Around the world, community health workers are humanity’s soldiers in our war against epidemics.

Help came from an unexpected place: the neighbors of tuberculosis patients. Alaska Native women, most without a high school degree, were hired and trained by nurses and doctors in their own villages as so-called community health workers. Within a few weeks, they learned to administer medications for latent tuberculosis to their sick neighbors, monitoring for complications and side effects. Remotely supervised by licensed providers like nurses over radio, Alaska’s community health workers (now part of the statewide Community Health Aide Program) helped bring the epidemic under control.

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1. Prevent

  • Organize and carry out social media campaigns to promote social distancing and advocate for timely policies.
  • Encourage strategies in their neighborhoods and online to promote mental and physical health and resilience.
  • Deliver food and medications to the elderly, poor, immigrants, and other vulnerable residents.
  • Make masks at home, and donate them to supplement the stock of personal protective equipment at local hospitals.

2. Detect

  • Learn the signs and symptoms of Covid-19, and help staff hotlines run by hospitals and public health departments to answer questions from the public.
  • Refer possible Covid-19 patients to their nearest testing center, and organize transportation.

3. Respond

  • Call people with Covid-19 who are in self-isolation with mild symptoms, and monitor them for worsening symptoms.
  • Provide moral support and organize food deliveries for people with Covid-19 at home.
  • With nurse supervision, monitor patients for worsening symptoms and support rapid referral of people who require hospitalization.
  • With public health officers, support contact tracing, symptom reporting, and monitoring of contacts of Covid-19 patients to ensure access to testing and treatment for people who develop signs and symptoms.
  • Help hospitals and nonprofits raise funds for the most vulnerable.

How would they be trained?

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state health departments can work with universities to develop rapid online programs to train the millions of Americans currently out of work in their own homes. Last Mile Health has launched similar online and mobile training programs globally.

Who would hire them?

State and city health departments can request funds from federal economic relief packages and philanthropies, and companies can support hospitals and nonprofits to hire them locally. After the Covid-19 pandemic is stopped, some of these individuals might return to jobs in their old industries. Others will find new careers in health care, such as home health aides or paramedics. If done right, the value of this investment could grow with time. Countries like Liberia, Ethiopia, and Malawi and states like Alaska have trained community health workers to address one epidemic only to redeploy them in subsequent epidemics.