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Latino leaders call for addressing inequalities behind coronavirus’ disproportionate impact in R.I.

"I’ve never seen so many Latinos coalesce around one issue,” Central Falls Mayor James A. Diossa said

Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea
Secretary of State Nellie M. GorbeaGretchen Ertl

PROVIDENCE -- Latino elected officials on Thursday told the state’s top leaders they want to help Rhode Island tackle the factors behind the outsized number of Latinos that are being infected with the coronavirus.

Latinos make up 16 percent of the state’s population, but they account for 44 percent of Rhode Islanders who have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to the latest state Department of Health data. Those figures exclude cases where demographic information is unknown.

On Thursday, 22 Latino leaders signed a letter to Governor Gina M. Raimondo, House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello, and Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio, saying, “It is critical that we take this unprecedented opportunity to evaluate and eliminate the long-standing systemic inequalities that have been brought to light by COVID-19.”

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The letter was signed by Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea, Providence Mayor Jorge O. Elorza, Providence City Council President Sabina Matos, and Central Falls Mayor James A. Diossa, among others.

“We look forward to working with you to reinvent the delivery of public services and bring about unprecedented innovation and improvements in our economy, education, health, and quality of life that can position our state as a leader in New England and our nation,” the letter said. “Quite simply, going back to the status quo that left many behind in our state is no longer an option.”

In an interview, Gorbea said she was alarmed to hear that Latinos accounted for such a disproportionate percentage of those testing positive for the virus, which causes the COVID-19 respiratory illness.

She said Latino elected leaders discussed the data on a recent Zoom conference call, and they wanted to let state leaders know they’re ready to help communicate public health messages, ensure that communities have access to testing, and have input on the distribution of funding.

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“We are ready to provide substantive community representation, and we expect to have a seat at the table throughout the process,” the letter said. “The success of your efforts requires our participation. We are ready to work closely with you to ensure that our state emerges stronger than ever.”

In an interview, Diossa said the health crisis is increasing the urgency to address underlying factors such as access to good housing, achievement gaps in education, and access to primary care doctors.

“In my short life in politics, I’ve never seen so many Latinos coalesce around one issue,” Diossa said. “That is extremely powerful. We are saying we are not here to point the finger or call out anyone -- we are saying we are here, and we want to help be part of the solution.”

While Latinos account for 44 percent of those who have tested positive, they make up 33 percent of those hospitalized with the virus, and 11 percent of those who have died from the illness, according to the latest Department of Health data.

Dr. Pablo Rodriguez, medical director for community affairs at Care New England and host of the “Nuestra Salud” radio talk show, said the infection and death rates differ because the Latino population is younger than the general population in Rhode Island and the virus tends to hit younger people less hard.

Thursday’s letter is important, Rodriguez said. “For too long, minority communities have been marginalized, and this is one place that marginalization is manifesting itself -- this epidemic,” he said. “Social determinants of health have existed for a long time, so it is incumbent upon Latino leaders to become part of the solution.”

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Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.