BMC exterior

A pre-holiday rush of visits Thursday to Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield, combined with dozens of COVID-positive staff in quarantine, made for a perfect storm.

PITTSFIELD — With about 70 staff having tested positive for COVID-19, a flood of hospital visits on New Year’s Eve forced Berkshire Medical Center to order employees to keep working after their shifts ended.

Yet, the rush of patient visits Thursday was not a pandemic-related surge, but rather one of the hospital’s occasional pre-holiday flurries, possibly mixed with people looking for virus testing, since the company’s testing center was closed that day.

“The majority were not COVID,” said Jennifer Vrabel, director of development at Berkshire Health Systems, noting that the testing center reopened Friday.

“Such surges at any hospital any time of year are not that unusual,” said Michael Leary, director of media relations, adding that the hospital has plans in place for these kinds of events. “It’s somewhat rare, but it’s not all that rare.”

Some nurses, who did not want to be named for fear of losing their jobs, say that this work situation Thursday might have broken state employment law that prohibits mandatory overtime for nurses. This is unclear, since Massachusetts General Law has an exemption that says mandatory overtime is legal “in the case of an emergency situation where the safety of the patient requires its use and when there is no reasonable alternative.”

Leary said the the company has not violated the union’s contract with BHS, and that, from the start of the coronavirus pandemic, even many nonunion staff have worked extra time.

Support our journalism. Subscribe today. →

Officials and local representatives from the Massachusetts Nurses Association could not be reached Friday for comment.

The recent increase in community infections and coronavirus-positive inpatients — 44 as of Friday — has made staff more vulnerable to the virus.

The staff rate of positives reflects the community rate: about 9 percent, Leary said. And he cautioned that numbers are fluctuating daily and hourly.

Leary said about 20 of those 70 employees now are cleared for return but that the timing depends on scheduling.

When asked if the company has enough personal protective equipment, particularly N95 masks that provide the most robust protection against the virus, Leary said there is no shortage, as part of the company’s strict adherence to state and federal infection control laws.

“The numbers [of infections] we’ve shown at the hospital back that,” he said.

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