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Two were priests. One-sixth were veterans. Many worked in manufacturing: What we know about COVID-19 deaths in Berkshire County

Virus Outbreak

Flags in Washington, D.C., mark the lives lost in the U.S. to COVID-19. In the Berkshires, more than 400 people have died since the pandemic began.

As COVID-19's grip on the Berkshires eases, the losses remain. More than 400 people have died in the two years since the pandemic began, according to state data.

To piece together their lives, and the sum of the losses, The Eagle obtained death certificates and gathered information on those who passed. 

How we did this analysis

The Eagle obtained death certificates from March 2020 through February 2022 from Pittsfield, North Adams, Adams, Williamstown, Great Barrington, Lenox, Lee and Dalton. The certificates cover most people who died at health care facilities, long-term care facilities or homes in those municipalities. They would not include people who died in other county municipalities. 

The Eagle aggregated all death certificates with COVID-19 listed on them, a total of 284 certificates.

For the vast majority, the virus was as an immediate cause of death. For a small number, the virus was listed under “other significant conditions contributing to death but not resulting in underlying cause.”

What we learned

Age

The death certificates ranged in age from 37 to 106.

The average age listed was 80 years, 6 months.

People under the age of 60 made up just 6 percent of the deaths.

In the first phase of the pandemic, before the vaccines were available or widespread, the average age of death was 81. That fell to 79 in the second phase of the pandemic, when all adults could get vaccinated and the vaccination rate for the elderly shot up.

Gender

Women and men were represented in equal numbers in the death certificates, with a 50/50 split. 

But the elderly population of the Berkshires skews toward women–some 55 percent of residents 65 and older are women, according to Census data. 

That means men were actually somewhat overrepresented in the deaths, which mirrors national trends. Across the U.S., men make up a greater-than-expected proportion of COVID-19 deaths.

Women who died in the Berkshires tended to be older, with an average age of 83 years. The average age among men was 78. 

Race

There were a total of 18 non-white residents in the death certificates. Among non-white Berkshire residents who died, ages ranged from 42 to 89, with an average age of death just over 65 years.

For white residents, the average age of death was about 82 years.

Comorbidities

At least 150 people listed in the certificates – more than half – had one or more health factors known to be associated with a higher risk of severe COVID-19 illness.

Those included preexisting heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, dementia and immunosuppressive conditions. Some people may have had conditions that were not included in the death certificate.

Dementia was the most common condition. More than 16 percent of the death certificates listed dementia, commonly Alzheimer’s.

14 percent of the death certificates listed heart failure.

6 percent listed diabetes.

3.4 percent listed cancer.

People who died after vaccines became widely available were more likely to have comorbidities.

48 percent of the people who died in the first phase of the pandemic had at least one comorbidity listed. For those people, death certificates listed an average of 1.5 comorbidities.

55 percent of people who died after vaccines became widely available had a comorbidity listed on their death certificate. Death certificates listed an average of 1.9 comorbidities.

That means people who died later in the pandemic were not only more likely to have a comorbidity in the first place, they also tended to have higher numbers of concurrent risk factors, compared to the people who passed before vaccines were easily available.

Place of death

53 percent of the deaths took place in hospitals, the vast majority of those at Berkshire Medical Center. A small number of people died at Berkshire Health Systems’ other facilities or at hospitals in other parts of the state, including Baystate Medical Center in Springfield.

42 percent of the death certificates listed a long-term care facility as the location of death. Some nursing home patients may have been transported from a skilled nursing facility to a hospital leading up to their deaths.

A small number of people died at home.

Nursing home deaths dropped dramatically after vaccine availability.

In the first phase of the pandemic, about half of the deaths took place at long-term care facilities. In the second phase, starting in summer 2021, less than a third of them did.

Meanwhile, a much higher proportion of the deaths after vaccines became widely available took place in the hospital. 

Education

The people who died were less educated, on average, than the general population in the Berkshires.

14 percent of the people listed on the death certificates had not completed a high school education.

For comparison, in the general older Berkshire population (those 45 years and older), about 7.6 percent of people have not completed a high school education, according to Census data.

That means people without a high school diploma were disproportionately represented among the COVID dead.

Overall, 79 percent of people on the death certificates had just an associate’s degree, high school education, or less – compared to 66 percent in the general population.

About 16 percent had a bachelor’s degree or other higher education.

Occupation

Most death certificates list general area of occupation rather than a specific employer. The most notable exemption was General Electric. Six of the certificates belonged to former GE employees.

One in five of the people who died had worked in construction or manufacturing. They worked in paper, currency, silk, textiles, stationary, power transformers and more.

Health care was another common occupation: More than 8 percent of the certificates belonged to people who had worked in some part of the health care system, including a patient accounting supervisor, a medical transcriptionist, an x-ray technician and nurses.

Another 7 percent worked in education, including librarians, teachers, paraprofessionals and a physical education director.

Two of the death certificates belonged to priests for the Roman Catholic Church.

17 percent of the women whose death certificates The Eagle saw had been homemakers and housewives.

Nearly a third of the men had been enlisted in the U.S. Armed Forces at one point. They fought in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

Francesca Paris can be reached at fparis@berkshireeagle.com and 413-447-7311, ext. 239.

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