PROVIDENCE — The COVID-19 Equity Council, which helped shape Rhode Island’s response to the pandemic, is being disbanded, state officials confirmed Tuesday.
The Equity Council’s work will “transition into” the state Department of Health’s public health efforts “in line with the end of the federal public health emergency on May 11, 2023,” spokeswoman Olivia DaRocha said, speaking on behalf of Governor Daniel J. McKee and Lieutenant Governor Sabina Matos.
The council, co-chaired by Matos, will keep meeting through May “to ensure a seamless transition” to the Department of Health, she said.
“For the last three years, the COVID-19 Equity Council has helped to guide our public health policy and ensure that vital resources like tests and vaccines were available to all Rhode Islanders,” DaRocha said. “As our state and nation wind down the public health emergencies, this work will be transitioned so it can be fully integrated across health-related areas and agencies of state government, not just for COVID-19.”
She said McKee and Matos are “deeply grateful to the members who have protected the health of every Rhode Islander by lending their time and expertise to the council.”
But one Equity Council member, Dr. Luis Daniel Muñoz, called the decision to disband the council “misguided and a disservice to the people of Rhode Island.”
While the council was established to guide the state’s COVID-19 response, Muñoz said the group’s scope widened to include “social determinants of health including housing, education, contracting equity, and other associated public sector initiatives.”
“As COVID continues, and as we push through a recession, communities facing extraordinary economic, health, education, and housing disparities will be confronted with an ongoing public health crisis, dire social conditions,” he said, “and an administration that will deflect the work into smaller under-resourced commissions tied up with bureaucracy.”
Muñoz — who ran for governor in 2022, finishing fifth in the Democratic primary won by McKee — said that while the council’s work is shifting, the Department of Health cannot “replace the power of community representatives or provide an equally powerful instrument of accountability.”
He said there were moments when the current and previous administration “would not listen” to the community, but community leaders were able to provide information and resources “when state government was moving too slow.”
“Is this the message that Rhode Island’s political leaders want to send the world as we open a congressional seat — that equity should take a back seat?” Muñoz asked. “If so, then I am prepared to mobilize with leaders, the NAACP political action committee, and other mutual aid organizations fighting for equity to raise the volume.”
Another Equity Council member, Dr. Pablo Rodriguez, said attendance at Equity Council meetings had been falling as people realized that there were not a lot of policy decisions that required the council’s input.
“It does make sense to an extent,” he said of disbanding the council. “In reality, as time has gone by, there has been less and less to do.”
Formed during former governor Gina M. Raimondo’s administration, the Equity Council was created “to ensure that state’s emergency response and recovery strategies address the specific needs of the communities most impacted by the pandemic. These communities include communities of color, high density areas and low-income neighborhoods.”
The Latino Advisory Group had been established in April 2020 in response to the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on the Latino community.
“In May 2020, the increase in COVID-19 cases in many of Rhode Island’s communities of color and the murder of George Floyd further highlighted racial inequities,” the council’s website explains. “As a result, the focus and membership of the group was expanded to include representatives from all underrepresented communities, forming the existing Equity Council.”
Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.