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SANDISFIELD — The town's Board of Health now knows that at least two households are under quarantine after exposure to the novel coronavirus.

But, they had to sleuth out which households they were. At least one of these households had been exposed to an Otis man who had tested positive after an ambulance crew rushed him to Fairview Hospital on March 3, said Roger Kohler, a Health Board member.

He said a hospital official told him that releasing the resident's identity and address violates privacy laws.

"These are people I've had to search out information on and find," Kohler said. "Because Sandisfield is a small town, I just hear of things first. There's not an official channel that's open to me."

Kohler doesn't want to violate anyone's privacy. And state law also forbids the board from revealing the identity of a quarantined resident. He just wants to lend support and make sure they are following quarantine instructions. The town's public health nurse is now in contact with them, he said.

The state Department of Public Health's most recent numbers, updated on March 17, peg the number of people in quarantine statewide at 1,168.

Those are just the ones the state knows about.

Some self-quarantine

Some people might have self-quarantined after travel abroad or a perceived exposure, but those aren't necessarily tracked unless the town or state is notified. The state database, MAVEN, logs only those who test positive for the virus, and results automatically are sent to town boards.

But, tracking all quarantined residents hasn't been easy, say some health officials. And some are relying on those residents to alert them. They also say they aren't sure whether the state's system to notify boards of mandatory or voluntary state-imposed quarantines for known exposure is working.

Steep learning curve

Officials in rural towns with tight budgets say they are finding themselves on a steep learning curve.

And like Kohler, they are searching, given that the county is a hot spot of cases outside Eastern Massachusetts. There have been a few well-publicized exposures, such as the more than 160 Berkshire Health Systems' staff previously furloughed for quarantine. Since those are official quarantines of exposure to a known infected patient, towns are supposed to be notified by the state Department of Public Health. The town can then make sure those residents don't leave home for the required 14 days after the time of known exposure, according to Allison Egan, senior public health and disaster planner at the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission.

Michael Leary, spokesman for Berkshire Health Systems, which operates Berkshire Medical Center and Fairview Hospital, echoed that this is the protocol.

Given some of the confusion amid a "rapidly evolving situation," Egan and the commission are working hard and fast to streamline this information.

"The scramble that you're seeing is the just the world catching up to this virus," she said.

The untracked

And what of the voluntary quarantine by someone who traveled abroad or who feels sick — those cases that are not tracked by an institution?

"If there's no official order, then they could still go to the grocery store," Egan said. "It's tricky."

Local health officials say this is why they want to know.

"There's kind of a little breakdown here," Kohler added. "What's the follow-up? I want these things tracked and followed up on."

Some other towns are, in part, relying on residents.

"It's in total confidentiality," said Jim Wilusz, director of Tri-Town Health Department in Lee. Tri-Town also covers Lenox and Stockbridge. He said there's no reason for someone in self-quarantine to be afraid to call. "We want them to be compliant. We want to help them. They can reach out to me, and I'll do everything in my power to help them."

Tri-Town's public health nurse is currently investigating a suspected case of COVID-19, and who that person might have come into contact with, Wilusz said.

Tri-Town also is giving addresses of people in quarantine to emergency responders in case they come into contact.

"Because one ambulance call could decimate a department," he said.

The Adams Board of Health isn't aware of any residents in quarantine, said Chairman Peter Hoyt.

"We're just trusting that people are following the recommendations set forth by the state," Hoyt said.

Hampshire County case in the dark

The confusion also has jumped the county line.

In Worthington, officials know there are a number of residents who work for Berkshire Health Systems. They contacted the state Department Public Health to no avail. "By rumor, we heard that one is in self-quarantine," said Diane Brenner, chairwoman of the Worthington board, noting that an Eagle story about hospital furloughs alerted them. "We can try to find them, and call them — and we've tried."

Board members and Brenner, who has a doctorate in epidemiology, have reached out to the DPH. They say they feel like they're hitting a dead end.

"We don't know [the BHS employee's] status, and that is one of our great frustrations," she said. "We want to support that person."

In Great Barrington, one resident has so far been sickened by COVID-19 and remains in critical condition at BMC, after initially going to Fairview, then going home. Town Health Agent Rebecca Jurczyk said in an email that she and Fairview are working closely together, and that the hospital will monitor staff if they are exposed.

But even Jurczyk doesn't know exactly how many town residents are in quarantine.

"Unsure, but probably only the three family members that came in `close contact' with the one GB resident [who is positive]," she wrote.

Egan said the confusion runs statewide, and it isn't anyone's fault. It's "growing pains."

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


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