Across Berkshire County, Public Health Officials Differ On Masking Policies
With the Delta variant of the coronavirus leaving infection rates stagnant or rising in some Berkshire County communities, public health officials are responding with varying levels of intensity.
As the pandemic grinds on into another fall, Berkshire County’s largest community – Pittsfield, Massachusetts – is having its largest spike in daily case rates per 100,000 since April.
Interim Director of Public Health Andy Cambi reported on the COVID-19 data at Tuesday’s city council meeting.
“We've been holding steady," he said. "Not where we want to be. We passed the 10 daily case threshold. We've been staying at the daily case per 100,000 population around- We saw the highest 28.28, and today, 23.73. Our new cases in Pittsfield, representative in the white bars, we saw a low of about five on 9/7/2021. And then Friday, 9/10/2021, we saw cases of 19.”
Pittsfield reported its 77th COVID-19 related death since last March over the weekend.
“Condolences to the family and friends of that individual," said Cambi. "The cases, the hospitalizations: on August 31st, we had at 12. Dipped down a little bit and we're holding steady at around seven. ICU patients at three. As of today, we have two. The active cases for Pittsfield that the contact tracing team is working on is a little below 80.”
Despite the recent surge in cases, the city has not returned to a comprehensive masking mandate since it ended its state of emergency in June. But in light of the ongoing struggle to contain the virus, other Berkshire communities have adopted more stringent measures again.
James Wilusz is the Executive Director of the Tri Town Health Department, which serves Lee, Lenox and Stockbridge.
“There’s a lot of people in the community that have really rallied together," he told WAMC. "Really, really complied with all the directives when it was a state of emergency. Really good vaccination rates. But for the most part, there's a lot of people out there that aren't being so helpful with this. And we're seeing breakthrough cases, we're seeing the Delta variant really pushing through the community.”
COVID-19 community transmission rates in Southern Berkshire County are high by CDC standards, with a 7-day case rate of 218 per 100,000 people. From late August into early September, 111 new cases have been reported. On September 7th, the Tri Town Health Department issued a sweeping, five-part masking directive – starting with wearing masks in all indoor spaces unless sitting to eat or drink.
“We're asking restaurant employees to wear a mask indoors and outdoors, with their serving people outdoors," said Wilusz. "We talked about masking outdoors at public events where physical distancing cannot be accomplished at a minimum of six feet or more per person. We really talked about the proper way to wear a mask, what types of masks are allowed under the CDC guidance.”
Wilusz says the final piece of the directive has been the most controversial, and is likely to change.
“We were really asking for event planners and organizations to really reconsider hosting any events outdoors," he explained. "In the initial directive that was passed, the boards of health didn't define the size of the event. And we're going to take that feedback back to the boards of health next week and hopes to make some clarifying pieces.”
In Williamstown – 40 miles north of the Tri Town area – public health officials have taken a different tack.
Health Inspector Jeff Kennedy addressed the town’s board of health at its Monday night meeting.
“We have 19 COVID cases today," he told the board. "We're looking at, basically, of those 19, six of them have 10 or more days since the cases are created. The new state guidelines allow for just a 10-day quarantine or isolation as long as you're resolved of symptoms for more than 24 hours. And five of those six are actually 14 days or more since the case was created, since the diagnosis. So you can say basically, we have 13 cases that I would consider active in town right now.”
The body issued a message of support for indoor masking policies in August, but stopped short of following the model of the Tri Town Health Department’s masking directive.
“I don't think that a mandate is going to change the behavior of anybody who isn't going to wear a mask or doesn't want to wear a mask. As matter of fact, I think it puts it into a political realm," said Dr. Jim Parkinson of the Williamstown Board of Health. “I would much rather see us have a strong suggestion saying, having reviewed the data, this is our considerable opinion that this is what we should do, we're doing it for everybody. And not, you must wear a mask, it is a mandate, because I just don't think- We've seen that doesn't work. And in a place like, as close as Adams, their recent Board of Health meeting, there was a lot of angst and pushback. And I don't think we need that in Williamstown.”
The county’s patchwork approach to tackling COVID measures mirrors statewide strategies, namely Governor Charlie Baker’s decision to leave mask mandates for public schools up to each of the commonwealth’s 351 communities. For now, Wilusz of the Tri Town Health Department is hoping that a strong directive and clear messaging to the community is enough to battle misinformation and pandemic exhaustion.
“There’s been over 300 deaths of COVID related cases in Berkshire County," he told WAMC. "I don’t have the exact number in front of me, but it's over 300. And for those that are out there saying and questioning the data and science, I encourage people to go speak to those families that have lost a loved one to COVID, and you'll see that we're not in misrepresenting the concerns with COVID.”