Cambridge Police officers hand out masks Thursday at the Frank J. Manning Apartments near Central Square. (Photo: Cambridge Housing Authority via Twitter)

At least 25 public housing tenants have tested positive for Covid-19 and six have died – but public housing managers have no way of knowing the full story. Agencies such as the Cambridge Housing Authority don’t get notified of positive test results, and even of deaths, unless tenants disclose it. That leaves it at a disadvantage “in this battle against an invisible enemy,” CHA executive director Michael Johnston said Friday.

Nine days ago, there were 16 cases and no deaths known to the Authority, according to Johnston’s report to commissioners at their April 22 meeting. The Authority learned of four of the six deaths it now knows about on its own; there was no disclosure, Johnston said.

The deaths, if accurate, would be almost half the number of Cambridge residents outside nursing homes who have died of Covid-19, a strikingly high proportion. As of Friday, the total number was 13.

The Cambridge Public Health Department gets information about all cases and deaths from the state health department. In most but not all cases there’s an address, so the department would know whether the person lives in public housing. The department can’t notify the CHA or any housing manager or landlord about infected tenants or deaths because of privacy laws and other rules, spokeswoman Susan Feinberg has said.

Taking steps for safety

Johnston said the 25 public housing tenants who have tested positive are split almost evenly between those in family developments and in sites for people over 60 and younger disabled tenants. He declined to disclose the individual buildings. The authority oversees about 3,000 apartments, about half for elderly or disabled households and half for families. Ten of the 25 people who have tested positive still have an active infection, Johnston said.

The Authority has canceled activities in its senior housing developments, urged all tenants to stay home and practice social distancing, and has increased cleaning of its developments, especially those housing elderly and disabled tenants. Johnston said CHA has emphasized the message that “you have to assume that someone living in your building, on your floor or even a neighbor is infected, which means social distancing, wearing a mask when outside of your apartment and following [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] protocols with respect to washing, washing, washing.”

CHA also distributed 10,000 masks to its elderly tenants, buying some and getting donations from the Department of Public Works, police, firefighters and Pro-EMS. It gave out eight masks to each household in two shipments, enough to last four weeks.

Tenants at risk

It’s paradoxical that Authority and the public health department can’t exchange information on cases. The health department is trying to target prevention efforts to black residents after reporting that racial and ethnic data show black people in Cambridge getting Covid-19 at three times the rate of white residents, and CHA developments house far more black residents than the proportion in the city as a whole.

Most CHA tenants also earn less than half the city’s median income, and a substantial number are below 30 percent of the median; Chief Public Health Officer Claude Jacob told the City Council on Monday that black residents face increased risk of infection because they’re more likely to be low-paid frontline workers who cannot work from home.

A 2014 report by the health department said half of families living in poverty resided in six census tracts in North Cambridge, the Port, East Cambridge and Cambridge Highlands – neighborhoods with many of the city’s public housing developments.

Data by ZIP code

ZIP code data being reported by the health department identifies 02141, which includes East Cambridge and Wellington-Harrington, as having the highest infection rate in the city: 66 cases per 10,000 population as of Friday. That area has three CHA elderly/disabled developments and one family development.

The health department has not responded to requests to explain why residents in East Cambridge appear to have a higher risk of infection than people living in other ZIP codes. As of Friday, 19 of 509 positive cases among residents living outside nursing homes – the data used in the ZIP code maps – did not include addresses, so those cases were not included.

The department has also said in notes to its data reports that infection rates in ZIP codes 02139 and 02138 may be artificially low because thousands of students at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology moved out of the city when their campuses closed, but are still included in population estimates for those areas. Case rates are calculated by dividing the number of positive cases by the population, so a higher population estimate without more cases will result in a lower case rate.

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