Hillcrest Commons

As of Friday, the total number of COVID-19 deaths at Hillcrest Commons Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Pittsfield stood at eight. Six residents are hospitalized and 83 are infected, as are 38 staff, according to Lisa Gaudet, vice president of business development and marketing for Berkshire Healthcare Systems, which owns Hillcrest.

PITTSFIELD — Four more residents of the second-largest nursing center in the state have died since Thanksgiving, bringing the total COVID-19 deaths there to eight as local, state and company officials scramble to contain the outbreak.

As of Friday afternoon, six residents of Hillcrest Commons Nursing and Rehabilitation Center are hospitalized and 83 are infected, as are 38 staff, said Lisa Gaudet, vice president of business development and marketing for Berkshire Healthcare Systems, which owns Hillcrest.

Also as of Friday, infections in a Lenox nursing home also were on the rise.

And while a potential direct link is under investigation, the outbreaks coincide with spiking infections in the community this month that had the city’s Health Department overwhelmed by contact tracing, and hiring more staff to help.

At Hillcrest, where four people had died as of Thursday, infections among staff who tested positive rose by 11.

Gaudet said that, Nov. 18, the company froze admissions to Hillcrest until the outbreak clears.

At Kimball Farms Nursing Care Center in Lenox, infections have been rising steadily since Nov. 10, when one staff member was reported positive. As of Friday, 27 residents and five staff were infected there. None is hospitalized, Gaudet said.

But, it is the Hillcrest outbreak that has local and state health officials alarmed and prompted a Thanksgiving Day note from Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer to area lawmakers. In the email, obtained by The Eagle, Tyer told them of the first four deaths and called it “a very, very serious situation.”

Tyer also told The Eagle on Thursday that she worries about increased community spread of the virus in Pittsfield, “primarily as it relates to the number of staff at Hillcrest Commons who have tested positive, because they certainly have lives outside of the facility.”

The outbreak at Hillcrest, which has 224 residents, is the facility’s first since the start of the coronavirus pandemic and appears to have begun around mid-November, despite what Gaudet says is infection control that exceeds state mandates.

Two infected residents and one staff member there were the first to be reported Nov. 18, according to parent company Berkshire Healthcare’s website, which is updated daily with COVID-19 reports.

On Nov. 20, 15 residents and 11 staff were reported infected, and it was that day when two epidemiologists from the state Department of Public Health arrived at the facility to assess the situation and advise on infection control. By Sunday, infections among residents had risen by four, and the DPH sent a rapid response team of 11 nurses and other health care professionals to help with staffing shortages and management.

The team also includes local health officials, who attend a nightly videoconference with state officials to discuss the outbreak there.

Gaudet said staff efforts at Hillcrest have been “heroic” in their work to keep residents healthy, and that the company is “deeply touched” by the painful situation.

Too early to tellIt is unclear whether the Hillcrest outbreak can be traced to the up to 200 new cases that hit Pittsfield within a short span since around Halloween, said Kayla Donnelly-Winters, public health nurse with the city of Pittsfield’s Health Department and a member of the state’s rapid response team for Hillcrest.

“It’s too early to tell,” she said Friday.

Many of the new cases were linked to house parties and large gatherings in Pittsfield, as well indoor restaurant dining.

The city issued a release Nov. 6 urging caution. By Nov. 13, the city had ordered table service suspended at restaurants.

After a scramble to conduct contact tracing at the outset of the city’s outbreak, Donnelly-Winters said the department has seven new nurse contact tracers and others in training. She also has another manager, like herself.

“It was very overwhelming at first to have all those cases drop at once,” she said. “We’re getting more organized by the day.”

She explained that the amount of time to contact trace is unpredictable and easily can be overwhelming.

“You can call one person and they have one contact, and that’s all well and good, then the next person you call has 30 contacts,” she said. “One or two cases can take up your entire day. One phone call can take an entire day.”

The calls also involve education and support, she said.

Friday’s report was not yet available, but as of Thursday, other facilities owned by Berkshire Healthcare also were experiencing some infections.

At Kimball Farms Life Care, a retirement community in Lenox, four staff have tested positive.

At North Adams Commons Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, one resident and one employee are infected.

Fairview Commons Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Great Barrington has one employee who tested positive, as does Mount Greylock Extended Care Facility in Pittsfield. Williamstown Commons Nursing and Rehabilitation Center has one infected staff member.

Two other facilities, owned by BaneCare, have a few positive residents and staff.

The number of staff infected at Craneville Place of Dalton Rehabilitation and Skilled Care Center increased by three this week. One resident is infected.

And Springside Rehabilitation and Skilled Care Center in Pittsfield reported two staff are positive.

It is the first time a novel coronavirus outbreak has struck county nursing homes since the spring, when 24 residents died at Williamstown Commons. The virus also claimed four residents of Fairview Commons in Great Barrington.

As of September, nursing home residents have accounted for approximately 40 percent of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S., and more than 60 percent in Massachusetts. The state has one of the highest nursing home death rates per population size in the U.S.

The state DPH says that, since the pandemic began, Massachusetts has seen 27,053 cases of COVID-19 among residents and staff of long-term care facilities. As of Wednesday, 6,727 people being cared for in those centers had died of the disease.

That number represents 64.85 percent of confirmed COVID-19 deaths in the state.

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

@BE_hbellow.

Investigations editor

Larry Parnass, investigations editor, 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 and CommonWealth Magazine.

Francesca Paris covers North Adams for The Berkshire Eagle. A California native and Williams College alumna, she has worked at NPR in Washington, D.C. and WBUR in Boston, as a news reporter, producer and editor. Find her on Twitter at @fparises.