ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The U.S. military response to Ebola is gaining momentum. Thirteen-hundred American service members are now in Liberia with many more on the way. One of their main tasks is to build 18 new field hospitals, but they've run into delays, and none of those facilities has yet opened. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports that amid signs the outbreak is slowing, some critics question whether all those new field hospitals will be needed.
JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Two of the new U.S. Ebola treatment facilities are expected to open in Liberia over the next week. One is a 25-bed field hospital, specifically to treat local health care workers who get infected. The other is a 100-bed Ebola treatment unit, or ETU, in the town of Tubmanburg. Major General Gary Volesky from the 101st Airborne is in Liberia, and he's commanding the U.S. forces there. He says five ETUs are currently under construction and work will begin soon on 12 more.
GARY VOLESKY: Now that we're out of the rainy season, we've been able to make some pretty good progress on building. And so you'll see these ETUs coming up online much quicker just because we're not fighting the elements.
BEAUBIEN: The U.S. has pledged to build Ebola treatment units all across Liberia. The idea, however, is that somebody else is going to manage those facilities. Volesky says that's part of the reason the ETUs aren't going up faster.
VOLESKY: The construction of the ETUs is just one piece. It's being able to put health care providers in to treat those patients that come in. And what we want to do is not accelerate the ETU construction and then just have an empty ETU that we've got to secure.
BEAUBIEN: From the beginning of this operation, President Obama made it clear that U.S. Army medics will not be treating patients at the new Ebola treatment units. The World Health Organization says they're still searching for international aid groups to run and staff 14 of those yet-to-be-built ETUs.
Even before any of these proposed new Ebola wards open, there are signs the epidemic may be weakening. Many of the existing Ebola hospitals in Liberia which were completely overwhelmed in September now report having empty beds. General Volesky says changes on the ground could alter what the U.S. finally builds.
VOLESKY: What I learned personally in Iraq and Afghanistan is what we don't want to do as a military - come in here and build a capacity or a capability that the Liberians can't sustain.
BEAUBIEN: He says he still expects to construct all the treatment units, but some of them might end up being smaller than originally planned. Liberia has gone from having more than 400 new cases of Ebola each week in late August to reporting just 50 cases in the last week of October. Some researchers are even questioning whether the country needs hundreds of additional Ebola treatment beds. But in a press conference last week in Geneva, Dr. Bruce Aylward with the World Health Organization warned that there have been other ebbs and flows in this outbreak.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
BRUCE AYLWARD: My God, the single biggest mistake anybody could make now is to think well, do we really need all those beds? Absolutely because remember, what you're looking at is treatment centers that are geographically located across these countries in hotspot areas.
BEAUBIEN: Aylward is the assistant director general of the WHO, and he's in charge of the organization's operational response to the Ebola outbreak. If the U.S. military follows through with its plan to build an Ebola ward in every county across Liberia, Aylward says Ebola cases from rural areas could be isolated much faster, and this could prevent the spread of it into new communities. Aylward says right now is a critical moment in this outbreak.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
AYLWARD: To the question of, am I hopeful, I'm terrified, you know, that the information would be misinterpreted and that people would start to think oh great, this is under control. That's like saying, you know, your pet tiger's under control or something. This is a very, very dangerous disease.
BEAUBIEN: And, he adds, it's not the time for the international community to back off. General Volesky says the American military isn't, and in fact, its presence will grow significantly in the coming weeks. Jason Beaubien, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.