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As Williamstown Commons cases spike, lawmaker rips state for lag in testing

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WILLIAMSTOWN — The number of coronavirus cases continues to swell in Williamstown Commons, according to a Berkshire lawmaker who slammed the state Department of Public Health for not making the outbreak at the nursing home a priority.

State Rep. John Barrett III, D-North Adams, said Friday that there has been an increase of 14 positive tests since Thursday, when 36 residents were positive for the coronavirus. So far, three residents have died.

A spokeswoman for Berkshire Healthcare Systems could not be reached to confirm the new figures, and it was not known how many of the new cases were staff or residents.

The three deaths, and the spike in positive cases, coincide with the escalation of the pandemic regionwide and are worrisome, given a slew of other virus-related deaths at nursing homes in the state.

Two residents died of COVID-19 in a 24-hour period midweek, bringing the death toll there to three. Local lawmakers praised precautions taken by company leadership early in the pandemic but say they were stymied by the state's testing criteria, which limit it to certain symptoms and known exposure to the virus.

Once inside a nursing home, the virus can ravage residents compromised by their age and other health problems.

Barrett's comments come a day after he called Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders, urging her to do whatever must be done to allow for universal testing within the building in order to contain the outbreak.

A spokeswoman for Sudders pointed to a new testing program for nursing homes launched this week in partnership with the National Guard, but it remained unclear how that might apply to Williamstown Commons.

On Friday, Barrett trained his fire on the state Department of Public Health for not sending an official to the nursing home to assess risk and for not dropping its guidelines in order to expand testing.

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"They haven't been monitoring the situation at all," he said. "I called DPH on the night of March 26 to get them on-site because of 11 positives. I said, `All hell is ready to break loose.' Over the next two weeks, it happened all over the state."

The state is investigating 18 deaths at the Holyoke Soldiers' Home, and several other nursing homes also have seen deaths and an uptick in cases.

Seven residents at a Norwood nursing home who tested positive for the coronavirus have died, and at least three of those are attributed to complications from COVID-19, a facility official said Friday. And the National Guard responded Friday to a nursing home in Littleton to test residents.

But, at Williamstown Commons, which has more than 130 residents, there has yet to be any such action from the state.

"They've done everything right in this situation," Barrett said of the staff and administration. He noted that all the company's facilities closed to visitors March 12, before the state-mandated lockdowns began. "They've been held hostage by the DPH guidelines."

Barrett and state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, also are pushing the state to send more tests to the Berkshires.

"We are a petri dish of this disease," Pignatelli said, noting the elevated rate of cases and deaths per capita. "We should be priority."

And Pignatelli said widespread testing should be triggered sooner in nursing homes.

"One death, automatic testing," he said.

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


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