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The work that must be done before the next pandemic

On the latest episode of the Rhode Island Report podcast, Dr. Pablo Rodriguez calls for addressing the social determinants of health, including poverty and affordable housing

Dr. Pablo Rodriguez prepares to take part in the Rhode Island Report podcast in the CIC Providence space at the Wexford Innovation Center.Edward Fitzpatrick

PROVIDENCE — People of color suffered disproportionately during the pandemic, Dr. Pablo Rodriguez, a public health advocate who is on the Rhode Island COVID-19 Equity Council, said during the third episode of the Globe’s Rhode Island Report podcast. And they will remain vulnerable if Rhode Island fails to address factors that help determine health, such as poverty and housing, he added.

Rodriguez called for “a robust public education campaign” about the social determinants of health, which place impoverished people in crowded housing at greater risk of infection.

“We need to change the circumstances, and this is much harder,” he said. “But if we don’t begin addressing those issues, the next pandemic is going to create the same havoc.”


Rodriguez, medical director for community affairs at Care New England and host of the “Nuestra Salud” radio talk show, noted that the federal government has created a Social Vulnerability Index, which uses U.S. census data to determine the social vulnerability of every census tract. The index ranks each tract on 15 social factors, including poverty, lack of vehicle access, and crowded housing.

“The concern that we have now is that once all this furor over COVID goes away, then those social determinants of health are still going to exist,” Rodriguez said. “And another pandemic will just do exactly the same thing.”

So the nation needs to make sure that the coming influx of federal funds is funneled into the areas that were hit hardest by the pandemic in a way that will make a difference, he said. For example, he said, “We have to try to find more affordable housing so people don’t have to live 20 in an apartment that was designed for 10.”

Rodriguez noted that early in the pandemic, state officials were reporting that about 45 percent of Rhode Island residents who had tested positive for COVID-19 were Latino. And people of color continue to lag behind in vaccination rates, with 34 percent of Black or African-American residents, 35 percent of Latino residents, and 49 percent of white residents fully vaccinated, according to the latest state Department of Health data.


Rodriguez noted that in rolling out its vaccine program, Rhode Island prioritized Central Falls, a small majority-Latino city that emerged as the state’s COVID-19 hot spot.

“Instead of just vaccinating health care workers and first responders, we added the city of Central Falls at all age groups at the beginning of the pandemic because we followed the science and we knew that equity was going to be an important decision point for us,” he said.

But Rodriguez said the battle continues against misinformation about the virus and the vaccine, especially against the myths propagated via social media.

During the interview, Rodriguez also talked about the things he missed most while remaining isolated during the pandemic. That list included salsa dancing and, surprisingly, fundraisers. Hear more by downloading the latest episode of Rhode Island Report, available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon Music, iHeartRadio, Google Podcasts, and other podcasting platforms, or listen in the player below:

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