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Look Ahead, Pittsfield: Adapting city systems to face coronavirus threat

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After weeks of prepping, city systems have begun to take on a new form in light of everyone's new normal.

Given Pittsfield is the most populated hub in the Berkshires, it should come as no surprise that the city carries a concentration of coronavirus infections in the county. As of Friday, the city's cases accounted for roughly half of the countywide tally.

(You may have caught that the Pittsfield metropolitan area, otherwise known as Berkshire County, got some play in a New York Times piece over the weekend for its per capita rates of infection.)

Local health professionals have noted that testing counts, while they speak to the extent of spread, remain statistically irrelevant without more widespread testing.

Multiple Pittsfield Police Department officers had tested positive for the virus as of Friday, according to Mayor Linda Tyer, and several others awaited test results. She said she'd be working with Police Chief Michael Wynn to modify staffing to accommodate further spread among the ranks, and to shore up mutual aid agreements with surrounding towns in case Pittsfield needs to call for backup.

This could become particularly important given crime tends to pick up as the weather warms. (A man was wounded in a Friday night shooting.)

For the children

On the schools front, Pittsfield School Superintendent Jason McCandless will be rolling out the first phase of his remote learning plan this week. The plan will look different for each grade level, he said, but all students can expect to be interacting with teachers in the days to come about assignments they'll be asked to work on at home. (Families should check to be sure they have provided active email addresses to schools, he said.)

His plans account for the possibility that classes will not resume in May, he said, and he is exploring whether the district needs to purchase between 1,500 and 3,000 laptops to ensure students can access education remotely. Also a concern: how to safely gather and deliver that equipment without spreading the virus.

The district will also move to a reduced meal schedule this week, delivering to-go meals at sites throughout the city only three days a week. Still, students who come to the sites on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays will get larger meal packages intended to help keep them fed throughout the week.

McCandless said the goal is to ensure sustainability given staffing issues, and to minimize physical contact between staff and students.

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In the event that the small pool of available staff runs out, he said the Berkshire United Way is working to amass volunteers who could step in to provide meal service.

The city is making moves to shut down risky behaviors, which unfortunately extends to playground use in the age of the coronavirus. If you haven't noticed already, you might see this week that playground equipment has been dismantled in some cases, or barricaded in others.

Making room

On the health care front, Berkshire Health Systems continues to channel resources to its coronavirus call center and to new telehealth capacities. The hotline is available all week long at 855-262-5465 from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Hospital leaders are working to keep the hospital's census low, canceling elective appointments and freeing up hospital beds to accommodate a surge.

Meantime, the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency readies to help. City officials expect the agency to make decisions this week about where it will house its emergency relief efforts. On the city's end, Fire Chief Tom Sammons said officials will work with MEMA to provide a place for people to undergo isolations and quarantines without infecting other people they live with.

How to help the city's homeless population during this time has also been a point of concern, resulting in some debates between leaders about how to use potential hubs like the old St. Joseph's Central High School. It sounds like we can expect some updates on the issue this week.

County Ambulance is working on a program that would enable ambulance crews to make house visits to test people for the virus. Brian Andrews, president of County Ambulance and head of Emergency Medical Services of Berkshire County, said he is also working to keep track of emergency medical responders who might have been exposed. So far, he said, County Ambulance has one staffer who has contracted the virus.

Crews are stepping up the use of personal protective equipment, he said, and he is seeing heartening signs that commercial supply chains are beginning to open back up.

Council President Peter Marchetti says he's still working on a process that would allow councilors to meet remotely, coordinating these efforts with Pittsfield Community Television to allow for remote participation.

Talk to me at, @amandadrane on Twitter, and 413-464-2859.


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