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With Lenox A COVID Red Zone, Tri-Town Health Depart Head Discusses Pandemic Response

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Tri-Town Health Department

The town of Lenox, Massachusetts remains in the state’s COVID-19 red zone. The high risk designation is based on an Average Daily Incidence Rate of over 70 per 100,000 and a 5 percent positive test rate  over the last two weeks. The spike in cases is tied to an outbreak in the Kimball Farms Nursing Care Center, which accounts for around 40 cases in Lenox alone. WAMC spoke with Tri-Town Health DepartmentDirector James Wilusz, who says the pandemic has greatly affected the district that represents Lee, Lenox and Strockbridge.

<--break->Tri-Town health, you know, for your listeners is the oldest health district in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Tri-town was created in 1929, when there was a milk outbreak in the three towns, and the three towns joined together to form an actual Health District. So, you know, we're into this 90 plus years. And, you know, we know, I feel like, from an institutional perspective, we were pretty well-prepared, although no one's really prepared for an unprecedented pandemic. I guess I'll just make that clear. But, you know, we, our health district is a formalized health district, meaning we have a full array of professional staff, board members, operating budget, revenue streams. And so I feel like we were in pretty good shape from a staffing perspective, you know, because boards of health in the commonwealth are set up a lot differently as compared to other states. You know, for example, other states are set by county government, their budget is subsidized by the state government. In Massachusetts, it's very unique. There's 351 cities or towns, all governed by an individual Board of Health and funding is inconsistent across the board, because the towns have to fund the health department. So you know, for our district, we have a systematic infrastructure where all three towns commit to an operating budget, which allows us the opportunity to hire professional staff, train them and retain them. So we felt pretty comfortable going into this, although it's really tested our capacity and, you know, the goings-on of trying to combat this pandemic.

WAMC: What areas have been most tested by the pandemic?

I just think, you know, trying to get a handle- Well, when the pandemic hit, you know, it was really responding initially, to, you know, understanding the cases, contact tracing, which, you know, we have a public health nurse contract of nurses that actually handle that. But the way it all kind of came through the governor's office, they put a lot, most of the burden on local boards of health. So if you recall, back in March, when we went into the “stay at home” kind of shut down mode, well, there's a large enforcement piece that goes to that. And they put all that responsibility on the boards of health. So not only were we dealing with the actual COVID cases, and the contact tracing and trying to reduce the transmission and spread. That's one component. But there's multiple other components that were responsible for, you know. Enforcing the mask mandate, make sure businesses weren't operating when they weren't supposed to. And so there was a significant amount of burden placed on boards of health. And so I think that's where it impacted us most. It was really trying to respond. And then the second piece is, is trying to handle all the enforcement of that in real time.

How is the department responding to Lenox being pushed into the state's high risk red zone in relation to the outbreak at the Kimball Farms Nursing Home?

Yeah, so as a district, you know, part of my responsibility working with my team at the health department, as well as the contracted nurses, and my boards of health and senior leadership for all three towns, I'm constantly looking at all the cases that come in. That's been happening since day one. And, you know, unfortunately, with Kimball Farms, you know, with their situation going on, it's really more of an isolated issue. I mean, we're working with them daily on updates and trying to get a handle on Kimball Farms. But based on the designation by the Commonwealth that, you know, they have a red color, which is a high risk, yellow, which is moderate risk, green, which is low, then neutral kind of being in the gray. It's all defined based on the number of active cases within the 14 day period based on population. So Lenox being a population of 5000 plus, a small amount of cases are going to jump us through into a red category. And so you know, when we got all those case counts, most of which came out of Kimball Farms, it just put us right into the red category, just by the sheer numbers and the small population that we have. You know, and I did a similar interview over last weekend, so as of last Friday, for example, the 27th, we had 27 active COVID cases, 17, of which came, were attributed to Kimball Farms. So you have 10 remaining. And then when we drill into the data, we had several households of multiple people that had COVID. Right. So it's isolated to specific homes. So when you actually break down the data, we're not at a community-wide spread. Although when you look at Lenox, it puts us into the high risk category, if that makes sense.

Moving forward, what do you think are the key areas of containment to prevent further spread?

Yeah, well, you know, we're working with Kimball Farms. They're doing a fantastic job based on what they're trying to get a handle on there. You know, they're on lockdown, they're testing, they’re quarantining, they're doing everything that they can. I'm working with the executive director directly, Sandy Shepard. Every couple of days we communicate and what's going on. So you really, you know, it's just, they got to get control of containment within the building, but it's really making sure that the employees that, you know, are coming and going each day- Our people are doing their due diligence, Josh and, you know, it's it still gets down to the basics of COVID. You know, trying to trying to combat COVID. Masking, handwashing, you know, staying at home as much as you can, trying not to mix cohorts. People still need to do their due diligence. And we just need to keep fighting that concept until we have mass vaccination efforts, which, they're not here. They're nowhere close to being here. And I think hearing the word “vaccine” is dropping the guard of many people in our community. We can't let the guard down yet. We're not there. So we need to keep working together. We're going to continue to test, monitor, contact trace, educate, enforce as needed to work with our community to get through this tough period. The second part of that is most health officials including myself, have been concerned, you know, as we came out of, you know, Halloween, we started to see the spikes in the super spreader events and the ramifications and all the communities based on that going into Thanksgiving and then, you know, going into Hanukkah then Christmas. You know, these next six to eight weeks are going to be very critical for public health officials to try to stave this thing down.

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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