WASHINGTON In less than four hours, the top U.S. commander in Africa reversed himself Tuesday on the controversial question of whether American military personnel dispatched there will have direct contact with Ebola victims.
At 3:30 p.m., the Pentagon moved a rare “correction for the record” from an 11:30 a.m. briefing by Gen. David M. Rodriguez, head of the U.S. Africa Command.
“In response to comments I made today about U.S. military personnel potentially coming in direct contact with Ebola-infected individuals, specific to lab testing, I want to clarify my remarks,” Rodriguez said in an updated statement.
“U.S. military personnel working in the labs are not interacting with patients, only samples,” he said. “The testing labs are manned by highly skilled and trained personnel from the U.S. Naval Medical Research Center.”
That statement directly contradicted what Rodriguez had said at the earlier briefing.
The quick reversal reflected fears that Ebola could infiltrate American military forces in a potentially debilitating contagion.
During the morning news conference at the Pentagon, Rodriguez said in response to specific questions from several reporters that as many as 28 specially trained American troops on mobile testing labs will interact with people carrying the Ebola virus.
The medical troops on the mobile labs will be part of the up to 4,000 military personnel authorized by President Barack Obama to help contain what he described Monday as a national security threat stemming from the Ebola outbreak in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.
NBC News correspondent Jim Miklaszewski asked Rodriguez “will any U.S. military personnel be involved in the direct treatment of any Ebola patients or ... will they come into contact with any Ebola patients?”
Rodriguez responded: “No. Now, the mobile labs are different. But no for the majority of the force. The mobile (labs) are testing people, OK? And some of them will have the Ebola virus.”
The troops on the labs, Rodriguez said, are “trained at the highest level of (handling) something like nuclear, biological and chemical” materials or contamination.
The general said three of the mobile testing labs were already in West Africa and four more would be deployed, with three to four of the trained military personnel attached to each lab.
Most American forces sent to the region will be based at a headquarters unit in the Liberian capital of Monrovia, Rodriguez said.
Miklaszewski asked the general how many total military troops would be involved in the lab operations and “what kind of protections” will they have.
“And, again, those people are trained to the very highest level of operating in a nuclear, biological and chemical arena, and they are tested continually, and they are the ones who are testing all the people,” Rodriguez responded. “They will be the primary ones that come in contact with anybody.”
Later in the Pentagon briefing, Fox News reporter Justin Fishel informed Rodriguez that his answers represented a significant change from what senior Pentagon officials had previously said.
“And so we’ve been told repeatedly up to this point from this podium that, in fact, service members are not going to come in contact with (Ebola) patients, and now we’re being told that that’s changing,” Fishel said.
“The (mobile) labs are a separate specialty element of the force,” Rodriguez said. “So that’s probably where that (change) has come.”
Fishel pressed the point.
“Just a clarification on that, please,” he said. “Will they be in contact with individuals or just (blood) specimens?”
Rodriguez responded: “They come in contact with the individuals, and they do that. Like I said, it’s a very, very high (hazardous materials) standard that these people have operated in all their lives, and this is their primary skill. This is not just medical guys trained to do this. This is what they do for a living.”
Less than four hours later, the Pentagon’s correction said there was no interaction between U.S. military personnel and “Ebola infected individuals,” and that the interaction was with “only samples.”
After issuing the correction, Pentagon officials did not respond to questions from McClatchy asking whether the general had misspoken or been misinformed.