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Pittsfield Mayor Discusses Mask, Vaccine Mandates Amid COVID Uptick

A white, brown-haired woman in a blue blazer stands with a microphone before her in a room lined with purple curtains
Josh Landes
Pittsfield, Massachusetts Mayor Linda Tyer.

With COVID-19 rates again on the rise around the United States, public and private entities – ranging from the federal government to corporate titans Google and Facebook – have imposed vaccine mandates for employees. Mask mandates are also returning in some areas as the potent Delta variant wreaks havoc on the unvaccinated. In the Berkshires, healthcare providers are beseeching the unvaccinated to take the jab as quickly as possible. Pittsfield, Massachusetts Mayor Linda Tyer says she backs the state’s most recent recommendation for all residents, even the vaccinated, to wear masks indoors under certain circumstances. But Tyer says Pittsfield will not mandate vaccines for city employees at this point. WAMC spoke with Tyer about how Berkshire County's largest community is preparing for the newest challenge of the pandemic.

TYER: Well, I think we got a lot of experience in the last 18 months on how to respond effectively whenever there is COVID related crisis confronting us. And so we are carefully monitoring all of the data that's specific to Pittsfield, to Berkshire County, and to Massachusetts,

WAMC: There have been a new round of calls for vaccine mandates for employees on a variety of levels, both private and public. At this point, do you foresee a vaccine mandate for employees of the city of Pittsfield?

As we are talking today, we are not going to impose a vaccination mandate on city employees. We feel that the case rates in the city of Pittsfield are not at a surge point. So it's not something we're thinking about implementing today. But if the situation worsens, it will certainly be considered.

WAMC: In the past in city council chambers, you've talked- Well, in the virtual city council chambers- you've responded to questions about the city having plans specific to variants like the Delta variants. At this point, other than monitoring those national international trends, does the city have a plan for this more specific, seemingly more potent strain of the virus?

We continue to have in place contact tracing. And we have got positive cases in the city of Pittsfield. And our contact tracers have identified that it is primarily household spreads. So it isn't community spread in the city of Pittsfield at this point. We have continued to engage with families who are experiencing COVID cases. And we're encouraging people to cooperate with our public health officials. We've noticed a little bit of a reluctance around following the isolation and quarantine guidelines. So we want to ensure that everyone respects the need for isolation, quarantine when they're positively infected with COVID. We have begun our Biobot testing again to monitor the virus concentration rates in our sewage. We collected samples last week, and there was no detection. But we did do a sample this past Tuesday. And we'll do another sample on Monday. So we continue to have all of the strategies in place that worked in the past to give us lots of lead time around what might be looking like a surge. And we're not at the point where we would identify this current situation as a surge.

Now, as far as the city's vaccination rates, the city is reporting that 60% of the city is fully vaccinated. That remaining 40%- how are you going about making sure that that somewhat large chunk of the population ultimately gets vaccinated?

Well, I think we have to take into account that some percentage of that 40% are young people who are not yet eligible for vaccination. However, we do know that there are adults and others who are eligible who have chosen not to be vaccinated. And I feel that that's a decision that puts them at risk and puts the community at risk. And so we will continue to advocate for people to get vaccinated. At the same time, we would encourage people who feel more comfortable wearing a mask in public places to do so. People can deploy the various strategies that we've all learned so well to protect themselves and their families if that's what makes them feel safer.

In Los Angeles County- obviously a larger Metropolitan center than Pittsfield by a little bit- There's been a return to a mask mandate for indoor usage. And of course, 0n a national level, the CDC has again altered their advice, once again recommending mask wearing even for vaccinated folks. As far as the city of Pittsfield, where do you see mask mandates for indoor wearing coming back? Is that something that's on the horizon for us?

Well, again, it's possible that it's on the horizon for us. But talking today, based on what we know today about our cases here in Pittsfield, we're not at a point where we would issue a mask mandate. It's understandable why some communities have issued those mass mandates, because they've had a significant surge in positive cases. And so of course, part of our assessment is to constantly monitor what the Massachusetts Department of Public Health is advising and also what the CDC is advising. So we're monitoring it closely, but we're not at a point now where we would issue a mask mandate.

Looking into the fall, there's obviously a lot of concern about the return of in-person education for a full school year, given that many children are incapable of receiving vaccines. At this point, how do you see the Pittsfield schools handling this challenge?

Barring any unforeseen extreme circumstances, we want our kids to be in school, in person in the fall. And we have put a significant amount of investment in our school buildings to ensure proper and safe air quality, in addition to requiring the mask mandates in our public schools that exist across the commonwealth. So you know, those will remain in place. It is so important that our kids are back in school in person for a variety of reasons. And I believe we can do it safely and protect their health from COVID.

What's the new benchmark for a return to stricter mandates and public health guidance in Pittsfield? Is there a certain level that you're waiting to hit before that becomes a possibility?

Yeah, so we have been following the CDC guidance, which at this point says that when you reach a point of 50 new cases per 100,000- We would obviously have to adjust that for our own data. But that's the point where we would start to implement restrictions that such as mask mandate, but we're not at that point yet.

It was confirmed on Friday that there have been breakthrough cases at a long term care facility in North Adams. Are you concerned at all about break through cases in Pittsfield certainly Hillcrest Commons had a pretty horrific experience with the the outbreak among other facilities in Pittsfield.

I am concerned about the presence of breakthrough cases. What we know now about the current cases that are positive in Pittsfield is that it’s a combination of breakthrough cases and those who have not yet been vaccinated. So we're always very concerned about how this new variant is going to affect our population. I also believe that a lot was learned when we went through this surge in the fall and again in the spring, and that our health care facilities are monitoring carefully and prepared to respond effectively to protect the residents and the employees of those congregate care facilities.

In the past, Pittsfield health professionals have identified eating in restaurants as a vector for spread of COVID-19. With this new concerning rise in the Delta variant, is taking indoor dining off the table again as Pittsfield did last year a consideration at all to you at this time?

Not at this time. We are not seeing any cases related to indoor dining or to restaurant experiences. So we are not at this at this point thinking about imposing any restrictions on our restaurants or dining experiences.

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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