Union questions medical staff shift from BHS North Adams satellite

Nine members of the staff at the North Adams Satellite Emergency Facility run by Berkshire Health Systems are out on quarantine. Now, BHS has redirected the emergency facility's remaining respiratory therapists to work at Berkshire Medical Center, leaving none available to provide that kind of care in North Adams.

NORTH ADAMS — Moving emergency medical staff in North Adams to Pittsfield during the fight against the new coronavirus places North County residents at risk, nurses say.

Nine members of the staff at the North Adams Satellite Emergency Facility run by Berkshire Health Systems are out on quarantine. That step was taken after at least three patients who later tested positive for COVID-19 came through the facility, according to Ruth O'Hearn, a registered nurse at the North Adams facility and a union representative with the Massachusetts Nurses Association.

Now, BHS has redirected the emergency facility's remaining respiratory therapists to work at Berkshire Medical Center, O'Hearn said, leaving none available to provide that kind of care in North Adams.

The hospital's top medical officer said in a statement to The Eagle that the North Adams facility has the resources it needs to provide proper care.

"While it is true that some of our respiratory therapists are on furlough due to potential exposure to the coronavirus, our physicians staffing the satellite emergency facility in concert with our nursing staff are well equipped to manage respiratory illness," James Lederer, chief medical officer for Berkshire Health Systems, said in the statement, in response to questions from The Eagle.

The center cares for people who need to be stabilized before traveling 35 minutes to Berkshire Medical Center.

O'Hearn counters that the North Adams staff can't properly treat people coming in with coronavirus-related respiratory issues, overdose and stroke without a respiratory therapist on-site.

"When you're missing that person to protect the airway, it's not safe," O'Hearn said.

As the coronavirus pandemic reaches Berkshire County, the hospital network has struggled to maintain staffing levels, a problem noted by Gov. Charlie Baker and state Rep. John Barrett III, D-North Adams.

The Massachusetts Nurses Association said last week that 70 Berkshire Medical Center staff were out on quarantine after exposure. Fairview Hospital also has medical professionals in quarantine.

Nine people in the Berkshires have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. Three people have tested positive in Pittsfield, three in North Adams, and one each in Clarksburg, Otis and Great Barrington.

Barrett said Berkshire Health faces quarantine-related staff shortages throughout the county and has been hiring traveling nurses to provide additional help.

Barrett said residents of North County should not conclude that the local facility, created after the closing of North Adams Regional Hospital six years ago, is in jeopardy.

"That is pure talk, and it's not going to happen," Barrett said, adding that he is in regular contact with Berkshire Health Systems and with members of Baker's administration to ensure that the satellite facility in North Adams has the resources it needs to remain in operation.

Still, O'Hearn said the facility went without a respiratory therapist Friday and Saturday.

"In the event of a code, they are the difference between life and death," she wrote in a letter to hospital leaders. In his statement, Lederer indicated that the facility's staff is able to handle care needed by patients in respiratory distress.

A respiratory therapist's main job, O'Hearn said, is to protect a person's airway, removing blockages, suctioning, clearing vomit and aspiration and placing patients on ventilators.

She said the two nurses on staff often are mixing medications because there is no pharmacist at the facility, or else drawing labs and taking scans, stretching the staff's ability to provide care.

While they perform those duties, a doctor and the respiratory therapist normally remain bedside, O'Hearn said. Without the respiratory therapist present, a gap emerges, she said.

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