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Berkshire Health Systems schedules more community vaccine clinics as testing, staffing are tested by Omicron

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Berkshire Health Systems

With the highly transmissible Omicron variant driving a surge of COVID-19 cases in Berkshire County, Berkshire Health Systems – the region’s largest healthcare provider – has scheduled two more community vaccination clinics. From 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield, anyone 5 or older can get first, second or booster shots.

January 14th, Williams College in Williamstown is hosting a clinic for those 12 and older from 8 to 10 a.m. With numbers soaring after the holiday season, BHS has seen its testing system taxed. Callers to its COVID-19 hotline are told to wait until next week at the earliest to schedule a test. BHS spokesperson Michael Leary spoke with WAMC.

LEARY: I think every provider’s testing capabilities right now are being strained. It's- Certainly Berkshire Health Systems, but it's every other provider in the state, across the country, around the region. You know, coming out of the holidays – it's the biggest holiday season, so to speak, it's why they call it the holiday season – a lot of people, of course, attended gatherings, and, or wanted to attend gatherings. So they wanted to get tested. There's a very limited supply of home test kits that have been available across the region, and those sold out very quickly. So it's expected that a lot of people would be calling to try to make an appointment to get tested. We're asking people to understand that, you know, staffing is limited all across the nation when it comes to testing and we're doing the best we can. We tested over 5,000 people in the last seven days. That's a high for us. And we're continuing to try to make adjustments. But we do ask that people understand just how busy it is out there and how much demand there is for testing right now.

WAMC: You alluded to staffing issues, and certainly that's an issue nationwide. Right now, for BHS, as the county's largest employer, how difficult is it to have a full staff or close to a full staff on the floor right now amidst all this?

Well, I don't even think it's during the surge. I think this started several months ago, and it's actually been prevalent for probably the past year or so. But our vice president of human resources has been accurately quoted as saying it's the hardest recruitment that he's seen, the hardest ability to recruit that he's seen in his entire career. Health care providers, many of them are retiring. There is a limited supply of new health care providers that are coming out of colleges and nursing schools. And so we are aggressively trying to recruit as many new employees as we can. We are also relying on a limited number of travel nurses. But even travel nursing has been very difficult to attain over the past couple of months, due to the holidays and the demand.

Do you have a sense or an estimate of exactly what the staffing levels look like right now?

Our staffing levels are adequate. But again, we are supplementing with outside travel nurses and we're doing everything that we can to keep things stable. We, like every hospital in the state, has had to cut back on non-urgent surgical procedures, which has helped to free up some staff to attend to other patients who are in the hospital. During this time of year, our inpatient volume is generally fairly high. It continues to be relatively high. The good news is that our inpatient COVID numbers, compared to last year at this time, are significantly lower. We have about 20 COVID inpatients right now. In January of last year, we hit a high of 60. The patients that we have, largely, those who are inpatients are not vaccinated. There are a few that are not as acutely ill as we think that they could be if they had not been vaccinated. So we continue to get the point across that this is a pandemic of the unvaccinated right now.

Now as far as looking a little farther into the year, at this point is BHS have a sense of when this surge is expected to break and some of these testing concerns and vaccination concerns and staffing concerns might be a little less leaned on by the current situation?

I think if I knew or had any sense when the pandemic would officially, quote unquote, come to an end or wind down, I would I would probably hit the lottery and be on every news program in the country and around the world. It's just been extremely hard to predict where this pandemic has gone with the different variants that have come out. You know, I know the CDC and others are hopeful because the Omicron variant, even though it is more highly transmissible, does not seem to be causing as much acuity when it comes to severity of illness. But it really is still anyone's guess. We just have to continue to plug along. Our doctors, nurses, techs, the people on the front line have just been amazing. I don't know how they do it day in and day out and they're continuing to fight this on a daily basis.

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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