Members of the local health community and state congressional delegation gathered at the Comprehensive Community Action Program’s Cranston Street building on Monday to announce $33.5 million in federal aid for eight centers across Rhode Island as part of the American Rescue Plan.
CCAP will receive $3 million, while Johnston’s Tri-County Community Action Agency was allotted $1.6 million.
Six other health centers also receiving a wide range of funding: Blackstone Valley Community Health Care in Pawtucket, $4 million; East Bay Community Action Program in Newport, $2.4 million; Northwest Community Health Care in Pascoag, $2.8 million; Providence Community Health Centers, $9.7 million; Thundermist Health Center in Woonsocket, $8.4 million; and Wood River Health Services in Hope Valley, $1.4 million.
The cash infusion is aimed at increasing vaccination rates across the state, especially in underserved communities and among people of color. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation report cited in a press release for Monday’s event, only about 8 percent of Black people across the country have received their first vaccine dose, and Latinos account for just 9 percent of patients nationwide.
“This is really significant because we do have a disparity in terms of Black, indigenous and people of color, and I’m so happy that our congressional delegation has taken it so seriously and so importantly that they know that working together,” said Jim Vincent, president of the NAACP’s Providence branch and a resident of Cranston. “We cannot get what they call ‘herd immunity’ if vaccinations just go to some people and not others. We understand that. Everybody has to be on board, boots on the ground. People of color are very important for the vitality of this state. We want to be vaccinated. We deserve to be vaccinated, and we will be vaccinated with all of your help.”
CCAP Assistant Medical Director Jason Villa has “the led the charge getting into these communities,” according to CCAP President and CEO Joanne McGunagle. Villa briefly stepped to the podium to express his pride in CCAP’s staff, who have promoted the safety of inoculations and addressed the “disparities in the state.”
"COVID-19 has disproportionately affected communities of color,” Villa said. “A lot of these folks from communities of color are essential workers, and they had actually faced a lot of barriers for a vaccination that we then addressed. CCAP has been on the frontlines for COVID-19 and for the pandemic, and has carried out and expanded testing and vaccination programs.”
McGunagle, who has worked at the center for 42 years, thanked her health care staff for their efforts to combat COVID-19 over the past several months. She said there will soon be a fully-staffed RV patrolling the city to provide education, testing and vaccinations.
“Our yearlong experience with COVID has shown increased health disparities in minority and low-income populations, high rates of disease, transportation resources and all the resources have been impacted in these communities,” McGunagle said. “This new funding gives us the ability to increase access for these residents.”
On a particularly blustery day, U.S. Sen. Jack Reed stepped to the podium and joked about the “winds of change” sweeping through Rhode Island’s local health community.
“We serve the most vulnerable people in our communities, and we do it so well,” Reed said during his abbreviated remarks. “The good news is that HealthSource Rhode Island has extended its signup deadline till Aug. 13. If there’s anyone without insurance, or has difficulty affording insurance, please contact HealthSource RI.”
U.S. Rep. James Langevin said the funds from the American Rescue Plan are “absolutely vital to help close the equality gap, the equity gap and make sure the vaccine gets out to all our residents, including people with color and people with disabilities.” He also thanked frontline healthcare workers, first responders and grocery story employees for being the “real heroes” of the pandemic.
“Today we are seeing that money make a difference in our community right here,” Langevin said. “The work that you [frontline workers] do each and every day is a blessing for the Ocean State, and I promise to keep providing the resources that you need.”
U.S. Rep. David Cicilline said CCAP and other local health organizations around the Ocean State are “the linchpin” of the state’s public health system. He said the workers at those centers “represent the best of Rhode Island.”
"Their success is key to crushing the virus and getting our lives back to normal,” Cicilline said. “As we all know, COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on the entire country, but that’s especially true for communities of color. Black and Latino Americans are about three times as likely as whites to be hospitalized and twice as likely to die from this disease, and that’s why the work of CCAP and our other community health centers is so important. Every single day, these health centers provide quality, effective health care for Rhode Islanders.”
He referenced President Joe Biden’s goal to distribute 200 million vaccinations during his first 100 days in office, noting that CCAP, Providence Community Health Centers and others around the state will be critical partners in reaching that benchmark.
“I look forward to seeing this money put to use and continuing to work with all of you until this crisis is behind us and we can crush this virus,” Cicilline said. “This year has challenged all of us, but I think as Rhode Islanders always do, we’ve risen to meet that challenge. Our state is now fifth in the country in terms of the percent of our population that is fully vaccinated, and that is in large part due to folks who work at this facility and at community health centers in the state.”
Providence Community Health Centers CEO Merrill Thomas said his staff is working every day to get vaccinate Rhode Islanders, but emphasized that they need more doses. He said he only receives about 100 doses each week, but the infrastructure is in place to handle a larger load.
He said the nearly $10 million allotted to his organization will go toward hiring 30 people, six of whom are starting soon and two-dozen more are set to come on board during the next two weeks.
“I’m very proud [that] from day one, we all committed in last March that we’re not going to close,” Thomas said. “It’s all you frontline workers, thank you for being out there. At every site, we stayed open. We had to do it for our patients, right? We have over 34 access points in Rhode Island, and community health centers continue to do every day something new. We went to telehealth, but we didn’t close, and we kept everything – oral health, optometry. … This money is going to immediate use. We are moving ahead and getting shots in arms.”