2 cities very affected, 2 divergent destinations in the launch of vaccines
By PHILIP MARCELO
CENTRAL FALLS, RI (AP) – Mario Valdez, his wife, and their 18-year-old son were fully vaccinated against COVID-19 this month as part of a special effort to vaccinate all residents of Central Falls, the Rhode community. Island most affected. for the pandemic.
“I feel happy,” the 62-year-old school bus driver said shortly after receiving his second and final dose. “Too many people here have COVID. Better to be safe. “
About 50 miles (80 kilometers) across the state line is Chelsea, a Massachusetts town that was one of the first epicenters of the virus. Like Central Falls, it is a small industrial city that is overwhelmingly Latino. Residents of both cities live in dense rows of three-story houses and apartment complexes, which provide the workforce for their respective state capitals of Providence and Boston.
But the fortunes of the two cities couldn’t be more different during the launch of the COVID-19 vaccine.
Chelsea high school sophomore Mannix Resto fears that slow vaccination rates in Massachusetts continue to prevent students from attending classes in person. The 15-year-old says that no one in his family has been vaccinated yet, as the state targets frontline workers and residents who are older or have serious health problems.
“I just want to know how long it’s going to last,” Resto said earlier this month while walking with a friend on Broadway, Chelsea’s busy main street. “It’s been one year. We can’t go on living like this. “
Rhode Island began offering vaccines to older Central Falls residents in late December and gradually expanded it so that anyone 18 and older who lives or works in the city is now eligible.
Nearly a third of adults in the city have received at least one dose of the vaccine and about 16% are fully vaccinated, according to state data.. Health officials say the city of roughly 20,000 residents has seen a sharp drop in COVID-19 cases as a result.
In Massachusetts, meanwhile, public health experts, civil rights groups and immigrant activists have been complaining for months that the state is not doing enough to make sure that black and Latino residents are vaccinated.
Under mounting pressure, Governor Charlie Baker recently announced public awareness and outreach efforts targeting the worst-affected minority communities, but critics say bolder action is needed to make up lost ground.
White residents have received 66% of all doses in the state so far, while black residents have received about 5% and Latino residents 4%, according to state data.. Meanwhile, Black and Latino residents are dying from the virus at a rate three times higher. whites in the state by some measures, and Chelsea remains one of the most affected communities in the state, with a higher COVID-19 positivity rate than the state.
“It’s frustrating,” said Gladys Vega, executive director of La Collaborativa, a community-based nonprofit in Chelsea that is part of a new state coalition. calling for greater equity in vaccines. “Chelsea has shown time and time again that we support the economy. But we have been neglected for decades. “
Some states and counties have taken different approaches to ensure vaccines are distributed fairly to communities of color, but too many government leaders are reluctant to fully accept the strategies as a necessity, says Dr. Bernadette Boden-Albala, dean of the University’s public health program from California, Irvine.
Until the hardest-hit communities are properly addressed, their residents will continue to spread the infection, ensuring the virus persists, she and other experts say.
“If the pandemic is a fire, the vaccine is water,” Boden-Albala said. “You have to take it to where the fire burns hot, or you will never put it out.”
To be sure, the leaders of Rhode Island and Massachusetts have faced harsh criticism about the slowness of vaccines in general in their states. And the vaccine launch hasn’t been all smooth sailing in Central Falls.
Mayor María Rivera, who took office in January, says the state has provided no additional resources or manpower for the deployment in Central Falls, which went bankrupt during the 2008 recession and emerged from state bankruptcy in 2013.
The city’s main vaccination site, held every Saturday in the high school gym, is an almost entirely voluntary operation.
Rivera says city volunteers have been door-to-door searching residents who are unwilling or unable to sign up for appointments online or by phone. They have also had to assure residents living in the country illegally that they will not be targeted by immigration law enforcement officials for seeking a vaccine, he says.
“We just want them to show up,” says Rivera. “We are not going to turn anyone away.”
According to data provided by Rivera’s office this week, nearly 40% of the doses have gone to Latinos and 27% to whites at three of the city’s top vaccination sites. Another 23% of vaccine recipients did not provide their race or ethnicity, and demographic data was not available for other vaccine locations, the office said.
Across the state line in Chelsea, Vega’s organization has partnered with a community health center to launch a public vaccination site at its Broadway office.
Vega says bringing the siege to the city was a hard-fought achievement by local defenders. The only mass vaccination site the state has opened so far in a Boston-area community of color is about 10 miles (16 kilometers) from Chelsea, in Boston’s historically Black Roxbury neighborhood, she and other advocates say.
And unlike the vaccination sites in Central Falls, the Chelsea sites are limited by Massachusetts eligibility rules, which were only expanded last week. to people 65 and older, as well as to people with two or more serious medical conditions.
The clinic has vaccinated more than 900 since it opened Feb. 4, but the numbers are expected to rise this week as more people in the state now qualify, according to the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center, which operates the site.
Earlier this month, David Evans was surprised to find that he had the clinic mostly to himself when he received his first dose. “That was pretty good,” said the 82-year-old Chelsea resident. “I was preparing for this to be a terrible ordeal after hearing about places where people couldn’t get appointments or didn’t have shots.”
On Broadway earlier that day, the clinic’s opening was greeted largely with shrug and nonchalance, suggesting officials have a long way to go in winning over skeptical residents.
“If the government told me that I should get the vaccine, I would take it. But at the moment, I don’t want it, ”said César Osorio, a 30-year-old construction worker who washes his clothes at a self-service laundry on the same block. “Spaniards, we have our own medicines. We don’t want vaccines. “
Central Falls Mayor María Rivera is already dreaming of the return of beloved community events, like the city’s summer salsa nights.
She says the city is on track to vaccinate most of its residents for the summer. “I’m looking forward to the day when we don’t have to wear masks,” Rivera said while recently volunteering at the high school.
Resident Mario Valdez has similarly modest hopes. Now that he and his family are fully vaccinated, they are making plans to fly to their native Guatemala in July, a trip they make almost every year to visit relatives.
“It’s going to be great,” he said. “We love being down there.”