Living History: How an Emergency COVID-19 Workforce Was Born

In early 2020, before the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic, the CDC Foundation was already building its response to the growing, global public health emergency. It’s what the Foundation does. What it’s always done.

Congress established the CDC Foundation—an independent nonprofit, with a mission to extend the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) lifesaving work—in the 1990s to help CDC manage public-health crises. The Foundation has mobilized resources and forged partnerships to help tackle the opioid crisis, tobacco use, hurricane relief, Ebola, Zika and other infectious and non-infectious disease challenges around the globe.

But nothing compares to the scope and scale of the needs from the COVID-19 response.

As the magnitude of the pandemic grew, so did the pressure to “lean in and rise up and do everything we’re called upon to do,” said Judy Monroe, president and CEO of the CDC Foundation. The Foundation drafted a proposal, sent to CDC, to build and mobilize a COVID-19 public health workforce to alleviate stress and increase capacity in under-resourced health departments across the country. The CDC Foundation was charged to:

  • hire more than 700 public health workers to assist with the immediate needs of health departments in all 50 states, tribal organizations, U.S. territories and six major cities;
  • build public health capacity for the future; and
  • provide key connections and support for community-based organizations.

Watch a new short documentary about the CDC Foundation's COVID-19 Corps, including voices from the field:


Building the COVID-19 Corps

The original term of the project was April 1, 2020, to March 31, 2021.

During that time, a dedicated team of recruiters diligently worked to find qualified staff to fill a wide variety of critical roles, such as contact tracers, case investigators, data scientists, infection preventionists, lab techs, communication specialists and a host of other positions designed to meet the unique needs of each jurisdiction. These field staff—known as the COVID-19 Corps—were managed by CDC Foundation regional coordinators and senior advisors with significant experience in public health. Program managers, project managers and IT specialists helped facilitate coordination and logistical support. The Foundation also hired its first-ever chief medical officer, Dr. Lisa Waddell.

“I came in to help provide the leadership, the guidance, the direction for that project,” Waddell said. “And to help be on top of the science—what's happening around the pandemic—and be a resource for the organization from a medical perspective.”

Learning from Successes and Challenges Alike

In just a few short months, a model infrastructure was born for large-scale emergency response. Throughout the initial term of the project, field staff worked on thousands of COVID-19 communication tools, dashboards and tracking systems, education materials, articles, and abstracts including submissions for CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR).

Among the many success stories from the field:

The project was not without its challenges and lessons learned. Among them—the importance of flexibility, particularly when working with sovereign tribal jurisdictions; the need for clear and transparent goals, objectives, and position-specific training; and the value of early planning to adapt HR protocols for a massive surge in staffing. Key takeaways from an unprecedented undertaking.

We've been living history and making history as we've been doing our work each day.

What the Future Holds

Creating the COVID-19 Corps “took incredible teamwork and coordination across all of the CDC Foundation,” Waddell said. “And from all accounts, the states, the jurisdictions where we placed public health professionals have been extremely pleased with the work that's been done.” Ninety-five percent of the jurisdictions wanted to retain CDC Foundation-provided surge staff, and about 20 percent of the Corps members were picked up full time by their jurisdictions when the initial project ended. Many other jurisdictions took advantage of an opportunity to retain Foundation staff when the effort was extended into 2022. And work continues through additional funding streams and partnerships to ensure public health is protected and the public health workforce bolstered in the months and years ahead, so the nation is prepared for the next pandemic.

“We are really working to ensure that everyone has a fair and just opportunity for health, that everyone has an opportunity to have a vibrant, healthy and resilient life and live in vibrant, healthy, resilient communities,” Waddell said.

Fortunately, many of the field staff who were new to public health at the start of the pandemic say their experience with the COVID-19 Corps has inspired them to stay in public health, to help make a difference long-term.

From testing, tracing, masking and mitigation to vaccines, variants and challenges anew, the story of the building of the COVID-19 emergency response workforce—and the people who made it a success—will forever be a part of the COVID-19 narrative.

“I think it's really important for all of us to appreciate that we've been living history and making history as we've been doing our work each day,” CDC Foundation president Monroe said.




This article 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 $68,939,536 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.

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