'Presumptive positive' coronavirus case reported at Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield

A patient at Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield is being treated for the new coronavirus, COVID-19, according to an internal email by the chief medical officer.

PITTSFIELD — An older male patient who has not traveled abroad is being treated at Berkshire Medical Center for the new coronavirus — the first reported case in Western Massachusetts.

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And now the hospital is reviewing which staff came in contact with him, and will screen them accordingly for COVID-19 and, if necessary, send them home to self-quarantine for 14 days from the time of exposure.

The state Department of Public Health confirmed Saturday that the man tested "presumptive positive" for COVID-19, which means that initial results from a test Friday were positive but that a second test is required to confirm this, according to BMC spokesman Michael Leary.

The man, who lives in Berkshire County, was not tested initially for the virus when he was admitted several days ago, because he had not traveled abroad, Leary said.

On Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention expanded its criteria for testing to include more people showing flulike and respiratory symptoms, and not just those who had traveled to countries where there is a risk of exposure.

Leary said it is unclear where the man contracted the virus. And for privacy reasons, he declined to say whether the man had family members who might have been exposed.

He also said he does not know whether other patients are being tested for the coronavirus, or whether there are any results pending.

Meanwhile, the patient is being held in an isolation room that can contain airborne pathogens.

"The patient is under the care of our infectious disease service, in a negative pressure room and is currently improving in condition," James Lederer, BMC's chief medical officer, wrote in an email obtained by The Eagle.

Lederer also addressed staff concerns about possible exposure to the virus.

"We understand that there is concern about the adequacy of Personal Protective Equipment and we have been in contact with state and national agencies who are supporting us," he wrote.

COVID-19 is a new respiratory disease that has not been seen previously in humans, according to the CDC. Reported illnesses have ranged from mild symptoms to severe illness and death.

Symptoms of this infection might appear two to 14 days after exposure and include fever, cough, shortness of breath and pneumonia.

The rapid spread of the virus has rocked financial markets, stymied global travel and threatens to affect everyday life in the United States. It has sickened more than 100,000 people worldwide and has killed more than 3,400.

And with this first reported case of coronavirus, the Berkshires now finds itself on heightened alert.

In an email to families Saturday, Pittsfield Schools Superintendent Jason McCandless said that the district has canceled or postponed all out-of-county travel for students and all overseas travel. It also is considering canceling travel within Berkshire County, if necessary.

The news comes a day after the announcement that two students had returned to Monument Valley Regional Middle School in Great Barrington last week, after traveling abroad to a country where the risk level is high. The two Dalton residents are in self-quarantine, as are two Pittsfield households.

Local officials and state legislators say they are working with the hospital and public health officials, and are poised to act quickly.

"I want to reassure the people of Pittsfield that I and internal senior leaders have been having planning sessions and we will continue to work together," said Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer, noting that these also include police, fire and school officials.

"The impact to the school community could be quite significant."

And, state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, said that the Berkshire delegation will try to cut through bureaucratic red tape to help contain a possible outbreak.

"We're trying to see if we can expedite the process to have testing sites across the state, and to make sure that personal protection equipment is available and that people are informed," she said.

Currently, the only lab in the state that can test for COVID-19 is in Boston.

BMC asks that people with cold or flulike symptoms postpone visits to the hospital until they feel better, Leary said. Anyone with severe symptoms should contact their doctor by phone before visiting an office or the emergency room.

He said the hospital also urges people to frequently wash their hands for at least 20 seconds, stay home when sick and, if symptoms worsen, to call their doctor.

And starting Sunday, BMC will have a toll-free phone line for questions and concerns about the coronavirus — 855-BMC-LINK (262-5465).

On Saturday, the entire region also had stepped up its response.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency as the number of cases in the state rose to 76, including two new cases in Saratoga County.

As of Saturday evening, 13 people in Massachusetts had tested positive for COVID-19.

Gov. Charlie Baker said Friday that the risk of the virus for the general public in Massachusetts remains low, adding that it "is not deadly for the vast majority of people who get it," but decision-makers are planning for the chance that cases could increase and for the larger risks that it might pose to the elderly or those with weakened immune systems.

State health officials said they have enough tests for the virus and have been processing about 40 to 50 a day at the state lab. They said they can get test results in 24 hours.

More than 700 Massachusetts residents have been quarantined as a precautionary measure.

But, nationwide, the problems continue to spiral.

Officials in California were deciding Saturday where to dock a cruise ship with 21 coronavirus cases aboard, and four U.S. universities canceled in-person classes, as Western countries imitate China by imposing travel controls and shutting down public events to contain the outbreak.

The Grand Princess cruise ship was waiting off San Francisco with 3,500 people aboard. Authorities want it to go to a noncommercial port for everyone aboard to be tested amid evidence that the ship was the breeding ground for a deadly cluster of 10 cases during an earlier voyage.

President Donald Trump on Friday signed an $8.3 billion measure to help tackle the coronavirus outbreak that has killed 19 people in the U.S. and infected 400. The legislation provides federal public health agencies with money for vaccines, tests and potential treatments, and helps state and local governments prepare for and respond to the threat.

Information from The Associated Press and State House News Service was included in this report.

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.