As Ebola continues to spread in Africa, the United States has committed over $100 million in aid, in the form of both supplies and personnel. But fringe voices on the Web are suggesting that Ebola is even a bigger threat than the U.S. government is letting on.
The conspiracy website InfoWars reported this week that "the U.S. State Department has ordered 160,000 Hazmat suits for Ebola, prompting concerns that the federal government is anticipating the rapid spread of a virus that has already claimed an unprecedented number of lives."
The InfoWars report cites a press release from Lakeland Industries, which manufactures protective clothing, and the InfoWars report says that "only 1,400 federal workers are currently in the region (western Africa), suggesting that the 160,000 figure is far higher than what would be required merely for sending medical workers abroad."
From there, InfoWars cites a German virologist to the effect that Ebola’s death toll will climb to 5 million (the Ebola outbreak has claimed 2,630 deaths at time of writing), and suggests that "Ebola could have gone airborne to at least a limited extent." (We found plenty of other examples of the Hazmat story floating around the Internet.)
We’re not going to touch speculation about Ebola’s evolution, but we wanted to check his claim that the State Department has ordered 160,000 Hazmat suits for Ebola, and that their order reflects the federal government’s anticipation of a "rapid spread" of Ebola.
The press release
The Lakeland press release, which announces its increased "manufacturing capacity" for the "specialty protective suits to be worn by health care workers and others being exposed to Ebola," only has a sentence relating to the State Department’s order.
"With the U.S. State Department alone putting out a bid for 160,000 suits," they say, "we encourage all protective apparel companies to increase their manufacturing capacity for sealed seam garments so that our industry can do its part in addressing this threat to global health."
That’s not much to go on, but there’s a crucial distinction that InfoWars glosses over: The press release mentions a bid, not an "order." That means that while a purchase of 160,000 suits may be in the works, it’s not final yet and may not even happen.
U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) spokesman Matt Herrick said that he couldn’t "speak to specific procurement that is in process and not awarded," but confirmed that the Lakeland press release "is in reference to USAID and our ongoing efforts to secure personal protective equipment to combat the spread of Ebola."
The bid InfoWars is referring to comes from USAID, which is technically independent of the State Department. The two organizations, though, work closely together.
USAID has been providing protective equipment to partners in Africa since March, Herrick said. That includes Hazmat suits like the ChemMax 1 suit referred to in Lakeland’s press release. The suit, while not Ebola-exclusive, is designed to protect against infectious agents.
Beyond the suits, USAID’s assistance to African organizations has come in the form of disease-control experts, funding and a variety of emergency supplies. Herrick referred us to this series of press releases on USAID’s efforts.
"Last month, USAID airlifted more than 16 tons of medical supplies and emergency equipment to Liberia," Herrick said, including 10,000 Hazmat suits, water treatment units, and plastic sheeting to create Ebola treatment units.
That might seem like a lot of suits, but "the equipment set is designed to be worn just once and then disposed of once treatment is administered," said Herrick. "So many sets are needed for each health provider."
"USAID has procured and delivered more than 100,000 suits to date, and we are on track to procure and deliver more than 130,000 additional suits," Herrick said. "The equipment is provided to local health care workers and nongovernmental partners working in the affected countries."
Herrick wouldn’t elaborate on how the suits from the bid related to USAID’s plans, but the figures he gave are crucial context. The 160,000 suits aren’t actually "far higher than what would be required merely for sending medical workers abroad," as InfoWars claimed. USAID has provided almost that many suits already, and there seems to be an immediate need for more.
This information is also public via USAID’s press releases, so it's not as though they’re privately predicting a "rapid spread" of Ebola beyond the scope of the current outbreak.
The website InfoWars claimed that the State Department "has ordered 160,000 Hazmat suits for Ebola," demonstrating that "the federal government is anticipating the rapid spread of a virus that has already claimed an unprecedented number of lives."
The federal government agency in question is USAID, but that’s something of a technicality.
A USAID official told us that the suits are one use only, so 160,000 suits aren’t actually an astronomical amount. In fact, USAID has already delivered 100,000 suits to the Ebola-infected regions of Africa.
Their new bid, while an expansion of their efforts, is in line with what USAID has done so far, and doesn’t demonstrate that the federal government is anticipating any sort of "rapid spread."
We rate the claim Half True.