Suffolk Closeup: Sen. Gillibrand calls for a ‘U.S. Health Force’

Not prominent amid all the other news about the COVID-19 pandemic is the introduction of legislation by Sen. Kristen Gillibrand (D-New York), in concert with a senator from Colorado, to create a “U.S. Health Force.”

It “would recruit, train and employ thousands of Americans in order to provide public health capacity,” the senators said in a joint statement, to focus on COVID-19 and “prepare for future public health care needs, and build skills for new workers to enter the public health and health care workforce.”

They note that “as the United States battles the coronavirus pandemic and lays plans to reopen the economy,” 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.”

Cited as a precedent is President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s creation during the Depression of the 1930s of the Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration, important entities in helping the nation recover.

Senator Gillibrand, an attorney from upstate Brunswick, is quoted as saying: “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.”

The co-sponsor, Senator Michael Bennet (D-Colorado), said: “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.”

Both are considered centrist Democrats. Senator Bennet was formerly superintendent of Denver Public Schools and the author of “The Land of Flickering Lights: Restoring America in an Age of Broken Politics.”

The Hill, a Washington, D.C. news website (in one of the few articles I’ve seen about the Health Force legislation), reported that it “comes as overwhelmed local health departments are facing the need to hire thousands of health workers to do contact tracing, the process of finding people that have been in contact with infected individuals and informing them so they can quarantine themselves. The senators said the need for thousands more health workers combined with record unemployment levels illustrates the need for their measure.”

A Health Force wouldn’t come cheap. It would cost in the billions, The Hill notes, to “hire hundreds of thousands of people who would help carry out testing, do contact tracing and eventually vaccinating people to fight the coronavirus.”

Yes, a lot of money, but that needs to be viewed in the context of the titanic amount of money going into dealing with the pandemic, and what it could mean for the vital mission of contact tracing, seen as key to stopping COVID-19’s spread and reopening the economy.

Said Senator Bennet: “If we’re going to safely reopen the economy, we’re going to need the kind of public health surge this bill envisions, and I think young people are eager to be a part of that.”

The joint statement said: “The Health Force would create a federally-supported and locally-managed program to train and deploy essential public and community health frontline workers … These positions would complement America’s highly trained and skilled medical professionals already fighting on the frontlines.”

It would be a component of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which would do training, with management done by local public health agencies.

“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,” it said.

Among the many lessons we are learning from the pandemic is that the U.S. has not been adequately prepared or equipped to handle a deadly wide-spread health crisis.

The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was a resounding success responsible for planting more than three billion trees and constructing trails and shelters in more than 800 parks nationwide, helping shape our national and state park systems.

The popular Work Progress Administration (WPA) carried out public works projects including the construction of roads and public buildings — many in this region.

Both employed millions of people.