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Urgent Investment in Public Health, Contact Tracers Workforce is Needed

By Pete Levine ·

To stem the COVID-19 pandemic and restart the economy, robust, urgent investment in our public health system is needed. Specifically, a large workforce of contact tracers – public health professionals dedicated to mapping and curbing the spread of the coronavirus – must be assembled for our country to return to normalcy.

AFSCME President Lee Saunders laid out a framework for this effort during a press call on Thursday.

Saunders, and two AFSCME members who are doing this essential work, along with Emily Gee, a health economist with the Center for American Progress, chronicled both how vital the work of public health professionals is, and how, since the Great Recession, that work has been drastically underfunded. Now is the time to reverse-course with robust public health investment – at least $1 trillion – across states, cities and towns.

“What we need at this moment is to grow our public service army – and to build up our public health infrastructure in particular,” said Saunders. “Local health departments have actually shrunk by 55,000 jobs since the Great Recession, leaving us badly unprepared for this pandemic. Only a robust permanent health force will allow us to control this virus and move past this crisis.”

“To ensure the highest standards of expertise and accountability, contact tracers should be public employees – and they need protections on the job, so that they can do their work free of political pressure and influence,” Saunders added.

While some holdouts in the Senate have balked at bold, far-reaching investment in public services, most Americans, as well as a diverse group of economists, agree that immediate aid to states, cities and towns is needed to prevent a deeper economic crisis.

For Pat DeHart, an epidemiologist who works for Washington state and is a member of AFSCME Council 28 (WFSE), contact tracing has become the top priority both for her and her fellow public health professionals in the state Department of Health.

“The work that contact tracers do, and the data we collect, is vital to getting a grip on this disease and curtailing it,” said DeHart. “It’s a slow, careful and methodical process, but it’s absolutely essential to understanding how COVID-19 is spreading, where it’s spreading, and to create a plan of attack to stop it from spreading.”

Prior to the pandemic, DeHart’s work focused on immunizing Washington’s school-aged children and adults from communicable diseases. She continues to do that work, along with contact tracing.

DeHart also spotlighted the fact that many people don’t understand what – and how important – the work that public health professionals do is; how crucial their work is to maintaining a safe, healthy society.

“While a physician works to keep their patients healthy, we work to keep entire populations healthy,” said DeHart. “Public health involves not only preventing the spread of disease, but dealing with everything from mental health to maternal health, environmental safety and nutrition education, and much, much more.”

DeHart added that there are huge inequalities based on race and income in these areas. By investing in these services, we can also work to create a more equitable society for working people and communities of color.

In Columbus, Ohio, John Henry, Jr., an HIV Counselor in the sexual health division of the Columbus Health Department and vice president of AFSCME Local 2191 (Council 8), described the all-hands-on-deck situation he’s experienced in his department, as well as how COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted the communities of color he serves.

“In the wake of COVID-19, I, along with many of my colleagues, have been reassigned to serve as contact tracers,” said Henry. “When I first started doing COVID-19 contact tracing, I had about a dozen people to call each day. That number is now up to an average of 15 people per day. But recently, I had 32 people to call. And the average daily number continues to multiply, especially within communities of color.”

Henry traces that disproportionate impact to generations of neglect toward communities of color, mistreatment by the institutions that are designed to protect those communities, as well as the lack of basic access to essential health services. The result, he said, was a perfect storm for a pandemic.

Like DeHart, Henry will have to return to his previous role eventually. He said the country needs a permanent workforce of public sector workers who are meeting contact tracing needs.

Gee, with the Center for American Progress, said, “Unless we can solve the public health problem … the economy can’t get back to normal. We need to reach the point where people feel safe on the job, in stores and restaurants.”

She noted that bolstering the number of contact tracers is a key step in getting the country back on its feet. In addition, Gee said, we need, to “bring down the [number] of incidents, and testing capacity needs to be adequate to identify outbreaks.”

Gee also echoed what other speakers said: “The federal government needs to do more,” to support states, cities and towns to support ongoing efforts to fight the pandemic.

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