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New Ebola Coordinator Says U.S. Response Will Be 'Combined' Effort


Governments and groups around the world are scrambling to deal with the Ebola crisis. The U.S. has sent troops and says it will build 17 treatment centers in Liberia. But in a speech this week, President Obama said things have to move faster.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: There's still a significant gap between where we are and where we need to be. We know from experience that the response to an outbreak of this magnitude has to be fast and it has to be sustained. It's a marathon but you have to running it like a Sprint.


The person just tapped to help make that push is Nancy Powell. She'll coordinate the international response to Ebola for the State Department. She is a veteran of the Foreign Service. Experience she'll need to get other nations to cooperate in the fight against the epidemic. Earlier today, I asked her about President Obama's call for urgency.

NANCY POWELL: I used a different sentence from the speech with my own staff today of emphasizing that we haven't done enough and we haven't done it fast enough. So both the United States, the U.N. and partner countries from around the world are mobilizing resources. The difference of the last two weeks is significant in meeting that challenge from the president of insuring that we're doing enough and we're doing it fast enough.

MARTIN: On the question of pace and timing, health officials have said that every second matters. It's important to have these commitments from other nations to mobilize U.S. resources fast. That there's a window to kind of push the disease back and it is causing every day. But even the U.S. military, which is very good at mobilizing quickly, still hasn't set up the Ebola treatments centers that it has in the pipeline. What is so difficult about this? What is taking so long?

POWELL: I think you have to recognize that these are countries that are recovering from their own difficulties in the infrastructure that has to support logistics is very, very difficult. It's also the rainy season. I know that her own deployment of looking at 17 centers, five of them have no passable road right now. So Plan B has to take effect in terms of getting the equipment out. They're relatively modest structures for the most part, you also have to have them staffed and most importantly you have to have in place and protocols to ensure that the people who are responding to it are not infected.

MARTIN: I know it's difficult to pinpoint timing, but what is your best estimate as to when those American clinics will be set up in Liberia?

POWELL: I don't have an estimate for you right now. But we're working at it as absolutely as quickly as we can.

MARTIN: The president said that the U.S. is getting ready to train, quote, "thousands of health workers from around the world." Where are these health care workers coming from, and getting back to the timing issue again, how long will that training take?

POWELL: This'll be an ongoing effort, some of it's being done here in the United States for NGO workers and others. There's also work by DOD to train as many as 500 each week in Liberia. This is in basic care but also how to ensure that they do not infect themselves during the offering of treatment.

MARTIN: 500 healthcare workers will be trained each week?

POWELL: That's the plan.

MARTIN: How long does it take to then get them deployed to where they need to be?

POWELL: It will depend on where they're going. Most of them are local and they can be deployed very quickly.

MARTIN: Quickly means?

POWELL: I don't know. I don't have a date for you.

MARTIN: What kind of aid is most urgently needed from other countries?

POWELL: We're working with the U.N. to look at their requirements. They have a long list as you might imagine of logistics equipment, aircraft vehicles, that's one category. A second category is obviously the medical side of personnel, labs. Sometimes it is a private sector that can do them. I met yesterday with representatives of international companies, primarily American, but many of them international, that have organized themselves since August to provide a matrix of, these are the things that we have available in each of the three infected countries that might be of assistance to an NGO, to a government, to the U.N.

MARTIN: Do I hear you saying the private sector is positioned to move quicker than the U.S. government right now?

POWELL: They have resources on the ground, but they don't have all of the resources. There's no one particular piece of this that can do it all. It's a combined effort and I think this is my major emphasis, is that this is NGOs, it's governments, it's the U.N, it's the private sector and you need all of those pieces working together in order to bend the curve.

MARTIN: Ambassador Nancy Powell, she's heading up the U.S. Ebola response unit at the State Department. Thanks so much for talking with us, ambassador.

POWELL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.