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Berkshire Public Health Officials Say Travel, Gatherings Root Of COVID Clusters In Region

The Berkshire Regional Planning Commission logo
Berkshire Regional Planning Commission

With COVID-19 rates rising in Massachusetts, a new round of public health mandates from Governor Charlie Baker take effect Friday. WAMC spoke with Berkshire County Boards of Health Association and Berkshire Public Health Alliance Director Laura Kittross of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission about the state of the pandemic in the region right now.

KITTROSS: So like everywhere, we're seeing some increases, we're seeing lower increases than the rest of the commonwealth, and the commonwealth seeing lower increases than much of the rest of the country, though other states in the northeast are also doing better than some other parts of the country. But you know, we are seeing some increased activity and I think it's no time for people to let down their vigilance. People certainly need to be aware that COVID is still out there and could easily come back over the next couple of months.

WAMC: What specific benchmarks are you monitoring before more action would be taken or further suggestions from the planning commission would emerge in relation to rises in COVID?

So I think anything we did would be in, you know, conjunction with the Department of Public Health, and with the governor's orders that are coming out. You know, we haven't to date seen a rise in Berkshire County that would suggest that something different or unusual is happening out here. But certainly what we're looking for is clusters. You know, are we seeing a number of cases that are related to each other? And if they are, you know, what could we do to keep that from spreading further. Primarily, the cases we see in Berkshire County right now are related to out of state travel and they are related to people having social gatherings. So I think a lot of us have a little bit of pandemic fatigue right now. It's been a long time since we've gathered together and people are starting to let down their guard a little bit. And, you know, with the holidays coming up, that particularly concerns me, because I think we all need to just kind of hunker down for another few months. So I think that, you know, we're always looking at clusters, we're always looking at how the disease is spreading through the community and just trying to get a handle on that and mitigate that from spreading further.

There's been a narrative about younger people being the root of these cluster events and parties happening. Is that true? Are you seeing a demographic specificity of that nature in the cases that have been emerging recently?

So I don't have all the data in front of me, so I can't speak too definitively to that. But we certainly have had, you know, some suggestions, some anecdotal evidence that that is the case, that we see younger people starting to gather together. We're not seeing spread in schools and in other controlled environments at this time. But we are seeing some spread outside of school. But you know, primarily, it's the same as we've seen all along. It's family groups. You know, somebody may pick it up somewhere, but then your close contacts tend to be your family and your close friends. So it's just not expanding that circle out any further than it needs to be. And you know, with the holidays coming up, I don't know that we'll continue to see younger people being the primary driver here. I think that families really feel like they haven't seen each other in a long time and it's very hard to give up the holidays. But there's ways to do that more safely than others.

Speaking of young people, holidays and schools, what would have to change in Berkshire County before more advisements come out about closing down public schools?

I think you'd have to see some spread. You know, again, this is not my decision to make. And, you know, the schools and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education at the state level, and DPH have all been trying to figure out metrics for months now. But primarily, I think you'd have to see some evidence that there was actually spread within the schools. You know, even when we've seen school aged people get, test positive, it's been related to out of state travel, it's been related to some other kind of exposure. We just- The schools are a very controlled environment. The schools in Berkshire County doing a great job of keeping the kids socially distanced and masked and so on. And to date, we haven't seen spread within the schools. But I think you'd have to see some kind of sustained transmission within the schools before people would start really recommending to close down schools.

You've mentioned the concerns around family gatherings around the coming holidays. What's the next chapter of COVID response like in Berkshire County? Is that the biggest concern you have right now?

So it is kind of the biggest concern I've got right now. Um, you know, and I really want to get the message out there that if people feel that they need to travel for the holidays that they should really quarantine for that two weeks when they return. And testing out if it is not necessarily good enough. You know, you can really test positive for that full two weeks and a test done after five days may not pick that up. So I would ask you if you wanted to travel for the holidays, please keep your kids out of school for the next two weeks. Please stay home from work for the next two weeks. Try not to shop and that kind of thing. And keep it low. I think we've done a great job here in Berkshire County in keeping numbers low. That's been both, you know, the public health nurses in the hospital, the hospital offering testing and the public health nurses doing case investigation and contact tracing. But it's also, you know, it's our rural nature that we're not on public transportation. But it's also been that people in Berkshire County have been really great about it, and have really taken it seriously. They're wearing masks when they're out in public, they're social distancing. And so I would just say that, you know, this isn't going to last forever. And that really, people shouldn't let their guard down. And that, you know, we should all keep our, kind of our eye on the things that really matter, like keeping the kids in school, keeping businesses open. And then you know, the other thing that I'm always concerned about is protecting those who are most vulnerable. So, you know, we saw a lot of cases in nursing homes and so on earlier on, so I would want to, you know, be sure that- I think at this point, the infection control measures in nursing homes are excellent. I think they've responded really well. But that's always my concern is that they're really vulnerable populations are protected.

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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