BHS to ramp up coronavirus testing as Berkshire cases rise to 14

Medical staff work inside Berkshire Medical Center’s newly constructed sample-collection site Tuesday on Seymour Street in Pittsfield, where they have begun a trial period of testing for the new coronavirus. Sample collections have begun with health workers who are exhibiting symptoms and are known to have been exposed to patients that tested positive for COVID-19 and will expand to allow members of the public exhibiting symptoms to be tested in the coming days.

PITTSFIELD — Some initiatives underway by Berkshire Health Systems could soon result in significantly more coronavirus testing.

The hospital system began experimenting with a drive-through testing operation behind Berkshire Medical Center on Monday, hospital leaders told The Eagle Tuesday. And “any day now,” hospital vendors could also receive the authorization needed for rapid onsite testing, according to state Rep. John Barrett III, D-North Adams.

The number of coronavirus cases in Berkshire County increased to 14 Tuesday, up from 11 on Monday, according to the state Department of Public Health. Health professionals interviewed Tuesday said that when it comes to community spread, Berkshire County was on the commonwealth’s front lines.

“It was certainly a location where we saw early evidence of community transmission in Massachusetts,” said state epidemiologist Katie Brown. “But it’s not the only county that is seeing that.”

Statewide, the number of COVID-19 cases increased to 218 on Tuesday, compared to Monday's count of 197.

Testing at the BMC site on Seymour Street has been limited to hospital staff exposed to the virus, but hospital leaders said the plan is to smooth out the kinks and roll that service out to the public in the days to come.

Soon, Barrett said, staff at local hospitals will be able to test samples on their own machines. He said state lawmakers’ advocacy for federal approvals had finally borne fruit in Massachusetts.

“The best part is they can get the results within four hours,” Barrett said.

Dr. James Lederer, chief medical officer for BHS, said onsite testing could yield results in as few as 40 minutes.

Turnaround time for tests makes a significant difference for hospital staff working to prevent exposure.

Not everyone who is sick right now is sick with coronavirus, said Darlene Rodowicz, executive vice president of BHS. But each patient who could have the virus has to be separated and staff has to use up protective gear while interacting with them.

“While you're waiting for negative results, they’re taking up a low-pressure room,” she said.

Once BHS is able to perfect a drive-through system in Pittsfield, Lederer said the plan is to replicate it at Fairview Hospital, in Great Barrington, and at the North Adams Satellite Emergency Facility. First, the hospital has to figure out its daily testing capacity, as well as how much traffic the area can handle.

“We are in a test mode only,” he said.

While he understands the mass appeal of getting tested, Lederer said priority must be given to those with symptoms.

“Patients with minimal symptoms exist, but they shed less virus and they are a distinct minority of patients,” he said.

It’s also important to note that a person exposed to the virus won’t test positive for several days, during the incubation period.

Lederer said the hospital is undergoing a phase of “surge-capacity planning,” meaning it is making room for an influx of patients. Hospital staff are converting rooms into negative-pressure rooms for people awaiting test results, and are readying an open ward in the hospital for people who have tested positive.

Hospital leaders are looking at ways to repurpose rooms and equipment, Lederer said, noting some hospitals have contracted with hotels to help house the sick during the outbreak.

“We have to be creative in our planning, and open to things that are nontraditional,” he said.

BHS leaders told The Eagle that the first patient the hospital saw wasn’t the first person in the Berkshires to get the virus. They were simply the sickest.

“There were a number of people who had minimal symptoms, this person came into contact, got sick and came in,” Lederer said.

He said the first cases came in “before we had any notion of what was going on in our community.”

“There was ongoing transmission,” he said. “It doesn't just come out of the air.”

Asked about how many Berkshire residents had been tested to-date, Brown, the state’s epidemiologist, said the state DPH is making changes to its online reporting system so that it can better answer questions about testing volume.

“It’s certainly going to give us a whole lot more information than we have right now,” she said. “Moving forward, we will have a better way to answer that question.”

Rodowicz estimated the hospital system had tested about 70 Berkshire residents so far.

The state’s epidemiological staff has been working with Berkshire boards of health, as well as epidemiologists at BMC, to track the spread in Berkshire County, Brown said. She said they have interviewed each person to test positive, coordinated the flow of information between boards of health and hospital leaders and investigated how cases might be related.

These epidemiologists in the Berkshires have also been educating people in quarantine about how to keep themselves healthy and prevent potential exposure. “They are very busy,” she said.

Initially, the state dataset identified Berkshire Medical Center as its own category of exposure. Since last week, Brown said DPH staff worked to tease out transmission pathways that rendered that exposure category inaccurate.

“The message really is, from looking at the data … that community transmission is certainly occurring in Berkshire County.”

Amanda Drane can be contacted at, @amandadrane on Twitter, and 413-496-6296.