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Wolf announces New-Deal-esqe ‘civilian corps’ to help with COVID-19 response

Gov. Tom Wolf (Commonwealth Media Services)

Gov. Tom Wolf (Commonwealth Media Services)

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Some of the more than 1.7 million Pennsylvanians who have filed for unemployment since the coronavirus pandemic began may get a chance to join a new civilian workforce program to help the state conduct mitigation efforts.

Gov. Tom Wolf announced his plan for a “Commonwealth Civilian Coronavirus Corps” at Wednesday’s daily press briefing. The name is reminiscent of a popular program under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Great Depression-era New Deal, which focuses on the preservation of state parks and forests.

And that is no accident, according to Lyndsay Kensinger, a spokesperson for the administration.

“The governor will announce more details in the coming weeks, but the corps would be a 21st-century approach to historic programs like those in the New Deal,” Kensinger said.

Wolf said he’s angling for a broad program to train workers to test for COVID-19 and conduct contact tracing to track infection rates, while also reducing unemployment.

“We have slowed this virus through shared sacrifices,” Wolf said. “We have bought precious time. We need to now use that time effectively by building a program that will allow our commonwealth to function as much as possible while we wait for a vaccine.”

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Still unknown: When exactly the program would start, how many people the state might hire and how much it would cost.

Wolf said he’s still getting those details together, though the governor noted that “to have an impact on the economy, we want this to be a big deal.”

Wolf expects federal funding will pay for the program, though he didn’t say whether there’s a specific initiative he’s expecting to draw dollars from, or when.

“The hope is that we can get special funding from the federal government for this,” he said. “As this unfolds, as we know those details, we will be sharing those details.”

Kensinger said the corps would likely start work “sometime in the fall,” and reiterated that the administration is “exploring using federal dollars to help pay for the program.”

The civilian corps may involve an element of public-private partnership, the administration said in a news release.

To “recruit and train COVID-19-impacted dislocated and unemployed workers into public service for contact tracing roles,” Wolf’s press office said the administration plans to work with existing health training programs and the federal AmeriCorps program, among others.

The administration said the program will also involve some form of partnership with local public health agencies, community groups and nonprofits on contact tracing efforts.

Spokespeople for House and Senate GOP leaders didn’t immediately return requests for comment.

Wolf said he presented the civilian corps plan to lawmakers earlier on Wednesday, and did not believe he would need legislative approval to put it in action.

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