For Immediate Release
Contact: Natalia Pérez Santos

Contact Tracers, Health Experts: ‘Funding Public Health Essential to Safely Reopen the Economy.’

On a press call Thursday, public health experts who are conducting contract tracing in their communities spoke out about the urgent need to establish a larger, permanent force of public service health care workers to beat the coronavirus pandemic and safely reopen the economy.

The loss of more than 55,000 public health jobs since the Great Recession and harmful austerity measures have hindered our ability to respond to the pandemic and have cost lives. Today, as the Senate fails to act on needed aid to states, cities and towns, the threat increases. Each day of more austerity measures puts our local communities at greater risk.

Cities, towns and states are working to build up their capacity to contact trace and test for the coronavirus, but they lack the permanent, professional and accountable public sector workforce needed to do the work quickly and effectively. On the call, AFSCME President Lee Saunders and health economist Emily Gee also detailed the importance of investments in public services to beat the pandemic, rebuild our economy and address structural inequalities in communities of color.

Listen to the call:

AFSCME President Lee Saunders said:
“Congress has to step up right now. We need at least $1 trillion in aid to states, cities and towns – to keep our front-line heroes on the job, doing the work that will allow us to defeat COVID-19 and put the nation on the road to economic recovery. If we don’t, our communities will be shattered. ... And it will mean that African Americans continue to suffer greater marginalization and neglect. What we’re seeing in the streets this week, in addition to despair over the death of George Floyd, is frustration over years of underinvestment – less access to housing, health care, good schools and other services. What we’re seeing with these protests is anger over entrenched racial inequalities that have been exposed and exacerbated by this pandemic.”

Patricia DeHart, an epidemiologist at the Washington Department of Health, said:
“Public health professionals are working overtime to restore normalcy to our country in the wake of this devastating pandemic. This can only be done by leveraging the kind of science I’ve spent my career practicing. ... It’s time to reverse course. For starters, we need to hire an army of contact tracers –public employees entrusted to do the job with accountability and professionalism, just as me and my co-workers are doing now. At the same time, we need urgent, robust aid to states, cities and towns, to not only bolster public health efforts, but to repair the damage the pandemic has done.”

John Henry Jr., a disease intervention specialist working in contact tracing at the Columbus Health Department, said:
“At this point, the pandemic is still not under control. There is not likely to be a vaccine any time soon and my colleagues and I who have been pulled from other departments will, inevitably, have to return to our other work, which means there needs to be more people brought in to ensure we have adequate contact tracing in place. We need a permanent workforce of public sector workers who are meeting the contact tracing needs in our communities.”

Emily Gee, a health economist at the Center for American Progress and former HHS official, said:
“The harm from this pandemic has reached far beyond illness. It has disrupted the economy and lays bare deep disparities in health care and access to health care across race and socioeconomic status as cases and deaths occur disproportionately in black communities. Many Americans are eager to get back to work, but the root of the economic crisis is a public health crisis. We need to ramp up testing and prepare for a second wave so we can reach the point where people feel safe on the job, at restaurants, and sending their child back to day care. ...There has been an appalling lack of leadership from the federal government. State and local governments have demonstrated the leadership necessary to see our way out of this crisis, and we need Congress to fund these important initiatives.”