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Rutgers-Newark’s Luis Rivera Helps Congress Shape COVID-19-related Legislation and Policy

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Luis Rivera, an associate professor of psychology at Rutgers University–Newark, has been helping to shape federal legislation and policy in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Rivera currently serves as a Congressional Science and Technology Policy Fellow in the Office of U.S. Senator Ron Wyden for Oregon. Through the yearlong fellowship, administered by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and sponsored by the American Psychological Association, Rivera is learning about federal policymaking while using his expertise to tackle today’s most pressing societal challenges.

“I applied for the fellowship because, consistent with my research experience in implicit biases and their roles in critical social issues, I wanted to work on legislation and policies that addressed disparities in health care and criminal justice,” said Rivera.

Rivera started the AAAS Congressional Science and Technology Policy fellowship training in September 2019. He joined Wyden’s office in October where one of his responsibilities included a focus on the role of algorithm biases in the level of coverage health insurers offer persons of color. “I was researching the intersectionality of artificial intelligence and bias in the health insurance industry,” he shared. “According to algorithms used by insurers, fewer resources were made available to black patients, even though black patients were typically sicker than white patients.” Bias in the algorithm, therefore, could be a source of the inequities in health care services within certain communities of color,” Rivera explained.

When the novel coronavirus hit the United States earlier this year, Rivera quickly switched gears to concentrate on the impact of COVID-19 on vulnerable communities. “Collecting relevant data sets and making them readily and publicly accessible is so important to developing effective policy,” he noted. Rivera has been involved with the issuance of letters of request for critical demographic data to understand the adverse effect of COVID-19 on certain groups. The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) have received such letters.

“The CDC had been doing a good job of reporting the ages associated with COVID-19 in relation to ‘access to testing, infections, hospitalizations, intensive care unit admissions, and fatalities,’” said Rivera. “The letter from Congress in early April requested the CDC to expand its public report to capture ‘sex, race, ethnicity, disability, primary language, and any other available demographics,’” he continued. In response to the letter, CDC’s COVID-19 case reporting now records a patient’s sex, ethnicity, and race. Rivera is hopeful their next update will include disability and primary language.

“While it is important to understand the medical/biological aspects of the virus and disease, it is equally significant to understand the social effects of the disease. These data sets allow us to tell the story from a different perspective and provide deeper breadth and depth of COVID-19’s impact,” stated Rivera.

In the letter to the BOP, a group of United States senators requested public reporting of demographic “data on the age, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, pregnancy status, sexual orientation, and disability of all incarcerated people and BOP staff who have been tested for, contracted, recovered from, and died from COVID-19, as well as for those who have been transferred to home confinement or granted compassionate release.”

“Given COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on African Americans and Latinxs and the disproportionality of persons of color who comprise the federal prison population, it is critical to ascertain whether the determination of who gets home confinement or compassionate release is applied fairly,” Rivera remarked.

As for FEMA, members of Congress have requested transparency in FEMA’s “role as the coordinating agency of the Whole-of-America response to COVID-19.” Rivera explained that the letter to FEMA poses a series of questions to ensure FEMA understands and addresses the needs of vulnerable communities. “History has shown that communities in which persons of color reside are often overlooked or underserved in times of catastrophe,” Rivera said.

As Rivera reflects on his fellowship experience, he is grateful to have the opportunity to address inequality in the United States through legislation and policy, especially during one of the country’s most trying times. “I now have a better understanding of how to write about my research in a manner that can help legislators integrate it into legislation and policy.”

Rivera earned his doctoral and master’s degrees in social psychology from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and his bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Bernard M. Baruch College of the City University of New York. A prolific author on implicit stereotyped attitudes, his work has been published in Law and Human Behavior, American Journal of Public Health, Criminal Justice and Behavior, Social Cognition, and many other publications.