A modern-day Works Progress Administration could prevent a coronavirus depression in the United States

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Unemployed and furloughed workers could work at home to help fight the spread of the coronavirus using track and trace methods. | Photo by Firza Pratama on Unsplash

Government officials at all levels in the United States are increasingly, almost frantically, calling for a robust testing system with the twin goals of containing the coronavirus pandemic and reopening the economy. Some states, such as Massachusetts, have been ahead of the curve, employing an extensive “track and trace” system. Our economy cannot recover without restoring the public’s confidence that the spread of the coronavirus has been contained and will not surge anew in the weeks and months ahead before scientists develop an effective vaccine.

Contact tracing, or track and trace, is a system that keeps track of individuals who have been infected with the coronavirus through directly interviewing people, as in the case of Massachusetts, or digital methods. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health and member of the president’s coronavirus task force, says the pandemic cannot be contained without a robust test and trace system, which would allow anyone who might have the disease to be found, notified, and monitored for symptoms.

Widespread testing, followed by effective tracking and tracing, are absolutely necessary. Both urgently require federal leadership and fiscal support.

To be effective in containing the virus in the United States, track and trace must be implemented in a coordinated way and done so across the nation. Experts at the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health estimate that just to start an effective national track and trace system will require hiring 100,000 individuals alongside more investment in the state and local public health workforce.

Depending on how the pandemic plays out over the course of 2020 and into 2021, public health officials easily could discover they need even more people power to track and trace. Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says a significant increase in public health officials engaged in track and trace will be necessary if the coronavirus returns in force this coming winter. And former CDC Director Tom Frieden believes hundreds of thousands of new trackers and tracers are needed to do the job now.

Where can the federal government find such an army of workers? The answer is among the tens of millions of workers idled amid the current recession, alongside public health and emergency response professionals at the federal, state, and local levels either experienced in this work or easily trained to do so.

The idea dates back to the Great Depression, when U.S. Department of Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, the first woman appointed to a presidential cabinet, helped launch the Works Progress Administration to deal with massive unemployment and engage the nation in needed public infrastructure projects.

Unemployed and furloughed workers could help to fight the virus without even putting themselves at risk of contracting COVID-19, the disease spread by the new coronavirus. Track and trace requires basic skills such as operating a smartphone, tablet, or laptop. Much of the work could be done at home. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or another federal agency could mobilize such an effort — think AmeriCorps, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s FEMA Corps, the U.S. Public Health Services Commissioned Corps, or even a domestically redeployed Peace Corps. The CDC director makes this case, too.

Employing idled workers to implement track and trace nationwide solves two economic problems. First, it helps those out of work by providing an opportunity to do something useful. Second, it will speed economic recovery. Once we know who has the coronavirus, we can contain the spread of the virus, and then focus on getting our economy back on track.

Only the federal government has the expertise and capacity to swiftly implement a nationwide track and trace system. We should not pretend that markets — or under-resourced state and local governments — can do the work of the federal government.

The expert agency in this field is the CDC, which sits within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ U.S. Public Health Service division, led by the U.S. surgeon general. The CDC maintains the public health protocols for tracking and tracing people infected by other diseases; it has strong working relationships with the other agencies within the U.S. Public Health Services.

Already, the CDC’s infectious disease tracking unit is working with state-level public health officials to flatten the curve of the current pandemic. Now, a massive workforce is needed to work alongside the CDC and state and local officials to track and trace the continuing spread of the novel coronavirus.

Ideally, pandemics are corralled ahead of the curve. Because the Trump administration did not act early enough to contain the virus, today, state, local, and federal officials are instead working to flatten the curve amid a deep recession caused by three months of costly delays. We need to embrace a coordinated strategy to address the health crisis, so that we can then move on to economic recovery.

And there is another reason why the federal government should lead this effort. Tracking and tracing requires the maintenance of strict health privacy rules and regulations, as well the nondisclosure of the surveillance about friends and family, travel, and socializing patterns of those being traced. The CDC knows how to do this. Many big data companies are eager to help and capitalize on tracking and tracing. But policymakers ranging from Mayor London Reed of San Francisco to Rhode Island state legislators are deeply aware of threats to our civil liberties from this technology. Only the federal government can guarantee the anonymity required to protect personal data.

To be sure, many logistical hurdles remain before the United States could get a 21st century public works program up and running, even in normal times. But it’s worth remembering that Perkins too faced similar challenges when she first proposed the idea of a federally financed public works program to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. We stand on the precipice of what could be an equally grave crisis, but we have the benefit of looking back in time for potential solutions.

Heather Boushey is President and CEO of the Washington Center for Equitable Growth and the author of the book Unbound: How Inequality Constricts Our Economy and What We Can Do About It.

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