With 160 employees in quarantine, BMC taps 54 temp nurses

Berkshire Medical Center has hired more than 50 nurse specialists in a number of areas to help cover for the loss of more than 160 employees who are on now in quarantine for possible exposure to the new coronavirus.

PITTSFIELD — More than 160 employees at Berkshire Medical Center are now furloughed for quarantine after possible exposure to the new coronavirus from patients who have tested positive, according to an internal company memo obtained by The Eagle.

Through a temporary agency, BMC has hired 54 new nurses, who began arriving on Friday and who specialize in medical/surgical, intensive care and emergency services, according to the email sent to all employees on Sunday by Darlene Rodowicz, executive vice president of Berkshire Health Systems, parent company of BMC.

In addition, the company also hired three CT scan technicians, and is asking the agency for five respiratory therapists and two radiology technicians.

The quarantine period is 14 days from the time of the "last known contact with the positive COVID-19 patient."

"This safety measure has, of course, burdened our staff and our ability to provide our customary care to the community at each of our campuses," Rodowicz wrote. "We have asked some of you to take alternate assignments to meet our patient needs."

She also wrote that eight of the nine patients in the county who have tested positive were hospitalized for "a period," and many of those have since gone home or moved to a nursing facility. On Monday, the state Department of Health reported there were 11 cases in Berkshire County.

Rodowicz said a nurse call line set up for people concerned or experiencing symptoms — 855-BMC-LINK — is fielding between 50 and 200 calls per day.

Also over the weekend, the nurses union asked BHS executives for a meeting to speed communication around a number of concerns, including ways to conserve masks, suits and other personal protective equipment like powered purifying air respirators.

The hospital received more equipment from the Strategic National Stockpile late last week, Rodowicz wrote.

Yet a shortage still exists and is widespread.

Joe Markman, associate director of communications foir the Massachusetts Nurses Association, said the union has a set of recommendations that include segregating COVID-19 patients to one unit.

"That will help conserve protective equipment," he said.

The union also sent its recommendations to the state Legislature, Gov. Charlie Baker, and other officials.

The memo from Rodowicz comes just over a week after the first patients suffering from COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, began to arrive at Berkshire Medical Center amid what are also national shortages of protective equipment.

Ever since, Berkshire County grew into a hotspot outside of Eastern Massachusetts, with a total of nine confirmed cases, including at least one in which a man is still clinging to life at Berkshire Medical Center, which the company also runs.

And BMC is considered the common denominator of these cases from around the county, since all those patients were sick enough to be admitted to the hospital. Yet none had traveled abroad, fueling the mystery of the virus' path in the Berkshires.

Calling it "the Berkshire issue," Gov. Charlie Baker traveled to City Hall last week for a meeting with local officials. And on Sunday, Baker ordered more shutdowns to quell the spread.

Baker also ordered a pause in elective medical procedures, given the burden on hospitals. Markman said the union strongly supports this.

Meanwhile, BHS is pushing to expand testing, and is in continuous contact with the state Department of Public Health about this as well as staffing plans and equipment needs.

"You will be hearing more about this expanded testing capability later in the coming week," Rodowicz wrote.

She also warned that more testing will likely mean more positive results.

"We caution you not to be alarmed by that expanding number," she said.

"Because we do believe that there are individuals in our community who have contracted COVID-19 but remain undiagnosed, we have instituted strict visitation guidelines which began earlier today."

Markman said the union also wants to see triage areas for screening that are outside emergency rooms and hospitals. With nurses in protective gear, it's a tactic that will also help conserve the protective equipment, he said.

Given the shortages, Markman said lines of communication between the union's nurse leaders and management has to be strong and fast.

"If it happens quickly and consistently and accurately — that's the best way," he said. "The nurses are trying to be very proactive about how they can give their frontline perspective to make the situation better."

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