The Impact and Social Response of COVID-19 in Chelsea, Massachusetts


Chelsea was one of the hardest-hit communities by COVID-19 in Massachusetts. Chelsea was known for its weaknesses: high rates of over-crowded housing, a large immigrant and Latinx community, low-wage workers among larger systemic problems. Overlooked in public health research on Chelsea are its strengths and capacities that were activated during the pandemic to ensure residents had access to basic needs, psychological needs and even found a sense of purpose.

This doctoral project sought to understand the impact and social response to COVID-19 in Chelsea through a mixed-methods approach. This included 1) analysis of 3302 COVID-19 positive cases for Chelsea from March to August to understand the disease distribution and 2) a community impact survey among 365 participants to investigate the economic, social, and emotional impact of the pandemic. Qualitative in-depth interviews were conducted with 16 female heads-of-households to discern resilience within Chelsea families throughout the pandemic ́s devastation.

The project finds that while Chelsea was disproportionately impacted by COVID, it simultaneously activated a grass-roots, culturally driven response built on feelings of belonging, collective wellbeing, and sense of purpose.

This thesis describes how responding to a pandemic can go beyond meeting the basic needs and build a community where other, more complex levels of needs are also integrated simultaneously. I propose that for crisis relief and public health programming to be relevant and trusted by beneficiary communities, these must attend to the range of human needs in ways that make sense to them, are easily accessible, and are grounded in their values and assets.

Recommendations identified as necessary for successful implementation include:

  1. Strengthen the Public Health infrastructure of Chelsea.
  2. Integrate social protection and support services within a single wrap-around model.
  3. Focus on a harm reduction approach to COVID prevention.
  4. Ensure that programs and funding focus on building trust and participation with theChelsea community.

Understanding Chelsea ́s vulnerabilities and strengths can give public health practitioners and policymakers insight into guiding the response to COVID-19 in similar communities. It is becoming more widely accepted that response must include a strategy for addressing health inequities. These insights are relevant to other communities in the US.