CDC and AmeriCorps Team Up to Bolster the Public Health Workforce
“We saw throughout the COVID pandemic that there was a real need to support local communities, not only in responding to COVID, but also in their broader public health needs,” the new director says.
In the wake of the havoc wreaked by the COVID-19 pandemic, two federal agencies are teaming up to establish a new program to recruit and cultivate future public health officials.
The Public Health AmeriCorps is a partnership between AmeriCorps and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which was given a $400 million investment from the American Rescue Plan. The first cohort will begin this summer. AJ Pearlman, former chief of staff for COVID-19 response at the Health and Human Services Department, was named director of the new initiative last month.
“We saw throughout the COVID pandemic that there was a real need to support local communities, not only in responding to COVID, but also in their broader public health needs,” she told Government Executive during an interview on June 8. “So, what we have done here is really taken CDC’s public health expertise and AmeriCorps’s people power in the way of AmeriCorps members and we're working together to try and address that need.”
The following are highlights from our conversation with Pearlman, edited lightly for length and clarity.
GE: Why was there a need for a specific public health AmeriCorps, as opposed to the general one?
Pearlman: Yeah, absolutely. So, first of all, Public Health AmeriCorps is a new partnership between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC, and AmeriCorps and it has two goals. We are working to meet the public health needs of local communities by adding capacity in public health settings and by working to advance equitable health outcomes in underserved communities. That's the first goal. The second goal is to build the next generation of public health leaders, frankly. And we are doing that by providing pathways to quality public health related careers through this new program.
And the question of why we did this is because we saw throughout the COVID pandemic that there was a real need to support local communities, not only in responding to COVID, but also in their broader public health needs. So, what we have done here is really taken CDC’s public health expertise and AmeriCorps’s people power in the way of AmeriCorps members and we're working together to try and address that need.
GE: I know this is very new, but can you tell me so far, how many volunteers you have and how many you ultimately hope to have?
Pearlman: Just a couple of months ago, we put out our first year of funding, our first round of grant funds and, there was so much excitement for the program that we ended up sending out more than $60 million in grants. We have 82 grantees, 82 programs across the country, that will be serving communities in 32 states and territories across the country. So, it's very exciting. We are expecting that these programs will recruit nearly 3,000 new AmeriCorps members to serve those communities. We're on the early end of things, but we’re excited about what the program will show.
GE: So far, have you done any different recruiting mechanisms than AmeriCorps has done traditionally given that this is so specific?
Pearlman: I think the biggest thing we're doing is working closely with CDC. The connections that CDC has in the public health community have been incredibly important. Of course, AmeriCorps has a long history of working with local and state governments already, but being able to plug into CDC’s public health networks and their interactions with local public health [departments] has been incredibly important.
GE: Has AmeriCorps ever partnered with an agency before, like it's doing what CDC or is this completely new?
Pearlman: We have a really interesting model for Public Health AmeriCorps in the way of FEMA Corps. AmeriCorps has worked with [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] now for more than 10 years in efforts to sort of build career pathways for folks who are interested in emergency management and disaster response. So, although Public Health AmeriCorps looks a little bit different than FEMA Corps, we're excited to build on it. And just as a note, FEMA Corps also not only provides pathways into emergency management more broadly, but we see about 23% of our FEMA Corps members actually go on to take jobs at the agency.
GE: And do you hope that this will be the same with CDC with Public Health AmeriCorps?
Pearlman: Absolutely. We're hopeful that folks will engage in public health related careers, not only at the local and state level, but also with CDC.
GE: Now I know that you served as chief of staff for the COVID response at HHS and you also worked on the Biden transition team in the health arena. So, what, if anything, are you taking from those roles into your new position with AmeriCorps?
Pearlman: Yes, I did work on the COVID response for about a year and a half and really just the experience that I had working at HHS was incredibly helpful for me. We were doing a lot of work at the federal level working on vaccine distribution and making sure that folks have access to tests and masks and vaccines and other healthcare needs as well. But this is really an opportunity for me to continue into COVID recovery and work on having more of that local impact and being able to continue to serve our communities, but a little bit closer to what they need and to their individual needs.
GE: So, when you were at HHS then you saw there was a need for more support on the local level?
Pearlman: Absolutely. I mean, we've done quite a bit of work already at the federal level, getting you know, our vaccination campaigns up and running, getting tests out to communities. But I think that the sort of long tail of COVID and COVID recovery really is going to be in the workforce. We've seen how strained public health departments and public health organizations are. And so, this work is a little bit about COVID recovery and also about the much broader public health needs that local communities have.
GE: As for funding, I know there was an initial $400 million investment for the Public Health AmeriCorps. What more funding do you foresee meeting down the line?
Pearlman: So, we do have $400 million over the course of five years. As I said earlier, we put out more than $60 million in grant funding this year. We also are anticipating putting out the second funding opportunity later this year. So, we're excited about that and we're hoping that this first round of grants and then following on our second funding opportunity as well, that we'll be able to show real success of the program to allow for additional funding through the partnership with CDC.
GE: Is there anything else I didn't ask about or you think I should know or be aware of?
Pearlman: I would say for any listeners who might be interested in learning more about the program they can go to americorps.gov/publichealth. We are actively recruiting AmeriCorps members for the grant programs that we have funded for year one. And you can learn more about opportunities to engage by going to the website.
You can hear the conversation with AJ Pearlman on the June 10 episode of our podcast, GovExec Daily.