As Ebola raged through West Africa last year, killing thousands of people and devastating communities, a regional public health problem quickly intensified into a global crisis. This prompted a massive effort by the United States to stop the disease from spreading and to protect American and foreign doctors going into the hot zones.
Mia Beers, the leader of the 40-person U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Ebola Disaster Assistance Response Team, arrived in Monrovia, Liberia in early November, where she coordinated thousands of U.S. personnel from five federal agencies working in four countries. The largest team worked in Liberia while three smaller teams worked in Guinea, Mali and Sierra Leone, all willing to put themselves at risk to help with this humanitarian mission.
“Mia landed on the ground and helped to create order out of chaos,” said Nancy Lindborg, former USAID assistant administrator. “She crafted the strategy into which everyone could plug.”
Ebola was at its peak in Liberia in September and October of 2014, with about 300 new confirmed cases a week. By December, they were down to about 30 per week.
“She provided tremendous leadership during a very crucial time,” said Jeremy Konyndyk, director of the USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance. “This outbreak eclipsed the deaths of all previous outbreaks put together. It was just staggering.”
When the team arrived, the U.S. and international governments were looking for cases outside of Monrovia and making treatment options available, said Beers, who was the third team leader in a job known to cause rapid burnout in humanitarian crises.
Responders set up Ebola treatment units, airlifted personal protective equipment into the region, opened a dedicated medical unit to treat Liberian and international health care workers and staff, and worked closely with non-governmental organizations, the United Nations and national governments.
One of USAID’s strengths is its knowledge of local cultural issues, such as the Liberians’ custom of washing bodies for burial, a tradition contributing to the rapid spread of the disease, said Carol Chan, deputy director of USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance.
“Mia understands humanitarian policy and the concept of ‘do no harm.’ We make sure we work with the host government, being respectful of what they need,” Chan said. “We needed the A-team out there, and Mia is A-plus.”
Beers and the response team helped bring case numbers down by providing training for health care workers, deploying testing laboratories, supporting epidemiological surveillance and doing “contact tracing” to identify and diagnose individuals who may have been in close contact with infected people.
In what Beers calls “a whole of government effort,” the USAID team worked with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Department of Defense (DOD), the U.S. Public Health Service and the State Department. Beers coordinated the work of these agencies, relying on their areas of expertise, such as the DOD’s skills with logistics and construction.
“It was the first time in my career we deployed in support of another federal agency,” said Maj. Gen. Volesky, Joint Force Commander of DOD’s Operation United Assistance. He said Beers was effective at setting milestones for solving the crisis and keeping everyone informed. “She would define a clear end state and drive toward it,” Volesky said.
After members of Congress, U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power and other high-level officials paid visits to the area, “All of them said, ‘We have not seen this level of interagency cooperation in any other place we’ve been,’” Volesky said, adding that Beers “was a great team member as well as team leader.”
Beers made frequent site visits to ensure activities were running smoothly. She made sure CDC’s infectious disease expertise melded with the humanitarian response, and led U.S. efforts to provide support, guidance and funding to governments and partners in the region.
Working with the admiral leading the U.S. Public Health Service in Liberia, Beers helped strategize on operations and policies for health care workers. She met daily with the State Department’s country teams in Liberia on response efforts, and supported information campaigns to educate vulnerable populations about prevention and treatment.
Before helping mobilize U.S. efforts in West Africa, Beers was already leading interagency engagement as director of Humanitarian Policy and Global Engagement in USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, a job to which she has since returned. After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the disaster assistance office knew it needed to up its game and Beers led that process, laying the foundation for the Ebola response, Konyndyk said.
Then, in West Africa, she got the “opportunity to take all these interagency concepts she had been working on and leading for years and put them into place in the field when it was really crunch time,” he said. “Weaving together a range of interagency capabilities is not an easy thing to do.”
Beers said the response was a success due to “the dedication and the passion and knowledge” of many people in her office. “That’s what really made a difference,” she said. “It was an incredible response and brought us all together in one common cause.”