CENTRAL FALLS, R.I. — She doesn’t need the state Department of Health’s COVID-19 data tracker to measure the spread of the virus.
Dr. Beata F. Nelken measures the pandemic by the length of the lines outside her pediatric practice across from City Hall.
On Wednesday, people began lining up at 5:30 a.m., even though Jenks Park Pediatrics doesn’t open until 9 a.m. The line stretched down Broad Street around the corner onto Sacred Heart Avenue. Parents held infants, bundled up against late December cold, as they waited for COVID-19 tests and vaccines for up to four hours.
By any measure, COVID-19 is spreading rapidly here in this impoverished, 1.29-square-mile, majority-Latino city.
In the early days of the pandemic, Central Falls emerged as Rhode Island’s hot spot. COVID-19 rates dropped as the state made it a priority for vaccines. But on Broad Street on Wednesday, it seemed like a hot spot once again.
“Maybe it’s my myopic vision, but it feels hot to me,” Nelken said. “If this isn’t the worst, then I really worry for the state.”
And the long lines represent an unmistakable sign that the virus is overwhelming not only tiny Central Falls, but the entire state of Rhode Island.
“We are back in desperate times,” Nelken said. “It’s a crisis again. You wouldn’t know this is the second year we have done this. They are coming from Providence, Woonsocket, Cumberland. The fact that I am the best option is not a sign of strength.”
Central Falls Mayor Maria Rivera tweeted photos and video of the long lines on Broad Street, where people waited to be tested outdoors or vaccinated inside.
“Central Falls families are waiting in lines for hours on end waiting for a COVID test,” she wrote. “Kids in the freezing cold. Parents risking their jobs. Health care workers working endless shifts.”
State Representative Joshua J. Giraldo, a Central Falls Democrat, said he and Rivera spoke to Governor Daniel J. McKee on Tuesday when they were together for the opening of a restaurant, Shark’s Peruvian Cuisine, in Central Falls.
“Anyone who drives down Broad Street any day of the week can see how this problem has grown over the past few weeks,” Giraldo said. “So we have been sounding the alarm.”
The problem needs to be solved right away, he said.
“If it snows tomorrow, what is going to happen?” Giraldo said. “My residents are still going to be here, in the cold, with their infants, waiting for a test.”
McKee agreed to visit Central Falls on Wednesday, stopping to see the long lines at Jenks Park Pediatrics and at the Blackstone Valley Community Health Center down the street.
“He definitely agreed that there was a problem, and he directed his team to address it and get things fixed,” said Alana O’Hare, McKee’s press secretary. She said the governor plans to discuss the matter at a COVID-19 press conference set for 2 p.m. Thursday in Woonsocket.
If McKee is looking for ideas, he had plenty to choose from on Broad Street on Wednesday.
“We need all of our tent sites back up, with the National Guard and with EMTs and swabbers at the ready, with multilingual services,” Nelken said. And a new testing site is needed in Central Falls right away, she said.
Nelken said restaurants should be closed temporarily. For now, people should be eating only with family members, she said. And she called for a return to distance learning at local schools, saying, “It’s a recipe for disaster to have kids without masks eating together at school.”
Giraldo said Central Falls needs tents and heaters right away for those waiting in line, and the city needs to quickly find an indoor testing site, with bilingual staff. He said the governor agreed to help find a new testing site, and officials are looking at a vacant Rite Aid drugstore on Broad Street.
“If we can’t find the capacity, we need to reactivate the National Guard again,” Giraldo said. “We had a testing site run by the National Guard that was extremely efficient.”
He also called for distributing rapid tests throughout the community. “We clearly have a need here,” he said. “We have extremely long wait times and extremely long lines.”
Giraldo said he is frustrated because the state does not seem as prepared as he expected it to be after two years of the pandemic.
“We knew that when there is a surge, Central Falls gets hit hard because of our construct,” he said, noting it’s a densely populated city where people don’t have space to isolate or the luxury of working from home.
Dr. Michael Fine, chief health strategist for the city of Central Falls, stood on Broad Street on Wednesday, saying the long lines send an unmistakable message: “We have way more disease than we have testing capacity.”
Fine, former director of the state Department of Health, said, “Right now, we need the National Guard. We need 2,000 people working on this across the state.” And he called for setting up 1-800 phone numbers so that people can get answers to questions about testing and isolating if they have symptoms.
Fine said Rhode Island needs to do all it can to get everyone vaccinated and boosted, and while he did not call for a mask mandate, he said, “We need to get everybody to mask inside every place where there is an inside.”
While businesses have bristled at past health protocols, Fine said, “When you put business before public health, you get neither.”
He noted that airlines have been facing flight delays and cancellations because of staffing shortages tied to rising COVID-19 cases, and he predicted that Rhode Island could face similar disruptions over the next month.
“What we see today is one-tenth of what we are going to see in two weeks,” Fine said. “This thing is growing and growing fast.”
In Central Falls, people are crowded together in a city of triple-deckers and multigenerational homes, with no space to isolate when one family member falls ill. Most residents work in factories and warehouses and don’t have the luxury of working from home, Fine said. All these factors have been clear over the past two years, and the state should have been better prepared, he said.
“When Central Falls catches fire, it tends to burn hot because people live so close together,” Fine said. “It burns hot and then it tends to spread the disease to other places.”
He noted the statewide rate of new COVID-19 cases over the past seven days reached 1,066.5 per 100,000 people on Wednesday. He said he used to worry when the rate was 100 per 100,000. But now, he expects one-third of the state’s population to be infected by the end of January.
“We are not at the end of this,” Fine said. “We are at the beginning.”