With the rates of infections in Chelsea so high, for most they figured it was a given that the senior citizen buildings at the Chelsea Housing Authority (CHA) would be overwhelmed with COVID-19 infections – but after aggressive testing over the last few weeks, it’s just not the case.
CHA Director Al Ewing said this week that they have very few cases in their buildings, and City Manager Tom Ambrosino confirmed that other senior buildings outside of the CHA envelope that were tested also had very few cases.
It is a mystery given that Chelsea has more than 2,000 confirmed cases and likely many more that are unreported and an infection rate that is nearly double any other municipality.
“One case is too many, but we are pleasantly surprised our rate of people testing positive is much lower than the city as a whole,” said Ewing. “We were very encouraged by these results because some of the numbers we were seeing in Chelsea were pretty scary. We have our staff cleaning in the buildings two times a day and we encourage people to separate…Doing all of that early on at our buildings was helpful in avoiding a larger problem.”
The state Department of Public Health (DPH) and the Fallon Company combined on doing large-scale testing at all the Chelsea senior citizen buildings starting three weeks ago. Results were slow to come, but now that they’re in, it’s a rare piece of good news for the city.
At the Margolis building, out of 113 tested, there were only three that tested positive for COVID-19. At the Bloomingdale Street high-rise, out of 139 tested, there were five positive cases. The Union Park building was tested with other buildings out of 132 tests, there were three cases.
That meant out of 384 tests in senior buildings, there were only 11 confirmed cases.
Ambrosino said they had similar low results at 100 Bellingham senior building, and the Chelsea Community Center building – which they tested. He said it was expected there would be large numbers, but it wasn’t the case.
“Given our infection rates, we have positive COVID-19 areas that are 5 percent of our population, it was a surprise,” he said. “The fact there weren’t a lot of cases in our senior buildings was a surprise and a favorable one too.”
More elderly housing buildings are also planned to be tested in the coming days too, and those results will be watched carefully.
For Ewing, he said he thinks it was a matter of taking the virus very serious at an early date, and then acting on making things safe for residents.
On March 12, he said they began to instruct residents on social distancing and the steps and precautions they should be taking. They closed their office on March 17, but continued to make staff available to answer phones. They got staff up and running at a great effort as quick as possible so they could help people with rent questions and rent adjustments and other matters over the phone – preventing anyone from having to go out.
“We immediately shut down our community rooms and luckily we had a key fob system in place for the outside doors some time ago,” he said. “That was helpful in limiting access to our buildings. We had lunches delivered to the units so people wouldn’t go to the community room. Some people had different levels of seriousness about the virus at first and we had to take the furniture away from the lobbies. We left one chair, but we had people who hand out there. We took a number of steps to force people to do social distancing if they wouldn’t do it themselves.”
Another problem they soon found was with the laundry facilities. The laundry uses a card that stores money, and people were lining up to fill their cards and coming too close to one another too often.
“We just decided to change our machines to run on one cent so people have plenty of money on their cards and they wouldn’t line up for more money to put on their cards,” he said.
They also don’t have congregate housing where they have a central kitchen and meals at a central facility – which might end up being one of the areas where the disease spread in many living situations.
“We don’t have a central dining kitchen and that was helpful for us,” he said
On Friday, March 20, they logged their first case, he said. Immediately, the very next day, they hired a professional cleaning company to come in and do a deep cleaning and hit all the “touch” points.
That sort of changed everything in the CHA, Ewing said, and people became very careful about what they did. That, he said, might contribute to the lower rates.
“Once people realized someone in the building had it, that really hit home,” he said. “Plus we took steps to address it and let people know it was a serious, serious situation. When we were able to get that message to everyone in the buildings, they saw the seriousness.”
That seriousness, at least at first glance, has resulted in lower rates of infection, and a rare piece of good news for a city that can use some.
Chelsea Housing gets federal grant for COVID response
CHA Director Al Ewing reported that the Authority received two grants over the past week to help them defray the costs of their COVID-19 responses.
First, as part of the CARES Act, they received $307,590, and then this week, they received an additional $130,000 to assist as well.
The grants represent two months of operating subsidies, Ewing said. That will allow them to get devices for the CHA Board and a scanner for documents so they can work better and meet remotely.
The money will also go to pay for keeping up the ground, and also for the costs associated with so much extra cleaning.
“We will use some of the money to pay for the cleaning costs and to get additional PPE so we can be prepared in the future,” he said. “We had a very hard time getting PPE for our staff and workers.”
Last Friday, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Ben Carson announced HUD would allocate more than $26 million in COVID-19 relief funding to help low-income Americans in Massachusetts residing in public housing. The funding, made available by the CARES Act legislation President Donald Trump signed into law on March 27, 2020, will be awarded to Public Housing Authorities (PHAs) across the Nation, including the amount set aside for Chelsea.
“Our Massachusetts public housing authorities have been on the front lines working to protect those most vulnerable from the impact of COVID-19,” said David Tille, HUD New England Regional Administrator. “These funds will allow our housing authorities to continue their innovative and extraordinary efforts to keep their residents and staff safe during these challenging times.”
The money can be used to:
•Prepare for a Coronavirus Outbreak
•Prevent a Coronavirus Outbreak
•Resond to a Coronavirus Outbreak
Good News: Testing at senior buildings reveals very few cases