By Lolita C. Baldor
WASHINGTON — An Army two-star general and 11 of his staff are being isolated at a base in Italy upon returning from serving in West Africa to help with the Ebola fight.
Italian security officials wearing full hazardous materials suits met the general and his staff when they arrived in Vicenza, Italy, over the weekend, a senior military official said Monday.
Maj. Gen. Darryl A. Williams, the commander who led the U.S. response in Liberia, and the members of his headquarters staff were some of the first troops to go to West Africa and were there to provide the initial assessments of the military needs and to begin coordinating the U.S. response. They did not have contact with Ebola patients.
But the Army told Williams and his staff before leaving Liberia that they would be isolated near their base in Vicenza, Italy, for 21 days and they had prepared for it, said the military official, who was not authorized to discuss the issue publicly by name, so spoke on condition of anonymity.
It’s not clear whether Williams and his staff were aware they were going to be greeted by teams dressed in hazmat gear. The Obama administration has resisted efforts to order isolation or quarantine for people working in West Africa. Officials say they want decisions grounded “in science” and don’t want to discourage volunteer medical professionals from going to Africa to help fight Ebola, which has infected nearly 10,000 people.
The Army chief of staff directed a 21-day monitoring period for all redeploying soldiers returning from the Ebola fight in West Africa, said Maj. Charlene LaMountain, an Army spokeswoman.
“He has done this out of caution to ensure soldiers, family members and their surrounding communities are confident that we are taking all steps necessary to protect their health,” she said.
So far only 12 soldiers are in isolation in Italy, but dozens more soldiers are expected to return to Italy in the coming days and they will also go to the isolation facility.
The decision only affects the Army for now, but that could change. Army Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, said the decision was made out of an abundance of caution, and that none of the soldiers have shown any signs of Ebola infection. Warren said there was no exposure incident that triggered the decision, but the soldiers will be checked regularly for any Ebola symptoms.
According to the military official, the soldiers are in a building near the base that includes a dining tent, a gym and other facilities. The building has 56 four-person rooms, 24 single rooms and three VIP rooms.
The soldiers will be restricted there and will not be allowed to go to their homes for 21 days. They will not be interacting with other people, except medical professionals who are monitoring them.