CENTRAL FALLS, R.I. — “Sí.”
After 10 months in which the novel coronavirus ran rampant through the crowded triple-deckers and multi-generational households here, that was the clear and concise answer Isabel Espana gave when medical workers wearing gowns, gloves, and face shields knocked on her door Wednesday and offered her the COVID-19 vaccine.
“Sí,” Espana said, stepping into the doorway to get an injection in her left shoulder, marking the moment when the vaccine arrived in Rhode Island’s hot spot, this 1.29-square-mile, working-class, Latino-majority city of some 19,500 people.
With a cumulative COVID-19 rate of 16,815 per 100,000 people, Central Falls has been one of the hardest-hit areas in the Northeast. So state officials included the city in the first phase of a four-phase vaccine program, and they’re hoping to vaccinate people in other hard-hit ZIP codes in Providence and Pawtucket during the first or second phases.
Espana, 69, said through an interpreter that it was a relief to see the vaccine in her city.
“It is really important to be protected,” she said. “This is not only protecting yourself, it’s protecting others.”
While misinformation and mistrust abound, Espana had no doubts. “I trust the vaccine,” she said.
On Wednesday, the Central Falls vaccination drive began at the two high rises run by the Central Falls Housing Authority. Plans called for administering 300 doses of the Moderna vaccine to residents and staff at Forand Manor and Wilfrid Manor, Executive Director Bridgett M. Duquette said.
“We are so excited to be the first spot in the city to get it,” Duquette said. “We have a lot of elderly residents. It’s a big relief for them, and it’s a relief for our staff.”
Since March, some 25 residents and seven staff members have tested positive for the virus, but none have died, she said.
“Our fear here was losing somebody,” Duquette said. “We had to decide what was safest for everybody.”
That meant limiting social activities such as Thursday bingo nights and serving cold lunches rather than hot meals, she said. On Wednesday, the bingo board in the Forand Manor community room was dark, but the room was filled with activity, as 40 volunteers from the Rhode Island Medical Reserve Corps prepared to deliver vaccines to residents in their apartments.
The Moderna vaccine comes in vials containing 10 doses of 0.5 milliliters each – tiny doses that will make a huge difference in Central Falls, Duquette said.
“We are in such a close-knit community,” she said. “Most of our housing is three- or four-family homes, and they’re multi-generational families. So if one person gets it, chances are everyone in the family gets it.”
Duquette said many housing authority residents registered for the vaccine after seeing TV news coverage of outgoing Mayor James A. Diossa and Mayor-elect Maria Rivera getting vaccinated in the Forand Manor community room Wednesday morning.
“I know there are still people who do not believe in the vaccine, or have myths about it,” Rivera said just before getting her shot. For example, she said, some fear the vaccine was developed too quickly and has not been tested adequately.
But Rivera said residents should trust medical professionals such as Dr. Michael Fine, the city’s chief health strategist, who also received a vaccine Wednesday. She said she hopes all adults in the city get vaccinated.
“If I am getting the vaccine, they should be getting it,” Rivera said. “I want them to feel comfortable. They trust us as leaders in this community.”
Rivera said another 144 people were registered for a vaccine clinic at the Knights of Columbus hall in Central Falls on Wednesday afternoon. Also, she said the city is hoping to offer vaccines soon at the Blackstone Falls and Rand Place apartment complexes.
Diossa, 35, said many young people don’t believe in the vaccine, so he wanted to set an example. “It’s important for leaders to take the vaccination – to show that we walk the talk,” he said.
Diossa thanked Governor Gina M. Raimondo for making Central Falls the first city to get the vaccine. “This is an important first step for a community that has been battered by the virus,” he said.
Dr. Pablo Rodriguez, medical director for community affairs at Care New England and host of the “Nuestra Salud” radio talk show, said it’s also an important step for the state’s Latino and Black communities, which have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.
“For too long, we have heard that ZIP codes predetermine poor health outcomes. COVID has certainly shown that,” Rodriguez said. “Today, Rhode Island begins to turn around that narrative, and it has become a national leader in protecting those in the most affected communities.”
The decision to prioritize Central Falls and other high-density communities for the vaccine shows the state “is serious about addressing social determinants of health affecting largely Black and Latino families for years,” Rodriguez said.
Fine, who served as state Health Department director before becoming the Central Falls health strategist, said he was excited to see the vaccinations begin in the city. “This is the day we have been looking forward to for a long time,” he said.
Just two weeks ago, Fine said he was hearing “all sorts of rumors” and misinformation about the vaccine, and doubted that many residents would accept it. But the city’s health ambassadors and elected leaders have helped educate the public. And now he is noticing that a lot of people want the vaccine.
Fine noted that those vaccinated on Wednesday will need a second shot in 28 days, and it takes six weeks before immunity is fully established. Now, he said, the challenge is to get a sufficient supply of the vaccine. He estimated it will take about 15 weeks to get all of the city’s adults vaccinated.
But Fine said he can now offer Central Falls residents a clear, concise message: “The vaccine is here. Your time is coming.”