WHO declares that virus crisis is now a pandemic

A student wears a mask as he exits the metro at George Washington University in Washington, Wednesday. The World Health Organization has declared that the global coronavirus crisis is now a pandemic. Associated Press photo

The coronavirus has arrived in the Berkshires, and events are happening so quickly that it can be overwhelming. It is important to remain calm while at the same time exercising wise precautions. Government and public health agencies have huge responsibilities, and among them is to provide clear information to concerned residents here and elsewhere.

According to the state, the seven cases in Berkshire County through Wednesday cannot be traced to a specific point of origin, which offers evidence of "community spread." This "Berkshire issue," as Gov. Baker referred to it Tuesday, obviously concerns state public health officials. While Berkshire Health Systems declined to say how many employees were under quarantine due to exposure to the virus, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Nurses Association said there were 70 — 54 of whom are nurses. The nurses also expressed concern about nurses being asked to reuse masks, but BHS may have no choice given a shortage of them.

It is unsettling when major events such as the Divine Mercy Sunday event in Stockbridge hosted by the Marian Fathers is canceled because of concerns that the coronavirus could spread through the large crowds the event always attracts. It is disturbing to read that the North Adams mayor, Tom Bernard, has self-quarantined after being in contact with a city councilor who is in self-quarantine himself after developing minor symptoms of the virus. But these actions and other cancellations around the Berkshires are not a sign of panic, but a sign of necessary caution. Similarly, the state of emergency declared Tuesday by Gov. Baker makes it easier for him and public health officials in the state to react quickly if the virus continues to spread and other measures become necessary.

At the national level, while no one with money in the stock market is happy with the coronavirus-related downturn, recovery is unlikely to come until the pandemic is curtailed. President Trump's proposal to eliminate the payroll tax during the pandemic as a supposed economic boost won't help the people who most need it — the unemployed and those of low income — while reducing a source of needed revenue. What the White House must do is speak candidly and with one voice about the pandemic, but the president, Vice President Mike Pence who is nominally in charge of the federal response, and various health officials within the administration are sending out mixed messages as to the spread of the pandemic that only heighten people's concerns.

What people can do is follow the CDC's preventative measures to avoid becoming sick (visit cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov). Those measures include cleaning your hands often — washing for 20 seconds at least with soap and water or using a hand-sanitizer and avoiding close contact with people who are sick. The elderly and those with compromised immune systems must take extra care in keeping hands clean and avoiding large crowds or well-traveled areas.

Given the public health concerns, The Berkshire Eagle's coronavirus coverage online is not subject to the paywall so that residents can keep track of rapid developments.

Finding the balance between calm and concern isn't easy but that is what is required as the county joins the state, nation and world in confronting the pandemic. Acquiring and heeding good information may be the best way for people to find that balance.