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Testing lags and materials in short supply as coronavirus outbreak settles in Berkshires

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PITTSFIELD — Sluggish turnaround times for tests and a lack of coronavirus testing materials have thwarted testing efforts in the Berkshires, health leaders and lawmakers said Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Gov. Charlie Baker spoke to a statewide testing spike — almost 9,000 Massachusetts residents tested to date, he said in a news conference that seemed to juxtapose the new reality on the ground in the Berkshires.

Berkshire Medical Center had been testing about 100 people a day last week, according to Media Relations Director Michael Leary. But he cited statewide shortages on testing supplies as the reason for a significant slowdown in testing this week. The hospital tested only 36 people on Monday, Leary said.

A total of 37 Berkshire residents had tested positive and two had died as of Tuesday. The state Department of Public Health said in a release on the same day that a woman in her 60s with underlying health issues was the second county resident to succumb to the virus.

Lags in test turnaround time strain the hospital's resources in a critical time, officials say. Members of the Berkshire legislative delegation penned a letter to members of Baker's administration on Tuesday, pointing to samples collected from Berkshire residents some two weeks prior that had not yet yielded results.

The letter called for the prioritization of patients currently admitted in the hospital, said state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, as hospital staff must use precious gear to treat patients suspected of having the virus.

Marylou Sudders, the state's Secretary of Health and Human Services, told The Eagle that state leaders are aware of shortages and are working to address them.

"Massachusetts' COVID-19 Response Command Center has a team dedicated to securing supplies critical to the COVID-19 response, including personal protective equipment like gloves, masks, gowns, medical equipment including ventilators, and testing equipment including swabs and reagents," she said in an email.

State leaders also requested supplies from private companies, colleges and universities in a bid to locate resources already in state, she said.

"Additionally, the Command Center is placing orders for supplies with national and international companies ... ," she wrote. "We will continue to aggressively pursue all supply chain opportunities and explore new options."

Lack of testing remains the primary problem in confronting this pandemic, said State Rep. John Barrett III, D-North Adams.

"The tests have to turn around more quickly. It shouldn't be days. It should be hours," he said. "And we should be testing more people. Especially our people on the front line."

Despite federal approvals for onsite lab analysis at Berkshire Medical Center, Leary said the hospital's implementation will take several weeks.

Amid testing delays and supply shortages, Leary said the hospital is relying on its coronavirus hotline to prioritize testing "based on their risk and symptoms."

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Dr. Joseph Cooney, who has a practice in Stockbridge, said he has sent samples out to commercial labs for results. After testing some patients and some of their close contacts, Cooney said he's seen one positive and "a fair amount of negatives."

The turnaround time has been disappointing, he said, and Quest is out of supplies.

Until there is widespread testing in the Berkshires, he said countywide case tallies remain statistically irrelevant.

"The real data is we have widespread disease and we need to be using all of our tools in the pandemic playbook," he said.

Children not tested

Testing at the hospital is for adults only, Leary said, deferring questions about pediatric testing to Community Health Programs, which has 10 health care facilities scattered throughout the county.

Dr. Everett Lamm, a pediatrician and Chief Medical Officer at CHP, said the organization's providers quickly pivoted to telehealth care, checkups done remotely by phone or video conferencing. CHP has no immediate plans to begin testing because Berkshire Medical Center is doing a good job of using scarce testing resources to test Berkshire residents, Lamm said.

"While kids are certainly apt to be infected, I think there are only so many tests to go around," he said. "It comes down to a lack of equipment."

Lamm said the goal is to keep everyone home who can stay home safely, and children tend to fall under that category.

"We know that it's going to continue to spread," he said. "We really want to keep it from spreading any faster than it has already."

Dr. Michael Fabrizio, a longtime Pittsfield pediatrician, said he refers patients suspected of having the virus to the BMC hotline. It's an uncertain time for everyone, he said.

He said medical professionals are racing, too, to stay on top of a very fluid situation. Guidelines and information changes almost daily, he said, and any symptoms ranging from mild to severe could be caused by the new virus.

Unlike other illnesses, the virus seems to uniquely spare children its worst, Fabrizio said. Still, the 40-year physician said available information on the new virus remains in flux, and that's anxiety-inducing for everyone.

"I've not seen anything like this in my entire career," he said. "So I'm new to this as well."

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


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