A little US city, battered by the virus, tells its stories

Virus_Outbreak_One_Little_City_95677 Israel De La Rosa, left, greets Rodrigo Hernandez, as they see each other for the first time in a year for the first pick-up soccer game since the pandemic began in Central Falls, R.I., Sunday, March 21, 2021. De La Rosa, who had a mild case of COVID-19, scoffed at the false rumors about the vaccine, that it has tracking chips, for example, or causes infertility in women. "People are always going to talk," he said. "COVID has come to stay. That's why everybody has to get a vaccine," said De La Rosa who has been looking forward to the first game with his friends. "That's why I never even thought about not doing it."
Virus_Outbreak_One_Little_City_11436 A man holds a sign which reads, "Jesus Loves U" at an intersection as Ryan Bradley, right, a firefighter and the city's emergency medical services coordinator, rides by in an ambulance in Central Falls, R.I., Monday, March 29, 2021. Bradley's family, French-Canadian immigrants on one side and Irish on the other, goes back in Central Falls for generations. He's proud of the city's long immigrant tradition. "It's one thing I loved about Central Falls growing up here: It's the best best place to learn about the world without having to travel very far."
Virus_Outbreak_One_Little_City_57405 Karen Gourd, right, follows her boyfriend, Frank, as he carefully walks down the stairs while recovering in their apartment from COVID-19, Friday, Feb. 26, 2021, in Central Falls, R.I. Gourd, who lives above her father's Central Falls funeral home, saw COVID-19 nearly kill Frank. Because of pandemic rules, she had to drop him off outside the hospital when he began to have serious breathing problems. "He opened the car door and his lips were blue," from lack of oxygen. "Like you ate a blue Popsicle." Frank, who spent weeks in the hospital, enduring everything from hallucinations to pneumonia, came home physically and emotionally battered. "It's like learning to live with a whole new person," she said. "He's not the same guy. Not in a bad way or a good way. He's just different. I want my old crazy world back."
Virus_Outbreak_One_Little_City_87018 Teacher Tayla Lambert, right, greets one of her new students, Maria Paz Arenas, 5, as her mother, Rosa Rodriguez, drops her off for the first time as their school, The Learning Community, reopens for in-person learning after it closed for the pandemic a year ago, in Central Falls, R.I., Monday, March 29, 2021.
Virus_Outbreak_One_Little_City_41205 Easter egg baskets are lined up to be handed out at an outdoor celebration in Central Falls, R.I., Saturday, April 3, 2021. The city's mayor, Maria Rivera, sees hope in the apartments that are no longer boarded up, and the developers who look at the old mills and dream of high-ceilinged condos and exposed brick walls. She's proud of a vaccination program that was among the most aggressive in the country, with city-paid health ambassadors going door to door and stopping people on the streets, lecturing them about masks and pressing them to get vaccinated. "This place is changing."
Virus_Outbreak_One_Little_City_56883 Marion Dobosz, holds his granddaughter Sophia, 3, at the baptism of her 4-month-old sister, Olivia, right, during a service in Polish at St. Joseph's Church in Central Falls, R.I., Sunday, April 4, 2021. Dobosz, lost his brother and sister-in-law within a week of each other to COVID-19. The family had put off the baptism until more of them could get vaccinated and it felt safer to gather.
Virus_Outbreak_One_Little_City_82488 Natalia, left, and Chris Dobosz, stand with their 4-month-old daughter, Olivia, 3-year-old daughter, Sophia, bottom, and Chris' father, Marion Dobosz, right, at Olivia's baptism during a service in Polish by the Rev. Dariusz Jonczyk at St. Joseph's Church in Central Falls, R.I., Sunday, April 4, 2021. The couple lost their uncle and his wife within a week of each other to COVID-19. They had put off the baptism until more of the family could get vaccinated and it felt safer to gather. Jonczyk says he lost 22 members of his congregation to the virus.
Virus_Outbreak_One_Little_City_10988 Gilda Hernandez visits the grave of her mother, Maria Cristina Pineda, who died of COVID-19, as she prays with her husband, Mario, right, and sons, Christian, 12, left, and Angel, 8, at a cemetery in East Providence, R.I., Sunday, May 2, 2021. Pineda, of Guatemala, who had spent more than 20 years working as a babysitter in New York, came to Central Falls 14 years ago and moved in with the family. When the virus began to spread her mother became terrified of going to the hospital, seeing it as a place where people went to die. Even when she became sick and even when she stopped eating, she refused to be hospitalized: "She kept saying she felt fine." She only agreed to be hospitalized after a nurse came to the house and found her oxygen levels dangerously low. Gilda dropped her off. "I gave her a hug and that was the last time I saw her."
