The town of Lenox, Massachusetts was pushed into the Massachusetts Department of Health’s COVID-19 “red zone” designation last week with an average daily incidence rate of 38.4 per 100,000. It was the only Berkshire County community given that high-risk designation through mid-November, with around 30 active cases.
The rise is related to a rash of new cases at Kimball Farms Nursing Care Center, which reported 30 residents and six employees with COVID as of Sunday.
It’s not the only facility managed by Berkshire Healthcare to see a spike in cases, as Hillcrest Commons in Pittsfield reported 127 residents and 46 employees with the disease at the same time.
Berkshire Regional Planning Commission Public Health Program Manager Laura Kittross is Director of the Berkshire County Boards of Health Association as well as the Berkshire Public Health Alliance. Kittross spoke with WAMC about what the “red zone” designation means for Lenox and the county at large.
KITTROSS: It's certainly something where you want to sit up and take notice and try to figure out what's going on in a town. And while it's suggestive that there's community spread, it's always important to look at why a town has gone from yellow to red, or from green to yellow. And in the case of Lenox, we know that there's an outbreak in the nursing home here. That's been pretty widely reported. And while that was not the only cases in Lenox, it's certainly a strong driver of why we would see Lenox go red.
WAMC: What does that mean, for both Lenox and the county in general, to see a spike of that nature?
You know, there are cases spreading. And that, you know, we certainly want people to take extra care. I mean, people should be taking care anyway. We knew we had a spike after Halloween, that spike continues as now it's spreading to families of those people who originally were infected. And of course, you know, we always want to look after our most vulnerable. As soon as COVID gets into the nursing homes, we know that it spreads very rapidly in nursing homes and other institutional care. We want to look at how to mitigate that and how to protect our most vulnerable residents.
WAMC: I've spoken with Berkshire Healthcare, they've talked about how widespread cases are amongst their staff and residents throughout the county. Is there any preparation that could have happened among these care facilities, given how dire the situation was back in the spring?
I think a lot of a lot of things were done, you know, and I think that's why we didn't see cases in the nursing homes for a long time. It's very hard. You've got people who need to be in close contact with each other on a regular basis, you have very vulnerable populations. You know, I can't speak for the nursing homes and what they didn't do. But I do know that they all met the requirements that were set out by the state after the outbreaks in the spring. The problem is, you know, we all need to do our part out in the community. Because it's once it's in the community, it's very, very hard to keep it from getting into those institutional settings. So it's another case where what you do in the community may affect our more vulnerable residents, and where, you know, you need to do things to protect others, as well as yourself.
Now, that red zone designation, does that change anything about how Lenox or the surrounding area is dealt with from the larger regional organizational standpoint?
So in theory, the state's Department of Public Health will offer additional resources as needed. I think it will depend on, you know, again, particularly what those cases are and why that particular community went red. But yeah, in theory, there are some additional resources available. I don't know exactly in practice how that works. But I assume that the Tri-Town Health Department in Lenox has been in touch with the state about that as needed. They may or may not need additional resources, they may just need time to get this under control.
There have been so many different responses just in Berkshire County to managing the spread during this crucial part of the year. Some school districts are closed through next year, some are only closed through part of December, some aren't closed at all. Does this designation sound any alarms for how schools are going to be mandated from a regional level?
So when the negotiations were done over the summer, and in the fall, a number of towns did choose to use these metrics in their negotiations with the teachers unions as a measure that would close or limit the number of kids in the school at one time. I think our thinking has evolved since then, and I think it's a little bit unfortunate that they become a sole source, or even an important source of making those of decision making. Certainly any town that goes to yellow or red, you want to look at it and see what's happening. But we now have quite a lot of evidence, both internationally and nationally, where it's been looked at that having the schools open is not a driver of community spread, that in countries where they close the schools, they have very similar levels of community spread as in countries where they didn't close the schools. Lenox hasn't had any cases of where there's been spread within the schools, nor have, you know, the other schools within the county. So while I think it's important to look at the schools when a town goes yellow or red and make sure that there's not spread within the schools, I don't think that the color designation in and of itself should be driving those decisions.