PITTSFIELD — Before schools can reopen, the city must first see a dramatic turnaround in COVID-19 infections and test positivity rates.
That was the message from Mayor Linda Tyer on Tuesday at the year’s first City Council meeting — a sprawling Zoom session that stretched past midnight — in which she cited an “enormous” increase in COVID-19 infections this past fall and winter.
And while there was a decline in cases in mid-December, infections have surged once again and the city is “now back on the upward trend,” she said.
“In fact, last week we had 200 new cases in a five-day period,” she said, adding that the city is currently in the red “high risk” designation for the coronavirus.
“Until we can see significant improvement in our case counts and positivity rate, we won’t be able to reopen our schools,” Tyer said. “And I continue to be extremely concerned about the situations that continue to emerge at our long-term care facilities.”
Pittsfield Public Schools students remain in remote learning, and the district has declined to provide a date on which in-person learning will resume.
Late last week, the district said it would only begin transitioning back to in-person learning when the city’s test positivity rate falls below 3 percent, and there are fewer than 4 positive cases per 100,000 residents.
Tyer said the city was averaging 63 cases per 100,000 residents, and Commissioner of Public Works and Utilities Ricardo Morales said the positivity rate was just over 6 percent.
Tyer said she’s hopeful an apparent three-day plateau in the city’s test positivity rate and newly reported cases heralds a continuing downward trend, but one tool the city uses to gauge the prevalence of the virus in the community days ahead of clinical testing indicated her hope may not come to pass.
The city tests sewage from its treatment plant once per week, said Morales, and tracks copies of viral RNA per liter of sewage. Sewage testing can serve as an early warning sign of rising transmission in the community.
Morales said the results of sewage sampled last week showed 1.5 million copies of the virus per liter — which he recently told The Eagle was double the volume detected in a sample taken just one week before that.
“That is a significant increase since the last time,” he told councilors.
Meanwhile, Tyer said the number of hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients has been increasing “in really alarming rates,” in recent weeks, and the number of patients requiring intensive care are also rising, calling the situation “much worse circumstance than we experienced in the beginning, in March, April and May.”
She noted an increase in the number of the COVID-19 tests being administered in the city, after Berkshire Health Systems expanded free community testing through its participation in the state’s Stop the Spread program.
Well over 200 police, fire and EMS officials were signed up to receive their first dose of the vaccine on Tuesday at the city’s first responder vaccination clinic. First responders are part of the third priority group of Phase 1 of the state’s vaccine distribution timeline.
At the council meeting later Tuesday evening, Councilor Helen Moon said she has received many questions and concerns about the vaccine’s rollout ahead of Phase 2 of the state’s distribution timeline.
People at high-risk for serious illness from COVID-19 — including those 75 or older and people with two or more comorbidities — will be prioritized in Phase 2, which is expected to start in February. Many essential workers, as well as adults with one comorbidity and adults 65 or older are also included in Phase 2.
“If we can do anything in terms of helping to disperse that information once there is a definitive plan in place,” Moon said, “I just wanted to ... make sure that we can used as a means to getting information out to our constituents,” said Moon.