IMAGE: BOB BOZ/SHUTTERSTOCK
IMAGE: BOB BOZ/SHUTTERSTOCK

Kaiser Permanente is one of the biggest names in California healthcare—the managed care giant serves about 8 million residents of the state. Founded in 1945 in Oakland, and with hospitals and medical groups throughout the state, it’s an omnipresent nonprofit institution, playing roles not just in care, but also research and education. It’s also a regular and substantial contributor to statewide, public-private health initiatives, and now its latest major gift is going to—you guessed it—COVID-19, more specifically for contact tracing.

Along with several other health funders, Kaiser recently made a big move to expand and strengthen contact tracing in California through a plan implemented by the Public Health Institute’s Tracing Health program. Kaiser committed $63 million. The other funders—California Endowment, Ballmer Group, Conrad N. Hilton, James Irvine, California Wellness, Weingart, Sierra Health, Blue Shield of California, California Health Care, Heising-Simons and Skoll foundations—collectively pledged another $18.8 million, for a total of $81 million.

Experts, including those at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, point to contact tracing as one key to slowing the spread of COVID-19 by identifying and monitoring people who have been in close contact with an infected person. This became glaringly obvious in California, when a March shutdown appeared to get the virus under control, with infection rates soaring soon after an optimistic July reopening of businesses and community life.

Kaiser Permanente Chair and CEO Greg A. Adams was quoted in a press release announcing the contact tracing partnership: “The recent increase of cases in California demonstrates the importance of being able to accurately track the virus and respond when and where it begins to surge in order to save lives. We are committed to helping the state deploy a robust contact-tracing strategy that will help Californians safely regain their livelihoods.”

The Tracing Health program will hire, train and manage teams of contact tracers in high-need and targeted communities in the state to work the phones and find out who might have been exposed to the coronavirus—before they get sick and infect yet more people. The contact tracers will work in their own communities, the idea being that people will be more likely to engage with those who share the same language and culture.

The Public Health Institute says more than half of its contract tracers are bilingual or multilingual, and most come from the communities they serve; the institute will use the same approach in California. The Kaiser/PHI initiative will recruit from within communities of color that have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. The hope is that this will have the dual benefit of quelling the COVID-19 outbreak while also providing the contact tracers with jobs and income in the short term. When the Kaiser/PHI contact tracing initiative has ended, the program will provide job training and skills to guide contact tracers into the health sector and other career paths after the initiative has ended.

Interestingly, this sort of community-based outreach model has been under study for several years throughout California. In the project, members of ethnic groups and communities are trained to assist their neighbors to improve their health and increase access to care.

Based on this and past funding initiatives, Kaiser is clearly aware that social problems like unemployment and racial equity are inextricable from the big picture of protecting public health. Beyond California, Kaiser recently committed more than $30 million—in a partnership with Local Initiatives Support Corporation, which also promised $30 million—to advance racial equity and justice by helping businesses in communities of color recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Back in 2018, Inside Philanthropy reported on a Kaiser investment of $200 million to address the country’s homelessness and the housing crisis. The money was to flow through the organization’s Thriving Communities Fund. Homelessness, as has been demonstrated, is a powerful factor in health: People who live on the street experience high levels of stress and face significantly higher risk of disease and death.

There is, of course, one glaring reason that Kaiser and the other funders needed to back the contact tracing initiative in California: The federal government didn’t do it. While we expect philanthropy to take visionary leaps, dive into areas that the government can’t, or supplement federal programming, contact tracing is a clear national need that should have been led from the federal level. While it’s heartening that these funders rallied to meet a need, it’s also yet another example of philanthropy trying to fill gaps left by a hobbled public sector.

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