World Bulletin/News Desk
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Wednesday approved 21 days of strict, quarantine-like monitoring for U.S. military personnel returning from Ebola relief efforts in West Africa, but the Pentagon was still finalizing details on who exactly would be affected.
Hagel, acting at the recommendation of top military commanders, agreed to tougher monitoring for military personnel than recommended by U.S. government health authorities, saying the issue had been discussed with military families and communities who "very much wanted a safety valve on this."
The military currently has 983 personnel in Liberia, one of three countries along with Sierra Leone and Guinea, that is hardest hit by the disease. There are 121 personnel supporting the mission from Dakar, Senegal, which has been declared Ebola-free by the World Health Organization. U.S. troop levels in the region could go as high as 4,000.
Unlike civilian medical workers, the U.S. military personnel sent to Africa are not coming into contact with Ebola patients but are building facilities, including Ebola treatment units.
The WHO says about 5,000 people have died in the West African outbreak, the worst on record.
Hagel's approval of the monitoring was welcomed by some Republican lawmakers, with Representative Buck McKeon, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, saying the decision would protect "the larger military family."
Odierno ordered a 21-day isolation period for Major General Darryl Williams, commander of U.S. Army Africa, and nearly a dozen of his staff when they returned to their home base in Vicenza in northeastern Italy.
Since then the policy has been applied to other soldiers and the number in isolation and undergoing controlled monitoring at Vicenza is now 42 and rising.
Hagel asked the Joint Chiefs of Staff for a detailed plan within 15 days on how the policy will be implemented, said Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary.
It was also unclear whether personnel only briefly in the region would be affected. The Pentagon could quickly run out of pilots if it forced flight crews to undergo 21 days in isolation every time they returned from dropping off supplies.
Hagel called for a review of the decision in 45 days to evaluate "whether or not such monitoring should continue based on what we learn and observe from the initial waves of personnel" returning from the relief mission, Kirby said.
President Barack Obama on Tuesday appeared to support an alternative standard for the military. While civilian healthcare workers may be discouraged from volunteering to help fight Ebola if they are facing quarantine on their return, troops were sent as part of their mission and could expect such inconveniences, Obama said.