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‘This is a public health emergency.’ Latino leaders call for vaccinating densely populated parts of Rhode Island

Communities of color in Central Falls, Pawtucket, Providence, and other cities have been devastated by COVID-19, the leaders said in a letter sent to the governor

City Hall in Central Fallls, Rhode Island.
City Hall in Central Fallls, Rhode Island.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE — Latino elected leaders in Rhode Island are calling for Governor Gina M. Raimondo to make densely populated areas of the state, in which most of the state’s Latino and Black residents live, a priority for distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea, Providence Mayor Jorge O. Elorza, Providence City Council President Sabina Matos, Central Falls Mayor James A. Diossa, Central Falls Mayor-elect Maria Rivera, and 24 other state and local officials sent a letter to Raimondo on Friday, pointing out that the pandemic has been “especially devastating in high-density communities where most people of color live.”

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“This is a public health emergency,” the letter says, underscoring the urgency in cities including Central Falls, Pawtucket, Providence, Johnston, Cranston, and North Providence. “To ignore these communities is to risk the rate of communal spread of the COVID-19 virus to continue in our state.”

In a year-end interview on Friday, Raimondo told the Globe that making Central Falls a priority for the vaccine is a “good idea.”

“That is something we are very open to, and we are figuring out how to do it right now,” she said. “The challenge is a very limited supply” of the COVID-19 vaccine.

She noted the state will receive 3,900 fewer doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine than it had expected in the coming week — an unexplained 36 percent reduction. “It’s incredibly frustrating,” Raimondo said.

At a news conference Friday, Dr. Philip A. Chan, an infectious disease doctor with the state Department of Health, said the state will be making Central Falls a priority for the vaccine “because of the very high rate of COVID-19 in the community.”

From the outset, Central Falls has been Rhode Island’s coronavirus hot spot, with a cumulative COVID-19 rate of 15,664 per 100,000 – by far the highest in the state, according to the latest state Department of Health data. Health officials estimate that 50 percent of the 1.29-square-mile city’s 19,383 residents will have been infected by the end of this year.

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“We want to get this vaccine out to the communities who are most in need of it,” Chan said.

But state officials have not yet addressed the idea of prioritizing high-density communities other than Central Falls. Providence is home to nearly 180,000 people and has the second-highest cumulative infection rate, at 10,490 per 100,000. Pawtucket, a city of some 72,000 people, has the third-highest rate at 8,863 per 100,000.

In their letter, the leaders noted that for months the virus has taken a disproportionate toll on Latino and Black Rhode Islanders. “Still, that only speaks to part of the story, especially when comparing age-adjusted rates of infection and hospitalization and deaths,” they wrote.

On the whole, the Latino population is younger than the white population, and age-adjusted data show that the cumulative COVID-19 hospitalization rate is much higher among Latino residents:1,009 per 100,000, compared to 608 per 100,000 among Black residents and 150 per 100,000 among white residents.

Latino residents face 4.5 times the risk for contracting COVID-19, 6.7 times the risk of hospitalization, and 2.5 times the risk of death compared to the white population. African-American and Afro-Caribbean populations are at 2.4 times the risk of infection, 4.1 times the risk of hospitalization, and 2.1 times the risk of death.

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“You have repeatedly stated that you will be following the data to design your public policy,” the leaders told Raimondo. “Given the limited supply of vaccine, the data indicates that we must begin vaccinating those largely affected communities.”

Many people who live in Central Falls and Providence work in hospitals, grocery stores, hotels, and other jobs that place them at higher risk of contracting the virus, the letter said. Also, those cities lack affordable housing and have lots of people living in close quarters, which increases the risk.

“If you want to be truly effective in stopping the rampant spread of this deadly virus, we must address the disparities facing our communities of color and those that live in high-density housing,” they wrote.

The Latino leaders urged Raimondo and the state COVID-19 Vaccine Subcommittee to take “bold action in protecting the lives of the most vulnerable amongst us.”

Also, the letter emphasized the need to educate the public and to dispel myths about the vaccine.

“Having been subject to other medical trials in our nation’s history, it is to be expected that there will be initial resistance by communities of color,” it states. “The state must immediately put into place a multi-lingual, multi-cultural communication plan that can communicate the safety and the effectiveness of the vaccine and dispel the myths and misinformation rampant in our communities.”

Rivera, who will become mayor of Central Falls on Jan. 4, said she has asked Raimondo and the COVID-19 Vaccine Subcommittee to prioritize densely populated communities of color, such as Central Falls, by allocating 20,000 vaccines to those communities in January.

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“As the only municipality in Rhode Island with a majority-minority, Central Falls has been absolutely devastated by COVID-19,” Rivera said. “Our city is two-thirds Latinx, who are at higher risk of contracting the virus, being hospitalized, and even dying. With so many of our residents serving as frontline and essential workers who often return home to multi-family settings, we can’t wait.”

On Monday, the Rhode Island Legislative Black and Latino Caucus joined in calling for Raimondo and the COVID-19 Vaccine Subcommittee to prioritize access to the vaccine for communities of color and high-density populations.

“Whether we are speaking about the essential workers who have continued to serve the public, even at great risk to themselves or families, or individuals living in tight spaces where the opportunity to properly quarantine is impossible, we must protect these populations that are struggling immensely,” said Representative Jean Philippe Barros, a Pawtucket Democrat who is the caucus chairman. “This will only be possible if the state’s community of color and those living in the most-affected areas are prioritized to receive this game-changing vaccine as soon as possible.”


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