italy. So he decided to put the quarantine into effect immediately for those troops. A senior officer in his staff - we're talking about 12 people now. And the reasoning was, I want to take extra precaution here for my soldiers, their families and the community. And basically, the White House was caught flat-footed here.

MONTAGNE: And the policy is stricter than what the CDC and others have recommended, which the White House has endorsed.

BOWMAN: That's right. And again, it's important to note that none of these troops had any contact with patients, nor will they in the future. And so this went beyond what the CDC recommended and even what New York and New Jersey officials called for. They were just talking about health care workers. And so this contradicted the White House message, and there's no reason for undue concern, the White House is saying. This disease is only transmitted by bodily fluids. It's difficult to get. And again, these troops just don't fit that profile.

MONTAGNE: So is the Army policy going to change?

BOWMAN: Well, Gen. Odierno's order, again, applies to all Army troops who are coming back from West Africa. The Army's already sent hundreds of soldiers, and as many 4,000 troops could rotate through in the coming months. And nearly all of those U.S. military personnel come from the Army. So it doesn't necessarily, you know, have to do with the other services, the Navy, the Marines and the Air Force. But what we're told is Secretary of Defense Hagel is reviewing this 21-day quarantine for the troops. He could modify it.

MONTAGNE: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman, thanks very much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.