COVID-19 cases have been reported at two of Northern Berkshire County’s major cultural institutions: MASS MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts and Williams College in Williamstown.
In an email obtained by WAMC News Monday, MASS MoCA explains to staff and tenants at its 16-acre campus that one of its employees tested both positive and negative for COVID-19 in two separate tests. The employee – who is described as not working in a “public facing” position – is said to still be in a 14 day quarantine period and in good health. The museum says in the email that it has conducted contact tracing and has tested all employees who interacted with the person. According to the message, all test results had come back negative while all staffers still waiting on results were self-isolating. It says that the contact tracing had been “administered 5-7 days after contact with the potential C-19 case.”
“I’m deeply disappointed to know that there was a delay in notifying the entire MASS MoCA community," said North Adams City Council Vice President Jason LaForest. “My hope is that any institution would be timely and transparent in their efforts to protect their staff and any visitors that may be attending the museum. While MASS MoCA may have a duty to protect its image, it has a more significant obligation to protect the city around it and its family of employees and visitors and the individuals and families who support the museum.”
The email – which was signed by Director Joe Thompson and Deputy Director Tracy Moore – asks that recipients respect the privacy of the staffer who tested positive and to “not gossip” about the incident.
Moore confirmed the veracity of the email to WAMC, and offered the following statement: “MASS MoCA is working closely with the Berkshire County public health nurse, and leaders at Berkshire Medical Center, and is strictly following their guidance to protect the health and safety of all staff, visitors, artists, and the local community at large.”
Asked if the positive case would impact the museum’s protocols, Moore said “MASS MoCA will continue to follow the State of Massachusetts, public health and CDC guidelines for employees and visitors.”
Moore would not confirm the date the museum learned of the positive test, instead telling WAMC that “the timing was recent.”
The contemporary art museum closed in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic and went through a deep round of layoffs before reopening with new safety precautions in July. As Thompson told WAMC then, the sheer size of the complex precludes the museum from the kind of restrictions on attendance that smaller spaces must follow.
“Because it’s a vast acreage of space, and using the state’s guidelines, there’s really no effective limit on the absolute number," said Thompson. "The place is big enough to absorb literally thousands of people while still having 10 times the required social distancing space.”
North Adams Mayor Tom Bernard told WAMC Monday he was aware of the positive test and that he had trust in how the museum was addressing the situation.
“Leaked information may signal a desire people have to have more information than is recommended," Bernard told WAMC. "My understanding being that they’re following public health guidance in how they’re notifying, what they’re notifying, and then taking the step when questions come beyond that to make sure the public is put at ease.”
MASS MoCA boasts an annual attendance of 160,000 on its website, and is a major tourism magnet for the region – bringing over $50 million into the local economy according to a 2017 Williams College study.
Meanwhile, that institution – just a few miles west in Williamstown – has also had its first brush with the pandemic since it began welcoming students back for in-person education last week. Fred Puddester, the college’s vice president for Finance and Administration, says a first-year student tested positive for COVID-19 upon arrival on Thursday.
“When we got the word from our health center, we contacted the student and implemented our protocols to have the student placed in isolation for his quarantine period, and everything went according to our plan,” he said.
The college unrolled extensive requirements for students returning to campus in early August, including an immediate quarantine.
“And then when your tests comes back – and they’ve been coming back from the Broad Institute between 24 and 36 hours – you then get a second test, and if you test twice negative, you are released from quarantine,” he explained.
Puddester says the quick response to the positive tests is a confirmation of Williams’ protocols, and that the incident will not affect them moving forward.
Here's the full text of the email obtained by WAMC from MASS MoCA Director Joe Thompson and Deputy Director Tracy Moore:
Dear colleagues and campus neighbors, You may have heard that a museum staff person tested positively for COVID-19. Here are the facts, and please be assured that MASS MoCA is working closely with the Berkshire County public health nurse, and leaders at BMC, and are strictly following their guidance. - Recently, a member of MM staff received contradictory, inconclusive C-19 test results (testing both positive, and then negative, in two separate tests). From an abundance of caution, however, that employee is in a 14-day self-quarantine, and thankfully asymptomatic and feeling fine. - Working with the public health staff at BMC, we have conducted thorough contract tracing, alerting all those who may have had close, potentially risky contact (as defined by the CDC) with the potential C-19 positive staffer. The person who tested positive was not public facing, therefore contact was extremely limited. - 100% of known staff members who had interactions with the potential C-19 person (either sustained, repeated or close proximity contact, using the CDC definition of those conditions) have now all been tested through BMC. - Thus far, 100% of those tested, whose test results have come back thus far, have tested negative (and this, happily, includes all those who had the most prolonged or closest contact). Those are especially significant results, because the tests were administered 5-7 days after contact with the potential C-19 case, yielding a high level of confidence in the results (5-7 days post- contact is the "sweet spot" for accurate testing). - The few staff members still awaiting test results are self-isolating. Remaining results are expected in the next day or two. We will not release the name of the potentially C19 positive staff person, for privacy reasons. We have, however, alerted all those who may have had contact with the potentially C-19 positive person. We ask that we all be respectful, and not gossip. If you have questions, please see your supervisor, Gail Natoli (HR), Tracy, or Joe. As always, we remain vigilant. Masking, social distancing, and frequent disinfecting and handwashing really works (this experience may be our best proof of that yet!). Keep it up, and please continue your earnest efforts to keep the MASS MoCA campus safe for our visitors, and all of us. Joe & Tracy