Berkshire County a COVID-19 hotspot

On one measure, highest death rate in state

DEATHS FROM COVID-19 are occurring in Berkshire County at a much higher rate than other counties in Massachusetts and most communities around the country.

Berkshire County in the western part of the state has had five deaths from COVID-19, putting it in a tie for sixth in fatalities among the 13 Massachusetts counties. But Berkshire’s population is smaller than most of the other counties, so relatively speaking the number of deaths is much greater.

Berkshire County had .039 deaths per 1,000 people. The next closest was Franklin, which had two deaths, or .028 deaths per 1,000 people, and Norfolk, which had 11 deaths, or .016 fatalities per 1,000 people.

Those numbers may not sound very large, but they are attracting considerable attention in Berkshire County because they rival some of the COVID-19 hotspots around the nation, including New York and Seattle.

The issue first surfaced on Friday when the New York Times ran an analysis of coronavirus data that indicated Pittsfield ranked near the top in the country in terms of positive COVID-19 tests (7th in nation) and COVID-19 deaths (11th). The newspaper’s charts indicated the information was broken down by metropolitan statistical areas, suggesting, but not spelling out, that the area covered was all of Berkshire County and not just Pittsfield, which accounts for about a third of the county’s population.

The rankings were based on data as of Thursday, when Berkshire County had just two deaths. At that time, Berkshire had .02 deaths per 1,000 people. The New York and Seattle metropolitan areas had .03 deaths per 1,000 people. Wuhan, China, where the COVID-19 outbreak originated, had .23 deaths per 1,000 people, according to the Times article.

Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer said many residents of her city were rattled by the New York Times article.

“There’s a lot of fear associated with what’s happening to all of us,” she said. “It’s understandable they’re having this reaction to a New York Times article. It’s a reliable source, right? I just say to them, ‘Look more closely. They’re actually using the county data, and putting it under Pittsfield’s name.’ Then they say ok and relax a little bit.”

Tyer said only one of the five people who died in Berkshire County was a Pittsfield resident.

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Still, the high rate of deaths and positive COVID-19 test results in Berkshire County raise the question of why the disease is hitting the area so hard. Berkshire County was the first place in Massachusetts to have community spread of the disease, which means the source was unknown. The state assigned an epidemiologist to the county to try to trace the disease but no results have been announced yet.

One likely factor for the higher death rate in the county is its older population. According to US Census data, 23 percent of Berkshire County’s population is 65 or older, compared to 16.5 percent for the state as a whole.

COVID-19 is more deadly for people over 60 and particularly deadly for older people with pre-existing illnesses. The five people who died in Berkshire County all had pre-existing illnesses. Two were in their 60s and the others were in their 70s, 80s, and 90s.