WASHINGTON — In the past month, President Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner has fielded calls from at least three members of a new coalition pitching an aggressive plan to reopen America.
The political backgrounds of Kushner’s callers diverged sharply: They ranged from Scott Gottlieb, a Trump appointee who ran the Food and Drug Administration until last year, to a pair of Obama-era health officials whose views diverge from the White House’s at nearly every turn.
Their message, however, was largely the same: The White House should back a $46.5 billion effort to hire an army of 180,000 contact-tracers, book blocks of vacant hotel rooms so Americans sick with Covid-19 can self-isolate, and pay sick individuals to stay away from work until they recover.
The plan, outlined Monday in a letter to Congress first reported by NPR, is among the most aggressive visions for a national program to conduct testing and contact tracing so that the U.S. can reopen its economy even as the coronavirus continues to spread. And given its backing from high-ranking health officials spanning the last three presidencies, it could also prove to be the most viable. Beyond Gottlieb, the coalition includes Mark McClellan, the former FDA chief; Andy Slavitt, the Obama administration’s acting Medicare and Medicaid director; Leana Wen, the former Planned Parenthood president and Baltimore health commissioner; and Bill Frist, a physician and former GOP lawmaker who served as Senate majority leader from 2003 to 2007.
“If you’re a Democrat, you like the fact that this creates jobs and helps local economies, and that it’s really good public health policy,” said Bob Kocher, a physician and former Obama adviser who helped to develop the plan. “And if you’re a Republican, you’re not creating some sort of entitlement program here, you’re spending money for a near-term problem.”
It’s not clear yet whether the Trump administration will embrace the proposal. A White House spokesman declined to comment about either the group’s overtures to Kushner and other aides or whether Trump might support the idea.
Nor is it clear whether the group can make inroads on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers would need to craft the program through congressional committees and then vote to authorize the spending. Though members of the group said they’d briefed both Democratic and Republican members of Congress on the plan, a spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi did not respond to STAT’s request for comment, and a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell referred questions to a committee aide.
A Democratic spokesman for the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which oversees many federal health programs, said simply that the committee was familiar with the proposal and welcomed the experts’ insight. And Michael Zona, a spokesman for the Senate Finance Committee’s Republican majority, said that lawmakers and committee staff were reviewing the proposal — though Congress has already appropriated funds that could be used for many of its initiatives, like additional unemployment insurance for individuals who are self-isolating.
“We appreciate the focus on testing, contract tracing, and isolating,” Zona said. “The proposal does cover initiatives that can be done with money Congress has already provided, including $25 billion for testing, in addition to funds provided in earlier bills. With nearly half of that money going to states, they are able to fund contact tracing.”
The Slavitt-Gottlieb collaboration represents a marked contrast to the partisan undertones that have hampered much of the Trump administration’s coronavirus response. The pair in particular has worked to bridge divides between lawmakers from both major parties, and has hatched plans to conduct further congressional outreach once lawmakers return to Washington.
“What we tried to do is organize enough people that could be representative of all the issues and concerns that Congress and the White House would be likely to have, and to try to hash those out so that we could present a united front,” Slavitt said in an interview.
The plan’s backers hope that Congress will include a version of their national contact-tracing plan in its next round of coronavirus-related stimulus spending. And despite its immense price tag, the nearly $50 billion plan isn’t an unreasonable ask: In fact, it represents a relatively small chunk of the money lawmakers have spent to date on coronavirus-related relief efforts. Already, lawmakers have approved legislation worth over $2 trillion to prop up struggling hospitals, fund additional coronavirus testing, and improve unemployment insurance.
The plan calls for $12 billion in new funding for a 180,000-strong workforce of new contact tracers to track coronavirus cases; $4.5 billion to pay for hotels so that Americans with coronavirus can self-isolate without infecting others; and $30 billion to replace wages for those who can’t work while self-isolating.
The funding would allow for a dramatic increase in the country’s contact-tracing workforce, which works to identify sick individuals and reach out to those they recently interacted with, encouraging them to be tested and potentially self-isolate to avoid spreading the virus.
Some local contact tracing efforts are already underway. New York City’s government on Monday announced it would hire 1,000 contact-tracers. California has already deployed state workers to engage in contact-tracing, while Washington state asked 500 service members within its National Guard contingent to assist in its tracing efforts.
By some measures, the coalition’s request is somewhat modest. Tom Frieden, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told STAT this month that the country would require a contact-tracing force of 300,000 — nearly double the size of the proposal being pushed by Gottlieb, Slavitt, and others.