Public health professionals continue to track a recent spike in COVID-19 cases in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.
It was a promising start to the month with a positive test rate below 1% and Pittsfield’s statewide risk factor down a category for the first time since 2020.
But on March 23rd, Mayor Linda Tyer presented a grim prognosis for the city.
““The information that I'm sharing with you this evening, should really be a call to action for everyone in our community to get back to basics around COVID-19 safety precautions," she said. "Since my last update we've had, so that's two weeks ago, March 9, there have been 157 new cases. Public health nurses that are doing contact tracing are examining the possibility of five potential clusters.”
In a month that’s seen major steps forward in Governor Charlie Baker’s reopening plan – including removing capacity limits for restaurants and easing gathering and travel restrictions – Pittsfield has moved back up a risk category for coronavirus transmission in state reporting.
“It’s probably related to relaxation of some of the state guidelines for gathering, combine that with the onset of spring and people kind of feeling like they want to bust out," said Dr. Alan Kulberg, chairman of Pittsfield’s Board of Health. “It’s probably a combination of people just getting together with others and feeling a little bit more comfortable combined with the prospect of more and more people being vaccinated.”
He stepped down from the city’s coronavirus taskforce after almost a year in mid-February because Mayor Tyer had stopped holding regular meetings.
“At the time we were seeing a pretty low case rate and there just wasn’t the need to be meeting on a regular basis," said Kulberg. "So she said, for now we are going to suspend our regular meetings, but we will re-activate if necessary.”
Just weeks later, that time came again – and Kulberg is again helping in the city’s pandemic response through a consulting role with Pittsfield’s public health nurses.
“It’s not unexpected that we have seen an uptick – there has been an uptick in other areas of the country and in Europe,” he said.
Kulberg said that while more dangerous UK variants of COVID-19 have been found in Pittsfield, it’s unclear if that impacted the recent surge in cases.
“In the last three, four days, we’ve seen a leveling off of the case rate and the case positivity rate, and fewer cases – generally less than 10 cases over the last three, four days,” he told WAMC.
Kulberg says there is reason for optimism about data mined from the city’s sewage.
“The latest wastewater analysis shows a decrease in the RNA count in the Pittsfield wastewater, and that tends to be a leading indicator of where the cases are going to go," he explained. "Prior to our recent surge, we did see a rise in the amount of viral debris in the wastewater – and our most recent analysis done by the Biobot Company in Cambridge has shown a decrease, so we’re hoping that that means our cases are going to continue to come down.”
“The snapshot for today is our case rate per 100,000 is 38.19, and that’s over a 14-day period," Mayor Tyer told WAMC Monday. “And our positivity rate is 4.39%, which is progress in the right direction.”
The five clusters she identified last week included family gatherings and workplaces.
“I don’t think we want to identify with workplaces were affected," said the mayor. "One was a painting contractor, one workplace was a fitness center, and as I mentioned, a large family gathering.”
Tyer’s message to Pittsfield is to remain vigilant through pandemic fatigue and warmer weather, and to continue to get tested.
“One of the things that we’re concerned about is that this is allergy season and people may assume that it’s allergies, but please don’t assume anything," she said. "Please get tested if you don’t feel well, and get vaccinated as soon as you can.”