CENTRAL FALLS, R.I. — As a teacher assistant at Central Falls High School, Beverley Ellis has seen the toll that COVID-19 has taken over the past year here in Rhode Island’s hot spot.
Amid economic devastation, she has seen families moving in with other families, struggling to get by. Amid widespread infection, she has seen students and colleagues lose family members to the virus.
“It makes my heart cry,” Ellis said.
But on Saturday, she sat in a folding metal chair, receiving the second dose of the Moderna vaccine. At age 70, she said she is still recovering from a fall that shattered her femur, but now that she is fully vaccinated, she is looking forward to getting back in the classroom.
“I am a tough old bird, honey,” Ellis said.
And as she watched hundreds of people get vaccinated in the high school gym, she said she sees brighter days ahead for Central Falls.
“We are heading in the right direction,” Ellis said. “We will overcome this virus.”
One year ago, Governor Gina M. Raimondo announced the first case of COVID-19 in Rhode Island, and since then, Central Falls has had the state’s highest rate of cases, at 20,710 per 100,000 – far higher than the next highest rate of 14,931 in Providence, according to the latest state Department of Health data.
As a result, Central Falls has seen some dark days. But on Saturday, as a cold rain fell and 500 people filed into the gym for vaccines, city officials said they could see light and hope ahead.
Rhode Island made Central Falls a priority for its vaccine program, and now the city with the state’s highest COVID-19 rate also has the state’s highest vaccination rate. According to the most recent Department of Health data, 33.1 percent of the Central Falls population has received one dose of the vaccine, while 17.1 percent has been fully vaccinated. East Greenwich has the second highest vaccination rate, with 26.1 percent partially vaccinated and 12.1 percent fully vaccinated.
Dr. Michael Fine, a former state Department of Health director who is now Central Falls’ chief health strategist, recalled that he began talking to then-Mayor James A. Diossa in January 2020 about a virus that was beginning to spread in other parts of the world.
“We were worried because the history of public health is the history of what happens to densely populated communities,” Fine said. And in Rhode Island, few places are more densely populated than Central Falls, a triple-decker city of 19,500 people packed into just 1.29 square miles.
The first sign that the virus has reached Central Falls came in early March 2020, when the city’s emergency medical services personnel reported four deaths that appeared to involve COVID-19, he said. “Then we started hearing about whole families being infected,” he said.
The darkest moment in the past year came in April 2020, Fine said. “One day, I sat down and looked at the state’s numbers and looked at the national numbers and I realized that Central Falls had more disease than they had in the Bronx, when New York was in the middle of a surge,” he said. “That felt pretty bleak.”
Early on, the state wanted to put a testing site in Central Falls, but it couldn’t find a way to make that happen, he said. And at first, the rules called for arranging for testing through primary care doctors, but many people in Central Falls don’t have primary care doctors, he said.
Eventually, Central Falls joined with Pawtucket in setting up its own incident command system with a BEAT COVID-19 hotline and a public awareness video in English, Spanish, and Cape Verdean Creole.
And a local pediatrician, Dr. Beata Nelken, began providing testing and, later, vaccines from her office across from City Hall, Fine said. “She has made a huge difference,” he said.
Now, Fine said, more than a third of the city’s population has received a vaccine shot.
“This is the most hopeful moment,” he said as he stood in the high school gym with Dr. Eugenio Fernandez Jr., the Asthenis pharmacy founder who was running the vaccine clinic. “We have a good running start.”
But much will hinge on the available supply of vaccine, Fine said. Two weekends ago, Central Falls received more than 900 vaccines for a clinic, but it was only received 500 on Saturday because not enough vaccine was available, he said. So it was only able to provide second doses and no first doses, he said.
Also, much will hinge on the COVID-19 variants, Fine said. He emphasized the need to keep the vaccination program going until 70 percent to 80 percent of the city is fully vaccinated. If Central Falls can reach that point, he said, then city residents can start to think about “doing things that are more normal,” he said.
Mayor Maria Rivera stood at the center of the Central Falls High School gym, greeting people as they came in for their vaccines.
The city has been through a harrowing period, she said. “People are scared. They have been scared for a whole year.”
Rivera paused as she recalled local families who have lost people to the virus.
“What can I do to help these families?” she said. “Many times there is nothing that I can do because they just want their family member back.”
But now, she said, residents are starting to feel a sense of relief.
“They come here and receive the vaccine and they just want to hug me and say thank you,” Rivera said. “That is so refreshing to me.”
Central Falls is providing vaccines only for those who live and work in the city, but people from towns such as Scituate and Portsmouth have come to try to get vaccinated there, she said.
“It’s sad, because I wish we could vaccinate everybody here,” Rivera said. “But I need to prioritize the residents from this community, and all of the clinics have been full.”
She said she has heard about the situation in Chelsea, Massachusetts – another small, impoverished, predominantly Latino city that has been hit hard by the pandemic but has not had as much access to the vaccine.
“It’s unfortunate,” Rivera said of Chelsea. “I wish they were also prioritized just like Central Falls was prioritized as the high-density community. I continue to say if you don’t fix the problem where the problem is – where you have the highest numbers – you are going to continue spreading the disease.”
She is hoping that the vaccine program continues and that Central Falls can go from the Rhode Island’s COVID-19 hot spot to its healthiest community.
Looking ahead, Rivera said she has dared to start thinking of bringing back the Salsa Nights that once drew up to 1,000 people out to dance on the Roosevelt Avenue bridge. She cautioned that big gatherings probably won’t be possible any time soon, that people will remain hesitant to come out, and that she would never do anything that would jeopardize people’s health.
But Rivera smiled at the thought of Central Falls dancing again.
“I want to at least have one Salsa Night this year, even if it’s in September,” she said. “I mean, I can dream, right?”