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Berkshire legislators fuming over Baker administration’s move to close county’s state-run COVID-19 test sites

Pittsfield, Massachusetts - Berkshire County's largest community - has only just fallen out of the state's Red Zone for COVID-19 transmission, and remains above the state average positive test rate of 1.6% by around three points.
City of Pittsfield
Pittsfield, Massachusetts - Berkshire County's largest community - has only just fallen out of the state's Red Zone for COVID-19 transmission, and remains above the state average positive test rate of 1.6% by around three points.

Governor Charlie Baker’s administration announced last week it is closing all of Berkshire County’s state-run COVID-19 test centers. Lawmakers from Western Massachusetts say they’re frustrated and flummoxed.

Massachusetts says after April 1st, it will cut down the number of free COVID-19 test sites to just 11 statewide. That means all three of Berkshire County’s sites, in Pittsfield, North Adams, and Great Barrington, will shutter.

“The Berkshire delegation is united in calling for Secretary Sudders to reverse her decision to remove the Stop The Spread sites from Berkshire County," said 3rd Berkshire District State Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier.

The all-Democrat, five-member delegation sent a letter to Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders on March 4th in “strong opposition” to the plan. So far, the effort is to no avail.

“She made a decision to kind of roll back or ramp back the Stop The Spread sites, and there'll be only 11 left in the state, but there will be zero in Berkshire County," said Farley-Bouvier. "And so anybody who would go to a Stop The Spread site would have to travel to Springfield. And if you live in Berkshire County, it's at least an hour, and for those who live in North County, that would be an hour and 45 minute drive to go to Springfield. And that is just completely unrealistic.”

“When I received the word, I was surprised. I don't think anyone saw this coming, especially when in the legislature, we're passing supplemental funding to make sure testing kits and funding for COVID matters is included," said 2nd Berkshire District State Representative Paul Mark, who is now running for state Senate. “Just yesterday, we passed like $700 million to make sure that COVID resources are available. So it was a surprise. And as a delegation, we talked and we sent out a letter to try to make the administration reconsider that decision. But unfortunately, it seems like their mind is set.”

“What shocked me was that we know what works. We have this combination of making sure we're vaccinated and testing and having that infrastructure available and to suddenly remove that when people now know where these that infrastructure is- That’s one thing that jumped out at me," said Western Massachusetts State Senator Adam Hinds, also a candidate for lieutenant governor. “The insult to injury was that to say that the closest Stop the Spread site was going to be an hour or an hour and a half away from Berkshire residents. That just doesn't make sense. And so just running the numbers and saying, here’s where a majority of our tests are taking place doesn't result in the regional equity that we need or expect.”

“The reason given is that we didn't have the high number of tests, and so they kept in place those with the highest number of tests being done," said Farley-Bouvier. “But that is an overly simplistic look at it, because of course, our numbers might not be as high, but the percentage of the population would be higher. We just have less people here in Berkshire County, and so we need that regional equity. The other issue that [Sudders] didn't seem to- She and her team didn't seem to look at was our high positivity rates in Berkshire County, where Berkshire County and Western Mass has been persistently higher positivity rate in these last months.”

Pittsfield – the county’s largest community – has dropped out of the state’s Red Zone category for COVID-19 transmission for the first time since November.

But its 14-day positive test rate of around 4.5% in early March is still far above the state average of around 1.6% over the past 7 days.

“While I like that the numbers are going down, I think we're in a much better place than we were- We certainly are in a much better place than we were over the winter and over the first couple of months of the year. At the same time, if you just stop testing, and you just stop reporting these numbers- I mean, do we really know that we're in a better position than we were?” said Mark. “I'm getting a little tired of- This, I think, is the fourth victory lap we're taking on COVID being over, and while I want it to be the actual, final one that that is going to lead to something sustainable, I just think cutting these resources while we're emerging is the wrong move.”

Hinds says the delegation has yet to hear back from Sudders or her office.

“The bottom line is, do people have the knowledge of where to get tests, and do they have accessibility- And right now it doesn't look like we're on a path to get there,” he told WAMC.

The Executive Office of Health and Human Services did not respond to a request for comment from WAMC.

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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