Census efforts stricken by virus outbreak, as Berkshire and state cases rise

Staff members move an endoscopy equipment sterilization machine Wednesday from the endoscopy unit at Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield to the Crane Center, a separate building on the Berkshire Health Systems property, where patients will temporarily undergo all upcoming necessary outpatient endoscopies. The five endoscopy rooms located at the hospital will be converted to negative-pressure isolation rooms to accommodate the expected surge in patien

PITTSFIELD — While Berkshire Health Systems gets rolling with faster coronavirus testing, field operations for the county's census were suspended Wednesday, which could result in losses in money and representation in the Berkshires.

Much of the county's population tends to respond better to face-to-face contact with census workers, according to Mark Malloy, a planner with the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission who is spearheading the local census.

"Twenty to 25 percent of our households do not fill out the census initially," Malloy said. "And that requires that door-to-door interaction."

While census work continues online, he said, much of the work paused for at least two weeks in order to inhibit the spread of coronavirus.

The number of Berkshire residents to test positive for the new coronavirus rose to 17 on Wednesday, according to the state's Health Department.

That number is up from 14 on Tuesday. Statewide, the numbers grew to 256 Wednesday, up from 218 on Tuesday.

Berkshire County has the highest concentration of cases outside of eastern Massachusetts. There are 10 cases in Worcester County, two in Hampden County, one in Franklin County, and none in Hampshire County.

Legislators are working together to clear a path for onsite coronavirus testing at Berkshire Medical Center, and state Rep. John Barrett III, D-North Adams, said Tuesday that federal approvals could come "any day now." There were no updates on that front Wednesday.

As for the drive-through testing operation behind the Pittsfield hospital, testing expanded beyond the hospital network Wednesday to some of the county's first responders.

Michael Leary, media relations director for Berkshire Health Systems, said the hospital hopes to roll that service out to the general public in the days to come.

"We developed a process that we are hoping is fast and efficient for those needing to be tested," he said, "so that we can process as many as possible, with appropriate precautions."

Meantime, hospital leaders are directing people to their hotline, available seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. at 855-262-5465. The hotline received 244 calls on Tuesday, Leary said.

"It's important for people to know that if you are not symptomatic, a test would not be recommended and might lead to a false sense of security," he added.

The census kicked off last week after a year of planning, and if virtual advocacy efforts do not bear fruit, the county stands to lose funding and representation. Over the next two weeks, Malloy said workers had planned to do outreach in rural areas of the county, as well as reach out to the county's college students.

Malloy urges Berkshire residents to respond to forms that have already been delivered by mail, or to visit my2020census.gov to fill out the form. People can also call toll free at 844-330-2020.

"If you fill it out one of those ways you won't have someone coming to your door," he said. "Because obviously that's an exposure issue that everyone is concerned about."

Many county residents are considered among the census staff's hard to count communities, he said, and these communities tend to need a more personal touch. To reach them, Malloy said census workers go door to door, and they help people fill out forms in public spaces like libraries, town halls and senior centers. "Many of those are closed so we've had to stop that," he said.

Between $2,500 and $3,000 per person per year in federal dollars funnels into the community based on census counts, Malloy said. At this rate, the county's count could miss hundreds of people, and "that's a lot of money that won't be coming in."

"There's so many programs that are impacted by the census numbers," he said. "It's the population that doesn't respond that tends to be the recipients of those funds. They're only hurting themselves."

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