An undisclosed number of employees at Berkshire Medical Center are in self-quarantine after being exposed to at least one patient who later tested positive for COVID-19. Photo courtesy Berkshire Health Systems

BMC employees under self-quarantine as local officials grapple with response to coronavirus

In Great Barrington, town officials put out a statement yesterday, and at Monday's selectboard meeting, town health agent Rebecca Jurczyk briefed officials on measures the town is taking to prepare for the virus.

Great Barrington — As the coronavirus spreads rapidly and the numbers of those infected regionally continue to rise, local officials have come up with plans to deal with the illness, known as COVID-19, and are releasing more information to residents. In addition, as of this afternoon, 13 states, including Massachusetts, have declared states of emergency and dozens of major universities have suspended on-campus classes.

See video below, courtesy WCVB, of Gov. Charlie Baker announcing the state of emergency Tuesday in Boston:

According to the state Department of Public Health, as of midday Wednesday, there were 92 positive cases of COVID-19 in Massachusetts, seven of which are in Berkshire County. That’s an increase of two cases in the county since the weekend. Click here for DPH’s COVID-19 page with the latest information.

An undisclosed number of staff at Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield have been placed under self-quarantine after coming into contact with an infected patient, hospital spokesman Michael Leary has confirmed.

“We do have some employees of BMC who may have been exposed at a greater-than-low risk to patients with COVID-19,” Leary said in a brief Edge interview.

Leary would not say how many patients were infected or how many employees are at home under self-quarantine, but he added that Berkshire Health Systems, which includes Fairview Hospital in Great Barrington, has followed guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in “furloughing the employees and instructing them on self-quarantine.”

Leary could not say when the employees would return. The patients who tested positive all arrived separately last week complaining of flu-like symptoms. Currently only the DPH can conduct lab testing for the virus.

Dr. Everett Lamm. Photo courtesy Community Health Programs

BHS has set up a hotline for advice and answers to questions. It is staffed by nurses and open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. seven days a week. The number is (855) 262-5465. BHS has also set up a web page with information and frequently-asked questions.

Community Health Programs, a Great Barrington-based family health care provider, has canceled some programs, such as playgroups, that involve larger groups of people.

Dr. Everett Lamm, CHP’s chief medical officer, told The Edge that any patients who exhibit respiratory symptoms and flu-like symptoms should alert CHP staff beforehand. CHP is experiencing “an increased volume of sick patients,” though Lamm could not say for sure how much.

Lamm said no CHP staff members have been affected by COVID-19 so far, but the organization “is making plans to deal with that possibility.”

Great Barrington health agent Rebecca Jurczyk. Photo courtesy Town of Great barrington

“No one is under quarantine yet,” Lamm said. “We’re in close contact with the Department of Public Health. They have been incredibly helpful.”

In addition, CHP is “doing our best to protect our staff,” who are donning the appropriate protective gear such as face masks and gloves. Lamm said there have been reports of shortages of protective gear, but so far, CHP has been able to obtain what it needs.

There have been reports that some employees of the Southern Berkshire Ambulance team are under quarantine. Ambulance squad officials did not return a message seeking comment by publication time. If they do, this story will be updated.

In Great Barrington, town officials put out a statement yesterday, and at Monday’s selectboard meeting, town health agent Rebecca Jurczyk briefed officials on measures the town is taking to prepare for the virus.

See video below of Great Barrington health agent Rebecca Jurczyk updating officials Monday on the town’s preparedness plans for the COVID-19 virus:

“Our response group is laser-focused on the health and safety of our residents,” said town manager Mark Pruhenski. “We are still in peak cold and flu season, and now we are on high alert for novel coronavirus.”

Pruhenski said the town’s COVID-19 response team met yesterday “and will meet regularly going forward.” The group will review public health advisories on COVID-19, evaluate community risk and determine what additional precautions may be necessary.

Great Barrington town manager Mark Pruhenski. Photo courtesy Town of Great Barrington

Pruhenski said the response group includes himself; emergency management director and police Chief Bill Walsh; fire Chief Charles Burger; assistant town manager Chris Rembold; Jurczyk; a representative from Fairview Hospital; Berkshire Hills Regional School District Superintendent Peter Dillon; and Bill Hathaway, director of Southern Berkshire Ambulance.

Dillon reiterated what he told The Edge two weeks ago, which is that district officials are monitoring the situation and have stepped up cleaning efforts in the district’s buildings. Click here to see a letter Dillon sent to parents last month.

At Saturday’s meeting of the regional planning committee exploring a possible merger between Berkshire Hills and the Southern Berkshire Regional School District, talk turned to which dates and times for future meetings would be best for members of the committee.

Dillon made a confession: “All of my time right now is terribly sucked into this coronavirus thing.” Dillon, who doubles as superintendent for the Shaker Mountain School Union, later told The Edge he spends many hours each week developing plans, keeping track of Massachusetts DPH and CDC updates, responding to concerned staff and parents, and sharing updates.

Southern Berkshire Superintendent Beth Regulbuto sent out an update yesterday to the school community. Click here to read it.

“I will be doing another one shortly,” Regulbuto said in an email Wednesday. “We will be putting together a webpage or a link on our webpage where we will put all communications and resources available in one spot for our school community hopefully by the end of the day today.”

From left: Berkshire Hills Regional School District Superintendent Peter Dillon, Southern Berkshire Regional School District Superintendent Beth Regulbuto and Southern Berkshire Regional School Committee Chair Jane Burke at a June 2019 meeting. Photo: Terry Cowgill

In her recent update, Regulbuto addressed a subject that is on the minds of many: “While at this time we do not anticipate the need to close schools due to the virus, it is important to know that we are actively planning for this scenario. We are reviewing our technology inventory and preparing to have open distance learning opportunities in the event it would be necessary to do so. The details of this plan will be shared with our school community if we decide at any point this action should be taken.”

Southern Berkshire Regional School Committee Chair Jane Burke added that COVID-19 is on the agenda for the committee’s regular meeting Thursday, March 12.

No public school districts in Berkshire County have closed yet. The Pittsfield Public Schools recently announced that most after-hours school activities will be cancelled or postponed through the month of March and revisited for the rest of the year.

Dozens of major colleges and universities have closed temporarily and reverted to online learning until the crisis abates. Locally, Williams College in Williamstown will end in-person classes on Friday, March 13, and dismiss students for spring break on Saturday, March 14, a week earlier than planned. The college will be moving to remote learning beginning Monday, April 6, President Maud Mandel announced in a letter to the Williams community today.

The Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams is extending spring break for an additional week and will resume classes Monday, March 30. Berkshire Community College is not suspending classes but “is suspending use of our facilities to outside groups through April 10,” President Ellen Kennedy said in an announcement Wednesday.

Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Great Barrington has made no special accommodations. Spring break started Friday, March 6, and is slated to end Sunday, March 22. However, a letter to the community from the college’s Infectious Disease Task Force reminded “students to bring their books home in case your return to campus is delayed.”

There have been more than 120,000 documented cases of the novel coronavirus worldwide, including almost 81,000 in China, where it originated, and more than 1,100 in the U.S. Thirty people have died in the U.S., with 4,584 deaths globally.

Wednesday, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, a term that is more severe than an epidemic and is used to describe a disease that affects a whole country or the entire world.