Guest Commentary: Create a national health force to put recent graduates to work

May 16, 2020
In The News

This month, millions of talented students will graduate during the nation’s biggest challenge since the Great Depression. In the last eight weeks, over 36 million Americans have lost their jobs through no fault of their own. At the same time, health care systems across the nation are struggling under a once-in-a-century pandemic that has claimed over 86,000 lives.
 
Like the generation of Americans who faced down the depression of the 1930s, we must propose ideas that match the scale of our challenges. That is why we have proposed a new “Health Force,” the most ambitious public health initiative in our history.
 
To safely reopen the country, experts tell us we need trained workers in every community to help test, conduct contact tracing, administer vaccines, and educate people about social distancing and self-isolation. At the same time, we must address the chronic underfunding of essential services that left our state and local public health departments short-staffed when we need them most. The Health Force would meet this urgent need by recruiting, training, and employing hundreds of thousands of Americans to surge our health care capacity on the front lines and help keep our economy open.
 
Here’s how it would work. The federal government would fund the Health Force at a cost of $55 billion a year for the first two years, with state, local, and tribal health agencies empowered to recruit, train, and manage the program with support from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The hundreds of thousands of newly-trained recruits would not only help us overcome this pandemic more quickly, they would also bolster our public health workforce for challenges to come.
 
Some view this as a massive effort. They are right; the Health Force would be the most ambitious public health campaign in American history. But consider this: each day we remain closed, the economy loses another $20 billion. If the Health Force lets us reopen just 10 days earlier than we otherwise would, the program would pay for itself — to say nothing of the long-term benefits of equipping hundreds of thousands of young people with the skills for lifelong careers in public health.
 
History reminds us of what can happen when we take the longer view and embrace big ideas in moments of crisis. Generations ago, Americans answered the Great Depression with bold initiatives like the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps, which put thousands of Coloradans to work to meet urgent needs across our state.
 
Today, we see the legacy of these programs in every corner of our state – from campgrounds, irrigation ditches, and infrastructure projects Coloradans helped clear, dig, and trench because we had the vision to ask them. There is no reason that, decades from now, we cannot leave a similar legacy from the Health Force — in the thousands of tests and vaccines administered, the small businesses kept open, the lives saved, and a renewed commitment to public health across the country.
 
The frequent comparison between this crisis and the Great Depression can be dispiriting. But it is incomplete. After all, in the wake of the Great Depression, America produced the Greatest Generation — the men and women who liberated Europe, built the middle class, transformed our nation into a scientific and economic superpower, and forged a new world order. There is no reason why young people today cannot become the Greatest Generation of our time to help America in its moment of need. Our job is to ask them.