Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey defended their decision to impose 21-day quarantines on troops returning from West Africa where they are working to contain the Ebola virus.
Hagel said his decision to uphold the recommendation by the Joint Chiefs of Staff for 21 days of isolation and "enhanced monitoring" for troops for all services was a "smart, wise, prudent, disciplined, science-oriented decision."
The mandatory quarantines, which went beyond the Centers for Disease Control guidelines for returning civilian health care workers and travelers, were undertaken partly because the troops will be staying in West Africa for six-month deployments -- longer than most medical workers, Dempsey said.
He explained that the 21-day quarantine was "consistent with the way we adapt our reintegration process based on the environment in which they are serving."
"We took a conservative approach" in following the lead of Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, who first ordered 21-day quarantines for Army troops prior to the militarywide decision, Hagel said.
The differences in how civilians and military personnel will be treated upon return from West Africa were underlined by the case of Kaci Hickox, a nurse who returned from West Africa and has defied a voluntary quarantine.
She went for a bike ride, followed by state police, on Thursday despite the voluntary quarantine for nurses who treated Ebola patients in effect in her home state of Maine. Hickox had worked for the aid group Doctors Without Borders in West Africa.
At the Pentagon, Hagel said that about 1,100 troops were now in West Africa -- mostly in Liberia, with about 120 in Senegal. The current plan is to place about 4,000 troops in West Africa to contain the virus that has killed about 5,000 and infected 13,000 others in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, Hagel said.
The defense secretary said the troops had begun training Liberian health care workers this week, and they expected to have a 25-bed facility for treatment of health care workers showing symptoms of the virus ready next week. "They're making a difference," Hagel said of the troops.
Deploying troops were not expected to have direct contact with Ebola patients; their main task was building and supplying 17 treatment centers of 100 beds each for patients.
Hagel said the first treatment center is expected to be fully operational by this weekend. A second treatment center is expected to be ready by mid-November, and a third and fourth by Thanksgiving.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@military.com.