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Mayor Tyer in sync with President Biden on effort to avoid COVID-19 shutdowns

Kindergartner gets COVID test

Kindergartener Brody Wilcox allows EMT student Taylor Heath to test him for COVID-19 last month at Capeless Elementary School in Pittsfield. Last week, Pittsfield rejoined the state’s “red” list of communities with a high risk for transmission of COVID-19.

PITTSFIELD — The leader of Berkshire County’s largest city agrees with President Joe Biden, who told the nation Monday that this pandemic moment, including the threat of a new coronavirus variant, is a cause for concern, but not panic.

“We’ve got to be well aware of what is happening and monitor case rates, but not panic,” Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer said. “And not go into shutdown.”

Last week, Pittsfield rejoined the state’s “red” list of communities with a high risk for transmission of COVID-19. It had not been in that category since January, and was categorized as a risk based on a 14-day average daily case rate of 51.98 per 100,000 residents. In early November, the city’s Board of Health issued a mask directive, but it stopped short of a mask mandate that can bring fines for violations.

In recent weeks, Berkshire Health Systems has seen a marked increase in the percentage of COVID-19 tests that come back positive, confirming the presence of the virus. According to numbers posted Monday, 9.5 percent of COVID-19 tests performed in conjunction with Berkshire Medical Center have been positive in the past seven days, or about 390 of the 4,111 people tested.

BHS Spokesman Michael Leary said that compares with positivity rates of about 4 percent not long ago.

In North Adams, rising case numbers have Mayor Thomas Bernard considering the possible need for a masking mandate in his city.

In the most recent two-week period tracked by the state, North Adams saw 101 newly confirmed cases. That represents one-tenth of all cases seen in the city since the pandemic began 20 months ago.

“The combination of a Thanksgiving holiday where people may have let down their guard, a new variant in the news, and increasing counts locally have me concerned and may require more serious measures such as a citywide mask mandate,” Bernard said in an email to The Eagle, in response to questions.

Like other public officials, Bernard said solutions lie in vaccinations and mask use, leaving people the key to containing transmission.

Biden plan

On Monday, in remarks at the White House, Biden said his administration is working with vaccine-makers to modify their products, including booster shots, to contend with the advent of the omicron variant that first was reported in South Africa. As of Monday, the variant had not been detected in the U.S., The New York Times reports.

“We’re throwing everything we have at this virus, tracking it from every angle,” Biden said. “I’m sparing no effort, removing all roadblocks to keep the American people safe.”

The official line remains the same: Get vaccinated, including with boosters. Wear masks indoors. Practice social distancing. Wash your hands.

Meantime, tests for COVID-19 remain available in Berkshire County, but only those people showing symptoms can expect to obtain them almost on demand. Coming out of the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, BHS reports that some people calling its hotline faced “a minor delay” in scheduling, according to Leary.

As of Monday afternoon, that backup largely had passed. People with symptoms linked to the coronavirus who called the hospital’s hotline (855-262-5465) were able to secure same-day or next-day appointments for tests.

But, people who do not have COVID-19 symptoms can face longer waits, Leary said. BHS has been averaging 650 calls a day to its hotline for the last few weeks, both for help with tests and scheduling vaccines and boosters.

“We’re seeing the interest is peaking again among people who rightfully think they may be exposed,” he said. “There certainly is a lot of COVID going around.”

People without symptoms are able to use an online portal but may find that test dates are “a few days out,” Leary said. “We want to avoid the ‘I need to get a test every day’ kind of thing.”

tyer presser 2.jpg (copy)

Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer says she will focus on targeted measures to help prevent the transmission of COVID-19 in the city. In an interview Monday, she called school closings bad for children and families. 

Task force briefed

Last week, Tyer convened the task force that has monitored and responded to challenges posed by the pandemic.

“I am concerned about the increased case rates in the city of Pittsfield,” Tyer said Monday.

But, for now, she is placing a priority on focused measures that enable the city’s schools to remain open, believing that school closings, as a pandemic precaution, are bad for children and families when other steps can be taken. By that she means vaccinations, masking and the willingness of responsible adults to limit the size of gatherings, as we head toward winter.

“One of the most important things we can do is keep our schools open,” Tyer said.

The task force is tracking hospitalizations locally, particularly the severity of cases. “It’s a very different time now than it was a year ago, when we were in such a frightening moment,” she said. “The proof is in the pudding. Vaccines work to reduce the severity of illness.”

Before Thanksgiving, Pittsfield Public Schools responded to an outbreak in a second grade classroom at the Morningside Community School by directing those affected to stay home for a time. Superintendent Joseph Curtis said Monday that the second graders are back in school.

Tyer said that approach is better than wholesale restrictions, which, she said, bring consequences for children’s social and emotional well-being and academic attainment, as well as family life. She said the school district is working hard to clean public spaces, monitor air quality and enforce mask use.

“If we have a cluster in a classroom or grade, we can deal with that,” Tyer said. “We’ve been through a lot as a country. I don’t think that shutdowns and school closings are what’s called for right now.”

In his remarks Monday, Biden backed a similar approach. He said that he soon would articulate a COVID-19 strategy to best prepare the U.S. to fight infections through the winter, which, last year, brought hundreds of thousands of new cases. The plan, he said Monday, would resist shutdowns of public activities in favor of “more widespread vaccinations, boosters, testing and more.”

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com and 413-588-8341.

Investigations editor

Larry Parnass joined The Eagle in 2016 from the Daily Hampshire Gazette, where he was editor in chief. His freelance work has appeared in the Washington Post, Boston Globe, Hartford Courant, CommonWealth Magazine and with the Reuters news service.

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