There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on underserved communities. From poverty, to job and food insecurity, to housing instability, many challenges that have been historically prevalent in low-resourced communities have been greatly exacerbated by the COVID pandemic.

In a three-part series, Massachusetts General Hospital explores the frontline efforts of three community coalitions supported by Mass General’s Center for Community Health Improvement (CCHI)—in Chelsea, Revere and Charlestown, all of which are places where residents have been severely impacted by the virus. 

The Healthy Chelsea Coalition was established in 2009, and this longstanding partnership with Chelsea city officials, residents and community leaders has allowed for positive actions to be taken in response to the growing health inequities in the city, particularly during the peak of COVID-19.

Chelsea, MA and Healthy Chelsea

At its inception, the Healthy Chelsea Coalition worked to address high rates of obesity. Subsequently, the coalition’s work expanded to encompass pressing community health needs including substance use disorders, trauma and mental health, youth substance use prevention and food insecurity. With the pandemic, the issues of hunger and mental health became paramount.

While rates of unemployment were already high, they skyrocketed as a result of the pandemic. "The unemployment rate in Chelsea is now 24%, which is one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, if not the highest," says Ronald Fishman, community coordinator at the Healthy Chelsea Coalition.

The Chelsea Economy in 2020

The Chelsea community was hit particularly hard by COVID-19. Last spring, infections were on par with New York City and much higher than neighboring Boston, resulting in even greater challenges for residents that included:

  • Food insecurity—already an issue that existed pre-pandemic, it is now even more dire and urgent than ever before
  • Lack of public benefits—two-thirds of the Chelsea population is Latinx, and some residents have an undocumented immigration status; while undocumented workers may contribute to social security, they do not receive public benefits, such as stimulus checks
  • Job insecurity—many people in the Chelsea community work service jobs in the food and hospitality industries; during the pandemic, many of these jobs disappeared, leaving people unemployed without a social safety net

Yet, Chelsea contributes mightily to the New England economy. Local homes are warmed, roads de-iced and grocery stores stocked with products that are warehoused in Chelsea, and much of its workforce is made up of blue collar, essential workers. "Boston hums because the residents of Chelsea make everything work," says Fishman.

There's fear of the virus and fear of accessing any services because of public charge. It's a perfect storm of anxiety, depression and isolation.

Jennifer Kelly, LCSW
Director, Healthy Chelsea

As people across the country deal with anxiety, stress and feelings of isolation related to the pandemic and subsequent economic crisis, many people in Chelsea are experiencing similar stressors. On top of that can be a lack of basic human needs such as food and shelter. And, in many instances, people are afraid.

"There's fear of the virus and fear of accessing any services because of public charge," says Jennifer Kelly, LCSW, director of Healthy Chelsea. "It's a perfect storm of anxiety, depression and isolation."

She explains that a great deal of the fear is related to the public charge rule that states if non-citizens access services, such as Section 8 housing, Medicare and SNAP benefits (food stamps), it hinders their ability to move toward citizenship. She says that many people are too afraid to pursue any benefits, regardless of whether they are subject to the public charge or not.

Community Problem Solving

Kelly says that not all services are subject to the public charge. For example, food resources that are free for anyone, without consequence, include:

  • The national Women, Infants, & Children (WIC) Nutrition Program
  • Chelsea Eats, a new debit card program offered by the city
  • Municipal programs
  • Community pantries and kitchens

Many organizations have come together in Chelsea to provide food and essential supplies to anyone in the community who needs help. Healthy Chelsea is working tirelessly to make sure that residents are aware of food resources, along with its long-time community partners: the City of Chelsea, the Greater Boston Food Bank, the Salvation Army, local churches and religious organizations, schools, food pantries and various agencies.

Community volunteers and coalition staff have come together to coordinate food distribution during the pandemic. Regional agencies brought in rescued donated food from grocery stores and restaurants to the various pantries. Over 350 tons of food was delivered to the city’s food distribution center from the Greater Boston Food Bank as a child pantry of MGH Chelsea HealthCare’s Food for Families pantry. Volunteers worked through the summer heat to pack boxes of food to hand out and deliver to homes—even when, earlier this year, one of the major pantries had a COVID-19 scare and volunteers had to self-isolate. Instead of closing down the pantry, community members and volunteers stepped up to help.

"It was truly a collaborative effort to feed as many families as possible," says Fishman. "A community church, the Salvation Army and the Chelsea Collaborative came to fill in all the blanks and they didn't miss a beat."