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Berkshire Health Systems community update: Testing, vaccination, and treatment during Omicron COVID-19 surge

If you are experiencing moderate symptoms, call your primary care provider (PCP). If you don’t have a PCP or if you have symptoms that need more immediate attention, our Urgent Care location in Pittsfield is seeing patients in-person and virtually.

The following alert was written by Dr. James W. Lederer Jr., chief medical officer at Berkshire Medical Center.

The Omicron surge has arrived in the Berkshires, and I know many of you have questions about testing, isolation, quarantine, and treatment. I hope the following information will be helpful.

Please be aware that Berkshire Health Systems is currently receiving an incredibly high volume of calls. As with many health care systems across Massachusetts and the country, we are also experiencing staffing shortages. Response times may be delayed. We apologize for the inconvenience and appreciate your understanding as we work to respond to you as fast as we can.

What are the symptoms of COVID-19?
Mild symptoms are a temperature below 100.4 degrees (below 102.4 degrees for children older than 3 months), aches and pains, or a mild cough. Some people who have recently tested positive for COVID-19 have reported feeling congested or stuffy. Moderate symptoms are a fever higher than 100.4 degrees, significant coughing, or shortness of breath. If you are experiencing severe symptoms such as significant trouble breathing; persistent pain or pressure in the chest; new confusion or dizziness; inability to wake or stay awake; or pale, gray, or blue-colored skin, lips, or nail beds, please visit your local emergency department or call 9-1-1.

I have symptoms that I think might be COVID. Do I need a test?
If you have symptoms, you should get tested. Tests are available at our locations throughout the county. If you are experiencing mild to moderate symptoms, please do not go to an emergency department to get a COVID-19 test. Our testing centers are serving about 1,000 patients EACH DAY (up from about 500 per day before Thanksgiving). To meet the tremendous community demand, we are expanding testing hours and increasing testing capacity.

Testing appointments can now be made quickly and easily through the Patient Portal. To schedule an appointment, go to “Appointments” and click on “Schedule Appointment.” Select the type of test that best describes your situation (either Close Contact, Symptomatic, or Asymptomatic), and then select the location and time that works best for you.

New appointments will become available daily. Please check your portal frequently to see the latest appointment openings.

Where do I find my results?
All results will appear in the “Results” section of your Patient Portal. Results are typically available within 24-36 hours.

Due to the high number of positive COVID cases in our community, we will be prioritizing who receives a follow-up call after a positive result. This means that the only notification that some patients will receive will be their positive result in the portal.

IF YOU RECEIVE A POSITIVE RESULT, IMMEDIATELY SELF-ISOLATE, NOTIFY YOUR CLOSE CONTACTS, AND FOLLOW THE LATEST PUBLIC HEALTH GUIDANCE FROM THE CDC AND MASSACHUSETTS DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC HEALTH.

Am I at high risk for severe COVID-19?
You may be at risk for developing severe COVID-19 if you are undergoing treatment for cancer, currently taking medications for an organ transplant, or taking immunosuppressant medications for other conditions. Other high-risk conditions include chronic lung, kidney, or liver disease; diabetes; HIV; and obesity. If you are over the age of 65 or are currently pregnant, you may also be predisposed to more serious symptoms from COVID-19 or influenza.

The best way to protect yourself from severe symptoms of COVID-19 is by getting vaccinated and boosted. Berkshire Health Systems offers vaccine appointments at our testing centers in Pittsfield and North Adams and at Fairview Hospital in Great Barrington. Appointments for vaccines can be made through the Patient Portal.

Additionally, the Berkshire Vaccine Collaborative will continue to host community clinics in the coming weeks. The next clinics will take place on Saturday, January 15 at St. Elizabeth of Hungary Parish in North Adams and Saturday, January 22 at Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield. Register for these clinics at https://home.color.com/vaccine/register/berkshire. For more information, visit https://www.getvaccinatedberkshires.org.

I tested positive on an at-home test. Do I need to get a PCR test?
If you use an at-home test and test positive, you have COVID-19. You do not need a PCR test for confirmation. Please start home isolation immediately and notify your close contacts of your positive test.

What is the difference between isolation and quarantine? Do I need to quarantine if I was in close contact with someone who tested positive?
Isolation is for people who have tested positive for COVID-19. Quarantine is for people who have been exposed to someone with COVID-19.

“Close contact” refers to the time you spent directly with an infected person. This means you were within 6 feet of an infected person for a total of 15 minutes or more within a 24-hour period. The 15 minutes do not need to be consecutive. For example, three separate 5-minute exposures over the course of a day would total a 15-minute exposure.

Guidance around the need for quarantine and testing after an exposure is changing. For the most up-to-date information, please visit the CDC’s website (https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/your-health/quarantine-isolation.html) or the Massachusetts Department of Public Health website (https://www.mass.gov/info-details/isolation-and-quarantine-guidance-for-the-general-public).

I tested positive, and I’m worried about my symptoms. What should I do?
If you are experiencing mild symptoms, you should stay home and isolate. Rest, drink plenty of fluids, and monitor your symptoms. You will hopefully start to feel better within a few days. You do not need to contact your primary care provider unless your symptoms worsen.

If you are experiencing moderate symptoms, call your primary care provider (PCP). If you don’t have a PCP or if you have symptoms that need more immediate attention, our Urgent Care location in Pittsfield is seeing patients in-person and virtually. Appointments are not necessary, but if you would like to schedule an appointment ahead of time you can visit https://urgent.berkshirehealthsystems.org/.

If you are experiencing severe symptoms, please go to the closest emergency department or call 9-1-1.

The BHS COVID Testing Center is screening positive COVID-19 patients for high-risk conditions. A nurse will conduct an on-phone screening to determine whether you are eligible for monoclonal antibody treatment. Most high-risk patients qualify for this therapy, and it has proven effective at preventing serious illness as a result of COVID-19 infection.

What about the new treatments for COVID-19?
Recently the FDA has issued emergency use authorizations (EUAs) for Pfizer’s Paxlovid (nirmatrelvir tablets and ritonavir tablets) and Merck’s molnupiravir. These are pills that can be used to treat mild-to-moderate COVID-19. Paxlovid is available for adults and children 12 years of age and older weighing at least 88 lbs. Molnupiravir is for adults only. Both are available by prescription only for patients who are at high-risk for severe COVID-19 and should be started as soon as possible after the diagnosis of COVID-19 and within five days of the start of symptoms. We have access to these treatments in limited quantities and are screening patients for eligibility based on medical history. Please do not call or message your primary care provider’s office to request these drugs.

In addition to COVID-19, the flu and other viruses like the common cold are spreading in our community as well. If you got a negative PCR test result but have mild symptoms, stay home, rest, and drink plenty of fluids; if you’re experiencing moderate symptoms, including fever and body aches, contact your primary care provider. They may test you or give you medication for the flu, especially if you are in a high-risk group.

We will continue to provide more information as it becomes available. These are uncertain times, but together we can keep each other safe by staying home if you feel sick, masking, and practicing social distancing.

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