In the spring of 2021, with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic still reverberating around the world, health departments in the United States faced the challenge of continuing to track COVID-19 cases and protect public health while expanding the rollout of newly approved COVID-19 vaccines to tens of millions of people.
To assist health departments nationwide, the CDC Foundation, with support from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), created the Workforce/Vaccine Initiative, deploying public health professionals to fill critical roles in 87 state, city, tribal and territorial jurisdictions around the country.
Among the more than 3,000 field employees were epidemiologists, communications specialists, data analysts, public health nurses, infection preventionists and others. In total through all of its staffing efforts, the CDC Foundation hired approximately 4,000 staff during the pandemic utilizing both public and private support. Along with support for key COVID-19 activities, Workforce/Vaccine team members also worked on other important public health activities, including:
Health equity: Health equity program managers were hired in many jurisdictions to address the ongoing challenges of social inequity and unequal access to care by developing strategic programs and partnerships, assuring inclusive data management and participating in community outreach and education.
“What I see for myself and my colleagues from diverse backgrounds is that we can serve as a cultural bridge,” said Liliana Davalos, whose parents immigrated from Mexico and who was stationed with Nevada Governor’s Office for New Americans as a health equity project manager. “Understanding the background and the experience of the people in our specific communities allows us to effectively advocate for policies that are more equitable and promote services that are more accessible.”
School support: More than 700 field employees helped establish connections between health departments and K-12 schools to support students, parents and staff with contact tracing and information sharing. Employees also aided in implementing critical programs like “Test to Stay,” which sought to reduce in-person learning days lost to quarantine. “During the 2021-2022 school year, we were able to provide testing for nearly 70 school districts and more than 400 individual schools,” said Dawn Seymore, assigned to the Georgia Department of Health as a health equity project manager.
Tribal health: Along with testing, communication and vaccination support efforts, CDC Foundation field employees—many of them tribal members themselves—worked to strengthen public health infrastructure. Tribal Senior Public Health Advisor Joseph Eltobgi of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians explained, “We realized that providing data to our tribal leaders was absolutely essential to create the type of change we envision for our people.”
Vaccine confidence: Vaccine demand strategists developed innovative approaches to address hesitancy and promote vaccine uptake in rural, suburban and urban neighborhoods across the nation. In Ohio, CDC Foundation field staff managed a project centered on mobile vaccine units, from reviewing and scoring proposals and selecting the vendor, to scheduling visits in communities across the state.
This COVID-19 vaccine program had a profound effect in combatting the impact of the pandemic. An April 2022 report by Yale School of Public Health research scientists and others from the Commonwealth Fund estimates that 2.3 million U.S. lives have been saved by the vaccines, which have been shown to be safe and effective.
Throughout the pandemic, the Workforce/Vaccine Initiative developed dedicated partnerships and provided support to impacted jurisdictions across the country.
“This short-term staffing support has had a long-term impact on improving the public health systems’ capacities to respond to future public health emergencies,” said Kathy Cahill, former vice president of systems integration at the CDC Foundation.
By meeting jurisdictional needs and expectations when and where they were needed most, the Workforce/Vaccine Initiative continued as the fiscal year ended to make an invaluable contribution to public health, both present and future.
This story is supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $220,000,000 with 100 percent funded by CDC/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement by, CDC/HHS or the U.S. Government.