Reps. push for state support as coronavirus ravages Williamstown nursing home

John Barrett III

WILLIAMSTOWN — Without widespread testing at Williamstown Commons, Berkshire lawmakers say a new coronavirus hot spot soon could turn into a blazing fire.

Two of the nursing home's residents died of the virus in the past 24 hours — that brought the facility's death toll to three — and 36 residents tested positive as of Thursday afternoon, according to Lisa Gaudet, who spoke on behalf of the facility.

The virus has spread rapidly since the nursing home announced its first case last week. The troubling uptick coincides with news of 18 deaths at Holyoke Soldiers' Home, which quickly drew the attention of officials statewide.

While Williamstown Commons' leadership points to state guidelines surrounding the presence of symptoms and known contact with the virus as the basis for testing, local legislators say more is needed.

"This is a case where they just have to forget this rule once and for all," said state Rep. John Barrett III, D-North Adams. "Everyone that hasn't been tested should be tested, and that includes employees, too."

Barrett said he called Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders on Thursday, urging her to do whatever must be done to allow for universal testing within the building.

A spokeswoman for Sudders pointed to a new testing program for nursing homes launched this week in partnership with the National Guard, but it was unclear how that might apply to Williamstown Commons.

Compounding that issue, said state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, is that this week's delivery of testing supplies never made it farther west than Springfield. Berkshire County has a higher rate of infection than elsewhere in Western Massachusetts, he said, and it's important that the county get the support it needs to keep the virus at bay.

"In light of the hot spots, you got to do a little bit extra," Pignatelli said. "We needed our fair share, or we could end up with a Holyoke Soldiers' Home in Williamstown."

Gaudet, communications vice president for Berkshire Healthcare Systems, which owns Williamstown Commons, said an additional 14 tests came back negative for the coronavirus and test results for seven residents are pending.

Per state guidance regarding building-level outbreaks, she said the facility began testing residents who presented even minor symptoms, but guidelines say that there should either be known contact or a symptom before a person can be tested.

Nursing home staff is working hard to stop the spread, Gaudet said, and it's hard to watch what's happening to the residents.

"These are people that we love," she said.

From pizza and candy to mental health counseling, she said, recent offerings of support have buoyed the employees.

"The community ... has been unbelievable. I can't tell you how much of a boost that is for our staff," she said, choking back tears. "They need it."

Williamstown Health Inspector Jeffrey Kennedy said it's his job to ensure that proper quarantines and medical isolation protocols are handled appropriately.

How to go about testing, he said, is a call he is not qualified to make as a registered sanitarian.

"It's going to be their call," he said. "It's going to be the doctors' and epidemiologists' call, based on their needs and what they feel they should be doing. And we at the Board of Health are just trying to keep everybody in the town healthy."

Barrett said he has seen other communities call for testing changes as facilities like Holyoke Soldiers' Home saw mounting death counts, and he asks anyone with the power to step in to do so.

"Three people have died. I think that is enough to warrant that everybody else be tested there," he said. "I saw it changed in other facilities where there were several deaths."

Pignatelli said he understands that everyone is clamoring for testing resources, but he is calling on state leaders to be proactive about areas that quickly could see death tolls rise dramatically.

"We gotta put out the brush fire before it becomes an inferno," he said.

Amanda Drane can be contacted at, @amandadrane on Twitter, and 413-464-2859.