Great Barrington — As the world grapples with the deadly outbreak of a new strain of coronavirus, local officials are emphasizing caution, common sense and perspective.
Berkshire County’s largest health care organization is Berkshire Health Systems, which includes Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield and Fairview Hospital in Great Barrington.
Michael Perreault, director of infection control, said BHS has been monitoring the situation since December, when Chinese officials first reported an “outbreak of pneumonia of unknown origins.”
The virus was later identified as the Coronovirus2 and the disease it causes is known as COVID-19, named after 2019, the year in which it first emerged. COVID-19 seems to have originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
About 80,000 people have been infected in China. As of Friday afternoon, roughly 4,300 people elsewhere across the globe are known to have been infected, according to statistics from the World Health Organization. The global death toll stands at more than 2,800 people. Nations outside China with the largest numbers of infections include Japan, South Korea, Iran and Italy. Mexico recorded its first case Friday. Those with compromised immune systems, such as the elderly, are at greatest risk.
Perreault said persons arriving at BHS facilities who complain of flu-like and respiratory symptoms are screened immediately. Patients will be asked about their travel history and whether they have been to China in the last two weeks, for example. Flu tests are administered with a nasal swab. In addition, persons with respiratory symptoms are asked not to visit anyone in BHS’ hospitals.
“We still have flu precautions in place because this is still flu season,” Perreault explained.
BHS has been monitoring recommendations from the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Perreault emphasized the common influenza remains “much more prevalent than COVID-19.”
There have been no known cases of COVID-19 in Berkshire County, though there was one confirmed case in eastern Massachusetts. The victim, a man in his 20s and a student at the University of Massachusetts Boston, had recently traveled to Wuhan and sought medical care soon after his return.
The state Department of Public Health is monitoring 231 people in self-quarantine, who returned from travel in China, for potential symptoms. Another 377 people have completed monitoring and were released without symptoms, the department said recently.
This week, a Pittsfield family voluntarily placed itself under a 14-day quarantine after returning on Sunday from a trip to China. Health officials insist the family is at low risk for developing the virus, as are other Bay State residents.
Community Health Programs, a health care provider based in Great Barrington but with offices throughout Berkshire County, “is closely monitoring public health reports about this illness,” Dr. Everett Lamm, CHP’s chief medical officer, told The Edge.
Lamm said in a statement Friday that Massachusetts and Berkshire County are at very low risk for COVID-19, and the virus is not spreading in the U.S. or in our state. Nevertheless, “CHP is sharing with our patients our most up-to-date information as they raise questions and concerns about risk factors for this novel coronavirus (COVID-19). CHP is also standing by to provide use of its mobile health van, if needed.”
“The likelihood of getting the flu virus — and dying from it — is far more likely than getting novel coronavirus at this time,” Lamm explained. “We urge our community to use common sense — as they would for the flu or other illness — in caring for themselves and others at home and at work. We also urge people not to panic and to seek credible sources of information on the development of novel coronavirus, such as the CDC or Massachusetts DPH.”
State Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel said Wednesday that her agency has been monitoring more than 600 people under self-quarantine in the state looking for possible symptoms of the COVID-19 virus. Of those, 377 have already completed their monitoring and have been released without symptoms. Gov. Charlie Baker said Thursday he will release a plan next week on measures the state is taking to prepare for a possible outbreak of the new virus.
Lamm said the state Department of Public Health has characterized the current flu risk in the state as “high,” and predicts the season will extend into April. He urged those who are concerned about COVID-19 to obtain a flu vaccine, if they have not yet done so. There is no vaccine yet developed for COVID-19.
In the U.S., 60 people have been treated for the disease. Most of those people were evacuated from a cruise ship that docked in Yokohama, Japan. The CDC confirmed this week an infected person from northern California who has no known travel history or contact with an infected person, indicating that so-called community transmission has occurred. Fears of an epidemic have panicked investors into selling and sent markets tumbling. The emergency has also disrupted manufacturing markets in Asia and around the world.
The Berkshire County Association of Boards of Health put out a statement Thursday aimed at calming nerves, and noting that the risk to state residents remained low.
The association said U.S. cases range from very mild to severe, with a mortality rate of up to 2%. Perreault thinks the death rate could be much lower because of the number of people who contract the virus, do not develop serious symptoms and never report it.
“The safety and health of Berkshire County residents is our highest priority,” the association said. “If quarantine measures are needed at some point, local Boards of Health and their response partners will be working together to support individuals who have to stay home for a period of time for public health monitoring as is occurring right now in the City of Pittsfield.”
The health boards association says residents of Berkshire County can protect themselves by practicing personal protective measures used in other respiratory illnesses like the common cold or seasonal influenza, such as washing their hands frequently; avoiding touching their eyes, noses and mouths with unwashed hands; and avoiding close contact with sick people.
Surgical masks, the association says, offer no protection from COVID- 19, and more protective masks, such as N-95s, require professional fit-testing to be effective. If you develop respiratory symptoms such as cough, sneezing or a fever, you should stay home from work, school and other locations where you may infect others, and avoid contact whenever possible. Cover your mouth with a tissue if you cough or sneeze.
“The current risk to Berkshire County residents remains low, but this is a rapidly evolving situation,” the association warned. “Boards of Health are preparing to support the medical system and quarantine measures should they be needed.”
Local school districts are preparing as well. Superintendent Peter Dillon of the Berkshire Hills Regional School District said the district is “regularly monitoring absences and illness trends,” and has asked families to call the district’s health office to report and flu or viral illness.
In a letter sent Thursday to the Berkshire Hills community, Dillon said custodial staff is doubling down on its practice of daily cleaning and routine disinfecting of classrooms and other spaces. In addition, the district receives regular updates from the state Department of Health and the CDC.
Dillon added that there is no reason to keep children home or to wear a surgical mask to school. He emphasized teaching children to employ best practices in avoiding the spread of disease: washing hands frequently both at home and at school; covering coughs and sneezes with your elbow; and avoiding touching eyes, ears or mouth.
Children and district employees should stay home if they have symptoms of a viral illness, such as a fever above 100.4 degrees, cough, runny nose, chills or body aches.
“We have been advised that the risk to the community, including school-aged children, is low,” Dillon said. “We will continue to monitor this health concern and will keep you updated should the situation develop or new pertinent information is made available.”
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