Editor’s Note: Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is a Democrat from New York. Sheila Davis, DNP, is the CEO of Partners In Health, an organization that works to provide high-quality health care to impoverished communities globally. The opinions expressed in this commentary are their own. View more opinion on CNN.
Two overlapping crises have our country in a literal death grip: the Covid-19 pandemic that has killed more than 500,000 people, and the crushing economic downturn.
We believe there’s something that can help. Building a new public health workforce will provide permanent, quality jobs to bolster neglected health systems; create new career pathways, particularly for women and people of color; and ensure greater health equity in the Black and brown communities hardest hit by the virus.
Over the last year, Covid-19 has laid bare the failures of our health system, which invests enormous sums in treating illness and paltry sums in preventing it. With limited staff and funding, state and local authorities are struggling to keep pace with testing, contact tracing, and supporting isolating and quarantining Covid-19 patients. Now, those same strapped governments are also being asked to ramp up complex vaccination campaigns. To mount a public health response of appropriate scale and scope, we need to provide reinforcements.
Across the country, Community Health Workers have become trusted messengers on the front lines of strong primary care systems, accompanying patients, helping manage care, and coordinating with health centers and hospitals. Among the migrant farmworkers of Immokalee, Florida, for instance, Community Health Workers from the community, who are fluent in the language and culture of the region, are going door-to-door to share crucial pandemic health information and connect people to food, safe housing, labor protections, and financial assistance. These health workers are also building trust in the Covid-19 vaccines by supplying transparent information, and helping residents sign up for and get to vaccination appointments. When state and local authorities work directly with trusted members of the community, we can bolster our overstretched public health systems with local health workers and ensure we reach every community, from our biggest cities to our smallest rural towns.
With the new administration, America has an opportunity to reevaluate its approach to the pandemic and choose the path that also helps us build a public health system for the future. The Health Force, Resilience Force, and Jobs to Fight COVID-19 Act – authored by one of us and backed by the other’s social justice organization, Partners In Health – would invest billions of dollars into local public health systems and recruit, train and employ hundreds of thousands of Americans. These workers would support the ongoing Covid-19 response, including vaccine communication, distribution, and administration efforts in their own communities, with a particular focus on the underserved. And, when this pandemic finally ends, we can deploy these workers to address other ongoing public health needs, including maternal and child health, nutrition, mental health and more. This is a win-win policy with broad support. According to polling from Data for Progress and The Justice Collaborative Institute, 75% of likely voters, including 61% of Republicans, support the creation of this type of program.
The virus has further revealed the historic inequities of our national health systems and policies that treat health as a commodity and privilege, rather than a human right. Covid-19’s devastating toll has left Black, Latino and Indigenous people infected, hospitalized and dying at two to more than three times the rate of White people, and as new vaccines are rolled out, the disparities continue. In New York City, Black and Latino residents make up 24% and 29% of the population but have received 12% and 16% of the vaccinations, respectively. White residents, on the other hand, account for just one-third of the population, but more than 40% of vaccine recipients. This same trend is present across the country.
Deploying the Health Force in underserved areas will help us address these disparities. And in the process, it will lead to the creation of thousands of new jobs where they are needed most, helping us address the record-breaking unemployment numbers we’ve seen throughout the pandemic. According to an analysis by the Kaiser Health News and The Associated Press, the nation’s public health workforce has lost at least 38,000 jobs over the last decade, while state and local budgets have been slashed by 16% and 18%, respectively. Our country’s public health safety net was already in tatters when Covid-19 hit early last year. The Health Force can help repair it.
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Having more local public health workers will help us end the crisis of the pandemic and the inequities endemic to our health system; provide school-based care workers to address reopening and the pandemic’s physical and mental health toll; and help tackle challenges like the lack of affordable housing.
Investing in these roles through the Health Force would strengthen the US health care system and communities across the country. President Joe Biden shares this vision; he backed the approach in his American Rescue Plan. Additionally, this federally funded, locally managed public Health Force has won support from a coalition of lawmakers, union leaders and health advocates – and it comes at a pivotal time. With nearly 2,000 Americans dying every day from Covid-19, reinforcements can’t come soon enough.