Virus_Outbreak_One_Little_City_36262 John McCarthy's photo and guitar are displayed as his wife, Christine, stands in their living room on the first Easter without him, Sunday, April 4, 2021, at their home in Lincoln, R.I. John died of complications of COVID-19 on New Year's Day. After nearly early 40 years of marriage he'd still sing to her. He'd sit on the bed, lean over his acoustic guitar, and his voice would fill the room. Sticking mostly to a couple Beatles' classics, they now echo with pain., "A love like ours, Could never die, As long as I, Have you near me." The couple grew up in Central Falls. The poorest and smallest city in the nation's smallest state, is also among the hardest hit there by COVID-19. It's a place where conversations regularly stumble into heartache.
Virus_Outbreak_One_Little_City_93186 FILE - In this Feb. 6, 2021 file photo, Mayor Maria Rivera holds the door open for a patient after they received a vaccine at a clinic in Central Falls, R.I. When the state designated extra doses to Central Falls because it had been hit so hard, Rivera helped create an aggressive vaccination program. In late February, Central Falls had one of the highest vaccination rates in the U.S.
Virus_Outbreak_One_Little_City_52609 People line up for vaccines at a clinic at the high school in Central Falls, R.I., Saturday Feb. 20, 2021. Central Falls, the poorest and smallest city in the nation's smallest state, is also among the hardest hit by COVID-19.
Virus_Outbreak_One_Little_City_96001 Dr. Eugenio Fernandez, carries Moderna COVID-19 vaccines out of his pharmacy, Asthenis Pharmacy in Providence, R.I., to bring to a clinic he helps coordinate at Central Falls High School, Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021. After graduate school Fernandez returned to his hometown, Providence, and opened a pharmacy with a focus on health education for underserved communities. When he heard about the infection rate in Central Falls, he brought his supply of vaccines to the little city next door and helps run the vaccination program there. "It was the right thing to do," he said about his work in Central Falls. "It feels good knowing that we can help people."
Virus_Outbreak_One_Little_City_55156 Virginia Lopes, 86, front, waits with others after receiving the Moderna COVID-19 vaccination at a clinic at Central Falls High School, Saturday, Feb. 6, 2021, in Central Falls, R.I. "We're blowing everyone else out of the water," crowed Dr. Michael Fine, the city's chief health strategist. But he warned that herd immunity wouldn't come easy. "At a certain point we're going to hit the people who aren't so interested in vaccination."
Virus_Outbreak_One_Little_City_29489 Virginia Lopes, 86, thanks health ambassador Lizette Medina, left, after being walked to her front door after receiving the Moderna COVID-19 vaccination at a clinic at the high school next door to her home in Central Falls, R.I., Saturday, Feb. 6, 2021. Just as the pace of vaccination has decelerated across the United States, it has slowed even at this COVID ground zero. There has been a precipitous decline in the number of people showing up at the high school gym for vaccinations.
Virus_Outbreak_One_Little_City_41410 The shuttered Osram Sylvania lighting products plant stands in the background as health ambassadors Irma Resendiz, from right, and Jessica Lippe walk the street trying to register people for the COVID-19 vaccine in Central Falls, R.I., Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. The troubles of Central Falls extend far back, long before the coronavirus arrived: Cascading mill and factory closures in the years after World War II, starting an inexorable slide into poverty and, finally, city bankruptcy in 2011.
Virus_Outbreak_One_Little_City_72390 Pedro Diaz, center, talks with health ambassadors Kyle Cornell, left, and Maria Matos in a restaurant as they walk through the neighborhood trying to register residents for the COVID-19 vaccine in Central Falls, R.I., Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021. The city has endured repeated waves of coronavirus illness, with rates of confirmed cases that often dwarfed cities across New England.
