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Across Berkshires, stretched resources and urges for calm

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The North Adams mayor and City Council vice president went into quarantine. So did scores of nurses at Berkshire County's largest hospital. And in the small town of Otis, fears over a larger outbreak grew after it was revealed that a man presumed to have the novel coronavirus was treated by medical workers without protection.

Any hopes that COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, wouldn't disrupt life in the Berkshires were dashed this week. The number of presumed cases grew to seven on Tuesday as cities, health departments and medical facilities dug in for a fight against an invisible — and potentially deadly — enemy.

At Berkshire Medical Center, leaders have begun exploring access to travel nurses after members of the hospital's staff were exposed to COVID-19. Meanwhile, "the hospital is redistributing staff from departments to shortfall areas," Media Relations Director Michael Leary said.

Leary declined to answer questions about the number of Berkshire Health Systems employees under quarantine, but a spokesman for the Massachusetts Nurses Association said its nurses report some 70 BMC staff people were asked not to come to work due to exposure.

"Of those 70, 54 are nurses," said Joe Markman, the association's associate director of public communications.

Leary said all staff who were exposed are out on paid furloughs. "It does not count against their vacation or earned time," he said.

Markman said nurses also had concerns about being asked to reuse masks. He said that goes against best practices and is a point the union is pushing back on.

But Leary said Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines allow for mask reuse in times of outbreak, which commonly deplete protective resources. These guidelines refer to "limited reuse."

"We have also asked the Department of Public Health for assistance in accessing the national stockpile so that we can assure continued access to [personal protective equipment]," he said.

City leader tested for virus

In North Adams, Mayor Thomas Bernard and City Council Vice President Jason LaForest went into quarantine Tuesday after LaForest was tested for COVID-19.

LaForest developed minor symptoms early Tuesday, he said, and Bernard entered quarantine voluntarily out of "an abundance of caution" because of contact with the city councilor.

In a statement, Bernard said he understands the news may be unsettling, but he assured people that the city is putting its best foot forward: "As community leaders, Councilor LaForest and I have an obligation to model best practices in following the instructions of state and local public health officials."

LaForest said he was directed to quarantine himself by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. Bernard is isolating himself at home voluntarily and of his own accord, after attending several events with LaForest in recent days.

LaForest remains unsure if his symptoms — "deep dry cough, sore throat, headache and sinus congestion" — were caused by the new coronavirus making its way around the globe, but he said he may have come into contact with the virus while at a meeting of municipal leaders in Boston last week. LaForest serves on a legislative policy committee for the Massachusetts Municipal Association.

Bernard said in his statement that local health departments would investigate possible points of contact alongside the state's health department. "This helps to prevent further spread," he said.

The city would also deploy heightened cleaning protocols at its schools, he said.

LaForest also works as a nurse at Williamstown Commons Nursing & Rehabilitation Center, in Williamstown. A spokeswoman for the inpatient care facility, Lisa Gaudet, said the staff is in communication with the state's Department of Public Health.

"They have assured us that this is a low-risk case and we have done everything required to ensure that patient and staff are safe and secure," she said.

Presumed case in Otis

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The town of Otis announced Tuesday that there was a presumptive case of COVID-19 in the town. A man was taken by ambulance to Fairview Hospital on March 4, and seven people who treated him without protection are now under self-quarantine in Great Barrington and other towns.

Otis Town Administrator Brandi Page told The Eagle that she could not say whether the case in Otis is one of the seven confirmed by the state in Berkshire County.

Great Barrington Health Agent Rebecca Jurczyk said the Otis patient had been transported and admitted to Fairview Hospital on March 4 without any suspicion of COVID-19, and has since been sent to BMC. The seven people under self-quarantine are ambulance and hospital staff.

And Jurczyk said there is another man who is also under self-quarantine in Great Barrington because his partner works at BMC.

Officials in Great Barrington are watchful, but calm.

"This is developing very fast, and we're staying on top of the information coming in," Jurczyk said. Town buildings and schools will remain open for now, she added.

Legislator urges calm

State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, praised BHS for calmly and smartly handling the crisis. With the only state testing lab in Boston, he said he and other legislators are working with the state to get permission for BMC to use their lab, Quest Diagnostics, to test for the virus.

Pignatelli is urging calm and said that the news media and social media are drumming up panic.

"We just need to be smart and if you're sick, go home," he said, noting that every year, between 291,000 and 646,000 people die from influenza-related respiratory illnesses, according to the CDC. So far, COVID-19 is responsible for more than 4,000 deaths worldwide.

"Not to downplay it, but we shouldn't be panicking," Pignatelli said.

He took aim at President Donald Trump for weak leadership, given the mask shortage "when there's a stockpile in the federal government."

According to state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, state leaders worked with federal partners to secure the county access to a national stockpile of masks and other kinds of personal protective equipment. That's because the Berkshire situation is unique, she said — of the six patients in the state hospitalized for COVID-19, all are in Berkshire County.

"We have a particular need here in Berkshire County for the [personal protective equipment]," she said.

The seven cases in Berkshire County seem to be most concerning to state public health officials because they cannot link all of those cases to recent international travel or to isolated and known chains of transmission.

"Here in Massachusetts, person to person transmission of the virus in the community is beginning to occur among individuals without identifiable risk factors," Monica Bharel, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, said Tuesday at a news conference. "As community transmission of COVID-19 becomes more common, the public health approach shifts to one of mitigation and that is reducing the impact."

At one point during the news conference, Gov. Charlie Baker referred to "the Berkshire issue" as one of the reasons, along with the increase to 92 total cases, that he "would have to say the risk is increased." Previously, the governor and other state officials had said the coronavirus risk in Massachusetts was "low."

Bharel said DPH is assisting local officials in the Berkshires by facilitating the surveillance and testing of health care workers and patients and is in contact multiple times a day with the local authorities. DPH has also dispatched a public health expert to be on the ground in the Berkshires to assist.

State House News Service contributed to this report.

Amanda Drane can be contacted at adrane@berkshrieeagle.com, @amandadrane on Twitter, and 413-496-6296.

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


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