CENTRAL FALLS, R.I. — For much of the year, Rhode Island’s smallest city, Central Falls, bore the burden of having the state’s highest COVID-19 rate.
But as the year comes to a close, that rate has plunged, raising the possibility that face masks, bar closures, and “relative herd immunity” are at long last making a difference, the city’s chief health strategist said Monday.
Also on Monday, the city received another boost: Mayor James A. Diossa announced that the vaccine will arrive in Central Falls later this week, with senior citizens and other residents of Central Falls Housing Authority high rises the first group to receive the vaccine. The housing authority runs the 148-apartment Forand Manor and the 125-apartment Wilfrid Manor.
“I am very excited to work with the Central Falls Housing Authority on getting the residents there vaccinated for COVID-19,” Diossa said in a statement Monday evening. “This week, we will be able to take a step in the right direction to beat COVID-19 in Central Falls, starting with some of our residents at high-risk for contracting and suffering from the disease.”
During the week of Nov. 29 to Dec. 5, Central Falls had the highest COVID-19 rate in the state, at 1,104 per 100,000. But that rate dropped by more than half, to 573 per 100,000, by the week of Dec. 13 to 19, according to the most recent state Department of Health data. Though it still left Central Falls with the eighth-highest rate in Rhode Island, it marked the lowest rate in Central Falls since mid-October.
“I hope like heck it’s true,” said Dr. Michael Fine, a former Department of Health director who is now chief health strategist for Central Falls.
The decrease could be an artifact of interruptions in testing because of the weather and the holidays, Fine said. “I’d like the numbers to show solidity over time,” he said. But he said he is encouraged that the data do reflect a two-week downward trend.
Department of Health spokesman Joseph Wendelken said COVID-19 rates can fluctuate based on small changes in Central Falls since the 1.3-square-mile city contains fewer than 19,400 people. “The improvement is encouraging,” he said. “But we still have a ways to go.”
If the trend continues, Fine said, the decrease would in part reflect the city’s attempt to ensure that residents wear face masks when in public. Central Falls has hired health “ambassadors” who hand out face masks and COVID-19 information, and city police have been reminding residents to wear masks.
Also, a health ambassador conducts a daily survey of how many residents are wearing masks by going to the same spot, at the same time of day, to see if the first 20 people they see are wearing masks.
“Central Falls is the only place in the state — and maybe in the country — that is measuring that masking percentage in a standardized way,” Fine said. “And we have been close to 100 percent since Dec. 1.”
Another factor, Fine said, is that Diossa issued an executive order on Nov. 16 restricting restaurants and bars to takeout and delivery. That action came before Governor Gina M. Raimondo enacted an economic “pause” for the first three weeks of December.
“The bars in Central Falls were closed for five weeks,” he said. “That probably helped.”
Also, the falling COVID-19 rate could reflect “relative herd immunity,” Fine said.
State health officials have said that an estimated 50 percent of Central Falls residents will have been infected with the coronavirus by the end of 2020, which is coming up on Thursday.
“If you combine that 50 percent that has been infected with the masking, that is relative herd immunity,” Fine said.
If the downward trend continues, he said, “the magic is in the combination of masking, closing the bars, and developing herd immunity.”
Still, Fine said, the COVID-19 vaccine is badly needed in Central Falls, where the cumulative infection rate remains by far the highest in the state at 16,293 per 100,000. Herd immunity can come from either infection or vaccination, and vaccination is thought to provide stronger immunity, he said.
Many Central Falls residents work in factories, meat-packing plants, and construction sites, meaning they cannot work from home while relying on Zoom calls like residents of more-affluent communities, he said. Also, many residents live in triple-deckers and cramped apartments that make it hard, if not impossible, to isolate from family members if they get infected, he said.
State health officials have said that as the state’s COVID-19 hot spot, Central Falls, will receive the vaccine in the first phase of a four-phase rollout.
“Rhode Island will be vaccinating people based on their risk level, and we will continue to maintain a focus on equity,” Department of Health director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott said last week. “We are finalizing plans to vaccinate in Central Falls early on in the vaccination campaign, and we will move on to other ZIP codes and communities that are hardest hit, as well.”
Residents of the Central Falls Housing Authority have received information on how to reserve a time slot for vaccination in English and Spanish. Vaccinations will be delivered in individual units for those who have registered.
“We want to get the whole city vaccinated as quickly as we can,” Fine said. “They are the people in the state who are most at risk.”