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In Lawrence, the COVID-19 pandemic has been ‘the perfect storm’

Empty chairs have been placed in a Lawrence park to honor coronavirus victims.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

More than 800 Lawrence residents get tested each day for COVID-19, some waiting up to four hours. The public school system has conducted classes remotely all year. The city was a leader in issuing high fines to people who refused to wear a mask.

But despite the aggressive measures, the pandemic made itself known quickly in Lawrence and has refused to relinquish its grip on the city, which has a positivity rate of nearly 15 percent and the full slate of inequities that fuel virus transmission. Statewide, the seven-day average positivity rate is 5.3 percent.

“For Lawrence, it’s been the perfect storm,” said Mayor Dan Rivera, who still was guiding the city through its recovery from the 2018 gas explosions when the pandemic took hold. “We have the travel problem. We have the gathering problem. We have the socio-economic and racial inequities problem.”

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According to the latest state report, Shirley is the only community with a higher positivity rate. Last month, the state classified the town as being at high risk for COVID-19 transmission after inmates at a correctional facility there developed the virus.

As of Sunday, 10,226 Lawrence residents had tested positive for COVID-19, including 328 new cases on Saturday, which broke a record set two days earlier for the highest, one-day count of new coronavirus patients in the city.

“The positivity rate keeps going up. The cases keep going up and it keeps getting worse,” said Mike Armano, director of the Board of Health and Inspectional Services.

There have been 2,002 positive cases among residents between 20 and 29 years old, the highest among all age groups, city data show. Less than 2 percent of all Lawrence cases were in patients between 80 and 89 years old, though that group so far accounts for a third of all the city’s deaths.

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In another sign of the pandemic’s worsening toll, Lawrence General Hospital on Tuesday placed a pause on elective procedures.

Deborah J. Wilson, the hospital’s president and chief executive, said the move was aimed at making sure the facility has the capacity to treat coronavirus patients and people who require hospitalization for other reasons. As of Friday, the hospital had 60 patients confirmed or presumed to have COVID-19, compared to three to five patients a month ago, she said. The hospital’s testing site sees about 1,500 people daily.

“We absolutely are able to care for the community’s emergency, COVID, and non-COVID needs,” Wilson said.

The virus is easily transmitted in communities like Lawrence, a compact city of 7 square miles with an old housing stock of multi-family residences occupied by multi-generational households. About 24 percent of its 80,000 residents live in poverty, 40 percent were born outside of the United States, and 79 percent speak a language other than English at home, according to census figures.

Many workers who live in Lawrence don’t have the option to do their jobs from home and must travel, sometimes by public transportation or carpool, to earn a paycheck, city officials said. Money is so tight that some workers are reluctant to get tested for COVID-19 because they fear a positive test result could cost them their job, Armano said.

Pastor Victor Jarvis of Ebenezer Christian Church in Lawrence said he’s been isolating at home since he was diagnosed with the virus in mid-November. Jarvis, 66, said he’s on the mend now, but wants to set a good example for his congregation.

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“If I don’t do the proper thing, people get sick,” he said Saturday in a phone interview.

Dr. Zandra Kelley, chief medical officer at Greater Lawrence Family Health Center, cautioned about cases emerging among workers who weren’t wearing masks during breaks, or while commuting on public transportation or in a carpool. People risk becoming infected, she said, by not wearing masks indoors with people from outside their household, including relatives who live in a different home.

“I think a lot of people believe, ‘Oh, it’s family. I know them. I know where they’ve been,’ ” she said. It seems “to make a lot of sense.” But, unfortunately, it “makes it much easier for the virus to be transmitted.”

Mary Guzman, 25, a Lawrence resident who teaches kindergarten at a learning center, said people are under pressure to work even if it makes them more vulnerable to being exposed to COVID-19.

“You have to support your family and you have to keep going,” said Guzman, who sought a virus test on Saturday.

Armano, a former fire prevention officer, said his approach to urging people to wear masks, follow social distancing rules, and stay home when possible has been informed by his earlier experiences helping businesses and residents guard against fires.

“Every individual has the ability to make a difference,” he said. “With the holiday season coming quickly it’s more important to make a hard push and be vigilant.”

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Rivera said he believes city government has done all it can to combat the virus and faulted the federal government for failing to provide cohesive response, promote mask use, and offer financial help to citizens who would lose their income if they stayed home from work because of illness.

The push to preserve society’s pre-pandemic lifestyle as much as possible has created a lot of public confusion over the virus and what it takes to fight it, he said. As an example, Rivera cited youth sports activities, which continue to take place in some communities under new rules but are not allowed in Lawrence.

“If we can’t be in the classroom learning, then we can’t be doing sports,” he said.

In October, Rivera established a tribute to Lawrence’s coronavirus victims with a display of empty chairs. So far the memorial fills a corner of the park across from Lawrence City Hall. On Sunday, a new fatality was recorded, pushing the death toll to 164 people and counting.

Erin Clark of the Globe staff contributed to this report.




Laura Crimaldi can be reached at laura.crimaldi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lauracrimaldi.