WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden plans to make the country's biggest investment ever in an all-volunteer army of doctors, nurses and medical support teams that has been a pillar of his strategy to accelerate the pace of Covid-19 vaccinations in the U.S., two administration officials said.
Biden plans to direct $100 million from the recently enacted $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan to bolster the Medical Reserve Corps. Created shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the corps is a network of about 200,000 health professionals who can rapidly deploy to respond to public health emergencies.
The news comes as Biden is set to hold his first news conference as president on Thursday, when he will set a new target to accelerate vaccinations after the administration beat his initial goal of administering 100 million vaccination shots in his first 100 days in office.
"The money would be a godsend," said Bob Mauskapf, director of emergency preparedness for the Virginia Health Department. Virginia is home to one of the largest Medical Reserve Corps in the country. Just in the past year, its program has increased from 9,000 to 35,000 volunteers, whom Mauskapf refers to as the state's public health "force multiplier."
Yet states have had to come up with creative funding solutions to organize the teams of health professionals, including ways to cover site logistics, background checks and other operational costs, he said. Furthermore, many rural areas lack corps coordinators. With the new money, "we'd be able to get a special coordinator in each of our districts," Mauskapf said.
"We've had to go more regionally, and that's spread our reserve corps too much," he said, referring to the many volunteer members working several days a week pulling long shifts.
The money will create a more permanent funding stream to bolster the country's public health infrastructure, Mauskapf said. "Public health has been underfunded for years, so anything we can get to increase our infrastructure is absolutely worthwhile," he said.
In the past few months, the corps has been integral to running vaccination clinics, helping in roles such as patient screening, vaccine administration, monitoring for reactions post-vaccination and administrative support.
Biden officials hope the massive investment not only strengthens the federal response to the pandemic but also permanently expands the reserve corps to stand ready for future public health crises. That includes reaching into underserved and rural areas as the country seeks to vaccinate as many people as possible by the summer.
Last week, Biden hinted at a new vaccination goal after he announced that the U.S. was on track to surpass his previous timeline of administering 100 million doses during his first 100 days in office. Now the administration "may be able to double it," Biden told reporters last week.
The country is delivering about 2.5 million doses a day, and 128 million doses have been administered overall, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The number is expected to continue to increase as a third option, Johnson & Johnson's one-dose vaccine, becomes more widely available. Biden has also recently said he is looking to July 4 as a date by which those in the U.S. might be able resume more normal routines.