Wolf proposes creating army of public health workers to tackle contact tracing of COVID-19

Gov. Tom Wolf addresses the state on Wednesday, 4/22/20 his plan to reopen parts of Pennsylvania starting May 8, 2020 (Screen Capture)

Gov. Tom Wolf said Wednesday the state is creating a civilian task force to help Pennsylvania with coronavirus testing and contact tracing this fall. 

The Commonwealth Civilian Coronavirus Corps will allow the state to expand testing for COVID-19 and guide decisions about reopening businesses. 

“We do not want to spend the next few months or next year cloistered inside our homes,” Wolf said. “We want to be able to resume working, going to school, going to church and visiting our loved ones. We want to reopen businesses of all types, and we want to be able to do this with as little risk as possible.”

The corps will not be a replacement for everyday hygiene, masks and social distancing, Wolf said, and will not replace health care workers, but will allow the state “to build a program to allow our commonwealth to function as much as possible while we wait for a vaccine.”

Wolf said the corps will potentially provide contact tracing jobs for unemployed workers, and will partner with public health agencies, nonprofits and community organizations. 

He didn’t provide details about how much the program might cost or how many people would be hired for the program. 

“The point of this is to create a corps of trained folks who are ready and able and have the skills we need them to have to help usher us all through the new environment that we’re going to be facing as we get into this post- pandemic world,” the governor said.

Wolf said the state is trying to get special federal funding to pay for the corps. He added he had shared the plan with legislative leaders and did not anticipate needing legislative approval. 

The proposal, which hearkens back to the New Deal-era Civilian Conservation Corps, also echoes one by Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, who expanded contract tracing in the Bay State with a joint public-private partnership known as the Contact Tracing Collaborative, WBUR-FM reported.

Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine said the state had 888 new cases of COVID-19 Wednesday, bringing the statewide total of cases since March 6 to 51,845.

 This includes 3,316 health care workers and 2,062 workers in the food industry at 122 facilities statewide. It also includes 10,010 positive cases in 502 long term care facilities, including nursing homes. 

Levine noted that it was the fourth straight day with fewer than 1,000 new cases of the virus. “That’s positive news but we do want to continue to expand testing,” Levine said. 

In response to a question about whether he was concerned about businesses reopening in defiance of shutdown orders, Wolf said he thought it would ultimately not be good for any businesses that did so. 

“I think they’re going to have trouble inspiring confidence in their customers or their employees,” he said. “And so I think there’s a natural constraint on businesses making random decisions to open ahead of their customers or their employees.”

Correspondent Kim Lyon covers Pittsburgh and southwestern Pennsylvania for the Capital-Star. 

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Kim Lyons is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Columbia Journalism Review, the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, and numerous other local and national publications. She’s the producer and co-host of The Broadcast Podcast, committed to amplifying women’s voices in Pittsburgh and beyond, and was a 2015 Kiplinger Fellow in Public Affairs Journalism at Ohio State University. Find her on Twitter at @socialkimly