Last week, Pittsfield, Massachusetts issued new public health orders including the closure of public school buildings through December 4th and a suspension of table service at city restaurants following a spike in COVID-19 cases. Since late October, around 200 people have tested positive for coronavirus in the city of about 42,000. Dr. Alan Kulberg, chairman of the Pittsfield Board Of Health, spoke with WAMC about how the city is responding to the surge, fueled by Halloween parties and restaurant gatherings last month. Kulberg says now he’s concerned about Thanksgiving.
KULBERG: Well, we're still getting a fairly large influx of new cases. My latest information this morning is that we had another 18 cases identified since yesterday, people who had been tested whose tests returned positive. So we're still getting a pretty steady flow of new cases, and a lot of contact tracing has to be done stemming from these cases.
WAMC: There's been a lot of conversation about social gatherings being the impetus for the spike in Pittsfield. Does that continue to be the case?
Yeah, we're still seeing- Most definitely, we're still seeing the ramifications of a large Halloween party and a number of restaurant gatherings at the end of October.
Can you break down the steps Pittsfield has taken to contain the virus? In the last week, a new round of orders from the city went out to businesses and schools alike.
Well, the basic safety mitigation measures, such as masking and distancing, those haven't changed, those remain constant. But our main effort now is in contact tracing. And we have taken on, we have brought on a couple of more nurses to do that. Contact tracing is a very time intensive, complex process where we have to find out who was exposed to a test positive or ill, test positive person and likewise to going in the other direction, from whom did the test positive person catch the disease? So we're doing both forward and retrograde contact tracing. And it's a very, it's a very time intensive process. That's the main way at this point that we can try to keep control on things. Otherwise, we're assuming and hoping that everybody is going to continue to take the measures of masking and distancing and refraining from any further gatherings seriously.
Now, it seems like so far that trust may be misplaced in the community, given the number of gatherings that have spurred this spike. With the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday approaching, are you concerned that folks are going to hold to a standard that they haven't appeared to hold to to date?
I am very concerned, you know, because we can recommend ‘til the chickens come home- I'm sorry, the turkeys come home. But we can recommend as much as we want, but it's going to be up to each individual person to take this recommendation seriously and to consider themselves and the safety of their friends and loved ones and to keep the gatherings to a minimum. Right now the indoor gathering limit is 10. But we are recommending that if you can keep it under 10- There's nothing, there's no magic. 10 is not a magic number. It's not like if you have 10 or fewer people in your house, you're not going to be at risk. You know, if you have one person with 10, or the people, and they all and they all come from different households and then they go back to where they came from and then they give it to other people, you- It's easy to see that even fewer than 10 people can spread a lot of disease. So we are hoping that people take it seriously to protect themselves and their families and friends and also that they see this as, this is only going to be effective if we see this as a community wide effort.
Now, Pittsfield took the step last week to close down its public schools. What informed that decision Dr. Kulberg?
What informed that decision is that we started getting some cases involving students in the schools. Only a handful of cases. And there was one situation where a preschool class in one of our elementary schools had both a teacher and a paraprofessional, both tested positive. That plus the concern amongst teachers and parents about continuing to come to school, send their kids to school prompted Interim Superintendent Joe Curtis to say it's just too much concern, and we might not have enough teachers in the school to do in person learning. So he just decided to pull the trigger at that point and say that we would not have with that we were going to suspend in person learning at least through the 4th and then at that time, it's going to be informed, the decision to go to revert to in-person learning, will be informed by the public health data.