Looking Back At 2020: COVID-19 In Berkshire County
In a look back at the biggest stories of 2020, WAMC has this review of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the westernmost county in Massachusetts.
Just a day after issuing a State of Emergency declaration on March 11th, Governor Charlie Baker was on the steps of Pittsfield City Hall to address the then-nascent outbreak of coronavirus.
“State health officials are closely monitoring and tracing presumptive positive cases, and this includes the seven cases people know about that are here in Berkshire County," said Baker. "The DPH is currently monitoring a small number of cases of community transmission of unknown origin in Berkshire County, and state officials are working closely with the impacted hospital as well as the local officials to monitor this situation and keep the community safe.”
The same morning, Mayor Linda Tyer declared a state of emergency for the city.
“We will be eligible for reimbursement for any costs associated for managing the COVID-19 situation," said Tyer. "It also frees us up to have access to supplies and materials that might be available.”
By the end of the year, almost 3,000 Berkshire County residents would contract the disease and over 130 would die from it – the overwhelming majority residents of nursing homes like Hillcrest Commons in Pittsfield, where more than 40 died in the fall and winter, and Williamstown Commons, where more than 20 people died in the spring. Berkshire Healthcare, which manages both facilities, also reported four deaths at Fairview Commons in Great Barrington and 15 at Kimball Farms in Lenox.
Spokesperson Lisa Gaudet says vaccinations began at Kimball Farms in late December.
“Our next facility after that will be Mount Greylock on the 2nd of January, followed by Williamstown Commons on the 4th, and then we have North Adams and Hillcrest Commons on the 8th," she said.
At the county’s largest hospital – Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield – nurses feuded with management over mask policy, with RNs like Mark Brodeur insisting the company supply all frontline workers with the then-scarce N95 masks as potential COVID-19 exposures ran rampant through the staff.
“Since a patient could have been exposed and shedding the virus without any symptoms, at this point in order to reduce the spread it’s important to assume that every single patient you have contact with has the coronavirus in order just to flatten that curve and ensure that the spread is slowed down as much as possible so that all of our resources aren’t overwhelmed at one time,” he told WAMC.
Berkshire Health Systems spokesperson Michael Leary pushed back.
“They claim Berkshire Health Systems would have a 28-day supply if all staff with any patient contact wore them," said Leary. "In fact, the burn rate would see us run out of N95 masks in nearly two weeks with a highly uncertain ability to rebuild the stock and maintain that level of usage going forward.”
The crisis pushed issues like how to care for the region’s unhoused to the fore, with debate raging in Pittsfield over how to respond to encampments forming in public parks. Springside Park resident Michele Mathews told WAMC that she didn’t trust the city’s emergency shelters in part due to her fear that she would catch COVID.
“There are six women to the room and even if they're 6 feet apart, even if they say they have to have a mask on, let's face it, not everybody can sleep and keep a mask on," she said. "And I don't think everybody will, because you're talking about people who are using still, who don't have a clear head and aren't really thinking about others at this point.”
At the Elizabeth Freeman Center – Berkshire County’s 24/7 resource for people experiencing domestic abuse and sexual assault – Executive Director Janis Broderick told WAMC in August that the COVID-19 lockdown had led to an explosion of calls for help in a community already struggling with the problem.
“They’ve been more extreme, the violence more severe," she said. "The options for help a little more limited because of coronavirus.”
With state and local leaders pushing for Massachusetts to reopen after months of economic downturn in the spring, public health leaders like Pittsfield Board Of Health chairman Dr. Alan Kulberg were often left with little more than words to battle the spread of COVID.
“We can recommend as much as we want, but it's going to be up to each individual person to take this recommendation seriously and to consider themselves and the safety of their friends and loved ones and to keep the gatherings to a minimum,” he said.
In early November, Pittsfield took extraordinary steps to curb a spike in community spread after Halloween parties at homes and businesses and went beyond state mandates by shuttering indoor dining at city restaurants for three weeks. Tyer announced that almost 50 new positive COVID cases were related to large private gatherings.
“We are aware of a birthday party that started at Mazzeo’s and then moved to Methuselah,” said the mayor. “And then there is a spike in cases that are associated with an event at PortSmitt’s.”
Pittsfield eventually reopened indoor dining in early December after local eatery owners like Craig Benoit of the Hot Dog Ranch pleaded their case to Tyer.
“I’ve had to lay off 22 employees,” he said.
Despite pleas from public officials, post-Thanksgiving spikes pushed communities like Pittsfield and Lenox into high-risk designations on the state level as local school districts kept scrambling to provide instruction with a mix of in-person and remote learning.
The year ended with indoor dining limited to 25% of capacity statewide – and Berkshire County restaurant owners facing even more impossible choices. Luke Marion of Otto’s in Pittsfield told WAMC in December that his hours for staff have been decimated and that it might make more sense to close for the season than weather a winter with scant financial promise.
“I do believe that indoor dining should be closed," said Marion. "And I do believe that, you know, we should be a lot more shut down in general than we are to get rid of this thing and to get ahead of it as quickly as possible. But it's an unrealistic expectation to have that happen because we're not getting enough help from the government.”