Williamstown Commons faces COVID-19 outbreak

Sofie Jones

Williamstown Commons, a nursing home across from Walgreen’s, has suffered the loss of 17 residents to COVID-19. (Photo courtesy of Williamstown Commons.)

Williamstown Commons, a nursing home and care facility on Adams Road off of Route 2, is in the midst of a COVID-19 outbreak that has reached more than half of its residents. As of Tuesday afternoon, 17 residents have died after contracting COVID-19, according to Lisa Gaudet, vice president of communications for Berkshire Healthcare, which runs the facility. Currently, 31 residents who have tested positive remain at the Commons, in addition to four residents currently receiving treatment at local hospitals. 21 residents who originally tested positive for COVID-19 have recovered from the virus. 52 residents tested negative.

In the last week, the Massachusetts Department of Health also made testing available for the facility’s 126 staff members. Five tested positive for COVID-19 despite showing no symptoms. All staff has had consistent access to in-demand personal protective equipment, such as medical grade gloves, goggles and masks, since the outbreak began, Gaudet said.

Facility staff does not know how the first case was contracted, but Gaudet noted that the first case was a long-time resident who showed only slight symptoms. The resident was tested on March 19, indicating that she may have been exposed to visitors prior to the March 14 ban, Gaudet said.

In the weeks since, nursing staff has separated residents into units, also known as “cohorts,” as suggested in CDC guidelines. While the number of recovered patients is growing, Gaudet noted that Williamstown Commons may see an increase in positive patients, as it is the only facility in Berkshire County authorized to take back residents who are discharged from the hospital after receiving treatment for COVID-19.

Facility staff, who has remained on the front lines of the outbreak, will continue to monitor the health of all residents closely for any potential symptoms. Unlike in a hospital setting, Gaudet said, the nursing home’s staff members have deep-rooted personal connections to residents. “So much of it is really around the relationships between our caregivers and our residents,” she said. “They know the residents. They know their families. They know their grandchildren. These are people that they go to and hug every day and chat with, trying to make them smile and be in the best spirits… These are residents that we have very deep relationships with and have significant affection and love for.”

Although Berkshire Healthcare has been working to support employees during this time, Gaudet said, the outbreak has taken a significant physical and mental toll on the facility’s staff.

“They are warriors and have really come together,” Gaudet said. “Having said all that, I wouldn’t minimize the impact this is having on them emotionally… We’ve made sure they have access to services, but I think when you’re in the midst of a war, you don’t really take time out for yourself as much as you would want to or as much as you need to.”

This burden is made greater because of restrictions barring any family members from visiting residents, even in the moments before they pass away. “That has been such a cruel twist to this situation,” Gaudet said.

The nursing home stopped accepting visitors following an order from Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker on March 13, but began screening and taking the temperature of all visitors prior to entrance at the beginning of March.

Family members who frequently visit during normal times are unable to check in on residents as they usually would. “Now they can’t do that,” she said. “They can’t come through the door. They have to rely on our team to communicate. It is a very sad situation all around.”

Family members have largely relied on FaceTime and phone calls to communicate with residents in the past month. A number of loved ones have also begun to visit from outside the home’s first-floor windows, showing up with signs and other well-wishes.

The broader Williamstown community has also rallied to show its support, Gaudet said. Nearby restaurants have catered lunches for the facility’s staff nearly every day, she added. On Sunday, Boy Scout Troop 70 stopped by to sing and hold up signs from the home’s front lawn. From inside, residents displayed posters thanking them for their support.

These displays of support have touched not only residents, but also the team that has cared for them around the clock. “The community has rallied around them,” Gaudet said. “There has been a tremendous outpouring from the community all across Berkshire County, but I think particularly in Williamstown.”

Berkshire Healthcare runs 15 senior care facilities throughout the state, including six in Berkshire county. Although six residents at their Great Barrington facility also tested positive for COVID-19, Williamstown Commons is their only nursing home in the county to have suffered any resident deaths, according to Gaudet. “Williamstown was unfortunately the one where it took hold and it expanded,” she said