THE BLOG
09/12/2014 10:38 am ET Updated Nov 12, 2014

Five Ways to Strengthen the U.S. Response to Ebola

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The quiet and vicious spread of the Ebola virus throughout West Africa is smothering local communities and overwhelming the national governments doing everything they can to save lives. It's become clear that Ebola is rapidly getting beyond the ability of these countries to contain it and to recover from it. We need to do more to help.

It need not be the role of the United States government alone to solve this problem, but it is our responsibility to stand side by side with those working tirelessly to stop it. It is our responsibility to not just lend a hand, but to help lead in ways that only we can, and by using our unique capabilities to address this crisis.

Individuals on the ground from groups like Doctors without Borders and Samaritan's Purse have done remarkable, heroic, and extraordinary work, putting their own lives on the line to help others, and they have borne the overwhelming majority of the risk, the service, the sacrifice so far.

If Ebola's spread reveals one thing, it's that we are more interconnected today than we have ever been in our human history, and the disease truly knows and respects no borders. We need to continue to act, not only because we are morally compelled to help the tens of thousands who are facing immediate threat, but also because we have a direct stake in the resolution of this crisis.

This is a manageable public health crisis that we know how to solve, but doing so requires our focus, our attention, our resolve and our resources, tools that only the United States has. There are five specific steps I believe we should take now.

First, it's critical the United States has one leadership point and that the White House designates a coordinator to oversee the U.S. whole-of-government emergency response. There are many ways the U.S. is currently helping across many agencies from the Department of Defense, to the Centers for Disease Control, to the State Department and USAID. Those agencies are doing great work as part of the disaster assistance response team on the ground, but at a time when the U.S. government is also facing and addressing crises in Iraq and Ukraine and elsewhere, I think we need one responsible figure coordinating all of our resources and all of the people necessary from the U.S. government for this growing effort. President Obama should designate an official to manage our country's response, both overseas and here in the U.S., including preparing us for the remote chance this virus might reach American soil.

Second, we must deploy U.S. military support faster and more substantially. It's not about our combat capabilities, but rather the unique logistical capabilities of the United States military. No other country can bring to bear this support as quickly and as successfully as we can. The administration's announcement that our military would establish a new hospital facility in Liberia, to distribute equipment, to provide infrastructure and transportation support, but that will take weeks to deploy.

This is not everything we can and should be doing. We need to build more field hospitals for civilians in Liberia and beyond so there are facilities for health workers and civilians fighting the disease. We should also provide airlift of supplies from private donors. I've heard from organizations that can fill cargo plane after cargo plane of supplies, but are having difficulty getting it from here to West Africa.

Third, we need the deeper support and generosity of our private sector, international organizations, and the American people, and we need it right now. It is time for us to step up. The World Health Organization has issued an Ebola response road map that calls for 10,000 additional health workers and $490 million, and we are far short of reaching these goals today. The U.S. government has contributed so far more than $100 million and has announced a commitment of another $88 million that Congress should approve next week.

The Gates Foundation announced an impressive and incredibly generous addition of another $50 million this week, but the fact remains we need more. I have heard from many in my state and elsewhere across this country eager to offer support. Contributing to the organizations identified by USAID for their work on Ebola is a great way to help.

Even more pressing is the need for nurses and doctors and paramedics and other medical professionals. Literally thousands of them are needed. The health systems of these countries -- which were already among the weakest of the world -- are overwhelmed. We urgently need trained medical professionals to consider volunteering to go to West Africa to save lives.

Fourth, we need to develop and deploy a treatment and vaccine as rapidly as possible. American scientists are making progress on both fronts, but the reality is it will be hard to confront and end this disease in the long term without either. Much of the $88 million President Obama has requested will go toward human trials and expedited production, and it's critical that Congress support it.

Lastly, we need to invest in the governing and economic institutions in the countries that have been so devastated by this disease. It's not a coincidence that this outbreak has emerged in countries with some of the weakest health systems on earth. Countries that face severe shortages of health care workers, labs essential for testing and diagnosis, clinics and hospitals required for treatment, and the medical supplies and protective gear, such as latex gloves and face masks, that are commonly available in the United States, but are now completely exhausted in the countries of Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia.

We know how to combat this disease with isolation, good public health and burial practices, case investigation, and contact training. But all these things, all these things require trained personnel and many more resources than are currently available.

We have what it takes to halt the spread of Ebola in West Africa and to save tens if not hundreds of thousands of lives in the process. Unlike other foreign interventions, doing so will take neither bullets nor bombs, but rather, our willingness, our compassion, our generosity, and our determination to act. The lives of hundreds of thousands and the stability of entire countries are at stake. It is my hope and prayer that we will rise to this occasion with everything we have.

Senator Coons chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs.