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Allegheny County receives $7.5M CDC grant to increase community health workforce

Contact tracers (from left) Christella Uwera, Dishell Freeman and Alejandra Camarillo work at Harris County Public Health Contact Tracing facility in Houston in June. The CARES act grant will enable community groups in Allegheny County to hire more workers to conduct contact tracing, COVID-19 testing and vaccines and other tasks.
David Phillip
Contact tracers (from left) Christella Uwera, Dishell Freeman and Alejandra Camarillo work at Harris County Public Health Contact Tracing facility in Houston in June.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has awarded $7.5 million to the Allegheny County Health Department to increase the number of public health workers in the region.

The three-year grant, announced Friday by the health department, will support 24 public health jobs in the first year.

These are support roles at health organizations, and a worker’s duties can vary. According to county officials, the pandemic has strained an already overtaxed public health workforce.

“One of the challenges that the pandemic made clear was the need for additional community and public health workers,” Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said in a statement.

The majority of the grant will help organizations selected by the county to hire more public health workers. The health department will provide centralized training about COVID-19, vaccines and health disparities to organizations that hire workers with the grant.

People who serve in these roles often are not medically trained, according to Dr. Debra Bogen, the health department director. There are already a small number of community health workers at organizations in Allegheny County who have helped with the COVID-19 response.

“They helped with testing. They also helped with vaccines, and then when we were really under a crunch at the health department, community health workers helped us do contact tracing,” Bogen said.

But community health workers also can serve as a health organization’s liaison by doing outreach work and meeting patients where they are located. Increasing the number of public health workers locally will make that work possible, according to Fitzgerald.

“This funding will certainly help us respond to COVID, [but] it’s much broader than that, allowing us to address health disparities across a broad spectrum of health issues facing our community,” he said.

The grant will support about 24 community health worker positions in its first year. Community groups will prioritize recruiting individuals from the communities they will serve.

Bogen said groups will target services toward traditionally underserved populations, including Black, Hispanic, Asian, immigrants and refugees, and people experiencing homelessness and mental health issues. Communities with high rates of substance abuse and incarceration also will receive services.

Some of the groups to receive health-worker support through the grant include AHN Center for Inclusion Health, Front Door Initiative at Jefferson Hospital, Cornerstone Care Federally Qualified Health Center, Duquesne University Center for Integrative Health, East Liberty Family Health Center, Healthcare Council of Western PA, Latino Community Center, Neighborhood Resilience Project, North Side Christian Health Center, Pittsburgh Mercy, Primary Care Health Services, Project Destiny, Squirrel Hill Health Center, Sto-Rox Family Health Center, Southwest PA Area Health Education Center, the University of Pittsburgh, Birmingham Free Clinic, UPMC St. Margaret and Women for a Healthy Environment.

Some organizations will use their share of the funds to support the health workers they already have in place, while others will hire new people to serve in those roles, Bogen said.

The county will receive $2,650,987 in the first year of the grant. Bogen said she expects the funds to be available soon.

In the first year, $1.6 million is earmarked for community health worker organizations. $150,000 will be spent on public education about community health workers and how residents can access their services. $284,000 will support training and curriculum development for the health workers.

$330,000 will be used for a study about the progress of the community health worker program. Bogen said a national study of how these programs are launching across the country also will be conducted.

The money comes from the CARES Act and is part of a national effort by the CDC to hire more community health workers in the United States.

“Strengthening our public health workforce and connecting the community to public health solutions are the kinds of programs and outcomes Congress intended for the COVID-19 response,” said U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle in a statement.

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Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.