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Berkshire Medical Center staff in quarantine amid rising number of patients with coronavirus

It is not clear how five patients in Berkshire County contracted Covid-19.

In this illustration, protective N-95 face masks lie on a table at an office in Washington, D.C.
In this illustration, protective N-95 face masks lie on a table at an office in Washington, D.C.EVA HAMBACH/AFP via Getty Images

An undisclosed number of staff at Berkshire Medical Center have been sent home under quarantine after they were exposed to patients with Covid-19.

Hospital officials, who had confirmed over the weekend that a patient in the hospital tested positive for the virus, said Monday that additional patients have now tested positive. Spokesman Michael Leary said executives decided not to release an exact number of infected patients because "the situation is very fluid.''

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health said Monday afternoon that the number of residents statewide known to have the virus jumped to 41, including 5 in Berkshire County.

Leary said the patients who tested positive all arrived separately at the emergency room of the Pittsfield hospital with flu-like symptoms over the past week. They were sick enough to require hospitalization but are now in stable condition and some will be discharged home soon, he said.

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The staff were exposed during a delay in state testing of the patients for the virus, Leary said. Currently, only the health department lab can test for the virus in Massachusetts and says it can handle only 40 to 50 tests a day.

The first patient arrived at Berkshire Medical Center on March 1 and the hospital asked the health department to approve testing for him, Leary said. The state declined, saying the patient did not meet criteria for the testing. He had not traveled internationally and did not have known contact with an infected person.

The health department eventually approved testing on March 6, Leary said. He said there were similar waiting periods for the other patients who eventually tested positive.

Meanwhile, staff who cared for the patients had taken precautions for caring for patients with the flu, which included covering their noses and mouths with special masks. But they had not taken extra precautions needed for treating patients with the new coronavirus, including wearing eye shields and gowns.

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Leary would not reveal the number of staff sent home once the infections were confirmed, which he said is also changing as the hospital evaluates individuals’ risk. “It’s several staff,” he said.

The health department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Amber VanBramer, a nurse at the hospital and a representative for the Massachusetts Nurses Association, a union, said nurses plan to meet with administrators to discuss staff precautions. She said nurses are concerned because administrators have told them to reuse face masks, which they believe is unsafe. She said nurses also need to be retrained on using other protective equipment since it is not used often.

Illnesses "like this don’t scare us off because this is our job,'' she said. “As long as we’re properly protected.”


Liz Kowalczyk can be reached at lizbeth.kowalczyk@globe.com.