Governor Charlie Baker on Thursday staunchly defended the state’s handling of the escalating COVID-19 outbreak in Chelsea, including charging, without offering details, that city leaders have turned down help from his administration.
The governor’s claim blindsided officials in Chelsea, where leaders told the Globe this week that the state and even health care providers should have caught on sooner to the virus’s rapid spread through the densely populated, working-class community.
Thomas G. Ambrosino, Chelsea’s city manager, denied Thursday the city turned down any specific offers of aid from the state, and roundly praised Baker for his cooperation, which has included sending tens of thousands of meals and helping shelter infected residents.
At least 39 residents have died from the virus in Chelsea, city officials said, and 712 had tested positive as of Tuesday, a rate of about 1,900 cases per 100,000 residents, the highest in the state.
“When they ask us for stuff, we respond. And we have — when they’ve asked,” Baker said during a Thursday news conference of Chelsea officials, adding that they’ve been in near daily contact for the past month. The Republican governor said officials are “try to be respectful” of relying on what local leaders believe they need when offering aid.
“There’s a number of things we offered to the city of Chelsea that they said no to,” Baker said. “If we offer stuff up to a community and they say they don’t want it, we are not going to give it to them.”
But when pressed for specifics, Baker demurred. “We offered them a variety of things," he said, turning to take the next question.
The comments shot through Chelsea and generated confusion. Baker administration officials later released a statement to the Globe saying the state had offered to perform mobile testing in Chelsea, but that it had “not been called on by the City” to do so.
But they acknowledged in the same statement having helped arrange for testing at several housing complexes in the city, which Ambrosino said began this week.
A Baker spokeswoman later clarified that the state had first offered drive-through testing, but that Ambrosino felt mobile testing would be “more effective.” Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, which operates a health center in Chelsea, has opened its own referral-only, drive-through testing site in the city that is capable of performing hundreds of test each week.
Ambrosino, the city’s primary contact with the Baker administration, said the city “did not turn down anything” from the state, which has sent Chelsea about 26,000 meals per week, dispatched the National Guard for logistical support, and transformed Revere’s Quality Inn into an isolation ward for infected patients.
The state — in conjunction with Massachusetts General Hospital, which runs a community health center in the city — has this week visited two Chelsea Housing Authority high rises and another building on Broadway this week to test residents, many of the elderly, Ambrosino said.
“They’ve offered this mobile testing, which is fabulous, and we said, ‘Where can it be most effective? Let’s start in these hot spots.’ If that goes well, we might expand that in other places around the city,” Ambrosino said.
Ambrosino said he also spoke with Marylou Sudders, Baker’s health and human services secretary and the head of the state’s coronavirus command center, early Saturday morning, when she first offered to send the National Guard to Chelsea.
Ambrosino initially said no, largely out of concern that the deployment could agitate an already “vulnerable and scared immigrant population" in the city, where 65 percent of the population is Latino. “A lot of people are from countries where the military has been an instrument of oppression. That made us nervous,” he said.
But he said he reconsidered within hours and talked to Sudders later that afternoon to begin planning. The National Guard was deployed to the city for the first time Thursday.
Ambrosino, who was among several Chelsea and hospital leaders who wrote to Baker on April 10 formally asking for more help, said he has spoken regularly with Sudders and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito, but not Baker personally.
“I don’t know specifically what he’s referring to,” he said of Baker’s comments. “The people he has assigned to help Chelsea have been incredibly responsive.”
Since declaring a state of emergency last month, Baker has largely garnered widespread praise for his approach to the pandemic, even as some have pressed him to go further, and move faster, in wielding his emergency authority. Local officials, in particular, have said they have found his administration responsive.
It made the discourse about Chelsea — and Baker’s unusually pointed response to it Thursday — a notable wrinkle in the debate over the state’s response. It also set off consternation among other officials in the hard-hit city.
“There seems to be a block in the line of communication between the city manager and the elected officials,” said Roy Avellaneda, Chelsea’s city council president, who said he was driving when he heard the governor’s comments.
“I was shocked. If the governor has made offers and the city manager has said no to something, it’s news to me," he said. “I would love to have a direct line with the governor."