Joint Base Lewis-McChord airmen who’ve been flying short Ebola-response missions are not subject to mandatory quarantines, but South Sound soldiers preparing for longer assignments in West Africa will be isolated before returning home, officials said Thursday.
Airmen from JBLM’s two airlift wings have been flying to Liberia and Senegal since late September delivering supplies and troops to support the military’s Ebola efforts. They tend to spend fewer than four hours on the ground and do not interact with patients. That means they have a very low risk of contracting the virus, which is transmitted through direct contact with body fluids.
Still, the Air Force has asked them to monitor their health for the onset of flu-like symptoms. So far, none has reported an illness, said Master Sgt. Jake Chappelle of the 446th Reserve Airlift Wing.
The Defense Department on Wednesday announced military service members returning from assignments in Ebola zones will be placed in a 21-day quarantine to keep them in a protected setting during the virus’ incubation period.
A Pentagon spokesman in the Stars and Stripes newspaper Wednesday said the order would not apply to air crews making short stops in West Africa.
JBLM’s active-duty 62nd Airlift Wing, which has missions taking crews to Liberia, referred questions about the health of its airmen to the Pentagon. Pentagon public affairs officials did not respond to The News Tribune’s phone calls and e-mail.
No large Army units from JBLM have yet been picked to support the Ebola-response mission. Up to 4,000 U.S. soldiers could be sent to West Africa during the next few months, with most coming out of the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.
But two JBLM soldiers with medical backgrounds are preparing to deploy to Liberia with a combat support hospital, and one Madigan Army Medical Center doctor traveled to Liberia on his own last month.
The Madigan doctor, Paul Bunge, is nearing the end of his 21-day quarantine and is expected to return to work soon, Madigan spokesman Jay Ebbeson said.
Bunge “has no known risk of exposure, but in an abundance of caution after returning from personal travel in Africa, he is currently home, not seeing patients at Madigan, monitoring his temperature twice daily and reporting to public health officials daily,” Ebbeson said in a written statement.
Bunge told the Centralia Chronicle that he spent three weeks in Liberia to train medical staff on how to protect themselves from the virus. He said he “never even saw an Ebola patient from across the street.”
The two other medical soldiers — another doctor and a nurse — are on their way to West Africa to serve with a medical unit from Fort Campbell. They’ll likely be overseas for several months and will be placed in a quarantine before returning to work at Madigan.
The 62nd and 446th Airlift Wings fly C-17 cargo jets to support military operations around the world. Each wing has been assigned flights to West Africa.
Chappelle said reservists who flew early flights to Liberia have been home with their families for weeks. They’ve been monitoring their health, reporting to their commands and going to work at their civilian jobs.
“Everyone should be looking for flu-like symptoms,” he said. “We want to make sure our airmen and families stay healthy.”