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Wednesday, March 3rd, 2021

Democratic senators seek to tackle COVID-19 pandemic with new Health Force

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U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet (D-CO), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), and Brian Schatz (D-HI), together with eight Democratic colleagues, introduced legislation last week that would create a Health Force to recruit, train and employ thousands to aid vaccine distribution.

The Health Force would be tasked with investing billions in public health jobs and infrastructure if the Health Force, Resilience Force, and Jobs to Fight COVID-19 Act were to pass. The Resilience Force side of things was a proposal championed by U.S. Sens. Ed Markey (D-MA) and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), which calls for expansion and mobilization of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to assist logistics and fight the COVID-19 outbreak with a whole-of-government approach.

“For the past ten months, Washington has allowed the virus to manage us instead of taking action to manage the virus,” Bennet said. “Despite the heroic efforts of frontline health workers, chronic underinvestment in our public health infrastructure has only compounded the damage. We need a new approach.”

Last year, a similar effort from Bennet and Gillibrand failed to become law. Now, according to Schatz, nearly 31 million people are unemployed, and the scale of the problem is growing.

“Enacting a Health Force as part of robust federal plan would enable us to train hundreds of thousands of public health workers, create jobs in struggling communities, and ensure that every community has the resources to reach every American in need of the vaccine,” Gillibrand said.

Inspired by efforts undertaken in the Depression era, the Health Force would equip Americans with basic public health skills, employ them in their local communities and provide $40 billion per year in federal funding, for the first two years at least, to state, local, territorial and tribal public health departments to see it done. The Health Force would also continue after the current public health crisis, providing grant funding and technical assistance to departments to hire and retain members to serve as health extension workers in vulnerable populations.

If approved, the Health Force would become a new part of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Public Health Emergency Preparation (PHEP). It has already been endorsed by a mix of public health organizations, health care organizations, and health experts, including the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, Families USA, the National Peace Corps Association, and others.

“If we had passed our bill last year, our country would be in a much better position than we are today,” Bennet said. “We can’t wait any longer.”