School nurses, health service corps part of $7.4B virus plan

In this March 5, 2021, file photo The Capitol is seen just before sunrise in Washington, D.C. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

WASHINGTON, DC — The government is providing $7.4 billion to expand the nation’s public health capacity, including hiring school nurses to vaccinate kids, setting up a health care service corps and bolstering traditional disease detection efforts, White House officials said Thursday.

Biden administration coronavirus testing coordinator Carole Johnson said it’s part of a strategy to respond to immediate needs in the COVID-19 pandemic while investing to break the cycle of ‘boom and bust’ financing that traditionally has slowed the U.S. response to health emergencies.

“We really see this as funding that can help end the pandemic and help us prevent the next one,” Johnson told The Associated Press. The money was approved by Congress in President Joe Biden’s coronavirus response law. Officials are now acting to pump it out to states and communities through the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A leading public health nonprofit, Trust for America’s Health, welcomed the announcement.

“Given the fact that the core public health workforce is significantly smaller today than it was a decade ago, these are critically important steps,” said John Auerbach, president of the nonpartisan group, which provides its expertise to governments at all levels. “Ensuring Americans’ health security requires a standing-ready public health workforce.” Auerbach served as an adviser to the Biden presidential transition.

About $4.4 billion of the new money will go to immediate priorities in fighting the pandemic.

That includes $3.4 billion for states and local health departments to step up hiring of vaccinators, contact tracing workers, virus testing technicians and epidemiologists, who are disease detectives trained to piece together the evidence on the spread of pathogens. The White House is stressing that local governments hire people from the communities being served, with an emphasis on lower-income areas.

“We really see this as funding that can help end the pandemic and help us prevent the next one.”

White House coronavirus testing coordinator Carole Johnson

There’s also $500 million for hiring school nurses, who could play a key role in vaccination now that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has been cleared for use by teenagers. Johnson said that would expand the pool of trusted clinicians able to give vaccines.

An additional $400 million will go to set up what’s being called the Public Health AmeriCorps. It would be modeled on AmeriCorps, the volunteer program that annually deploys more than 250,000 people to serve in communities across the country. The goal of the new program would be to train and nurture aspiring young professionals interested in the public health field.

All told, the money is expected to support tens of thousands of new jobs over a period of five years, Johnson said.

Some of it will go to long-term investments. A pool of about $3 billion will be used to create a competitive grant program allowing states and local communities to sustain their public health efforts after the coronavirus pandemic recedes.

The idea is to offer more permanent employment for community health workers hired for the COVID-19 push. They would gain a chance to continue working as public health professionals, tackling other challenges.

“We need the resources now, but we also need to invest for the long-term in the public health workforce,” Johnson said.