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In Berkshires, getting answers about coronavirus 'very frustrating for everybody'

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PITTSFIELD — To the frustration of local leaders, answers were hard to come by Wednesday amid a wave of coronavirus-related cancellations and closures.

Seven people in Berkshire County have tested positive for COVID-19. No additional test results came back positive Wednesday, but it was unclear whether that was because of a lag in testing.

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health did not respond to multiple requests for information.

"I know that more tests are out there and the results aren't back, yet," said state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield.

The sports world was hit hard Wednesday by growing fears over the spread of COVID-19, as the NCAA announced that the men's and women's basketball tournaments would be played without fans.

Locally, the New England Small College Athletic Conference canceled spring sports seasons; Massachusetts State Collegiate Athletic Conference sports have been put on hold through March 30.

Farley-Bouvier and other local leaders were on the hunt Wednesday for more information about what Gov. Charlie Baker described Tuesday as "the Berkshire issue." The scenario unfolding in the county is unique because the county's cases were severe enough to land people in the hospital for treatment, said Farley-Bouvier, and because investigators have not been able to determine what path the virus took to get here.

The state deployed two epidemiologists to the Berkshires this week to address that mystery, she said.

A spokeswoman for the state's Executive Office of Health and Human Services said the majority of the state's coronavirus cases stem from travel or contact with an infected person, while points of origin in Berkshire County remain unidentified.

To help track the spread, the DPH dispatched epidemiological staff to assist local officials, monitor testing of health care workers and patients, and coordinate the delivery of needed supplies and equipment.

North Adams City Councilor Jason LaForest, tested Tuesday after waking up with symptoms, had not gotten results back as of Wednesday evening. He entered quarantine Tuesday at the direction of the DPH, and North Adams Mayor Thomas Bernard quarantined himself voluntarily because of repeated contact with the councilor in recent days.

State Rep. John Barrett III, D-North Adams, said it has been frustrating trying to get information about what the DPH is doing and when its testing capacity will increase.

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"It's taking so long to get these results back," he said. "It's very, very frustrating for everybody. I just feel that some decisions are made with very limited information."

Lack of information makes people nervous, he said.

"I don't even know if they have sufficient testing kits," Barrett said. "We will be requesting that DPH come out here and start explaining what's going on, here."

Alternatively, Barrett said Berkshire Medical Center is working hard and keeping local leaders informed.

"They're doing whatever they have to do to get things done, and I can't say enough good things about their efforts," he said. "However, I'm not seeing the same thing from DPH."

Western Massachusetts needs its own testing site, he said, and the state DPH could make that happen with a phone call. The agency has to do more, he said.

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"They're operating in a vacuum, as far as I'm concerned."

Community impacts

Michael Leary, media relations director for Berkshire Health Systems, said hospital leaders are grateful to the governor for declaring a state of emergency that specifies Berkshire County.

"We are hopeful to learn soon whether a release of personal protective equipment will be forthcoming from the National Strategic Stockpile," he said. "But at this time we do not know what equipment will be disbursed, how much and in what time frame."

The Colonial Theatre canceled sold-out shows Wednesday.

Pittsfield Schools Superintendent Jason McCandless said he and other district leaders have discussed shutting down schools but have decided so far that it's not what's best for students.

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"We don't particularly see that as a great service to our community at this point," he said.

Baker on Wednesday also announced new statewide restrictions on nursing home visitations. Nursing home facilities in Massachusetts now are required to screen all visitors, prohibiting entry for those who are symptomatic, those who have come into contact with the new coronavirus, traveled internationally or if they reside in a community where community-based spread of COVID-19 is occurring.

The Berkshire Jail and House of Correction is holding "town halls" in each housing unit to educate inmates on how to stop COVID-19 from sweeping through this easy contagion target.

"We've had MERS and the flu in here before," said Berkshire County Sheriff Thomas Bowler.

Inmates are asked to tell family and friends to cancel visits if they feel ill, Bowler added. Staff have undergone special training.

The jail is cleaner than he ever has seen it, as staff disinfect more surfaces and equipment than usual. They are doing this around the clock.

"There are keys, duress pagers, radios, biometric time clocks," he said, noting that a lot gets done during the midnight shift. "It's an ongoing, everyday process."

The vans that go to and from court and elsewhere have to be disinfected after every run. And the courthouse also is taking precautions.

So far, no one at the jail has had any symptoms, Bowler said.

"And I'm knocking on wood as I tell you this, because we don't want it," he added.

Eagle reporter Heather Bellow contributed to this report.

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


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