PITTSFIELD — A data point moved in the right direction Thursday in Pittsfield’s COVID-19 battle. The number of deaths attributed to the coronavirus fell by more than a dozen.
The story behind that is an unhappy one, though, for the city’s leader.
This week, Mayor Linda Tyer asked her health team to review the number of COVID-19 deaths associated with the Springside Rehabilitation and Skilled Care Center. An outbreak at the nursing home in January infected 133 residents and staff, prompting the state to send in a National Guard medical corps and an epidemiologist.
As the outbreak grew, Tyer and city health officials offered help to Springside and its for-profit owner, BaneCare. In mid-January, Tyer asked for a daily video call with Springside officials so the city could monitor the outbreak.
“Any time that we have an outbreak of this magnitude at a long-term care facility it’s upsetting and alarming,” she said in an interview at the time. “Once it starts, it’s very difficult to get it contained.”
Tyer said this week that the request for open communication with BaneCare went unanswered. “There was this unwillingness to trust that we were there to help them. We felt we needed to have a good handle on the situation so we could assess the impact on the community. I’m just disappointed that we didn’t have an open line of communication.”
A month later, the worst is over at 255 Lebanon Ave., Springside’s home. An official reports that the disease has been eradicated from the nursing home.
Nancy Zappolo, a vice president with BaneCare, maintains that the facility and its corporate parent were “transparent” about the number of cases, by listing them on a website.
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“During our time of outbreak, we were in near daily communication with the Pittsfield Board of Health and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH) epidemiologist,” Zappolo said in an email, when asked for comment on the mayor’s view that the company was unresponsive.
“We are more than willing to meet any requests made by the Mayor’s office,” she said.
“Their definition is different than ours,” Tyer said, when advised of Zappolo’s response. “We continued to receive resistance when we asked for data. There were a lot of unanswered questions. … I just feel like they were not in touch and not being forthcoming and are trying to gloss over it.”
As she did in January, Zappolo said the institution prefers to report data in methods required by the state and federal governments, particularly when it comes to the number of deaths. In statements to The Eagle in early January, Zappolo had declined to say whether Springside had seen any COVID-19 deaths.
“We refer individuals to the DPH website because DPH reports the deaths for each nursing home in a uniform manner which we think reduces misinterpretation or confusion,” Zappolo said this past week.
As of Thursday, the state Department of Public Health listed 22 resident deaths at Springside. BaneCare’s daily web report said that no residents or staff members have the disease any longer; of the 133 cumulative positive cases, 89 were residents and 44 were staff members.
Tyer acknowledges that BaneCare might have satisfied statutory requirements on reporting cases and deaths. “It doesn’t mean our public health officials should be excluded from that, from the day-to-day details at Springside,” she said. “We needed to have an understanding of what the potential community spread could be.”
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Through January, several people with family members at Springside expressed similar frustration with the lack of information made available by BaneCare.
Pamela Scolforo lost her mother, Alberta Mary Harris, on Jan. 7. Harris’ death certificate lists COVID-19 as a secondary factor, with cardiopulmonary arrest as the principal cause of death. Scolforo said she felt stonewalled by the nursing home about her mother’s status and about the home more generally.
“The information I got was not the total truth,” she said, referring to BaneCare. “First, they told me no staff has it.”
Carolyn Villanova, of Pittsfield, says her mother, a Springside resident for about three years, lived through a COVID-19 case during the outbreak. While Villanova received robocalls from the home, she feels that it could have communicated better with families.
“I don’t really believe what I’m told from there. I think they play things down,” she said. “There needs to be much more oversight of nursing homes in Massachusetts.”
New death count
This week, Tyer and her health team determined, when reviewing reports used to provide totals on the city’s COVID-19 dashboard, that they had overstated the number of deaths associated with Springside.
On Thursday afternoon, that dashboard’s listing of 85 COVID-19 deaths in Pittsfield was revised downward, to 72. Tyer said the higher tally accidentally counted one report of deaths involving Springside twice.
Tyer said BaneCare’s approach to sharing information differed sharply with Berkshire Healthcare Systems, which she said provided timely data on cases and deaths at the Hillcrest Commons Nursing & Rehabilitation Center in Pittsfield. The disease is blamed for 42 deaths at Hillcrest.
“We didn’t feel we had easy access to the leadership team at Springside,” Tyer said. “No matter how much outreach we made, and we did, consistently, attempts to connect with Springside were rebuffed.”
“I’d like to hear from BaneCare management why they didn’t feel that the local Board of Health should have information about what was happening in their facility,” she said. “I feel like BaneCare didn’t feel any obligation to me or the Board of Health to explain what was happening in there.”