Today, U.S. Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Michael Bennet (D-CO) announced legislation to build the Health Force, which would recruit, train and employ hundreds of thousands of Americans in order to provide public health capacity for the surge in COVID-19 patients, prepare for future public health care needs, and build skills for new workers to enter the public health and health care workforce. As the United States battles the coronavirus pandemic and lays plans to reopen the economy, Senators Gillibrand, Bennet, and their Senate colleagues are announcing one of the most ambitious and expansive public health campaigns in our nation’s history. The Health Force would provide jobs for thousands of recently unemployed Americans and directly support the nation’s efforts to recover from the current crisis.
“In the face of this unprecedented crisis, Congress must harness American patriotism, resilience, and ingenuity by establishing a Health Force to combat this deadly virus,” said Senator Gillibrand. “The new Health Force will put thousands of Americans back to work, creating a valuable workforce to respond to the coronavirus outbreak and meet existing and emerging public health needs. I’m proud to announce this legislation as part of the National Public Service Package, a vital, innovative approach to respond to this crisis.”
“This crisis is the greatest challenge our country has faced since World War II. And we can – and must – rise to the challenge with a broad and bold proposal to combat the virus and put our economy back to work at the same time,” said Senator Bennet. “Just as President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration mobilized millions of Americans during one of the most trying times in our nation’s history, our new Health Force will help bolster the COVID-19 response and put Americans back to work serving their communities and their country. We need ideas as big as the challenge we face, and the Health Force meets that test.”
The Health Force is inspired by the Depression-era Works Progress Administration, which similarly tapped the unemployed to help the nation recover from a sharp economic downturn. The Health Force would create a federally-supported and locally-managed program to train and deploy essential public and community health frontline workers, who could conduct diagnostic testing, contact tracing, or eventual vaccine administration. These positions would complement America’s highly trained and skilled medical professionals already fighting on the frontlines. The workforce would be trained by CDC and managed by state and local public health agencies across the country. The Health Force would be responsible for:
- Conducting contact tracing;
- Administering COVID-19 tests, including antibody tests;
- Providing COVID-19 vaccinations (when available);
- Sharing COVID-19 public health messages with community members, including debunking myths and misperceptions;
- Providing data entry in support of epidemic surveillance and to meet broader health information system requirements;
- Providing community-based and home-based services, including food and medical supply delivery to elderly and immunocompromised individuals;
- Providing palliative and hospice care;
- Providing other public health-related services, as needed.
After the current public health crisis concludes, the Health Force would provide grant funding and technical assistance to state and local health departments to hire and retain members to serve as health extension workers (HEWs) among vulnerable populations, in underserved areas and in future public health emergencies. These activities could include sharing public health messages with community members, providing home-based check-ins for new mothers and infants, providing vaccination schedule reminders for parents of children, connecting community members with health-related services (e.g. SNAP), and more.
The Health Force will be a new component of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Public Health Emergency Preparation (PHEP) which include 65 jurisdictions across all 50 states, territories, and tribal lands. The CDC will develop and implement Health Force training packages, while state, local, territorial, and tribal funding recipients will hire, supervise, and retain Corps members using new grant or cooperative agreement funding provided through PHEP and/or PHCR. States, localities, territories, and tribal entity funding recipients will actively recruit and manage Force members. Recruitment will reach on low-income, minority, and historically marginalized populations.
This legislation also includes the Resiliency Force, a proposal led by Senators Ed Markey (D-MA) and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), that mobilizes individuals at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in the fight against the coronavirus by providing funding needed to hire and train 62,000 additional FEMA Cadre of On-Call Response/Recovery Employees (CORE) to perform public health and related functions as well as respond to natural disasters such as hurricanes and wildfires. Along with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), FEMA is a key part of the whole-of-government effort to combat the COVID-19 outbreak and responsibly reopen the country in phases. However, FEMA’s workforce of approximately 14,000 must be significantly expanded to address the growing national needs of testing, and managing emergency supply chain logistics for states and communities in need.
This is the second of three proposals under development by a working group of Senate Democrats to address the urgent need to expand the public health and response workforce during and in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak. On April 22, a Senate Democratic working group led by Senator Coons (DE) released the Pandemic Response and Opportunity Through National Service Act, which would fund 750,000 national service positions over a three-year response and recovery period.