NMDA employee works to help stop Ebola spread in West Africa

For immediate release: Nov. 12, 2014

Media contact:
Katie Goetz, Public Information Officer
575-646-2804 office

A New Mexico Department of Agriculture (NMDA) employee is recounting his recent experience in the West African country of Liberia, where he trained police officers to safely work around the Ebola virus.

Kelly Hamilton directs NMDA’s Office of Biosecurity.  In late September and early October, he used his vacation time to travel to the Liberian capital of Monrovia, where he helped train officers from across the small country on how to safely provide security at Ebola treatment, quarantine, and observation centers.  He has been back in the U.S. since mid-October and says he feels healthy and grateful for the experience.

Hamilton worked with a team from the National Center for Biomedical Research and Training at Louisiana State University (LSU) to show Liberian officers how to protect themselves to avoid acquiring and spreading the Ebola virus in the course of doing their work.  The U.S. State Department contracted with Hamilton and the team to provide the training.  

Hamilton’s law enforcement background explains why he got the call from the State Department.  Before coming to NMDA, he worked in law enforcement for 23 years: as a deputy sheriff, as a city patrolman, and as a state investigator in Wyoming specializing in crimes related to agriculture.  Those experiences gave him a solid understanding of quarantine and isolation.

“Our whole mission was to get the Liberian officers to understand that even though they are not medical staff, they need to wear personal protective equipment (PPE) when they are providing security,” Hamilton said.  “I think our greatest benefit was in the area of isolation and quarantine, emergency operations centers, communication coordination, and food security,” Hamilton said. 

All told, Hamilton estimates that the team trained 1,500 Liberian police officers. 

“I’m so proud of the law enforcement officers that we have trained.  They are practicing what we asked them to, but they have only the limited amount of supplies we took them; so again, there is only so much they can do,” he said.

Hamilton said that for two or three hours every weekday morning, the U.S. team would facilitate a discussion among the officers about Ebola, with an emergency-room doctor from Chicago on hand to answer their medical questions.  The officers spent afternoons “donning and doffing” PPE – putting on and taking off personal protective equipment like gloves and masks, training to avoid making contact with the outside layer of the gear where any virus particles might be.  In addition to the PPE, Hamilton said the LSU team armed law enforcement officers with training materials they can reference later when it comes to protective procedures.

On weekends, Hamilton and his team volunteered their time to help local and state workers put together food kits, among other relief efforts.

Back at NMDA, Hamilton coordinates planning and training among the state’s diverse and far-flung agricultural community for hazardous events – and, when necessary, assisting farmers, ranchers, and others in the response to such events.  His work encourages people to puzzle through such questions as If a wildfire breaks out and consumes a ranch, how and to where would we evacuate those cattle?  How can farms protect themselves from the sorts of incidents that can undermine food safety?  What plans can dairies put together to still ship their milk in the midst of a big snowstorm?

The work of planning, training, and responding is done largely through a partnership with Southwest Border Food Safety and Defense Center, located at NMSU, as well as with teams like the one from LSU.

Hamilton said he will bring to bear in New Mexico what his efforts half a world away in Liberia taught him.

“This was a life-changing experience for sure, both personally and for my work,” Hamilton said.  “On the work side, it really alerts you to how critical preparation is when we’re in the middle of an epidemic.”

Learn more about NMDA’s Office of Biosecurity and the Southwest Border Food Safety and Defense Center.