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Long test lines, increasing cases return to COVID-weary Chelsea03:20
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On a freezing cold morning in Chelsea, Gloria Caballero has waited four hours to get a coronavirus test for her daughter.

"It’s so hard to get a test because there are so many people who need one — whether it’s for work or for their kids,"she said. "These huge lines had already gone away, and now it's like we're at the start of 2020 again."

A very long line of people waiting to receive COVID-19 tests stretches down Broadway in Chelsea. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
A very long line of people waiting to receive COVID-19 tests stretches down Broadway in Chelsea. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

In those early days of the pandemic, Chelsea had the highest number of cases per capita in the state. Health officials say the situation improved with a concerted effort to boost testing and vaccinations in the city.

But now with the omicron variant, Chelsea is second only to Lawrence in case rates across the state. Both cities have majority Hispanic populations, and state data shows that, since the start of the pandemic, Hispanic residents are three times more likely to test positive for COVID than white people.

Mass. Department of Public Health shows wide disparities in positive COVID rates. (Graphic via mass.gov)
Mass. Department of Public Health shows wide disparities in positive COVID rates. (Graphic via mass.gov)

Neris Amaya, an activist with Green Roots, an environmental justice organization in Chelsea, said there's only one real solution: Get more people vaccinated.

"I've been out knocking doors in the cold, in the rain, it doesn't matter," she said. "Our priority is to vaccinate the herd so that we can end this pandemic."

The key, she said, is to reach people in their native language in person, as some Chelsea residents can't read or write in Spanish.

But the biggest problem at the moment is testing. Chelsea officials say people from surrounding communities are flooding the city’s two testing sites, making it hard to help local residents. Many people who show up are stuck in long lines or have to be turned away.

The city's community outreach manager, Lourdes Alvarez, said police have been called to keep the peace at a testing site near City Hall. And officers were needed recently when two out-of-towners were unwilling to leave the line.

"We told these ladies like 100 times, 'Hey, we are at full capacity,' and it wasn't until a police detail showed up that they were like, 'Oh, sir, we are leaving,' " Alvarez said.

In spite of the lines of people waiting for tests, Chelsea City Manager Tom Ambrosino believes we're not back in 2020, a time when much less was known about the virus.

Chelsea City Manager Tom Ambrosino, left, checks in with Communication and Community Outreach Manager Lourdes Alvarez after her visit to the COVID-19 clinic at the St. Rose School. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Chelsea City Manager Tom Ambrosino, left, checks in with Communication and Community Outreach Manager Lourdes Alvarez after her visit to the COVID-19 clinic at the St. Rose School. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

"This is a different situation," Ambrosino said. "It's troubling given the number of cases, but ... I think we're much better prepared for it."

But Ambrosino said Chelsea needs more help from the state help to expand testing — and to make the long lines a thing of the past.

This segment aired on January 11, 2022.

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Simón Rios Twitter Reporter
Simón Ríos is an award-winning bilingual reporter in WBUR's newsroom.

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