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State offers support as coronavirus death toll rises at Williamstown Commons

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WILLIAMSTOWN — The coronavirus claimed several more lives at Williamstown Commons over the weekend, bringing the death toll to 10 and spurring leaders to action.

Staff at the nursing home tested all residents at the facility Monday after a delivery of test kits on Sunday. State Rep. John Barrett III, who began raising alarms last week about the need for more widespread testing at the home, said Gov. Charlie Baker authorized that special delivery.

The long-term care facility has 34 residents who have tested positive, according to Lisa Gaudet, vice president of communications for Berkshire Healthcare Systems, which owns Williamstown Commons. She said test results are pending for 75 residents following Monday's testing initiative.

An additional resident who had tested positive has since been sent to the hospital for treatment.

New numbers at the facility land it among the worst nursing home outbreaks in the region, including more than a dozen dead each at Soldiers' Home, in Holyoke, and the Charlwell House Health & Rehabilitation Center, in Norwood.

Universal testing should have happened sooner, Barrett said, noting that he began pushing the state Department of Public Health last month.

He said failure to act came at all levels, beginning with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s broken guidelines for testing, and ending with everyone who decides to adhere to them despite evidence indicating asymptomatic spread of the virus.

Before Monday’s testing spree, residents were being tested based on the presence of symptoms. Gaudet had cited government guidelines as the grounds for those determinations.

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“That’s the problem,” said Barrett, D-North Adams. “The CDC is out of touch with what they’re saying about testing. I don’t know why they’re sticking to that.”

Testing guidelines seem to lag behind evolving science, which points increasingly to people unwittingly spreading the virus. Matthew Moore, an assistant professor and virologist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said asymptomatic spread could account for roughly a quarter of cases.

Some people can have such mild cases that they don’t ever know they have it, Moore said, and additionally people who do become ill can spread the virus days before they show symptoms. “Before you even know that you’re sick, you’re already shedding it,” he said.

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He said he has also seen reports indicating people could shed the virus for up to 10 days after symptoms clear. Also, he said he fears the public has been misled when officials say the virus is not airborne, as the respiratory droplets known for spreading the virus do travel in the air.

“Saying it’s not airborne — I really don’t like that terminology,” Moore said. “They’re there in the air and you can breathe them in.”

Asked why some people get very sick while others don’t, Moore said science hasn’t caught up with that question, yet. “A lot of work still needs to be done,” he said.

Now that Baker superseded testing guidelines for residents of Williamstown Commons, Barrett said, the same universal principles should apply to the staff, who could be unknowingly spreading the virus around the building.

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Nine staff members have tested positive for the virus, Gaudet said, but symptomatic staff are only tested on an individual basis.

“How many more will die because of this?” Barrett said.

Barrett also joined some families in saying the nursing home’s staff should all receive hazard pay for the work they continue to do under such trying circumstances.

“They’re doing extraordinary things,” he said. “These are minimum-wage employees.”

Gaudet said the nursing home leadership understands that, which is why they decided to pay higher rates temporarily for those working in the facility’s coronavirus unit. Still, Barrett said the virus has wreaked havoc on the whole building and the nursing home’s pay policy doesn’t reflect that.

“And we’ll consistently revisit that,” Gaudet said, noting the facility would “potentially expand” the temporary pay increases to more of the staff.

Amanda Drane can be contacted at adrane@berkshireeagle.com, @amandadrane on Twitter, and 413-464-2859.


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