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Berkshire Regional Planning Commission: Countywide COVID-19 Response Has Stabilized

Berkshire Regional Planning Commission Senior Health Planner Allison Egan, speaking with WAMC in March 2020

The Berkshire Regional Planning Commission is working with all 32 communities in the county to coordinate the public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Senior public health planner Allison Egan spoke with WAMC about how the coordinated response has progressed in the last month, and what challenges still remain.

EGAN: What I would really say about where we're at with this outbreak is that we're operating on a somewhat level status at the moment, between the hospitals and the public health, nurses and the boards of health, and the first responders. We've all sort of in the last three to five weeks gotten our footing in terms of how our operations are going and the needs of our communities and the needs of all of the responders and the departments in terms of who gets what from where. How are we information sharing, where are our resources coming from? What is the process for acquiring resources, and so I feel like, despite our cases, continuing to rise, I feel like the hospitals, and public health, and first responders have all been able to ramp up to a point where we can operate at a pretty reasonable level and things are pretty stable at the moment, I would say. I would say all the all the gears are functioning pretty well at the moment, and we're adapting, and learning to adapt quickly to new guidance and new orders from the state.

WAMC: So let's take a look at those gears. What exactly at this point is the countywide response looking like on the ground?

The regional response looks like three command centers, or three coordinating centers across the county. So there's the Northern Berkshire Regional Emergency Planning Committee. They have their command center activated up for North County communities. Southern Berkshire Regional Emergency Planning Committee down in South County for those communities. And then we have the Central County Coordinating Center operating in central Berkshire. And then there is a Pittsfield division of that. So Pittsfield got their command center set up with their Emergency Management Director, their mayor, and also their health director. And then the hospitals also got their command center set up. So there's a, I would say there's four to five major entities that are all functioning in unison and sort of in communication with each other, and with the state on a daily basis, to make sure that things are flowing and that patients are being tracked and the public's being looked after, and reassured, and that measures are taken as soon as an issue comes up from the community. So we're all constantly adapting, but there are five I would say, major functioning entities that are all working together really on a daily basis or multiple times a day, to coordinate every aspect of this response.

What are the most active fronts in this ongoing campaign? Are there specific issues that are continually at the forefront of your docket as the pandemic continues?

The continuing issue that is, you know, making headlines everywhere and is one of the most important and immediate issues is just the continuation of the lack of PPE. So there was a huge set of PPE that was delivered recently from the state to Berkshire County, first responders, which is such an excellent resource. But there are still components of those that are lacking. And these command centers or coordinating centers that I mentioned earlier in North, Central and South, they are all sort of taking orders for these PPE resources, you know, a week or two in advance from their communities and departments that need PPE, so that there's not a huge backlog anymore. So PPE is one of those issues that I think is just going to continue to be an issue throughout the peak of this response and potentially through the end of the peak in the recovery phase, as we move into the summer and fall season. So that's one of the big issues and also the extension of the school closures and childcare center closures, that's going to continue to be a tough thing for a lot of the residents of Berkshire County who have children. Many of them are working full time from home, and it's sort of an adaptation at this point. And kind of a big question mark about what they're able to do to continue the learning of their children at home and the care of their children at home while still working full time and also just making their household function. And then I would say the other component is just the continuation of the social isolation, and then all of the additional orders that are coming in from the state. So there's, I would say the state or the governor's command center is releasing new guidance as it relates to public health almost on a daily basis at this point. So there's been new guidance related to grocery stores for example. So grocery stores have a capacity now of 40%. of what they're building capacity is in terms of, you know how many customers and employees combined can be in the facility. So that's an adaptation. That's a new order. And it's also just something that boards of health, adapting to enforcing. And I think a lot of the grocery stores are doing a really great job on masking and protecting their employees, and then also prioritizing the health of their customers. So that's just an example of a new order coming through for public health. But there's tons of orders coming through and we're constantly be BRPC, and Berkshire County boards of health, and the Public Health Alliance, helping boards of health, providing them technical assistance and adapting to these orders, but also just helping them interpret orders in a way that fits with their community and is specific to specific scenarios in their community.

As far as the next big conversation about public health and the COVID-19 pandemic, where do you see the conversation proceeding from at this point in late April?

So I think one of the biggest things we're starting to talk about in public health and especially regionally Western Mass wise with the other surrounding counties in Massachusetts, including Franklin, Hampshire, and Hamden is, what are the needs going to be for not only the municipalities and the first responders, but also the public in the next, you know, two to six months. What we've been doing basically up to this point, and doing pretty successfully is just having to work from a reactive standpoint. So as things were being learned about COVID-19 and as we're learning more and more about the cases and the community spread in our community, we were having to adapt on a daily basis, our existing plan, and kind of ramp those up without, you know, looking months into the future. And now we're sort of at a point where we're functioning pretty well. And so we're starting to look into the future about once these restrictions depending on what the governor's office puts out for reducing restrictions around social isolation and public gatherings, and people just being out in the communities and starting to regain somewhat of a new normal, what are the needs going to be? Because we're not just going to flip a switch and say, all right, everybody can go to the park. Now we can have 100% capacity at grocery stores, or we can all go to concerts and festivals around the areas. So what are the needs going to be and how can we start prepping for the recovery phase of this pandemic? We're expecting that through May we'll probably have or be maintaining our social isolation to a certain degree. But I think as we ease more into June and July, some of those restrictions will hopefully be lifted. I don't have any information on that. But I am hoping I'm hopeful the way the graphs are looking at the way the data is looking that we could potentially be, you know, beginning to ease into a new normal In June and July and August. And so we're trying to just plan for the future, whatever that looks like. I can tell you one thing that we are planning to do is if we do get access to a vaccine for the public by next spring, what we're doing is we're updating our emergency dispensing site plans. With all of our regional communities out in Berkshire County, we have five regional emergency dispensing sites. We'll update the plan this fall and they will be ready to go basically as soon as the vaccine is available if we do need to use EDS then those plans will be updated appropriately to respond to a COVID-19 EDS.

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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