A large-scale public vaccination site will open Thursday in Chelsea, the early epicenter of the pandemic in Massachusetts, following persistent advocacy by local activists who feel the state has turned its back on communities of color in the vaccine rollout.
The COVID-19 vaccination site was organized through a new partnership between the Chelsea nonprofit La Colaborativa and East Boston Neighborhood Health Center. The site represents a hard-fought victory for Gladys Vega, executive director of La Colaborativa, and other local leaders who contend the state has ignored their cries for help while launching mass vaccination sites in cities and neighborhoods far from hard-hit communities.
“I was very happy,” Vega said, “but at the same time, in communities of color, we did our own advocacy because if we hadn’t done our own advocacy, we wouldn’t have even gotten a [vaccination] location.”
Chelsea is 67 percent Latino and nearly half of its residents are immigrants. Many are undocumented, work low-wage jobs, and live in crowded apartments. Virus rates in Chelsea consistently rank among the highest in the state.
Since the beginning of the outbreak, Vega’s small nonprofit has marshaled the response to the twin health and economic crises in Chelsea, distributing thousands of meals to struggling families every week through its food pantry and now helping to immunize the community as well.
“We are exhausted in the city of Chelsea,” said Dinanyili Paulino, chief operating officer of La Colaborativa. “We have been very vocal: Why are you focusing on white neighborhoods and not [hard-hit communities]?”
The La Colaborativa location at 318 Broadway will open Thursday after several months of extensive renovations done pro bono by local painters and carpenters unions. When La Colaborativa launched its food pantry last spring to feed out-of-work residents, the need was so immense that the floors caved in from foot traffic, Paulino said. In July, they were forced to relocate the pantry to a warehouse on 6th Street while the office underwent repairs.
Workers were still installing countertops in the office kitchen Wednesday, Paulino said, as staff from East Boston Neighborhood Health Center prepped the space for vaccinations.
“We wanted to be where people are at, and there’s no better spot than Broadway and Bellingham Square,” said Manny Lopes, CEO of East Boston Neighborhood Health Center, about partnering with La Colaborativa to host an injection site. “It’s the most central place in Chelsea that people know, understand, and recognize.”
East Boston Neighborhood Health Center reached out to La Colaborativa — formerly known as the Chelsea Collaborative — last Thursday about opening a vaccination site that would be widely accessible to the public. Vega was more than happy to hand over the keys. The office — which, despite appearances, is deceptively large — will eventually have capacity to inoculate as many as 500 people per day, Lopes said, depending on staffing and vaccine inventory from the state. For now, the health center has scheduled about 100 appointments for Thursday, with a few empty slots.
Governor Charlie Baker, in remarks Wednesday and previously, has defended his administration’s handling of the rollout, while pledging to do more to provide the vaccine to communities of color.
“This is obviously an ongoing process and we’re also working to add more sites in some communities that have been particularly hard-hit by COVID,” Baker said at the Fenway Park mass vaccination site.
He said the state is collaborating with local boards of health, community health centers, and pharmacies on a variety of strategies “to make sure that we cover more ground here in Massachusetts” in distributing the vaccine. About 125 vaccination sites are operating now, according to Baker, and 40 more are expected to open by mid-February, including an additional 30 at pharmacies, many in communities disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, he said.
The vaccination site at La Colaborativa is at least the fourth in Chelsea, and the largest open to the public. On Monday, the Walgreens on Broadway started administering vaccines to residents 75 and older, first responders, and health care workers. Vaccinations also begin Thursday for eligible patients of Beth Israel Deaconess HealthCare in Chelsea. Peter Shorett, chief integration officer of Beth Israel Lahey Health, said the Chelsea clinic, opening at the Parkway Plaza Shopping Center, will start by vaccinating 100 patients a day before ramping up next week to 300. Appointments are booked through Feb. 12.
Chelsea is also piloting a mobile vaccination program, according to City Manager Thomas Ambrosino, that’s expected to begin Friday in low-income senior housing. Currently, people 75 and older are eligible for the vaccine.
“We’re in reasonably good shape for this small population that’s currently eligible for the vaccine,” Ambrosino said. “When eligibility starts to expand significantly in Phase 2, we’ll need some additional sites to meet the need, but at the moment I feel reasonably confident we can handle the 75-plus.”
Chelsea’s ability to vaccinate its residents will be tested as the state opens up eligibility to essential workers in Phase 2. According to an analysis by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, 80 percent of Chelsea’s population is employed in occupations — such as construction, food preparation, transportation, and building maintenance — that have been deemed essential amid the pandemic.
But many in Chelsea believe those workers are not being prioritized under Baker’s distribution plan, following his announcement last week that people 65 and older would be moved ahead of essential workers in Phase 2.
Black and Latino people in Massachusetts remain vastly undervaccinated compared with white residents. As of Jan. 26, 43 percent of people who have been fully vaccinated are white, according to the state Department of Public Health. Meanwhile, just under 4 percent of those who’ve received both doses are Asian, more than 3 percent are Latino, and less than 3 percent are Black. The state’s vaccination data on race and ethnicity is incomplete as a result of inconsistent reporting by vaccinators, which is why those figures don’t add up to 100 percent.
City Councilor Damali Vidot said Baker should have prioritized vaccinations in Chelsea.
“We need more thoughtful leadership coming from up top,” she said. The state’s mass vaccination at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough “is great for football games,” she continued, but “what about people that don’t have vehicles? What about people that are less affluent? Don’t have Internet? Don’t know how to use a computer? We’re thinking in a very privileged, classist way. COVID exposed inequities. Governor Baker has refused to see it.”
Matt Stout of the Globe staff contributed to this story.