Virus_Outbreak_One_Little_City_12066 Andres Nunes, a firefighter and EMT, checks the blood pressure of a patient while responding to an emergency call at a multi-family home in Central Falls, R.I., Monday, March 29, 2021. Nunes knew what would happen in Central Falls when coronavirus took root. He's lived here since he was 15, and graduated from Central Falls High School. His family is in the city, nearly all his friends. He was born in Colombia, and knows what life is like here for many immigrants. It's an ideal place for the virus to spread.
Virus_Outbreak_One_Little_City_53626 Ryan Bradley, a firefighter and the city's emergency medical services coordinator, responds to an emergency call in Central Falls, R.I., Monday, March 29, 2021. Bradley said COVID-19 descended on Central Falls like a nightmare. "Our numbers were insane at some points," he said. "It got to the point where we treated everything as COVID... But with what we were per-capita in the city, basically everything was COVID anyway."
Virus_Outbreak_One_Little_City_16830 Christine McCarthy, 65, is reflected in a mirror looking up toward a photo of her husband, John, above their bed at their home in Lincoln, R.I., Friday, April 2, 2021. John died of complications of COVID-19 on New Year's Day. It was hard not to think about what might have been if he had survived long enough for a vaccination. "If he had only gotten through those last weeks," McCarthy said, her voice trailing off.
Virus_Outbreak_One_Little_City_16945 Melissa Brousseau puts on her uniform for her job at a detention facility Friday, March 12, 2021, in her apartment in Central Falls, R.I. Brousseau has been near the frontlines of the pandemic since the start, first as an emergency medical technician and then as a corrections officer at a high-security detention facility holding federal prisoners. "I have seen this from the beginning to - I wouldn't say the bitter end, because I don't think it's going anywhere unfortunately. In January, her mother Anna Brousseau died of COVID-19. It was hard on Brousseau, who was close to her mother, a very social woman deeply focused on her family. Because of pandemic rules, her mother could have only limited contact with relatives while she was in the hospital, and the family also couldn't hold a funeral wake for her after she died. "Basically, she didn't pass away the way she wanted. She didn't get the funeral that she wanted."
Virus_Outbreak_One_Little_City_06812 A child plays a video game inside an apartment in Central Falls, R.I., Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021. In late February, Central Falls had one of the highest vaccination rates in the U.S.
Virus_Outbreak_One_Little_City_69467 Mauricio Pedroza, of Guatemala, holds his daughter, Karmen, 1, in their home in Central Falls, R.I., Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021. Pedroza has two jobs: a store janitor in the mornings, and a forklift operator at a warehouse in the evenings. As the virus began sweeping through the city, the family went into a hard lockdown. They retreated into their apartment and stopped seeing family. Pedroza was scared, constantly watching news reports and social media rumors. Work became terrifying. He rarely went out. A few days after Christmas, he began feeling sick: exhausted, sore throat, headache. Then his wife got it. Then Karmen.
Virus_Outbreak_One_Little_City_00299 Multi-family homes stand close together in Central Falls, R.I., Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. Central Falls is crowded, 20,000 people in 1.3 square miles. Buildings are so close together that you can often lean out the window of one apartment and touch the one next door.
Virus_Outbreak_One_Little_City_30327 Utility lines to multi-family homes criss-cross the sky above health ambassador Kyle Cornell, left, and Maria Matos, hidden, as they walk through the neighborhood trying to register residents for the COVID-19 vaccine in Central Falls, R.I., Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021. The city is filled with street after street of triple deckers, narrow three-story apartment buildings ubiquitous in working-class Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Those apartments are often full to bursting, with parents, grandparents, children, cousins and friends often crowded together.
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CENTRAL FALLS, R.I. (AP) — The beleaguered people of Central Falls moved quickly through the high school gym’s injection stations and then to rest on dozens of metal folding chairs, borrowed from the Knights of Columbus.

