Chelsea’s yearlong battle with COVID

Trying to defeat COVID has often been likened to a war. If the analogy is apt, nowhere in Massachusetts has the fight been more intense than in Chelsea, and Gladys Vega has been a tireless general leading the battle there against the viral adversary. 

The longtime executive director of La Colaborativa, the local nonprofit advocacy group formerly known as the Chelsea Collaborative, has been on the front lines in a community that has seen more than 8,000 of its 40,000 residents test positive for COVID, the highest rate in the state. 

Like a hardened battlefield leader, Vega has had to hold her own emotions in check in order to keep the troops going. 

“I remain overwhelmed every day because the situation hasn’t gotten much better,” Vega said on this week’s Codcast, where she took stock of things one year into the pandemic along with Tom Ambrosino, the Chelsea city manager who has led the municipal government response. 

Vega describes waking up at 4 or 5 in the morning, heading to the New England Produce Center in Chelsea, where her agency has gathered food being donated for distribution to Chelsea households. “So we were in sort of like reaction mode on a regular basis,” she said. “But I tell you, I think the hardest thing for me is that I’m very emotional. I hug people.  And I had to pretend that everything was okay. Because people were relying on me to guide them.” 

Vega has had to employ a second kind of face covering. “At times I wanted to be in a constant crying mode, but I have to put this mask on to make sure that people felt that I was strong and that I was saying, ‘it’s okay, we’re going to be okay. We’re going to make it.’” 

Chelsea is home to thousands of low-wage residents who had been working in hotels or in service jobs at Logan Airport — all places where they were readily exposed to coronavirus. And high housing costs that force families to double-up or share an apartment among three families let the virus quickly explode in the community. 

“This was the ideal setting for a pandemic like this one,” said Vega.

“I think that it cries out for a need for long-term, sustained government support to deal with the ongoing housing insecurity issues, the ongoing food insecurity issues, the ongoing problems that small businesses would have,” said Ambrosino. “And I will say that this American Rescue Plan act is a step in that direction,” he said of the huge $1.9 trillion stimulus package signed last week by President Biden.

Adding to the anguish in Chelsea is the feeling that the community was making some headway on those issues before the pandemic hit. “We were already extremely poor,” said Vega. But things like workforce development programs and ESL classes were starting to make a difference. 

“I felt like I was like that close to opening that little gate and throwing people inside so that they can make it,” she said. “And right now, the gates have been closed, and we’re like in the back in the back of the line.” 

“I wish I can lie and tell you that two years from now we’ll be better off,” she said. “But unless we are creating jobs, and in different skills, and then unless we’re securing some type of transitional housing, some type of housing where a person can live and not share a three bedroom apartment with 16 other people — unless we do all those things, our situation is not going to be better anytime soon.” 

MICHAEL JONAS

FROM COMMONWEALTH

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FROM AROUND THE WEB

 

MUNICIPAL MATTERS  

A bill expanding mail-in voting for municipal elections through June is on Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk. (Salem News)

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

One year of COVID: The Telegram & Gazette runs its own series marking the one-year anniversary of the pandemic, letting a handful of local residents tell their stories about how COVID changed their lives. Meanwhile, MassLive runs a moving essay, complete with photos, recollections, and a timeline of how COVID changed lives. The Patriot Ledger runs a five-part series (first part here) on how COVID-19 affected the South Shore.

Nurses crossing the St. Vincent picket line face bullying and harassment by striking nurses. (Telegram & Gazette)

The deadline is approaching for the state to finalize its renovation plans for Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, so it can apply for federal money this year. A legislative committee holds a hearing on the plan Monday. (MassLive)

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

Dr. Anthony Fauci says former president Donald Trump could help make America great again by urging his supporters to get vaccinated after polling showed Republican men and Trump backers have high rates of vaccine hesitancy. (Washington Post

Democrats and voting rights activists are pushing the most consequential set of voter rights protections since the civil rights era, but the bill, which has passed the House, faces likely defeat in the Senate as long the filibuster remains in place. (New York Times

IMMIGRATION

Lucio Perez, who has been living in the First Congregational Church in Amherst since October 2017, walked out over the weekend after he received a stay of deportation from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. (Daily Hampshire Gazette)

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

The state’s first cannabis-infused seltzer company, based in Newburyport, is open for business and doing well. (Salem News) Meanwhile, 253 Farmacy in Turners Falls is the first cannabis shop in Massachusetts to sell all-kosher products, a designation that could boost their clientele among religious Jews who only eat kosher food. (MassLive)

The Patriot Ledger takes an in-depth look at how the service industry was hard-hit by COVID.

EDUCATION

Teachers unions are backing legislation filed on Beacon Hill to slow down education commissioner Jeff Riley’s order that schools return to full-time in-person learning. (Boston Globe)

School districts are starting to plan summer school programs and other ways to help students set back by the pandemic using the $1.8 billion in education aid to the state that will be coming through the American Rescue Plan. (Boston Globe) The stimulus bill will also send $500 million to the state’s beleaguered early education sector. (Boston Globe

ARTS/CULTURE

An iconic portrait of John F. Kennedy has made its way from Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts to President Biden’s private study just off the Oval Office. (WBUR)

Celloist Yo-Yo Ma, after getting his second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, gives a brief performance. (Berkshire Eagle)

Berkshire Museum closes after a visitor tested positive for COVID-19. (Berkshire Eagle)

TRANSPORTATION

As MBTA service cuts take effect, riders held a protest against elimination of bus route #55 from the Fenway neighborhood to Copley Square. (Boston Herald) The Enterprise explains how service cuts will affect Brockton riders. 

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

The state is seeking input from residents and businesses impacted by the Columbia Gas explosions so it can craft energy efficiency programs that the community wants. (Eagle-Tribune)

The chances of getting frozen wind turbines in Massachusetts are low, experts say. (South Coast Today)

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

Twenty-one convicted murderers are among the 47 Massachusetts inmates who have been released under the state’s new medical parole law passed in 2018. (Boston Globe

PASSINGS

Boxing great Marvelous Marvin Hagler, a Brockton native, dies at 66. (Associated Press) A former Fall River businessman, Lenny Kaplan, says he gave Hagler the “marvelous” moniker. (South Coast Today)