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Sen. Michael Bennet announces ‘Health Force’ bill to manage COVID-19 response

Measure would provide funding for local health departments to hire more workers
Bennet

Amid record unemployment, a bill sponsored by U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet would train and employ a national workforce to help identify the spread of the coronavirus and aid local public health departments in effectively combating the pandemic.

While public health officials are working to meet the myriad needs of addressing a global pandemic, they are often staffed far below the needs of their communities. Since 2003, federal funding for public health emergencies has fallen 60%, according to the Coalition for Health Funding.

“The health force will give us the opportunity to make a renewed commitment to our public health preparedness,” Bennet said in a conference call Tuesday. “Our failure to make that commitment is one of the reasons we are more vulnerable to this virus in the first place and we can’t make that mistake again.”

Under the proposed bill, funding would be provided to the Centers for Disease and Prevention for training while the jobs would be overseen by local health care professionals, with the program potentially becoming permanent after the crisis. The duties of the health force would include contact tracing, administering COVID-19 tests, providing supplies and medical services to the elderly and at-risk populations, and eventually administering a vaccine when it becomes available.

Jollon

The new services would reinvigorate struggling public health departments, which have seen as much as a quarter of their workers laid off since the 2008-09 financial crisis, said Liane Jollon, director of San Juan Basin Public Health. During the call, Jollon said local medical directors and nurses “have a huge increased need for the workforce to get this done in the coming months” to reopen Colorado safely.

“This is serious business, and we do want to make sure we get it right,” Jollon said.

Resources will be distributed where there have been outbreaks of the coronavirus based on the number of coronavirus infections per capita, Bennet said. The senator was quick to note that this meant that even rural areas or ski resorts where the permanent population wasn’t as high would still be given the funding needed to combat the disease effectively.

Monique Lovato, chief executive officer of Mi Casa Resource Center in Denver, said the bill was an opportunity to hire local students or workers in those areas who have been laid off because of the ripple effects of the pandemic.

“It’s really about training the workforce that we already have in the state rather than trying to bring others in,” Lovato said.

The Health Force was announced at the same time that other Senate Democrats have proposed creating additional jobs to bolster other federal response programs, such as AmeriCorps and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. All together, more than 750,000 jobs could be created under the Democrats’ plan.

“We gotta do what our parents and grandparents did, which is invest in this state,” Bennet said.

The bill will be introduced as part of Congress’ next coronavirus relief package. The U.S. House of Representatives has been called in session for two days this week to debate several bills, including some related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jacob Wallace is a graduate student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald.

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