Immunity was at hand, but no one was celebrating.

Central Falls — the poorest and smallest city in the nation’s smallest state — is also among the hardest hit by COVID-19. Sorrow reaches across the city: The dead husband. The mother who came from Guatemala in search of a better life, only to die in a new land. The Polish priest who buried parishioner after parishioner.

The city has endured repeated waves of illness, with rates of confirmed cases that often dwarfed cities across New England.

Firefighter Andres Nunes knew what would happen in Central Falls when coronavirus took root. He’s lived here since he was 15, and graduated from Central Falls High School. His family is in the city, nearly all his friends. He was born in Colombia, and knows what life is like here for many immigrants.

It’s an ideal place for the virus to spread.

Central Falls is crowded — 20,000 people in 1.3 square miles — and filled with street after street of triple deckers, narrow three-story apartment buildings. Those apartments are often full to bursting, with parents, grandparents, children, cousins and friends often crowded together.

Then there are the job realities.

Central Falls is a deeply working-class city, a place of janitors, warehouse workers, cashiers and others who can’t work from home. With a virus that disproportionately hits the poor, more than 30% of the city lives below the poverty line.

Nunes recalled when he first realized that the coronavirus would catastrophic. In March 2020 his crew was called to a two-bedroom apartment packed with humanity, packed with stuff. Clothes and sheets and blankets were piled in the living room. The kitchen table was shoved aside to create more space. There weren’t enough beds, so at least one person was sleeping on the sofa.

Seven or eight people from an extended family were living in the apartment, Nunes said. Five were sick. Symptoms ranged across the coronavirus spectrum: Body pain, headaches, coughing.

The family, immigrants from Guatemala who didn’t speak English, refused to go to the hospital unless they all could go. That was impossible because of the hospital’s coronavirus restrictions. Because no one was in immediate danger, the medical crews left information on COVID-19 tests, and what to do if anyone got sicker.

“That was when we realized we had something big,” Nunes said.

Fear of the disease spread as fast as the virus itself. Marcelina Hernandez, Mauricio Pedroza and their four kids quickly hunkered down.

Pedroza — a store janitor in the mornings, and a forklift operator at a warehouse in the evenings — lost a few weeks of work as the city’s unemployment rate rose to 20%.

He left the house when he had work, but otherwise he and the family went into a hard lockdown. In a culture where social distancing from relatives can seem like a betrayal, they retreated into their apartment and stopped seeing family for months.

Still, a few days after Christmas, he began feeling sick: exhausted, sore throat, headache. Then Hernandez got it. Then the baby.

The next few weeks were a blur. New Year’s, a big holiday for the extended family, was just food dropped off at the bottom of the stairs. They couldn’t taste it.

In the end they were lucky. Both were sick for just a couple weeks. Neither had to go to the hospital.

“I don’t know when it will be normal,” Hernandez said, as the baby started to squall. “Someday, I hope.”

Mayor Maria Rivera is determined to bring that day closer. When the state designated extra doses to Central Falls because it had been hit so hard, Rivera helped create an aggressive vaccination program.

By late February, Central Falls had one of the highest vaccination rates in the U.S.

“We’re blowing everyone else out of the water,” crowed Dr. Michael Fine, the city’s chief health strategist. But he warned that herd immunity wouldn’t come easy. “At a certain point we’re going to hit the people who aren’t so interested in vaccination.”

Which is exactly what has happened.

But for those who lined up at the high school on a dreary Saturday morning, the terrors of the last year were all the impetus they needed to get a vaccination.

Off to the side, sitting almost beneath the basketball hoop, was Christine McCarthy. McCarthy was relieved to get her shot. She’s 65, has diabetes and knows what COVID-19 could do to her.

But mostly she wanted to talk about her husband, John, a retired carpet installer, and how after nearly 40 years of marriage — after three children, some tough financial years and too many illnesses — he’d still sing to her. He’d sit on the bed, lean over his acoustic guitar, and his voice would fill the room. Sometimes it was Steely Dan. Sometimes Soul Asylum.

But in 2020 he mostly stuck to a couple Beatles’ classics.

“A love like ours

Could never die

As long as I

Have you near me.”

John’s health deteriorated at year’s end. His breathing was labored; when Christine took him to the hospital, there were lines to enter the emergency room, and he said he wanted to go home.

Hours later, feeling even worse, he told her to call an ambulance.

He tested positive for COVID-19. On New Year’s Day, the doctors called to say John’s medical troubles were overwhelming: kidney failure, pneumonia, internal bleeding, blood clots, brain damage.

“I think it’s time we say goodbye,” she told their children. “So they went and they got the chaplain. And the chaplain did his thing.”

“Then they unplugged him.”

On Jan. 1, at 9:39 p.m., John McCarthy died of complications of COVID-19.

“That’s my story,” she said, choking back tears. “Aren’t you glad you came to talk to me?”

Copyright © 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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