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At nursing and assisted living homes in Berkshires, coronavirus crisis is germ of loneliness

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GREAT BARRINGTON — On Wednesday, Jonathan Hankin left Fairview Commons' Nursing and Rehabilitation Center to see his surgeon for a follow-up visit. When he returned there was a new sign on the door: "No visitors allowed."

"For me it was like, `OK, I've got to get out of here,'" he said. "I'm in solitary confinement."

Hankin has been living at Fairview since he broke his pelvis in a ski accident in early February. Ever since, his wife, Barbara Zheutlin, would bring him dinner every night, and friends visited.

"It was much more pleasant than being here alone," he said.

Now Hankin is one of those further isolated amid a pandemic and a meltdown of business as usual.

Last week's domino effect of shutdowns and cancellations over the new coronavirus has hit hard. And in the Berkshires, the state Department of Public Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have set stricter guidelines after the county grew into a hot spot of sorts for cases outside of Eastern Massachusetts last week.

Presumed cases are now up to nine since the first county resident tested positive just over a week ago. And now institutions are working hard to keep their staff and other vulnerable people healthy.

A scare came when North Adams City Councilor Jason LaForest, also a nurse at Williamstown Commons, went into self-quarantine for the virus last week. He has since tested negative, and so far residents or other staff have not had symptoms, said Lisa Gaudet, vice president of communications for Berkshire Healthcare.

The company that runs Williamstown Commons, Fairview Commons, three other facilities in the Berkshires and a total of 14 facilities across the state.

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"We're acting in a measured and thoughtful way," Gaudet said.

Visitors are banned, and potential residents are prescreened for various risk factors. Sanitation has been stepped up, and caregivers are wearing masks and gloves, among other precautions.

But, for people who are old or injured, family and friends are their lifeline.

"I would say that it's not an ideal situation for anyone," Gaudet said, noting that staff are helping residents connect electronically. She said residents understand that the rules are there to protect everyone.

Zheutlin also understands and thinks it's wise. She's now dropping dinners off for Hankin at the front door to be taken to his room. She's also joining meetings with staff and Hankin by conference call.

Even though Hankin could be home in a week, it still hurts.

"It's sad and difficult and frustrating," she said. "What tugs on our heart is that we know that it is relationships and community that makes all us humans thrive."

And she realizes they are the lucky ones. Not everyone can leave so soon.

"He's going to be able to leave, and we'll be able to be together."

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


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