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Coronavirus spread upends life in Berkshire County

“For the first time we have cases — in Berkshire County — that we can’t track back to an individual . . . that didn’t have something to do with travel," Gov. Charlie Baker said at a press conference Tuesday.
“For the first time we have cases — in Berkshire County — that we can’t track back to an individual . . . that didn’t have something to do with travel," Gov. Charlie Baker said at a press conference Tuesday.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Life has been abruptly upended in Berkshire County, where seven people have tested positive for the new coronavirus in recent days and there appears to be “community spread” of the pathogen, a concern Governor Charlie Baker cited as a tipping point Tuesday in declaring a state of emergency.

“For the first time we have cases — in Berkshire County — that we can’t track back to an individual . . . that didn’t have something to do with travel," Baker said at a State House news conference.

The new cases have led to the cancellation of major events in Western Massachusetts and caused a growing number of residents to self-quarantine after potential exposure to the virus — including at least one mayor.

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Previously, all the known cases in Massachusetts were among people who had either traveled abroad or had contact with an infected person. State public health officials have pointed to a Boston meeting of Biogen employees last month as the link for 70 of the state’s 92 known cases of Covid-19.

Most of the seven Western Massachusetts cases are among five people who sought care at Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield before testing positive for the novel coronavirus.

Pittsfield Health Director Gina Armstrong told the Berkshire Eagle that four Pittsfield residents who tested positive had been in contact with the first Berkshire Medical Center patient. Armstrong did not respond to multiple interview requests on Tuesday.

The Berkshire Medical Center patients were sick enough to be hospitalized but were in stable condition as of Monday and expected to be discharged soon, the hospital said.

It now faces staffing shortages after it furloughed dozens of staff members who came into contact with the patients before they could be tested.

Beginning March 1, the patients separately came to the emergency department with severe flu-like symptoms and were admitted, the spokesman said. In each case, the state Department of Public Health did not agree to test the patients for about five days.

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During that time, nurses and other employees who were exposed to the patients were placed on a 14-day quarantine as soon as the test results came back. The nurses had worn masks but not the eye shield and gowns needed to protect against coronavirus.

The Massachusetts Nurses Association, a union representing workers at Berkshire Medical Center, said 70 employees were on furlough, including 54 nurses. The hospital acknowledged that staff members had been asked to self-quarantine for 14 days but declined to specify how many or to confirm the union’s numbers.

The union said it has not received any reports of nurses or other health care workers who have been infected with the virus.

In Clarksburg, the public school, library, senior center, and town hall have been closed at least until Friday for deep cleaning after a resident tested positive.

Ron Boucher, chairman of the town’s Selectboard, said in a phone interview that officials are confident that the man infected in Clarksburg does not represent a case of community spread.

"We know where the source was and we're very confident that we're in good shape," he said.

Boucher said he could not identify the patient, but said he was a man in his late 50s or early 60s. The man’s wife was self-quarantining, as were first responders who attended to him. Boucher said he could not comment on the source of the man’s infection.

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In Stockbridge, the Marians of the Immaculate Conception canceled the annual Divine Mercy Sunday Celebration, which can draw 15,000 to 20,000 celebrants, citing the advice of local public health officials.

In North Adams, Mayor Thomas Bernard and City Council Vice President Jason LaForest entered self-quarantine Tuesday after LaForest developed “mild symptoms” in the morning and was tested for the new coronavirus, Bernard said in a statement.

The Berkshire Health Alliance and other local health officials are working with the state Department of Public Health to investigate Covid-19 cases, Bernard said, and Northern Berkshire EMS and other first responders in the region are adopting a new set of patient contact protocols in an effort to slow the disease’s spread.

“Over the past few days we’ve heard many people use the phrase ‘abundance of caution,’ and that’s guiding my self-isolation decision,” said Bernard, who attended social functions alongside LaForest over the weekend. “As community leaders, Councilor LaForest and I have an obligation to model best practices in following the instructions of state and local public health officials.”



Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox. Evan Allen can be reached at evan.allen@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @evanmallen. Liz Kowalczyk can be reached at lizbeth.kowalczyk@globe.com.