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Even as case count drops, aftereffects of coronavirus persist in Chelsea

Hundreds of community members lined up early to pick up food boxes at Chelsea Collaborative during their weekly food drive on Wednesday evening.
Hundreds of community members lined up early to pick up food boxes at Chelsea Collaborative during their weekly food drive on Wednesday evening.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

CHELSEA — It’s been more than two months since he recovered from the coronavirus, but that marker is just a technicality to Fredy Sanan. He still has debilitating pain in his legs, preventing a return to his construction job. The company where his wife worked closed down. His family has no income.

When he is able to walk, Sanan takes his 9-year-old daughter to the park. And he worries: about how he will pay back thousands of dollars in overdue rent, about how he will afford next week’s groceries.

“I have no idea what’s going to happen,” Sanan said in Spanish through a translator. A doctor confirmed that his pain was likely due to the virus, he said, but gave no indication of how long it might last. “All I can do right now is try to find a job, and it’s not easy.”

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Fredy Sanan sat on the steps leading up to his apartment.
Fredy Sanan sat on the steps leading up to his apartment.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

In Chelsea, the hardest hit community in the state, the long tail of the coronavirus still lingers for Sanan and thousands of others. Nearly 3,000 residents have tested positive for the virus, a strikingly high number in a city of just 40,000. And even as the number of cases now declines, the economic fallout remains staggering, with people fearful that the virus might return at any moment.

In recent weeks, the number of official cases in the city has plummeted, from roughly 1,200 new cases in the last two weeks of April to just 50 in the first two weeks of July. And there are other positive signs: The city’s isolation hotel closed down last month. Chelsea’s positivity rate dipped below 5 percent for the past 14 days, the metric the World Health Organization recommends communities achieve before reopening.

The MGH Chelsea community health center has begun to shift its focus away from treating the desperately ill, because there are far fewer people in that category.

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“From our standpoint, we are feeling as though we’re getting some reprieve from the crisis,” said Dr. Jacqueline Chu, medical director of the MGH Chelsea Respiratory Illness Clinic.

But the economic picture remains dire, according to residents, advocates, and city officials, and some in Chelsea continue to reckon with unexpected aftereffects of the illness.

Data from the last two weeks of June and the first two weeks of July also suggested a drop in testing, which some city officials attributed to a lack of interest among residents, as opposed to not having enough tests available.

Registered nurse Erin McElroy administered a COVID-19 test at a free testing site in Chelsea.
Registered nurse Erin McElroy administered a COVID-19 test at a free testing site in Chelsea. Erin Clark/Globe Staff

“At some point, people get lax, the messaging isn’t as strong, and the testing starts to get reduced,” said Tom Ambrosino, Chelsea’s city manager.

City officials hope a new “Stop the Spread” initiative run by Governor Charlie Baker providing free testing to anyone in Chelsea will reinvigorate testing efforts, Ambrosino said.

Those who run food pantries and rental relief programs said economic need in the city remains extreme.

“The only difference is that two months ago there was a sense of panic,” said Father Edgar Gutiérrez-Duarte, who runs a food pantry out of the Episcopal Church of San Lucas in Chelsea, distributing about 2,000 boxes of food every Saturday. “Financially, the situation has not changed, or probably has worsened.”

Chelsea Collaborative volunteer Roberto A. Garcia, left, handed out potatoes to community members at a food donation.
Chelsea Collaborative volunteer Roberto A. Garcia, left, handed out potatoes to community members at a food donation.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Some residents face mounting debt after spending months out of work. Ruth Chacon, 31, is back full time to her job cleaning a restaurant in Chelsea; during the shutdown, she and her husband struggled to pay the utility bills and rent. They borrowed money from a relative and found resources through the Facebook group Chelsea En Español, but still fell behind. Her husband is now working two full-time jobs to try to catch up.

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“Every check we get, we are paying debt right now,” Chacon said in Spanish through a translator.

Across the city, housing is also a pressing concern. More than 1,500 Chelsea residents applied in May to a rental relief lottery run by the city. But only 302, or about a fifth of those who applied, received assistance, the city said.

Sanan did not win the rental lottery. He now fears that he and his wife and daughter will need to move into a single room in a shared house in the next few months. They already live in a studio apartment, which Sanan divided into two rooms.

“There is extraordinary need,” said Cate Fox-Lent, innovation and strategy adviser to Chelsea’s city manager, adding that the city plans to distribute a second round of rental assistance. “It is a national problem, if not a state problem.”

Cinthya Torres placed canned goods into boxes at the Chelsea Collaborative.
Cinthya Torres placed canned goods into boxes at the Chelsea Collaborative.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

The rental assistance program distributed roughly $1.2 million; United Way’s One Chelsea Fund has also distributed about $1.2 million in the form of $250 checks to Chelsea residents.

But without more state rental aid or rent forgiveness, some advocates in Chelsea fear widespread displacement when the statewide eviction moratorium expires on Aug. 18.

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“I always said to people, ‘Today we do food. Tomorrow we’ll do shelter,’” said Gladys Vega, executive director of the Chelsea Collaborative. “People will be evicted.”

And even as people agonize over how to pay for food and rent, some who had the virus in Chelsea are also still enduring the health consequences of a long ICU stay or serious illness at home, said Dr. Chu.

“Leg pain, disproportionate fatigue — we’ve been hearing a lot of these symptoms,” she said. Much of the hospital’s work is focused on teaching people how to wear masks and reminding them to socially distance.

The Tobin bridge abuts Chelsea housing.
The Tobin bridge abuts Chelsea housing.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

The specter of a resurgence haunts not just the hospital, but also the shops and restaurants and parks where the city is finally returning to life.

“Don’t let your guard down,” Father Gutiérrez-Duarte reminds his congregants in weekly videos. “The fear is complacency.”



Zoe Greenberg can be reached at zoe.greenberg@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @zoegberg.