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Update: Officials respond to COVID-19 outbreak at Buckley HealthCare Center

  • Buckley HealthCare Center on Laurel Street in Greenfield, June 13, 2018. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Staff Writer
Published: 3/21/2020 3:55:27 PM

GREENFIELD — State and local officials are closely monitoring the evolving COVID-19 outbreak at Buckley HealthCare Center and have taken steps to contain the situation. Eight patients have been documented with the coronavirus as of Sunday evening.

“We became aware of it (Friday) morning, fairly early,” said Mayor Roxann Wedegartner when reached Saturday. In response to the evolving situation, Wedegartner noted she is taking cues from the state.

For now, Wedegartner said the city does not intend to enact any stringent containment measures and Gov. Charlie Baker has signaled he has no immediate plans for a shelter-in-place order as other states including New York and California have issued. Locally, the public was made aware of the outbreak at Buckley HealthCare Center Friday night through a press release issued by the National HealthCare Corporation, the Greenfield facility’s parent company.

When public officials were notified, Wedegartner — who made a vague reference to “confirmed cases” at a “nursing facility” during a press conference Friday afternoon about Greenfield’s newly created COVID-19 Emergency Operations Center in the John Zon Community Center — says she immediately up-channeled the news to Sen. Jo Comerford, Rep. Susannah Whipps and Rep. Paul Mark.

That coalition, in turn, notified state health officials.

Six of the sick patients have since been transported to Baystate Medical Center in Springfield — which has a greater treatment capacity than the Greenfield hospital, including an emergency COVID-19 triage facility that is being built — based on a statement issued Sunday by National HealthCare Center. According to Wedegartner, the Laurel Street facility’s director, Michelle Garrity, followed outbreak directives put in place by National HealthCare Corporation, which operates 75 skilled nursing centers, 24 assisted living communities, a behavioral health hospital, five retirement communities and 35 home care agencies nationwide, based on information listed on its website.

It’s not clear if there are any other cases of concern at the 120-bed Greenfield facility, what the corporation’s contain directives are or what the local center’s next steps will be. On March 11, the facility enacted a visitor restriction policy based on a post to its Facebook page. Calls to Garrity for clarity and attempts to reach National HealthCare Corporation were not returned in a timely manner.

In Friday’s statement, Allison Burwin, regional vice president of the Northeastern region for National HealthCare Corporation, is quoted as saying, “Rest assured, we have been preparing for this contingency for the last several weeks, and I am confident in our ability to respond quickly and comprehensively to ensure the health and safety of our residents, patients and partners.” Before receiving confirmation of the residents’ illness, Burwin said the facility “took steps to isolate the infected patients when symptoms occurred to prevent additional exposure.”

Notably, the Centers for Disease Control has identified those who live in long-term care facilities such as Buckley HealthCare Center as being particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.

“We know the virus is disproportionately impacting (elderly) people,” said Sen. Comerford, D-Northampton, who serves as chair of the state’s Joint Committee on Public Health. “Some of their residents are among the most vulnerable.”

To mitigate the situation, Comerford said she connected with Jennifer Barrelle, chief of staff with the state Department of Public Health, “to make sure Greenfield was getting the (appropriate) level of service.” In response, the state “sent a top epidemiologist and two public health nurses” to assist local health officials and the nursing facility with containment.

As to what that containment process looks like, Comerford said the “classic public health approach” is to test others in the facility, “which I understand is happening for people who might have been exposed.” Among other containment measures such as ensuring the building is properly sanitized, clear lines of communication are equally as important, according to Comerford.

”If we have a concentration or a hot spot, we need to know the state is going to respond immediately if notified,” Comerford said. “This is a virus we know how to contain — we contain it through personal distancing, through personal hygiene and by securing facilities to prevent contagions from coming in and going out.”

Lack of supplies

One major concern highlighted by Comerford in relation to the COVID-19 crisis, which is straining the abilities of medical facilities and first responders across the state and nation, is a lack of personal protective equipment. Because of the scarcity, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending that personal protective equipment be reused to conserve supplies. As a last resort, the CDC has said health care providers should use homemade masks made out of bandanas or scarves.

The challenge locally is the same.

“There’s intense look right now in supply chains for medical equipment, for food, for sanitization, all forms of cleaning equipment, along with testing. We’re at that point,” Comerford said. “We need the federal government, especially the president, to step up with a much more proactive stance. (President Donald Trump) took a modest stance yesterday, but we need more.”

During a recent remote meeting with mayors from all over the state, Wedegartner related, “We all, every single one of us, echoed the need for more PPE (personal protective equipment) getting out to our communities. That’s what we can do right now. It doesn’t sound like much, but they’re the ones who can go to the top.”

This sense of urgency was reflected by Greenfield Police Chief Robert Haigh Jr. in a statement posted to the department’s Facebook page Friday night noting the challenges front-line health care workers and first responders will probably face in the coming days.

“I first want to acknowledge that this is only the beginning in what will seem like an eternity,” Haigh wrote. “I also ask the community to keep in mind that our first responders are also family people who are just as concerned for their own home and family’s well being.”

In the midst of this evolving health crisis — which has now struck close to home for Franklin County residents — Comerford urged constituents to stay calm and follow the preventative measures recommended by health officials: “I know that this is a very uncertain time and it can be a scary time. It’s really important for folks to know that we all have a role in slowing the spread of the virus, and we all have a role in creating the community well-being that’s needed. No one has the ability right now to predict when we’ll be able to come out of this posture — I wish I could tell you — I don’t have that ability — but I do know we’ll get through it. I do know that it’s going to require everyone’s participation.”

Andy Castillo can be reached at acastillo@recorder.com.


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