Rhode Island’s smallest city this week celebrated the inauguration of the state’s first Latina mayor. The daughter of immigrants from Puerto Rico, Maria Rivera took her oath of office on Monday during a ceremony live-streamed from Central Falls High School because of the coronavirus. Rivera is assuming leadership of a city where the COVID-19 infection rate is among the highest in New England. Health reporter Lynn Arditi talked with the new mayor about the challenges ahead. (The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.)

Arditi: Welcome Central Falls Mayor Maria Rivera. As Rhode Island's first Latina mayor, you're taking over the leadership of a city in the midst of a pandemic. The coronavirus infection in Central Falls is among the highest in the northeast. For people who have not been following the news coverage of Central Falls describe the impact the virus has had on the residents of your city. What have you seen around you?

Mayor Rivera:  I have seen residents lose their jobs. I have seen residents have family members pass away. I have seen residents not qualify for benefits. I have seen residents not be able to pay their rent. So I've been able to see a lot from my residents.

Arditi: So the state just began distributing the vaccine to Central Falls. As of today, do you know roughly how many residents of your city have been vaccinated?

Mayor Rivera: Yes, it's a little over 900.

Arditi: Then a little over 900 residents in the city of just under 20,000. Dr. Michael Fine, Central Falls chief health strategist, says that to be effective 80% of the city's residents need to be vaccinated. And Dr. Fine says Central Falls expects to get about 1000 doses of vaccine a week, meaning it will take at least 10 to 12 weeks or until mid to late March to reach 80% of residents. Is that fast enough?

Mayor Rivera: You know, I wish it would happen faster. But we have to work with what the state is going to be receiving with the vaccines. There are other leaders in the community that are also advocating to get more vaccine for the city. On our end, I will continue to push for the 1,000 for now. As soon as I know that the city is getting enough so that we can distribute statewide I will ask for more.

“My success is going to be measured by the amount of residents I could get vaccinated in the City of Central Falls.”

Arditi: Central Falls residents have had to register for a vaccination appointment online. But as you know, some residents don't have regular access to computers or the internet. What is being done to reach those people?

Mayor Rivera: I have not had access to getting 600 or 1,000 vaccines that I can put a plan in place and say: this is what we're going to do to target the most vulnerable population. The first vaccines that came to the city came through the Central Falls Housing Authority. All of the residents there are either elderly or disabled, so the most vulnerable population. The 600 vaccines that (Pharmacist) Eugenio Fernandez reached out to me about (donating) happened very quick. We sent out a text like a robocall or verbal text through the school district so that families could register. The first session, which was Wednesday, there were 150 vaccinations done at that clinic at the Knights of Columbus. For Saturday, he was going to distribute another 150 vaccines. We're working on a clinic for this Saturday. And right now the conversation is trying to target residents who are over the age of 75.

Arditi: You mentioned that Central Falls used the school systems robocall system to invite families to sign up for the vaccine on a first come first serve basis. What was the reasoning behind that approach? And how did it work?

Mayor Rivera: We had one day to get the message out. And it was the easiest way to get residents to register. You know, for weeks, we've been having conversations about what the message is going to be regarding the vaccine. There's a lot of talk about this vaccine. And we've talked about the fear of our residents not wanting to register for this vaccine. We thought this was going to be the fastest way for residents to register for the vaccine. We honestly didn't think our residents were going to register as quick as they did.

Arditi: So you mentioned this issue of challenges of vaccine effort and fear and distrust around being vaccinated or what we call vaccine hesitancy. How concerned are you about that among the residents in Central Falls, particularly among Latinos and undocumented residents and what does the city need from the state to help reach those residents?

Mayor Rivera: I think from the state, which we've already asked, is messaging. Making sure that we talk about the two different vaccines. What are the side effects? That they have to take the two doses. Just putting the message out there. And I think it was really important for me to get the vaccine and show the community that I'm getting the vaccine because I want to stay healthy. And I want you to do the same thing. So with the state it's about getting the message out there and, and helping us put the message out there.

Arditi: Are there specific assets that you have of the state that you would like that you think would help get that message out?

Mayor Rivera: So I have asked the state for more people, funding and more vaccines.

Arditi: Elected leaders often refer to their goals for the first one-hundred days in office. Mayor Rivera, how will you measure success for your first hundred days in the mayor's office?

Mayor Rivera: My success is going to be measured by the amount of residents, I could get vaccinated in the City of Central Falls.

Arditi: Do you have a number in mind? A target?

Mayor Rivera: I wish I could get everyone vaccinated in the next three months, you know, but it's unrealistic. We don't know how many vaccines we're gonna get. But I will continue pushing. There's a good public health reason to focus on Central Falls for the early doses of this vaccine. We continue to have some of the highest and most devastating rates of infection and hospitalization. If we work in a community like mine, we're making sure the virus is not going to continue spreading. That's why it's so important for me to continue advocating for the needs of the vaccine here in our city.

--Health reporter Lynn Arditi can be reached at larditi@thepublicsradio.org