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Williamstown's High Number of COVID-19 Cases Driven by Nursing Home Outbreak

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — When the commonwealth Wednesday began releasing COVID-19 statistics on a town-by-town basis, the Village Beautiful found itself in a class no municipality wants to join.
Out of 351 municipalities, Williamstown is one of just a few statewide and the only one in Berkshire County where more than 1 percent of the residents have tested positive for the novel coronavirus. It is second only to Pittsfield in total number of cases.
But that number might not accurately reflect COVID-19's impact on the average Williamstown resident because the vast majority of the town's positive cases are because of an outbreak at the Williamstown Commons nursing home, where officials have confirmed a dozen fatalities linked to the virus.
The outbreak at the home accounts for the majority of the 74 COVID-19 positive results in the data released by the Department of Public Health.
Town Manager Jason Hoch, also Williamstown's emergency manager, has been following the local numbers — including the Williamstown Commons situation — for weeks and was concerned that the town's designation as a "hot spot" might be misconstrued if the numbers were taken out of context.
"Yes, they're all within Williamstown, but they really require different types of responses and thinking and planning," Hoch said of the 74 cases. "Being comfortable with the protocols in place at the Commons, it was key for me to watch the rest of the community numbers to think about other townwide practices.
"The interesting thing would be if we weren't suffering with the challenges the Commons has had, we would have been one of those less-than-five, asterisk cases per 100,000 numbers."
When the numbers went public, Hoch's telephone started ringing, and his email inbox began filling up.
"I think everybody is on edge anyway," he said. "The fact that these were the first numbers out of the gate was striking. People have been clamoring for answers to the question, 'How many local cases are there?' 
"I didn't expect the state would do the ratio number, too. That was devastating for people to see locally who look at that number and say, 'Oh my God, Williamstown is in the top five in the state.' "
Devastating or not, the message is not entirely a bad thing in Hoch's estimation.
"Part of me says, 'I'll take the state number as reported,' " he said. "If it gets a few more people to start wearing masks and a few more people to stop playing basketball, I'll take it."
While he wants residents to understand the 70 positive cases in context, Hoch emphasized that context includes a very serious situation at the local nursing home.
"This is also a very difficult spot to be in because when I look at those numbers, we look at two sets of numbers and calibrate our actions accordingly," he said. "It doesn't mean we minimize everything that is going on at the Commons. That is a serious issue that this community is dealing with."
Williamstown Commons has been updating on its website the number of cases and how it has been addressing the situation. On Wednesday, its administrator posted that there were 40 current cases of COVID-19 and that 14 residents had died. All residents within the facility have now been tested and, in a good sign, 13 were recovering.
Hoch said he is not entirely sure that, on balance, it's a good idea for the state to release municipal  numbers, as it plans to do each Wednesday. Prior to Wednesday, the only breakdown available from the state was by county.
"DPH guidance has been: Don't release on the local level if you have fewer than five cases," he said. "In a small town, you could know the person.
"Even if we didn't have the Commons and those issues in our numbers, I'd still be concerned about reporting on a town-by-town basis. One reason is preserving privacy. The second is, if we're doing a good job of doing the self-distancing, and you look at the number and it's really low, you don't want to have a false sense of complacency."

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Letter: MGRS Needs More Responsible Approach to Field

Letter to the Editor

To the Editor:

Last week the Mount Greylock Regional School Committee grappled with how to advance the athletic fields improvement project. I came away from their meeting, disappointed with their approach to and the ultimate outcome of their decision. After having made a commitment in September 2019 to explore the possibility of a – much less expensive over the long-term – natural grass field along with an artificial turf field, the committee decided to proceed with only the artificial turf option.

Proponents of the artificial turf field argued that it was time to make a decision: they had worked long and hard enough on this issue. They avoided mentioning they had done next to nothing to address a committee vote made over a year ago to include a natural grass option in the bid documents. Last week, for the first time, they mentioned that it would cost over $40,000 in architect fees to include the grass, which they clearly wouldn't be considering anyway.

Inexplicably, this concern for spending does not seem to be relevant when they are considering the potential $3 million price tag. (This price reflects the cost of Title IX and ADA improvements, an artificial turf field, $100,000 premium for Brockfill infill, but not the $700k track.) The committee seemed to be feeling flush with funds, as the Williams gift has grown from $5 million to $6.8 million. It's important to note that between $1 million and $1.5 million has been set aside as an endowment to maintain the school, and $3.1 million has been committed to the administration building. That leaves $2.2 million to $2.7 million for the fields project.

Perhaps the current effort to value engineer some aspects of the project and a depressed economy will bring the bids in low enough. On the other hand, there was no mention of where the $400,000 to  $600,000 needed to replace it in 10 years time would come from.

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