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Pittsfield mayor outlines preparation for another pandemic holiday season

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.

Heading into Thanksgiving, COVID-19 transmission rates are continuing to climb in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Berkshire Health Systems is reporting a 9.3% positive test rate over the past week, with 12 people hospitalized from the disease. The city’s daily case rate per 100,000 is around 50, making this Pittsfield’s third-worst month for transmission since the pandemic began. The second grade class of Morningside Community School was sent home to quarantine last week after an outbreak among students and staff. WAMC spoke with Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer about the COVID situation in the city’s public schools and how the city plans to approach the holidays.

TYER: This time last year, we were in a really compromised set of circumstances related to COVID-19, and I know it was difficult for families and friends last year to- The possibility of not being with family during the holidays, starting with Thanksgiving and all the way through the Christmas season. This year is a bit different. I think that we're in a different place medically. While we still do have some transmission in our city, it is predominantly within households, and we are seeing that there is more cases among our children. So I think that it's still time to be cautious and to be careful, and to maybe limit the number of people that you welcome to your Thanksgiving table and to keep it within your household. And yes, we have a bit more freedom, a bit more flexibility this year than we did last year- And it's also still time to exercise caution and to think about the ease with which we are still seeing transmission of COVID-19.

WAMC: So on that topic, I want to talk about the Pittsfield school system and the transition back to in-person education during the COVID era. At this point, we've heard stories about the struggles schools are having with cases and how it's impacting in-person learning- Morningside, for example. At this point, what are your thoughts on how this semester has gone so far? Have we learned anything about the situation as it's going to continue into the winter for the young people of the city?

Yeah, I think we've learned quite a lot. And one of the most important lessons is how important being in school is for kids, right? So COVID-19 is something that we have to manage and observe and respond to when we have these pop-up cases. At the same time, though, not being in school, having that social-emotional opportunity to be with your friends, to be with your classmates, to be with your teachers, has an equally profound negative impact on kids’ lives, right? We saw in the beginning how difficult it was for kids to transition back into school. And I think that we have to be- We have to be aware that isolating kids, and while it was absolutely necessary during the height of the pandemic for everyone's safety to be- You're safer at home, and learning from home was certainly a part of that whole experience. And it's important to acknowledge, though, that had consequences not only on student academics, but on social emotional wellbeing. And so I think it's essential that we as adults in this community do everything we can in our power to keep our kids in school. And so back to Thanksgiving dinner, it might be better this year to keep your Thanksgiving gatherings small, keeping in mind that keeping our schools open is the priority for all of us. I think that it's also essential for parents with children and caretakers of children to consider the vaccination for kids now that it is available. And I know, families have concerns about it. I encourage parents and caregivers to talk to their pediatrician about the vaccination and how essential it is for keeping our kids safe, healthy, and in school.

So essentially, you see the ongoing pandemic as sort of an unfortunate reality of schooling for the time being, that it's sort of – we're sort of resigned, that that's just going to, like, pop-up cases are going to be happening, and there's little we can do ultimately to stop that.

I think it's to be expected that we're going to continue to see transmission of COVID-19, not only among adults, but among children. And I'm confident that our schools have many measures in place to try to slow that transmission or mitigate it as much as possible, right? So wearing masks in school, keeping six feet of distance, very significant cleaning protocols, monitoring kids and case rates so that if we have to close a classroom or close a grade for a period of time we can do that. I think we- It's so essential that our kids are in school, that we have to find ways to manage COVID-19 in in the classroom, so that kids can stay in school.

When it comes to child vaccinations, the city got to a point with its adult population where it hit somewhat of a wall as far as progress in getting shots in arms. How do you plan on approaching that the topic of vaccinating children in the city? Is there a plan in place? Is there a communication going out to parents?

There is. There is, and we what we have done is we have set up vaccine clinics right at our schools so that it’s easy for parents and caregivers and families to access the vaccine right at school. And those vaccination clinics have been scheduled and they are set up in a way that you can get your first dose and then there's a second clinic date so that students can get their second dose. So I am encouraging families and caregivers and parents to get your child vaccinated. This is how we slow down this illness and mitigate the impacts that it has on our community. And we have seen from- Now that vaccines are in the adult population, it has certainly not completely eradicated COVID, because I don't think that's where we're ever going to be, but it has made the illness much less difficult for people who do test positive. Our hospitalization rates are down, and it's less likely that someone will die from COVID-19 if they've been vaccinated. And so all of those things matter. And that's why it's important for this next population in our community, our kids, to get vaccinated as well.

The city re-imposed a masking directive for public spaces and businesses. So far, what's the response been from the business community? Obviously, this was controversial when you briefly shuttered indoor dining last year and that led to a lot of conversation. What's the reaction been now that that masks are directed to be worn again in some of these spaces?

I think that there has been an acknowledgement and a willingness to comply with the directive, right? It is, essentially, ‘please wear a mask.’ It's not a mandate. And I think that not only have the businesses been responsive and willing to comply with the directive, I think the community has been doing it as well. And I think that directive is essential, especially as we're transitioning from the summer months, where we were able to enjoy outdoor activities and eat outside, and transmission is much less likely in an outdoor environment than it is now that we're starting to gather inside. And so a mask directive has been fairly well received. I haven't gotten many complaints about it. And so it's imperative, really, that we encourage everyone to wear a mask when you're doing indoor activities, because it works, it slows transmission, and until we get more vaccines and more immunity, we have to comply with some of these easy measures to protect each other.

Looking at the city's own COVID data reporting, we're seeing this rise back towards heights that we haven't seen in the last six months since the spring and based on 2020, where we saw our biggest spikes in the city come during the winter months, how concerned are you about this winter? Is this going to be a real challenge to the city? Or do you think the city is prepared for what looks like a return to high transmission rates in the colder months?

Yeah, it has been concerning to me to see the increased rates of transmission. And we do know that it is primarily household, clusters of households. I'm concerned by the number of children that have been testing positive. I think it is indicative of something I just mentioned a moment ago, which is, you know, instead of having that child's birthday party outside on the patio, people are having their birthday parties inside or getting together inside. And that is where we all know it’s much more easy to transmit in an inside environment. I think that we continue to monitor this constantly. We not only monitor case rates, but we monitor hospitalizations to give us sort of those marks, markers in time- Do we need to do something more significant? It is really- Watching these case rates is what led to, part of what led to, the mask directive. I think we are ready. The COVID-19 task force is still prepared to respond rapidly if we should see some significant change in our case rates or a dynamic in the community where there is much greater hospitalization, and maybe a higher number of deaths, which we are, we're in a good place with regard to hospitalizations and deaths. We're in a new world now, right? Medicine understands how to treat it, vaccinations are available. It's still important though that we work together to try to slow transmission and keep each other healthy throughout these holidays that we know are so important to everyone and means so much to people.

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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