A Covid-19 Response Corps Can Help Stop the Pandemic

Evacuated Peace Corps Volunteers Could Be Readily Mobilized

Congresswoman Susan Brooks (R-IN) and Congressman Ami Bera (D-CA) are members of the CSIS Commission on Strengthening America’s Health Security.

Over the past two years we have been proud and active members of the CSIS Commission on Strengthening America’s Health Security. This past fall, the Commission published its final report, Ending the Cycle of Crisis and Complacency in U.S. Health Security, in which we recommended the establishment of a U.S. Global Health Crises Response Corps to respond rapidly to outbreaks that occur in insecure settings overseas.

Today, our country is confronting an unprecedented public health crisis within our own borders. The Covid-19 pandemic is unlike anything we have seen since 1918, when the Spanish influenza pandemic swept across the globe, killing over 50 million people worldwide. Pandemics change history, and this pandemic will be no exception. It is already having a profound impact on the daily lives of the American people.

The American people are heeding the call to action. Communities are mobilizing across the United States, forming “mutual aid” groups that organize volunteers to support the most vulnerable. While we welcome and support these local efforts, a coordinated, national effort is needed to respond to an epidemic of this scale.

We propose that the U.S. government establish a U.S. Covid-19 Response Corps (CRC) with a trained, deployable workforce to address the urgent needs of the national Covid-19 response. CRC members would have a variety of skills in health education, logistics, social program delivery, education, communications, data analysis, and other fields. They would be deployed by request to state and local jurisdictions to fulfill the highest priority roles in the Covid-19 response with a focus on areas with active transmission, which are mostly urban at present, and underserved, vulnerable areas, including rural areas.

The CRC is an adaptation of the Commission’s U.S. Global Health Crises Response Corps concept to the current outbreak in the United States, where scale and scope—rather than disorder and insecurity—are among the greatest challenges. The Covid-19 pandemic threatens the lives of all Americans. Projections indicate that Covid-19 could infect a high percentage of Americans, causing millions of hospitalizations and between 100,000-240,000 deaths.

The painful effects of the pandemic are compounded by a growing economic crisis. With much of the United States subject to shutdowns and social distancing to slow the spread of the virus, millions of livelihoods are at risk and society is being transformed. Across the country, the elderly, those with underlying health conditions, and other vulnerable populations are at high risk for adverse health, economic, and social consequences. The Response Corps would help to respond to the needs of these vulnerable populations while providing much-needed employment opportunities in local communities.

Recruitment for the Response Corps would be widespread. One ready-made source of personnel is Returned Peace Corps Volunteers. On March 15, 2020, the Peace Corps announced it was suspending Volunteer operations and evacuating the more than 7,000 Volunteers due to the Covid-19 pandemic. These highly dedicated Volunteers are losing their incomes and benefits and coming home to a very limited job market. This vetted and ready workforce is trained and motivated for community service, culturally competent, flexible, and accustomed to austere conditions.

Volunteers have received training in—and many have up to two years’ work experience in—a variety of relevant issue areas, including water and sanitation, hygiene, and maternal and child health. They have experience integrating themselves into local communities, serving as community health workers, peer educators, and teachers. They could be quickly recruited into the CRC and put to work supporting the Covid-19 response across the country.

As the virus spreads and infection rates increase exponentially across the nation, a dedicated workforce is needed to rapidly deploy and fill multiple roles in the pandemic response that do not require formal medical training. For instance, members of the Corps might:

  • Trace contacts of infected individuals and monitor their health status while in quarantine or in-home isolation if mildly ill;
  • Provide “meals on wheels” and other social support to shut-in elderly and individuals in quarantine, isolation, or with underlying health conditions;
  • Provide logistical support for the supply chain of medical material;
  • Help with laboratory specimen collection, transport, and testing, including “drive-through” testing;
  • Decontaminate dwellings and workplaces;
  • Staff call centers, providing health information, and distance learning on Covid-19 and related concerns; and
  • Support critical at-risk populations and institutions, including people experiencing homelessness and detention and long-term care facilities.

Taken together, these activities are critical to reduce transmission, ensure adequate health care, flatten the curve, and mitigate the economic and social impacts of Covid-19 in the United States.

CRC candidates would be carefully screened and selected. Members of the Corps would be trained on Covid-19, including personal protection measures; equipped appropriately for their roles; and monitored to ensure adherence to prevention recommendations.

The CRC could be overseen by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), organized under existing programs, and include a collaboration between FEMA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Public Health Service under the surgeon general, and AmeriCorps. If prioritized, CRC members could be brought on in a matter of weeks, not months. A pilot program could employ 3,000 CRC members, providing much-needed jobs and filling vital response roles with a budget of $250 million. If successful, it could be scaled up to 10,000 staff with a budget of $750 million, a small share of the $45 billion allocated to FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund in the third supplemental and a fraction of the impact of Covid-19 on the U.S. economy.

We know that state and local health authorities are clamoring for such a workforce to combat coronavirus. The funding would also provide jobs to thousands of out-of-work Americans in some of the most affected areas. Standing up a Covid-19 Response Corps is a smart and innovative solution to an extraordinary national crisis. To succeed and be effective, we must move swiftly.

Congresswoman Susan Brooks (R-IN) is the U.S. representative for Indiana's 5th congressional district and has been a longtime champion of biodefense and global health security issues. Congressman Ami Bera (D-CA) is a medical doctor and the U.S. representative for California's 7th congressional district. Both are members of the CSIS Commission on Strengthening America’s Health Security.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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