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.” 



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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.

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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)


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