A Modern-Day WPA

Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the Public Works Administration (PWA) in 1933 as part of the New Deal in response to the Great Depression.  The PWA spent over $7 billion between 1933 and 1939 administering the construction of 34,000 projects, including dams, airports, bridges, new schools, and hospitals that provided meaningful jobs and living wages to millions of out-of-work, destitute Americans.

Today we are in the throes of a nation-wide recession caused by the COVID-19 pandemic that may eventually exceed the 1933 disaster.  In just six months, 40 million Americans have become unemployed.  In response, the government has allocated nearly $3 trillion to individuals, businesses, non-profits and states to revive the economy and help contain the pandemic.

Containment nation-wide requires: 1) the capacity to test millions of people for active infections with the virus and to isolate the positives to prevent further dissemination of the disease.  2) In addition, persons who have had contact with infected individuals must be traced, tested, and quarantined. CDC recently estimated that 100,000 contact tracers will be needed nationwide. 3) To determine how far the infection has spread, sample populations in communities will have to be tested for antibodies to the virus. This is often referred to as herd immunity and would be important information for future vaccination programs. 4) The final step is to assemble the results for epidemiologists to analyze.

The Trump administration has defaulted this work to states and local communities, allocating $25 billion from the CARES Act to get started. More funding will undoubtedly be needed. This work—testing, tracing, and assembling of data—does not require highly technical capacity but would constitute a vital service to the nation.  With appropriate training provided by CDC epidemiologists in collaboration with state health agencies and universities, thousands of out-of-work Americans could have meaningful employment. It would harken back to Roosevelt’s New Deal that brought us out of the Great Depression and be a WIN-WIN initiative for Americans everywhere.


Carlos C. (Kent) Campbell MD MPH, (Dr Campbell served 23 years as Chief, Malaria Branch, CDC)

Richard C. Collins PhD, (Collins worked as a research biologist for the CDC on parasitic diseases)