The country’s public health workforce is short some 80,000 people, new estimates show, after being decimated in recent years. The consequences have been severe: Advocates say chronic underfunding of the system undermined the U.S. pandemic response from day one.
Now, lawmakers are looking to rebuild. In May, the Biden administration announced $400 million for a new partnership between AmeriCorps and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to recruit and train up to 5,000 people, who will work mostly in state and local public health departments and help the country recover from COVID-19.
They’re moving quickly: The first crop of 1,000 new public health leaders could be working in communities as soon as May 2022, according to Karen Dahl, AmeriCorps’ COVID-19 adviser. Morning Consult spoke with Dahl about the agency’s efforts to fill gaps in hard-hit communities and help shape the next generation of the public health workforce. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Let’s start with the 30,000-foot view. Why do we need to invest in building up the public health workforce in this way in the United States?
There are a couple of reasons: the shortages, the need for high-quality jobs and the importance of preparing people for those jobs. The need is greater and more urgent than ever.
We’re still at the beginning of this, but it seems to be a perfect fit in taking CDC’s expertise in public health and what is needed at state and local public health departments, and our experience, which is often the early-to-work generation of folks who can learn on the job and learn skills that provide them those pathways into those high-quality jobs.
These local health departments are so cash-strapped, and they’ve seen their funding slashed in the past 10-15 years. Do those high-quality jobs exist for people coming out of this program?
I absolutely believe so. CDC believes that.
We have a handful of public health programs around the country that have AmeriCorps members. One that came to life during COVID is in Colorado, where we had members across our programs do contact tracing investigations for the Department of Public Health. Many of those folks were hired into permanent positions afterwards. That’s just one example of the handful we have, where folks learned on the job and then were able to enter into positions and have stayed in public health, but we don’t have longitudinal studies at our fingertips quite yet.
How will you decide where to send folks? Are you looking at particular communities based on need?
Based on the priorities of our agency and this administration, we are very much focused on getting into the communities that need the services the most, where there has been underrepresentation previously — both of AmeriCorps members and where communities are suffering the most. That is still in the process of being fully defined, because it is year one of a very large program.
Who are the ideal candidates to be serving in these roles?
For a lot of our members and volunteers, this is their first professional experience, or they are earlier in their career. These are not medical professionals, these are not, in most cases, people with MPHs (Master of Public Health).
We’re looking at everything from, “I just graduated high school, I’ve been hearing the term ‘public health’ all year, I want to learn more, what’s the way for me to do that?” on one end of the spectrum. And there are a lot of folks who stepped up during the pandemic to help in public health roles that sparked interest for them, but there isn’t a clear path forward, necessarily.
And then the third is there are folks across the country who have studied public health to some degree that don’t necessarily have a direct path forward to a career in government public health, and this could also be a stepping stone.
How does this fit in with the broader pipeline into the health workforce?
I think this is really a complement to other professions and pipelines. There’s so many partnerships that have formed through the course of the pandemic between public health agencies and some of those medical professions — and obviously, some of those are also very long-standing.
The entire funding for the program is five years. Is there any concern about sustainability?
We hope this is just the beginning of a much longer partnership with CDC. A lot of what AmeriCorps has done in the past with programs is build that sustainability into the program. It often is an early proof point for different service sites, to see what is needed to create additional pathways for funding and employment, etc. We also certainly hope to be able to help agencies build that sustainability at the local level.
What else is important to keep in mind?
This partnership between CDC and AmeriCorps is really the first step in what the possibility is for the future of public health. And while there are certainly challenges to come and problems to figure out, I’m really hopeful about the potential for this over the next five years and beyond.