Despite a slew of deaths early in the pandemic, new inspections required by the state show the spread of the coronavirus largely under control in Berkshire County nursing homes.
The state Department of Public Health last month began inspecting facilities every two weeks and reporting the results on its website. Rigorous safety policies, like keeping out visitors, also appear to be working, along with state-mandated universal testing of staff and residents.
But, the quickly rising death toll last month at Williamstown Commons Nursing and Rehabilitation Center shot fear through the county. Soon after, Fairview Commons Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Great Barrington registered four deaths.
Loved ones would panic when they received the dreaded phone call that a facility had even one resident who had symptoms and tested positive.
"I felt like I had been hit by a train," said Gary Conger, whose wife has lived at Timberlyn Heights Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Great Barrington for seven years. "It took the wind out of me because my wife is my beloved and the definition of a beloved is that their life means more to you than your own."
Old age and underlying medical conditions make residents especially vulnerable to fatal infections. As of Wednesday, those 80 and older account for 4,472 of the state's 7,152 deaths. At long-term care facilities across the state, 21,785 residents and workers have been infected, and 4,447 have died.
Nationwide, nursing homes suffered one-third to one-half of all coronavirus deaths, according to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation. In Massachusetts, the rate is 61 percent.
As April began, Berkshire County nursing homes, along with local and state officials, scrambled to contain the infected amid test kit shortages and the general unpreparedness seen nationwide.
"I'm still angry about what I've seen," said Rep. John Barrett III, D-North Adams, referring to what he believes was a sluggish response by the DPH.
Now, he says he is grateful to Gov. Charlie Baker for rushing test kits to Williamstown. Barrett had called agency officials March 26. With one death at Williamstown, he warned that "all hell is about to break loose" there and at nursing homes statewide.
He was right. Two days later, 11 deaths were reported at the state-run Holyoke Soldiers Home for veterans, where the toll eventually reached 76 amid a larger scandal over which an investigation is underway.
Contained — for now
In all, 24 residents at Williamstown Commons died, and many more were sickened. Toward the end of May, 53 out of the 96 residents were positive for COVID-19, with all but three "considered recovered," according to Lisa Gaudet, vice president of communications at Berkshire Healthcare Systems, which runs Williamstown and Fairview, and four other facilities in the county.
Gaudet said that of those who tested positive, 11 had been admitted to the facility, since the state designated it a place where those infected can recover.
All 22 staff who tested positive are better, she said.
At Fairview, of 11 residents who tested positive since the start of the pandemic, seven have recovered, as have four staff, Gaudet said. The facility has 103 residents.
Some of the company's resident deaths happened at a hospital, confusing official reporting of the fatality data.
The company has not had any coronavirus infections at its other four locations.
And now the facilities are guarding against further infection.
"They know it can happen at any moment because the virus is so insidious," Gaudet said.
The DPH eventually ordered baseline testing for 90 percent of staff and residents of nursing facilities tested for the virus, and that testing deadline was May 25.
Most county nursing homes went largely unscathed.
"We're either blessed or fortunate or both," said George Mercier, administrator at Mount Carmel Care Center in Lenox.
One nurse there tested positive, was out for 21 days and then was cleared for return, he said.
At Timberlyn Heights, one resident tested positive and has since recovered, said Christopher Duncan, director of operations for parent company Bear Mountain Health Care.
The other nursing homes, rest homes and skilled nursing facilities in the county were not on the state's list of those with infections, as of May 26.
New DPH systems to shield facilities will help keep the virus at bay, say nursing home officials. After first responders, nursing homes have received the bulk of masks and other personal protection equipment issued by the state.
On April 27, the DPH announced nursing home inspections every two weeks to expose vulnerabilities. The audit program checks on 28 ways of controlling infections, including proper use of protective gear and management of residents who have symptoms.
The most recent audit, for the weeks from May 4 to May 15, found four facilities in the Berkshires that were "not in adherence." All have since rectified the problems. [See companion story.] But, while the virus is kept out, so are family and friends.
The state has plans in the works to allow in-person visits once again, with Baker last week noting the "psychological benefit" of visits, but also the complexity.
In the meantime, residents are using FaceTime and Skype to connect with loved ones, especially since the flow of notes and cards to residents has slowed amid a sort of pandemic weariness, Gaudet said.
"When all this was fresh, people were more aware that our residents were all alone," she added. "Now, we're moving towards a new normal. That loneliness and distancing is still hard for them."
Mount Carmel has begun careful courtyard meetups, while still allowing window visits.
"They tromp around in our flower beds, but that's fine," Mercier said, noting that, on Tuesday, he received a memo from the DPH about the agency beginning to loosen restrictions and allow outdoor visits.
"I think all of us are a little squirrelly from being inside," he said. "It definitely affects these folks."
Heather Bellow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.