As Gov. Charlie Baker doubled up efforts to focus on Chelsea and four other neighboring communities as ‘high-risk’ or ‘red’ communities for increasing COVID-19 cases, City Manager Tom Ambrosino said he has concerns his community may never get out of the so-called ‘red’ given how the state calculates its rates.
On Thursday, Sept. 3, Gov. Baker announced the state had designated Everett, Chelsea, Revere, Lawrence and Lynn as ‘high-risk’ areas for the spread of COVID-19 as their case counts have increased and their numbers of cases per 100,000 people are far above the state average. Gov. Baker has created unique plans for Chelsea and the other communities through using the COVID-19 Enforcement and Intervention Team (CEIT) to be out in each community and providing multi-lingual public messaging.
Some leaders in those communities aren’t happy with the designation, including Ambrosino and Everett Mayor Carlo DeMaria. Ambrosino said he has shared his concerns with the state and doesn’t think Chelsea will be penalized, but also knows the city will never get out of the ‘red’ due to the way the state calculates the rate averages.
“I expressed a similar but different concern than Everett to the state,” he said. “For a City like Chelsea, eight cases per 100,000 is a tough obstacle because it means to get out of the red we need less than four cases a night. That just doesn’t seem realistic given our demographics and how people live and how they go to work and the fact that they do go to work. Having the cases we have every night is good news. The City has come a long way since we had 80 cases a night at the surge. What we’re seeing now are good numbers. Our concern here is we’re not getting out of the red by the governor’s metric. They recognize that. I don’t think they’re going to penalize us, but I don’t think it works for some communities like Chelsea and maybe Everett is another.”
Mayor DeMaria in Everett said he believes it isn’t a great message to tell the rest of the state to stay away from Chelsea and Everett based on incomplete population data. The terms ‘high-risk’ and ‘red’ community have a negative connotation, he said, and his biggest beef is that the rates are based on Census population counts. In Everett and Chelsea, Census population numbers are routinely far below the real population, and DeMaria said that results in rates that appear much worse than they really are in communities historically undercounted for population.
“If you have nine cases a day on 45,000 people, then that looks like a high rate,” he said. “If you have nine cases on 70,000 people, then it’s much lower. If we had the true population used, we wouldn’t be in the red. We’d be yellow or green like a lot of other communities.”
Right now, one of the major downfalls of being in a ‘red’ community – aside from the potential stigma – is that sports for young people are not allowed. A community has to come out of the ‘red’ and stay out for a period of time to be reinstated and to allow high school sports to be played. Both schools have had to postpone fall sports due to being in the ‘red.’
However, DeMaria said he is worried other things could be taken away too based on ‘red’ status – that based on calls he’s had with the governor and state health leaders.
“They’ve said if you continue going in the wrong direction, they’ll take way things like the limited inside dining – go back to take-out only for our communities,” he said. “That will devastate business owners.”
However, at the Command Center for the state’s COVID-19 operations, they said they routinely use Census data for public health for years, and they said they rely on a lot of other trends in designating communities that are more at risk right now, like Chelsea and Everett.
Spokesman Tory Mazzola said Everett has shown increases over the past four weeks using the metrics of cases per 100,000 people. Over the past seven days (Sept. 2-7), the numbers of new cases per day were 6, 8, 6, 19, 11, 9 and 8.
He said over the past four weeks Everett has increased from 11.2 to 15.9 cases per 100,000 residents. Meanwhile, Chelsea has gone from 19.2 to 29.9 per 100,000 residents. For Chelsea, in the last week of August, there were 64 new cases reported, down from previous weeks. The statewide average is 4.2 per 100,000 residents. A community is in the ‘red’ if they exceed 8 per 100,000.
“Census data is used for all of our public health reporting metrics, and monitoring cases per 100,000 residents is a widely used metric by public health experts,” he said. “Working collaboratively, reversing these trends and supporting individuals who test positive must be our focus, and the CEIT is working closely with local leaders in each municipality to identify and implement strategies unique to each community.
“These localized plans take into account much more than the daily case rate, such as positive test rate, age group positive tests and contact tracing analysis, in determining the best way to deploy resources and stop the spread,” he continued. “It remains critical, however, that we focus on areas with persistent or increasing trends as the priority.”
For the color coding of communities, the state uses average daily case rate per 100,000 residents. The state said average daily case rates are one of the most effective measures, which is why it is the focus of the community-level data reporting, and the sequencing and color-coding provide a way to help communicate with the general public and local officials, especially since we know many people are fatigued with wearing masks and social distancing, the state said.
He said on rare occasions, they do see anomalies like in a small town where there are several cases in one household and it makes the daily incidence rate jump very high suddenly. He said they balance that, and the mayor’s concerns, by working with local communities to understand what’s going on at the ground level.
Ambrosino said the ‘red’ designation is a good reminder to residents to be safe and take precautions.
“I don’t think I feel our community is stigmatized,” he said. “I think the red is a message to residents that the virus is here and we need to be diligent. There is no complacency allowed here. It is a legitimate concern we’re raising though. Under this kind of metric, some cities – Everett and Chelsea and probably Revere – will never get out of the red.”
As part of the CEIT effort by the state, the plan is built around the message of ‘You have the power to save a life,’ and it will be used encourage social distancing and wearing masks. The campaign will be in English, Portuguese, Spanish, Haitian Creole, Vietnamese, Arabic and other languages commonly used in the specific communities.
This targeted initiative includes regular meetings with local leadership to understand residential and business activities contributing to trends, an even greater level of state focus to stop the spread and a new public messaging campaign.
The goal of the public messaging campaign is to ensure residents know they live in a high-risk community and reiterate the importance of wearing a mask and other best practices to stop the spread. There is also a new website debuted for the effort at Mass.gov/StopCOVID19.