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Pittsfield Not Ready to Close Schools Despite Uptick in COVID-19

By Brittany PolitoiBerkshires Staff
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The City Council hears an update on the city's COVID-19 plans. 
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The School Department is not considering going back to remote learning despite the sharp rise in COVID-19 over the past  few weeks. That includes two cases reported on Tuesday. 
Mayor Linda Tyer agreed with public health officials that the city is in a "crisis moment" but not yet to the point of closing school buildings.
Her comments came during a report from the Public Health and Safety subcommittee at Tuesday's City Council meeting. Ward 1 Councilor Helen Moon had requested an update on the emergency response plan for the novel coronavirus.
In the last two weeks of October, Pittsfield saw 17 new COVID-19 cases and Berkshire County 36; 97 percent of cases between Nov. 1 and Nov. 8 were in Pittsfield. On Wednesday, the city was upgraded to "green."
The Health Department said that if Pittsfield keeps heading in this direction, it may become a yellow zone on the COVID-19 Community-Level Data Map.
On Oct. 29, Director of Public Health Gina Armstrong and Board of Health Chairman Dr. Alan Kulberg had given a presentation to the public health subcommittee on the emergency response plan.
"Pittsfield's Health Department continues to work aggressively to keep the rest of Pittsfield and greater Berkshire County healthy," Kulberg said.
They outlined steps that the city's Coronavirus Task Force is taking to contain the virus. These steps included a team of four public health nurses working on contact tracing, COVID-19 updates from the mayor asking residents strictly adhere to safety guidelines, and making a frequently asked questions document to distribute to all pediatricians in Pittsfield that informs parents about the virus.
Kulberg also strongly urged residents to get a flu shot, especially those who haven't regularly gotten the flu shot in past years.
Ward 7 Councilor Anthony Maffuccio asked Tyer if she was planning on shutting down the schools and going back to remote learning in light of new data from the state Department of Public Health showing 42 new COVID-19 cases in Berkshire County on Tuesday.
"Now we're over 90 cases in the city of Pittsfield, we got 42 new cases reported in Berkshire County today," he said. "I'm not sure what the breakdown is to Pittsfield, we have a staff member at Reid Middle School who is infected at this time, and we also have a student at Pittsfield High School who is also infected."
Maffuccio said he did not want to be a pessimist, but that Pittsfield is in big jeopardy because of the virus and it's time to close the schools before more staff or children are affected and the city has no control over the virus.
"This is our warning right here, this is our red flag," he cautioned.
Mayor Tyer agreed with his sentiment about the city being at risk, but said Pittsfield is not to the point where her team is thinking of shutting down schools and returning to remote learning.
"I agree with you that we are at a crisis moment here," she said.
Tyer explained that case counts are exceeding counts from April, but some elements are different now than they were seven months ago.  
The clusters that have developed are being closely monitored and it has been found that are very clearly linked to large private gatherings that are being held in people's homes and to large get-togethers in restaurants. The schools are not being seen as super spreaders for the virus in Pittsfield. This has been the same conclusion at the state level, with Gov. Charlie Baker blaming social gatherings as the cause of transmission and encouraging schools to stay open and follow infection protocols.
"We are paying close attention to these case counts and monitoring it literally minute by minute," Tyer said. "So if we do see that the trend in our schools are becoming more significant, we would move to make a decision about going back to remote learning. That is a possibility. We just aren't there yet."
The procedures put into place to address positive cases in schools were developed by Tyer's administrative team, the teachers' union, and public health officials. Classrooms are self-contained so that if a person gets infected in a classroom, they don't spread it to the rest of the school.
"For example," Tyer said. "If a teacher tests positive, because we are so self-contained in our hybrid learning model, we are able to just manage that classroom as opposed to closing the whole school or district."
The mayor said her office is upset because the state Department of Public Health has not been able to extract Tuesday's case count for just Pittsfield from its data. They believe that DPH's software system that manages case counts in every community is simply overwhelmed by the increase case rate throughout Massachusetts. The state reported more than 2,000 new cases on Tuesday.
Because of this, they do not know how many of the 42 new cases in Berkshire County are in Pittsfield.
The Coronavirus Task Force is still meeting weekly despite the uptick in cases but can convene in an urgent situation if a decision needs to be made, Tyer said. 
The task force has been working with Berkshire Health Systems to modify testing criteria and has also had communications with School Department, with City Council, and with employees.
Contract tracing is the top priority for the Public Health Department right now, Tyer said.  
Maffuccio had communicated to Tyer that earlier in the day several educators informed him that the new sanitizing wipes that schools have been sent contain zero-percent alcohol.
"My knowledge is that the have to have at least 70 percent content alcohol in them," he said. This alarmed him and he is very concerned about the schools if they are using wipes without the proper alcohol content in them.
He also voiced his concern for the elderly and immune-compromised individuals in Pittsfield as case counts rise, additionally expressing that he thinks cases will get 10 times worse each week.
"I just want to make sure that we are taking every step possible to ensure the community here is safe," he said. "My hopes are that we don't wait until its too late to start to pull back."

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State Police Investigating Death of Individual Found in Pittsfield State Forest

PITTSFIELD, Mass. — A body was discovered Saturday morning in Pittsfield State Forest. 
The identity of the individual will not be released until the conclusion of an autopsy scheduled for Sunday, according Berkshire District Attorney spokesman Andrew McKeever. 
Confirmation of the death was not released until 7 p.m. on Saturday. Pittsfield Police referred inquiries earlier in the day to the DA's office, saying the case was a State Police investigation. 
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