Tiny Central Falls, battered by the virus, tells its stories

GILDA HERNANDEZ visits the grave of her mother, Maria Cristina Pineda, who died of COVID-19, as she prays with family at a cemetery in East Providence on May 2. Pineda, of Guatemala, who had spent more than 20 years working as a babysitter in New York, came to Central Falls 14 years ago. (AP PHOTO/David Goldman)

CENTRAL FALLS (AP) — The beleaguered people of this tiny city 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.

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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?”

(Distributed by The Associated Press)

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