A senior resident finds “a mixed bag of responses” to coronavirus at the Cambridge Housing Authority’s LBJ Apartments on Erie Street in Cambridgeport. (Photo: Google)

Almost 1,000 households in Cambridge live in low-income public housing developments reserved mostly for tenants over 60, the most concentrated housing for seniors in the city. In mid-March, the Cambridge Housing Authority stepped up cleaning, closed community rooms, canceled communal meals and other events, stopped face-to-face communication by staff and discouraged visitors, all to keep Covid-19 out of those complexes.

It may have worked so far. As of Wednesday, the housing agency knew of eight tenants with coronavirus, only two of them in elderly/disabled developments. There could be more; these cases were reported by the tenants and there is no requirement for tenants or any agency to notify the authority of an infection. Seven employees have also been in quarantine; two of them have ended their isolation period, said CHA executive director Michael Johnston.

The isolation comes at a cost. “We have a population in elderly/disabled housing that is different than before,” Johnston said at a March 25 meeting of commissioners. “Folks don’t have that next place to go. There’s no family; they’re getting pushed to stay longer and longer. They’re much more frail, with dementia and memory impairments.”

Implying that he could have eliminated even more contact with residents, Johnston said: “I felt that to shut off all access would shut off any support they have.” But the restrictions so far have been enough to reduce social activity, said Kevin Braga, director of operations. He said that during his visits to the buildings, “I have not seen nearly the number of residents out and about and around the buildings that I typically would see. Residents are taking this very seriously and are only leaving their units when it is essential to do so.”

“A mixed bag”

Two residents gave a more nuanced picture. “There’s been a mixed bag of responses,” from “real fear to kind of lackadaisical,” said Alexander Herwitz, head of the tenant council at LBJ Apartments on Erie Street in Cambridgeport. On the one hand, “everyone is sort of hunkered down,” but when Herwitz went to collect his mail from the mail room, “nobody had any gloves or mask, and one person brushed right into me,”

Herwitz does wear a mask and gloves, because of his medical history and age, he said, but doubts many tenants have or could get such equipment – and wonders how informed they are, given the many languages spoken in the development. The tenant council considered buying masks for residents, but couldn’t afford the cost, he said. One vendor on Amazon was charging $110 for shipping, he said.

CHA workers have turned the chairs in the lobby upside down to discourage gathering, Herwitz said. A service coordinator from Cascap, the nonprofit agency that provides the social work staff to housing authority elderly developments, did a “wellness check” with residents two and a half weeks ago but has not repeated it, he said. Johnston said at the agency’s Wednesday board meeting that Cascap coordinators were “reaching out to people they know have problems” and added: “I know it’s not 100 percent, but we are cognizant” of the problems.

Self-isolating – but not for virus

Another tenant at an elderly development, who didn’t want to give his name or say where he lived, said he hadn’t noticed much change since CHA urged tenants to stay inside and keep away from each other when leaving their apartments. There usually isn’t much contact between residents, he said. “Most people stay in their units … I haven’t noticed much difference at all.”

The man, who said he is 60, did notice that when Meals on Wheels, the food service, delivers to him now, the worker will ring his bell from downstairs, wait for him to come down and go outside, then leaves the meal on the sidewalk without handing it to him, he said. Last week she wore a mask, the man said.

The man said he does not miss the communal meals and activities at his building, because he stopped attending them last fall. “The person in charge was handing out presents to everyone at the Christmas party and she didn’t give me one, so I decided I wouldn’t go anymore,” he said.

He believes that “the media and the Democrats are going crazy” about the virus and “more people have died from the flu,” he said. Yet he is stocking up on toilet paper; he bought six rolls at a convenience store on Cambridge Street last week and now has 17. And he washes his hands assiduously. “When I was about 3 years old, my mother taught me to wash my hands. I’ve always been a germaphobe.”

Braga said that although tenants can’t see managers in person, staff is available by email and telephone. A 2017 survey found that 65 percent of residents pay for Internet service; others said they connect online via cellphone; residents communicated to staff by email before the shutdown, he said.

Johnston said CHA is offering help to the tenants who are infected and self-isolating in their apartments. “We are asking what can we do for you” and performing services such as taking out the trash, delivering food to the door and bringing laundry to a service, he said. The authority has also notified workers who might have been in contact with the residents.

Disinfecting more

CHA is doing more disinfection work at senior developments, and now starting at family developments. The agency, like many others, is having difficulty finding supplies such as wipes, masks and hand sanitizer. “Some people don’t like the smell [of the disinfectant],” Johnston said, “but I can’t stop disinfecting our elderly/disabled buildings and now we’re starting our family buildings. We have to get what we can get.”

The tension persists between the effort to keep residents free from the virus and deal with the suffering of isolation. At Wednesday’s board meeting, commissioner and tenant representative Virginia Bergland asked: “How do you protect residents from others who aren’t aware? They’re lonely.”

Johnston said managers and Cascap coordinators “have been reaching out to all the residents … we’re at eight [infected residents] now. How do we keep it at eight for the next two weeks?” he said.