President Donald Trump has floated the idea of easing at least some restrictions as early as May 1.
U.S. public health agencies warned that lifting lockdown measures could require tens of thousands more investigators to call people who test positive, track down their contacts and get them into quarantine.
Without the extra help, officials insist, states cannot possibly be ready to resume normal everyday activities, and some agencies are so desperate they are considering recruiting librarians and Peace Corps volunteers to join the effort.
“We are trying to build these teams and processes in the midst of a crisis,” said Sharon Bogan, a public health spokeswoman for Seattle and King County, which are seeking at least 20 more investigators.
As President Donald Trump wants to accelerate the reopening of the country for business reasons, experts worry that the United States does not have enough public health workers to suppress another outbreak, especially those qualified to do contact tracing, the critically important search for people who may have been exposed to the virus.
While the exact number of workers needed is a subject of debate, a top federal health official this week acknowledged the mandate to find many more.
“Everybody agrees that our public health capacity at the local and state level is not ready to take this on at a very large scale without reinforcements,” said Dr. Anne Schuchat of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who oversees the agency’s coronavirus response work.
The work could require as many as 300,000 public health workers — a daunting number given that the combined federal, state, and local public health workforce has been shrinking and is now probably less than 280,000, according to some estimates.
To address the shortage of help, governments are weighing whether to enlist people with little to no experience in public health, including the Peace Corps volunteers, furloughed social workers and public health students. San Francisco is training librarians, medical students and people who work for the city attorney’s office.
The extra workers would help conduct testing, isolate sick cases and trace everyone those sick people had contact with.
It’s crucial that such a system be in place before government officials ease social-distancing guidelines, reopen schools or lift stay-at-home orders, said Dr. Tom Frieden, a former CDC director.
“If we have explosive spread when we reopen, we’ll have to close again. That will be very damaging, not just economically but from a health standpoint,” Frieden said.
People have to be tested and diagnosed before contact tracing kicks into gear, and testing remains limited in many parts of the country. This week, the Association of American Medical Colleges sent a letter to the White House Coronavirus Task Force saying that testing materials and machines remain in short supply.
President Donald Trump has floated the idea of easing at least some restrictions as early as May 1. But Schuchat warned that “there is no way the entire country could relax mitigation on May 1 and the country not experience a major resurgence.”