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COVID-19, Deaths Mount In Williamstown, Great Barrington Nursing Homes

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Since the Williamstown Commons nursing home in Williamstown, Massachusetts reported its first case of COVID-19 on March 24, 10 residents have died and 35 more have tested positive for coronavirus. On Monday, the remaining 75 of the center’s roughly 130 residents were tested for the virus. Now, the company that manages the facility says there are five positive cases at another of its centers, Fairview Commons in Great Barrington, 45 miles south of Williamstown. WAMC spoke with Berkshire Healthcare Systems Vice President of Communications Lisa Gaudet Monday about the company’s response to the outbreak.

We continue to cohort those that are testing positive within a single unit and have dedicated staff to that unit to ensure that folks in other parts of the building are not having the same caregivers who are delivering care, and also that we're segregating that unit to contain the virus in that area.

So given that you've been using that strategy to date and still this problem continues to mount, is there any change in that policy that you expect?

Well, currently we're using Mass Department of Public Health and CDC guidelines to guide how we're doing our cohorting of patients and our residents. And I believe that will continue. And as I've shared before, we are on the phone daily with the Mass Department of Public Health, updating them on the current situation of patients or residents in our building, staff, and also looking for their ongoing recommendations and guidance to support that.

What has BHS’s communication been like with local municipalities as the situation continues to intensify?

Communication with the Williamstown Board of Health as well as with Representative John Barrett's office has been ongoing, and we continue to keep them updated, as well as the local media.

As I understand it, there's also a situation emerging at Fairview Commons in Great Barrington. What's the story there?

So the Massachusetts Department of Public Health had undertaken a strategy that they were looking to execute across the state in an effort to respond to an expected surge of individuals who would need non-acute care, placement and recovery opportunities following being infected with COVID. And they were in discussions with us about possibly having Fairview Commons be a site of a COVID recovery site. Upon moving ahead with the thought of that plan, the Department of Public Health asked us to have all of our residents there tested before we took any further steps to ensure that we did not have any positive cases there. We swabbed everybody there on Friday, and those results started to come back today. Obviously what that did is it showed us that that the virus is present in that building. The patients or the residents when they were swabbed on Friday, we had no one who was symptomatic. And yet, what we're seeing is that even asymptomatic individuals can have the virus, and so those individuals are already on a segregated area of the building with private rooms and dedicated staff, again, cohorting them in one area of the building. So the strategies that we've employed at Williamstown are the same ones that we're employing at Fairview Commons, and again, in direct communication with the Department of Public Health, receiving their guidance, recommendations and protocols on a daily basis.

So what comes next for Berkshire Healthcare in the situation where Williamstown Commons continues to expand and now it's emerging in Fairview as well?

Yeah, I think that's a great question. I'm not sure that I have an answer. That is, I think what we've learned here is that this virus is insidious. It can present in ways that we are learning are not just necessarily related to overt symptoms such as temperatures, cough, fever, body ache, things of that nature. I think we're learning that for some people, they are truly asymptomatic or they're presenting with slightly different symptoms. And so, for us, I think what it does is it just increases our response to look at how can we test as many people as possible and in Massachusetts, the Department of Public Health has worked with on a pilot project with the National Guard, in order to avail nursing homes in the state of Massachusetts with testing where the National Guard will come to the facility and test all of the residents in the facility. So I think we're entering probably the next phase, which is recognizing that not everybody who's positive may have symptoms and yet the potential for the virus to spread through asymptomatic individuals is a reality. And we will need to continue to do our, our diligence around how we assess patients, how we assess staff, and how we continue to work in collaboration with the Mass Department of Public Health to ensure that we are doing everything we can to protect the safety of our residents, and as well as our staff.

How are you handling end of life rituals with families of folks who are passing away in The Commons?

Individuals are able to be brought in for end of life situations. I would say it's probably not as, it's a definitely a more difficult and challenging aspect to end of life than what would normally have happened obviously, when individuals pass in nursing homes, skilled nursing centers, we oftentimes have family members who will come and a group of them will come and will stay with that loved one, they'll stay overnight. They'll stay for days as that person, you know, transitions and that is important to families to be able to be there for their loved one. And now with this disease, it's requiring that you have a smaller number of individuals who are present. It's requiring that those people all wear personal protective equipment, which obviously, doesn't necessarily lend itself to the most comforting experience of end of life for residents. And I think, you know, for us, if we could have it different, we absolutely would, but it's obviously our responsibility is to keep these families safe while also allowing them the opportunity to be with their loved one at end of life. So, it has changed in terms of numbers in terms of just the ability to get close to someone, given that they have an active virus and that you need to wear personal protective equipment at that time.

Speaking of PPE, at this point does BHS feel that the staff at these facilities have enough equipment to safely and adequately handle the situation?

Yes, currently we do. We also have resources internally here within our home office to have been redeployed from their original responsibilities to focus exclusively on sourcing that PPE, and ensuring that we have good inventory accountability around all of our facilities, that we understand utilization. In other words, how many gowns, masks, gloves do you use every time you need to care for someone who is on a precaution over a 24 hour period, and calculating that out so that you can ensure that they have an adequate supply? So yeah, a lot of effort is going into making sure that we have sufficient amounts, that we continue to source that regularly, and the buildings that have these active cases, we've definitely made sure that they have sufficient supply.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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