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Coronavirus outbreak in Chelsea is ‘life or death’ crisis, official says

Chelsea city leaders, who have compared the coronavirus’s impact on their community to some of the hardest hit boroughs of New York City, renewed Saturday calls to state officials for help, just as a predicted surge in cases began to reach hospitals in Boston.

Roy Avellaneda, Chelsea’s city council president, said they’ve repeatedly asked for more help, including more testing of residents, assistance segregating COVID-19 patients to avoid spreading the infection, and greater unemployment aid, he said.

They believe that the number of positive cases in the city are three times the official count — 472 as of midday Saturday, he said.

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“We’re talking about a community that has a lot of risk factors already," Avellaneda said. "There are particular members of our community who, if they come down with COVID-19, they may not survive. This is life or death.”

The pleas came as the state reported 87 new deaths and Boston officials said it appeared that the city was moving toward the projected surge of patients needing hospital care. The city’s Medical Intelligence Center is coordinating with hospitals and monitoring their surge capacity, said Caitlin McLaughlin, a spokeswoman for the Boston Public Health Commission.

Representatives for Massachusetts General Hospital, Tufts Medical Center, and Boston Medical Center all reported increases in patients, but continued to have capacity Saturday.

Speaking to reporters in Somerville, Governor Charlie Baker warned that the next two to three weeks will be difficult.

“If in this Holy Week people need to pray, I’d urge them to pray for a lot of the folks who take care of those who get sick and for their families,” Baker said. “This is going to be a rough time.”

On Saturday, the state reported total deaths due to the coronavirus in Massachusetts had risen to 686. Nearly half of those deaths — 306 — occurred in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, according to the state Department of Public Health.

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A total of 22,860 people have confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, an increase of 1,886 from the 20,974 the state reported Friday.

According to the state health department, 108,776 people in Massachusetts have been tested for the coronavirus as of Saturday, adding 6,404 to the 102,372 who had been tested as of Friday.

Chelsea’s Avellaneda, along with fellow city officials, area health experts, and the presidents of Massachusetts General Hospital and Beth Israel Lahey Health, wrote a letter to Baker on Friday saying Chelsea “is in desperate need of state assistance” due to the high rate of coronavirus infection in the community.

Many of the issues that made Chelsea a vulnerable community before the pandemic have been exacerbated, the letter said. The city’s population has high rates of children living in poverty and relying on subsidized school meals, prevalent language barriers, and high rates of pre-existing health conditions like cardiovascular disease and asthma.

The letter said a majority of Chelsea’s residents are Latino, and many continue to be exposed to the public during the pandemic as essential workers at grocery stores and in other jobs.

These residents “are carrying out essential services during this pandemic, and compromising their own health and that of their families and our community,” the letter said.

Avellaneda said in response to the letter, Marylou Sudders, the state’s Secretary of Health and Human Services, and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito, contacted the city Saturday morning. Chelsea has specifically asked for more food and hygiene supply deliveries, more hotel rooms to isolate patients, and more testing, he said.

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Local hospitals said they will step up testing in Chelsea.

Mass. General has already converted its Chelsea HealthCare Center into a clinic for residents of Chelsea, Revere, East Boston, and other communities who have symptoms of the disease to be evaluated, said Joan Quinlan, the hospital’s vice president for community health. Patients do not need a referral from a doctor.

The facility was testing about half of the 60 to 90 people per day who came in; the hospital hopes to increase the number of tests to 300 per day, Quinlan said.

Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center will begin testing for coronavirus at its Chelsea facility beginning Tuesday, a spokeswoman said. Patients will need to be referred by a physician affiliated with Beth Israel Lahey Health or one of its community partners and make an appointment in order to be tested.

Avellaneda said he is glad for the help, but Chelsea needs more assistance. While the city waits for more aid, local leaders are doing what they can, he said.

Chelsea and Revere are working together to use the Quality Inn in Revere to house residents of both cities who test positive for COVID-19, Avellaneda said, and help avoid spreading the illness to family members or housemates. Chelsea is also working to isolate 10 cases of the virus that have broken out at a senior housing development with about 160 residents, he said.

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The city has called on residents to remain in their homes at all times in hopes of slowing the spread of the coronavirus.

“The numbers keep on climbing, and we believe it is a lot worse than what the case count is officially,” Avellaneda said. “We are asking people to stay home unless it’s an emergency, or if you have to go to the grocery store to buy supplies.”

In a statement, a spokesman for the state’s COVID-19 Command Center said the Baker administration and the center have been working very actively with Chelsea and Revere as they open up a hotel in their area for local individuals and families impacted by COVID-19 who cannot stay at home.

“The Commonwealth is providing assistance to help them move forward with their efforts, particularly with supplies, logistic planning and food. This is a great example of local leadership and partnership in the COVID-19 response that we support,” the statement said.

Earlier in the day, during an interview with El Mundo Boston, Baker highlighted efforts by his administration to support Spanish-speaking residents during the outbreak, including an online unemployment benefits application at mass.gov/desempleo.

In the interview, Baker also said his administration announced Saturday that it has notified grocery stores across the state that their workers will be prioritized for COVID-19 screening at the state’s drive-through testing sites.

“If somebody who works in a grocery store needs to get tested, they should talk to their store manager and we can make that happen.” Baker said.

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Tim Logan of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.