Why is Pentagon quarantining troops who had no contact with Ebola patients?

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Wednesday signed off on a policy of 21-day quarantines for all troops deployed to West Africa on Ebola-related missions. It speaks to the military's 'ultra-cautious' culture.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel speaks at the 'Washington Ideas Forum' in Washington Wednesday. The same day, he approved a recommendation by military leaders that all US troops returning from Ebola response missions in West Africa be kept in supervised isolation for 21 days.

The Pentagon's "ultra" conservative approach to Ebola, with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Wednesday endorsing a sweeping 21-day quarantine for all US troops returning from West Africa, is a window into how the military makes decisions, but not necessarily a good yardstick for public policy, says one expert.

With the “drama at home” about the wisdom of quarantines, some people have looked at the military decision with interest. The governors of New York and New Jersey have insisted on 21-day quarantines for anyone who has come in contact with Ebola patients in West Africa, while President Obama and health officials have said such quarantines are medically pointless and only stigmatize health workers.

The fact that Secretary Hagel signed off on the quarantine policy might suggest that the governors are taking a more prudent course. But "trying to place this in a box of, 'Does this affirm the outlook of some governors or does this contradict them?' " is "a little bit awkward," says Stephen Morrison, director of the Global Health Policy Center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“The military is the military – it makes sense that they would do this,” he says. “It’s logically consistent from a military command standpoint that you’re going to start from a point of being ultra-cautious,” particularly since US troops “are in a military structure where they have signed over some of their rights.”

If by some fluke troops were diagnosed with Ebola “it could open the door to havoc and undermine bipartisan support for this mission,” he adds, noting that while Congress has allocated $750 million for the first six months of Ebola response in West Africa, US officials have “to go back to the well and ask for another big shot of cash to finish the job.”

While the Pentagon’s top officers recommended the quarantine, the policy wasn't official until Secretary Hagel signed an order Wednesday. The order puts all US military servicemembers returning from Ebola-related activities in West Africa into quarantine.

The quarantine – which could affect some 4,000 American service members – runs counter to the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and other public health officials. They emphasize that the disease is exceedingly difficult to catch, since it can be transferred only when the carrier has easily-identifiable symptoms.

At a Tuesday briefing, before Hagel signed the order, Defense officials said they share the concern that the quarantine could have an impact on the public debate, with the unintended side effect of increasing fears surrounding the disease. 

Hagel is aware of the “spillover effects on other agencies and the American people,” Rear Adm. John Kirby, Pentagon press secretary, said in a briefing with reporters Tuesday. 

But Rear Admiral Kirby also suggested Tuesday that Hagel was inclined to defer to military officials: “He is not going to oppose or get in the way of the decision that Army leadership made, with respect to this group of soldiers coming back.”

The current quarantine affects a dozen US troops who are returning from Liberia, including the general who is commanding them. But Hagel's action Wednesday means dozens more US soldiers returning from West Africa through Italy later this week will also be impacted.

The original quarantine decision was made by Gen. Raymond Odierno, the Army chief of staff. The Pentagon has repeatedly emphasized that the US troops deploying to the region – mostly of engineers, logisticians, and aviators – are not going to be in contact with Ebola patients.

Kirby did so again at the Tuesday briefing. “I think it’s important to remind that nothing has changed about the fact that these troops – our troops in Liberia – are not going to be treating Ebola patients. They’re not going to be coming into direct contact with people who have the disease.”

Given this, reporters during the briefing asked about the need for quarantine. “There’s no science to back up what appears to be happening,” one reporter noted. So if the decision to quarantine is “not based on science, what is it based on?” another reporter wondered aloud.

“An abundance of caution,” Kirby responded.

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