MONROVIA, Liberia — The vanguard of a U.S. military force set about building a hospital for stricken health workers as Liberian lawmakers debated Friday whether to grant President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf more power amid the Ebola epidemic. One parliamentarian warned that the country could turn into a "police state."
The arrival of 100 U.S. Marines on Thursday brings to just over 300 the total number of American troops in Liberia. The Marines and their aircraft will help with air transportation and ferrying of supplies, overcoming road congestion in Monrovia and bad roads outside the capital, said Capt. R. Carter Langston, spokesman for the U.S. mission. A priority will be transporting building materials to treatment unit sites. The U.S. has said it will oversee construction of 17 treatment units with 100 beds each.
The U.S. military on Thursday was also setting up a 25-bed hospital to treat health workers who may contract Ebola. Rear Adm. Scott Giberson, the acting United States Deputy Surgeon General, said the facility would be ready within weeks and would be run by the U.S. military.
"We're in training right now. As you may know, not everybody is fully experienced in seeing Ebola related care of patients," Giberson said. "We have experience deploying in lots of medical settings. However, this is unique."
The 101st Airborne Division is expected to deploy 700 troops by late October. The U.S. may send up to 4,000 soldiers to help with the Ebola crisis, though officials have stressed that number could change depending on needs.
In a call with reporters on Wednesday, USAID assistant administrator Nancy Lindborg said six treatment units were operational in Liberia. She said about 250 beds had come online in the last ten days or so, and that beds would come online in waves until the end of November.
Liberia's House of Representatives convened a special session Friday to discuss proposed measures outlined in an Oct. 1 letter that would give Sirleaf the power to restrict movement and public gatherings and appropriate property "without payment of any kind or any further judicial process" to combat Ebola.
The letter also says Sirleaf can "limit the right to assembly for any reason."
Sirleaf's government imposed a three-month state of emergency beginning Aug. 6, and a statement warned at the time that this would involve suspending some rights and privileges.
"I see a kind of police state creeping in," said lawmaker Bhofal Chambers, a one-time supporter of Sirleaf who has since joined the opposition camp.
In August, a quarantine of Monrovia's largest shantytown sparked unrest and was derided as counterproductive before being lifted. The Committee to Protect Journalists has accused Sirleaf's government of trying to silence media outlets criticizing its conduct.
Liberia has been hit hardest by the Ebola outbreak, recording more than 2,200 deaths, according to the World Health Organization. The total death toll as of Wednesday was 3,865, with most other deaths in Sierra Leone and Guinea.
Frustration with Sirleaf is not limited just to Ebola. There have also been allegations of corruption and nepotism, especially the appointment of her sons to high-level posts.
When Justice Minister Christiana Tah announced her resignation this week, she accused the president of blocking an investigation of the country's National Security Agency, which is headed by her son Fumba Sirleaf.
In Mali, a health ministry spokesman said two more people had begun participating in the first phase of a study for a possible Ebola vaccine. Mali has not had any cases of Ebola, but it borders the outbreak zone. University of Maryland researchers announced Thursday that the first study of a possible vaccine was underway, and that three health care workers in Mali had received the experimental shots developed by the U.S. government.
"Today, we are at five people vaccinated," health ministry spokesman Markatie Daou said. "We envision vaccinating between 20 and 40 people for this first phase and the results are expected next month."
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, meanwhile, visited the Madrid hospital where a nursing assistant infected with Ebola is being treated.
Teresa Romero was scheduled to start receiving the experimental anti-Ebola drug ZMapp, which is in extremely short supply worldwide, a spokeswoman for Madrid's regional health agency said on condition of anonymity because of agency rules.
Romero contracted Ebola in Madrid while helping treat a Spanish missionary who became infected in West Africa, and later died. She is the first person known outside of West Africa to have caught the disease in the current outbreak.
Rajoy praised Spanish health care workers and said the World Health Organization thinks "the risk is very low that this disease will spread in the future" in Spain and Europe.
Corey-Boulet reported from Abidjan, Ivory Coast. Associated Press journalists Wade Williams in Monrovia and Ciaran Giles in Madrid contributed to this report.