PITTSFIELD — Taconic and Pittsfield high schools will switch back to fully remote learning for the rest of the week after the city on Wednesday learned of 104 suspected or confirmed coronavirus cases over several days.
The rise could bring other efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19, officials say, including a possible halt to in-person restaurant dining.
A two- to three-day backlog of coronavirus tests from MedExpress contributed to the alarmingly high case total, Mayor Linda Tyer told The Eagle, though she said that’s little reason for comfort.
“We believe that we have 104 new cases in the city of Pittsfield, and we’re working to validate that. It’s important to say those case counts cover a number of days and are from two testing sites,” she said.
“Even though we got these cases all today, if they had been reported to us over two or three days, this would still be extraordinary.”
Taconic High School and Pittsfield High School will have remote learning days on Thursday and Friday, and will follow their current schedules but do so entirely online, the district said in a press release. All elementary and middle schools and the Eagle Academy will continue hybrid learning.
The decision to close classrooms at the two schools was based on the new infection information and “the number of unresolved issues on our PPS high school internal medical trackers at both Taconic and Pittsfield High School,” the district said.
In the meantime, the city’s COVID-19 Task Force will meet at 10 a.m. Thursday to discuss next steps, Tyer said. The district’s announcement comes one day after it disclosed that a a student at Pittsfield High School and a staff member at Reid Middle School had tested positive for COVID-19.
Wednesday’s case report smashes the previous one-day high total of 17 cases that was notched in the early days of the pandemic in March, according to Gina Armstrong, the city’s director of public health.
Again, the total of 104 includes results from a backlog of tests, so isn’t a typical one-day result. The state Department of Health reported another 2,495 new positive cases across Massachusetts on Wednesday.
“We got an enormous influx of cases today … This 104 today beat out any previous records by a mile,” said Dr. Alan Kulberg, chair of the Board of Health. “We have a very difficult situation right now in Pittsfield.”
Tyer said that in addition to the two-day closing of high school classrooms, changes were made at the Pittsfield police and fire departments in response to recent coronavirus trends. She said that beginning Wednesday, first responders are wearing “full PPE,” or personal protective equipment, including goggles, a N95 mask and gown, when responding to calls for service.
Additionally, the Board of Health is “strongly considering” moving to suspend in-person restaurant dining once again, according to Kulberg. A number of eateries in Pittsfield and in other places in the county have temporarily closed their dining rooms in response to a positive case reported by a staff member or customers.
“We’re considering the wisdom of continuing table service in restaurants, given that those constitute gatherings of unmasked people,” said Kulberg.
Local health officials were “blown away” when they saw the new case count reported by the state’s database system, known as MAVEN, he said. Echoing Tyer, Kulberg said a few days of testing data from MedExpress had accumulated but was cleared and then reflected in Wednesday’s total.
“The reason we had such a large number today was because there was a data dump from the cases that were done at MedExpress that were delayed in being reported, because of some computer issues they had,” he said.
Also like Tyer, he said the backlog is little cause for consolation, in part because it set contact tracers several days back in efforts to reach COVID-19-positive individuals and to identify their close contacts, who must quarantine and then enter a period of isolation if they themselves end up testing positive.
“Delayed or not,” Kulberg said of the newly reported cases, “they’re still out there and they need to be contacted so that we can enforce quarantine and isolation orders.”
The city has recently added four public health nurses to assist with contact tracing, said Tyer, though some may still need training. Kulberg said the nurses have been out straight with their workload.
Given the sheer number of new cases that must be traced, Tyer said the city reached out to the state and will receive support with contact tracing from the Massachusetts Community Tracing Collaborative.
Tyer said residents should be aware that if they are identified as a close contact of a person who tested positive for the virus, they may receive a text message from the state that comes up on their phones as “MA COVID Team.” The text message will contain information about what to do next.
“People should respond to that quickly and they’ll get information on testing and quarantining,” said Kulberg.
However, Armstrong stressed that if a resident learns that someone they’ve been around has tested positive for COVID-19, they should immediately self-quarantine — even if they haven’t heard from a contact tracer yet — and schedule a coronavirus test.
“When someone knows they have been around someone who has tested positive, they really need to self-quarantine,” she said. “They shouldn’t wait for a call from a public health nurse. They should know that they should not be going to work, and they should not be going out with their friends.”
“We’re advising people to err on the side of caution, to monitor their health closely and stay at home as much as possible,” she added.
Those who need to schedule a test can start the process by calling the Berkshire Medical Center call center at 855-BMC-LINK. Kulberg said the call center recently beefed up staffing levels.
Heading into Thanksgiving and the holiday season next month, Kulberg said it was impossible to overstate the importance of limiting social interaction to household members and those within your close “social bubble.”
“We are urging people to reconsider their usual Thanksgiving plans, and plan for smaller gatherings,” he said.
Tyer said she was aware that cases could rise during the fall and winter, but did not expect to see numbers like Wednesday’s report. Local hospitalization rates are “easily manageable, but if we are not careful we could overwhelm our healthcare system,” she said.
She renewed her plea to residents to follow the public health guidance that helped tamp down cases in the spring. “This is a pretty significant development. It has knocked me back on my heels completely,” she said. “This city has got to buckle down.”