Public health care worker shortage amid pandemic at center of Crow loan repayment bill

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AURORA | Public health officials say it’s going to take a substantial number of workers to track and contain the coronavirus. The endeavor is one leaders say is necessary in completely returning the country as close to normal as possible.

To coax more people into those roles in public health Tri-County Health Department Director Dr. John Douglas pitched an idea for a loan repayment program for those workers.

Aurora Congressman Jason Crow introduced the bill to establish the program this week with Republican co-sponsor Congressman Michael Burgess of Texas. It stipulates that eligible individuals must either be in their final year of a degree or certificate related to public health or have graduated within the past decade and plan to work in local, state or tribal public health. 

A three-year service commitment to public health is also required to earn the loan repayment. Each eligible person could receive up to $105,000, Crow said.

“For many students, it isn’t economically feasible for them to enter into public service, especially given the high cost of many health care and medical programs. I’m grateful to Congressman Crow for pursuing this idea and making it into a reality,” Douglas said in a statement. “Not only will it help encourage the next generation of public health leaders, but we can better increase our nation’s preparedness for problems such as the current coronavirus pandemic.”

Crow told the Sentinel the bill came together as he was talking to the Tri-County team about what resources are needed to combat the current COVID-19 pandemic. Capacity was a major theme in those conversations, he said.

A lot of health care workers will be needed between now and when a coronavirus vaccine becomes available, which could be one to two years. Those workers will likely participate in testing — which Crow said still faces a national shortage — and contact tracing, where health care workers lead an investigation, hopefully informing all of the people that have come in contact with an infected person once they test positive.

It’s not clear yet what tracing the virus could look like across the U.S. The World Health Organization reported that approximately 9,000 contact tracers were hired in Wuhan, China, where the disease originated. 

New Zealand and Iceland have also implemented trackers into their public health mechanisms. Many researchers believe those models are viable in the U.S.

The National Association of State and Territorial Health Organizations estimates that the U.S. needs somewhere between 100,000 and 300,000 specialists to track and contain COVID-19. 

“For COVID-19, we need an unprecedented and rapid scale-up of the public health workforce dedicated to case identification and contact tracing. Estimates vary as to how many workers are needed, depending on the size of the state and the true size of its outbreak (confirmed by diagnostic testing),” the center wrote in a recent report. “Contact tracing is particularly resource intensive, and, as cases rise, more individuals will be needed to ensure comprehensive contact tracing of all confirmed cases can be done.”

That’s no easy feat.

Federal funding for public health preparedness has been reduced by 28 percent over the last 15 years, according to the National Association of County and City Health Officials. The 2008 recession also took a toll on public health, eliminating at least 50,000 jobs.

Crow’s bill would appropriates $100 million for fiscal year 2020 and $75 million for fiscal years 2021 through 2025 for the program. 

“This won’t solve the issue, but it’ll be big in carving into the problem,” Crow said, highlighting that with bipartisan support, the future for the bill becoming law is optimistic.