At Pittsfield nursing home, outsiders are suspected cause of outbreak

Number of deaths at Hillcrest Commons climbs to 32

AMID RISING coronavirus case numbers, Gov. Charlie Baker has pointed to community spread and informal gatherings at home as the leading culprit. Now, legislators and health officials are following his lead in trying to explain the outbreak of the virus and death toll at Hillcrest Commons in Pittsfield.

 The number of COVID-19 deaths at the nursing and rehabilitation center climbed to 32 on Wednesday, with three quarters of residents having been infected with the virus in the last month.

 The facility had a track record of zero confirmed COVID-19 cases a little more than a month ago, but then staff members started testing positive a couple weeks after Halloween.

 In early November, Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer began warning of a large spike in COVID-19 cases related to house parties and dining inside restaurants. It wasn’t until those numbers grew that the presence of the virus took over at Hillcrest.

 The numbers shot up from two infected residents to 93 in a week, and now at least 166 of 224 residents have the virus. Over 75 staff have also tested positive.

 On Facebook, Rep. Patricia Farley-Bouvier of Pittsfield said there’s a “direct line” between the Halloween parties in Pittsfield and a group of indoor diners at the end of October to the outbreak at Hillcrest Commons.

 Berkshire Healthcare Systems, which runs Hillcrest, has a similar theory but doesn’t know exactly what brought the virus in. “But I think we know that when we see community spread in any community, and there are nursing homes in those communities, and workers live in those communities, we then see that translate into the community that our residents live in,” said vice president and spokesperson Lisa Gaudet.

 Gaudet similarly told the Berkshire Eagle that the source could have been a visitor before visitation was suspended on November 18, or a staff member or new admission in early November. Hillcrest froze admissions on November 24. The state Department of Public Health sent a rapid response team to Hillcrest the day before.

 Four residents of Kimball Farms Nursing Care Center In Lenox,– which also is owned by Berkshire Healthcare Systems, have died.

As of Friday morning, there are 769 active cases in Pittsfield, which saw cases grow exponentially the week after Halloween in a climb that hasn’t stopped since.

 Tri-Town Health Department Executive Director Jim Wilusz told the Berkshire Eagle the cases were imminent. “We knew this was coming, it was only a matter of time after Halloween,” he said.

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Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

Dr. Alan Kulberg, the chair of the western Massachusetts city’s Board of Health, had a similar take. 

“We do know that there were quite a few staffers who had the virus,” he told WBUR, “and the prevailing thinking is that many of these staffers became ill outside the institution, as a result of their own social connections, and thereafter brought the illness into the facility.”

Actual negligence doesn’t seem to be part of the issue. Julia Durchanek, a Holyoke attorney who serves as a guardian for a number of residents at Massachusetts nursing homes, including one COVID positive resident living at Hillcrest, said she always has found that staff there are “very attentive” and “doing their best,” very different from Holyoke Soldiers Home, where one of her clients died earlier this year.