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Amid negative tests, Erie County officials warn coronavirus ‘will eventually come to our area'

Tom Dinki/WBFO News
Dr. Gale Burstein, Erie County commissioner of health, speaks with the media Wednesday about the new coronavirus. Two county families who recently traveled to Italy have tested negative for the virus.

While the two Erie County families who recently traveled to Italy have tested negative for the new coronavirus, county officials warn the local fight against the outbreak, and the testing of more county residents, is far from over.


“The samples were collected, the tests were performed and we got the results back this morning saying they were negative,” said Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz at a news conference Wednesday, but later added, “I want people to understand there are going to be additional incidences of this.”


The coronavirus, which causes the illness COVID-19, has spread to at least 75 countries after the outbreak began in Wuhan, China. There have been more than 96,000 confirmed cases and more than 3,300 deaths worldwide. In the U.S., there are more than 160 confirmed cases and at least 11 deaths. 


While there have not been any confirmed cases in Erie County thus far, officials noted there are 11 confirmed cases in downstate New York, as well as 19 confirmed cases to the north in Toronto. 


“It's in New York state and it's in Southern Ontario, so we believe that it will eventually come to our area,” said Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein. “So this is an opportunity for us to think smartly about what we can do to prepare when we do have a community transmission of COVID-19.”


Burstein said the county is following U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to ensure those at risk are tested and quarantined. Those who fit the criteria for testing and the 14-day quarantine include those who have recently traveled to China, South Korea, Iran and Italy, or have come into contact with a person with a confirmed case of the virus. 


Those showing symptoms or those who are seriously ill may also be tested.


Erie County will soon be able to test for the virus locally as opposed to having to send samples to the state’s Wadsworth Center lab in Albany, as it had to do with the two families who visited Italy. The county’s public health lab has been approved to receive the chemical needed for testing, officials said Wednesday.


“There are very few public health labs that are going to have that opportunity to do that, at least in New York State,” Poloncarz said. “And we are one of them because of the incredible staff that we have here and the work they do.”


There’s questions about how transparent that testing will be going forward.


County officials declined to specify how many county residents have been tested and quarantined thus far, saying they will only release details about test results that come back positive for the virus.


“We will tell you if we do have a positive case because that's something that you need to know to protect yourself,” Burstein said. “However, if we have tests that are done and those tests are negative, there's nothing that the public needs to know to protect themselves. It's just business as usual.”


It was Gov. Andrew Cuomo, not county officials, who publicly announced that the six county residents who had been to Italy were being tested for the coronavirus. Poloncarz said Cuomo “violated the law” by announcing the number of individuals tested and what the region the individuals lived in.


“We've been told by the CDC we're not supposed to say that, but the governor announced it,” he said, noting HIPAA privacy guidelines. 


Cuomo’s senior advisor, Rich Azzopardi, said in an email that health departments across the country have routinely announced coronavirus testing, noting it’s their obligation to inform the public during a public health epidemic. Azzopardi also called on Poloncarz to “correct the record immediately.”


Poloncarz then released a statement apologizing for his comment, saying it was merely “inappropriate” for the state to release such information. 


He also said the number of Erie County residents under quarantine is “relatively low.”


“Should a confirmed case of COVID-19 appear in Erie County, the public will be notified,” he said.

Tom Dinki joined WBFO in August 2019 to cover issues affecting older adults.