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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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Hotels, Meals Tax in Williamstown Shows Impact of Pandemic

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Numbers from the Massachusetts Department of Revenue indicate the town's lodging industry lost 57 percent of its business from April through September compared with 2019.
Town Manager Jason Hoch reported those statistics to the Select Board on Monday night to demonstrate how much the local economy has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The numbers come from the DOR's report of local lodging establishments' liability under the rooms and meals tax. Although the commonwealth has given businesses the "small relief" of being able to defer those tax payments, the amount they owe still shows up on the books, Hoch said.
In the half year that began after the pandemic started to impact Massachusetts' economy, Williamstown's hotels, motels and short-term renters collected receipts that translated to a combined tax bill of $124,287.06.
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