Overwhelming interest from Minnesota's Liberian natives who want to fight the Ebola outbreak in west Africa has prompted a locally based humanitarian group to build a treatment clinic in a remote jungle region of Liberia.
The American Refugee Committee, based in Minneapolis, was already in talks with U.S. government officials this fall about providing medical aid in Liberia when it contacted local Liberian leaders and discovered there were already 100 doctors, nurses and other medical professionals eager to volunteer. When the charity started posting jobs and volunteer positions on its website for the treatment center, it received 400 applications in the first two days.
"People will amaze you at their willingness to go into the most difficult situations," said Daniel Wordsworth, president and chief executive of the American Refugee Committee, or ARC, on Wednesday. "I was wondering whether Ebola was going to be the bridge too far, and it wasn't. Hundreds of people wanted to go over and help."
Wynfred Russell, a Liberian-American employee of the Minnesota Department of Health and a Brooklyn Park planning commissioner, was among them. He's signed on to run logistics for the Ebola Treatment Unit planned for Fish Town, a hamlet of about 3,500 near the border with the Ivory Coast.
"Those of us who are Liberians, who have the expertise, need to step up," Russell said.
He said he reassured his worried, 9-year-old twin daughters that he would take all of the necessary precautions.
"I said, 'It's important that Daddy goes there and works to stop the disease where it started.' I feel morally obligated to help," Russell said. "This is history in the making. I want to be able to look back and say I helped to stop Ebola in my country."
Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea have been at the center of the largest recorded human Ebola outbreak, which has infected more than 14,000 people and resulted in more than 5,000 deaths. As part of a coordinated strategy between the U.S. government and charities to blanket Liberia with treatment clinics, ARC chose to build in the remote River Gee county, which sits on the eastern border with the Ivory Coast.
While the region has only about 20 Ebola infections so far, Wordsworth said there is evidence of the infection spreading from the capital city, Monrovia — where the rate of infections is declining — to rural areas.
"What you're now seeing [with Ebola] is like a wildfire," he said, "and it's spitting embers."
It's strategically important to stop the virus from crossing into another country, Wordsworth said.
At least eight or nine Minnesotans will be part of the initial treatment team of around 75, who will start out late next month in a semi-permanent center of wooden walls and a metal roof with up to 30 beds. The center, being constructed by a German company, could eventually be expanded to 60 beds and a staff of 200, but Wordsworth said the goal is to prevent that and to shut it down by May if Ebola is successfully contained.
Setting up the center is difficult because it is in a remote jungle location that needs a stable water supply. The jungle had to be cleared for a tent city that was set up for the workers to avoid concerns about having them stay in local hotels or towns where people might fear the spread of the virus. ARC committed $100,000 to start the project, but Wordsworth said federal funds will help cover the costs of running the treatment center.
If running at a capacity of 60 beds, Wordsworth said it would cost $750,000 to $1 million a month to run the center, where there would be three medical providers per patient. Ebola treatment in such a hot jungle environment is difficult, because caregivers can only stay in the gear needed to protect themselves from Ebola transmission for two hours.
Heather Buesseler, a public health worker from Minneapolis, arrived in Liberia nearly a month ago as transmission rates were peaking. She's doing the legwork to set up ARC's treatment unit, meeting with organizations doing similar work, as well as Liberian government officials and U.N. staff. She said in a Skype interview from Monrovia that she volunteered to go.
"I just kept waking up and coming into work every morning [in Minneapolis] with this pit in my stomach knowing I really could be more effective if I just go over there. You get a very different perspective being here in country," Buesseler said.
Fish Town is so remote, she said, that it takes three hours to get to it by road, or a series of plane and helicopter rides, or a boat ride followed by a four-hour drive. Everything must be shipped in: construction materials, food, water and medical supplies. The U.S. Department of Defense and the United Nations Mission for Ebola Emergency Response are helping with logistics.
Buesseler said that everyone involved is working 14- to 18-hour days, seven days a week. "Nobody turns off here," she said.
Buesseler plans to return to Minnesota on Friday for a much needed rest. Unfortunately, she said, she'll be in isolation during her family's Thanksgiving celebration because ARC plans to use a more intensive quarantine plan when its volunteers and workers return to Minnesota.
After Russell returned from a weeklong trip to Liberia to assess the situation before ARC committed to the operation, he went into semi-isolation for 21 days, which is the amount of time in which an Ebola infection would produce symptoms. Though he had no contact with Ebola patients, Russell took his temperature regularly and had to stay away from grocery stores and public meetings or gatherings, but did go outside for walks.
"After a while you get cabin fever," Russell said. "But it was manageable."
ARC's restrictions are more restrictive than those now recommended by the Minnesota Department of Health. It monitors low-risk travelers from west Africa for 21 days, but does not restrict their whereabouts unless they suffer fevers or other symptoms of a potential infection.
"You're better off to act in a conservative way," Wordsworth said. "We want the people of Minnesota to feel proud of what we're doing, not worried about it."