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COVID hospitalization numbers in right direction, but Poloncarz says more testing is needed

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Office of the Erie County Executive
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Erie County's COVID-19 hospitalization rate is trending downward, raising hope that the county may not be too far away from phase one of reopening the economy. But during his Wednesday afternoon COVID-19 briefing, County Executive Mark Poloncarz said one benchmark that is not being met is a level of testing required by the state. The problem? Not enough people are coming forward to be tested.

One of the requirements that must be met for consideration to reopen, under guidelines announced by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, is that counties must administer 30 tests for every 1,000 people per month.

"We are ramping up testing. We believe we're about 300 tests a day short of where we need to be," Poloncarz said, explaining these are the nasal and throat swab tests, not antibody testing.

Earlier during the pandemic, test kits were in short supply. Now, according to officials, they have the kits but are now lacking the people willing to come forward. Poloncarz says there are openings available through the Erie County Health Department, at the test center operated by Kaleida Health at the Leroy Coles Public Library on East Delavan in Buffalo, and at the New York State testing site on Perry Street in Buffalo's Cobblestone District.

"We are now opening it up to any individual who believes they've been exposed to COVID-19 or if you're at risk for COVID-19 because of your occupation, or you live with someone who may have been exposed but you have not yourself showing any symptoms," he said about the county's testing. "You no longer have to be symptomatic. You can be asymptomatic."

The number to call to set up an appointment through the county is 858-2929. The number for setting an appointment at the New York State site is (888) 364-3065. To set an appointment at the Kaleida Site, visit www.kaleidahealth.org/coronavirus.

The county executive added that testing guidelines have also been updated in regards to isolation. Those showing symptoms must remain in isolation until test results are returned. Those not showing symptoms may go out into the public, continuing to honor physical distancing rules in place.

As of the county executive's Wednesday afternoon briefing, hospitalization rates were down though the critical seven-day hospitalization rate was not falling at the same pace.

Contact tracing is also not meeting the state's required metric at this time, Poloncarz admitted, but that too is being increased. Since the beginning of the crisis, the county has utilized an estimated 20 contact tracers.

"New York State is requiring 30 contact tracers for every 100,000 residents," the county executive said. "We have a little less than 4,000 cases. Our contact tracers contact the individuals that are positive to determine who they were in contact with, close contacts. We can handle the caseload right now, but we do need to meet the governor's standard. So I have authorized our Department of Personnel to work with various departments to increase the contact tracers to meet New York State's standard using current employees."

Poloncarz added that the county is considering bringing in county employees who have been idled during the pandemic to join the ranks of contact tracers.

The state's strategy for reopening the economy is gradual and regional. Empire State Development has ten designated economic regions and each will be measured for their own readiness. Erie County is part of Empire State Development's Western New York Zone, which also includes Niagara, Chautauqua, Cattaraugus and Allegany Counties.

The state's reopening plan is in four phases. In phase one, industries that would be allowed to open include construction, manufacturing, wholesale supply, and select retail outlets providing curbside pickup. Phase two will allow the reopening of professional services, finance and insurance, administrative support, and real estate and rental leasing. Phase three will reopen restaurants and food service, hotels and similar accommodations. Phase four will reopen arts, entertainment, recreation and education.

At least two weeks of favorable data are required for the governor to decide whether an economic region is ready to reopen. An additional minimum weeks of favorable data is required to allow a region to advance to the next phase.  Poloncarz, during a statewide conference call earlier in the day, had indicated the county would not likely be ready to reopen upon the conclusion of New York's PAUSE order May 15 but might be ready by the start of June.

During his afternoon briefing, Poloncarz noted that even if the region gets to begin opening up by the end of May, many of the traditional summerr events including concerts and local sports won't be allowed to take place until July at the earliest. 

"Remember, if you get to phase one you've got to have at least have two weeks worth of data to show you can go to phase two, that you haven't had an increase in your hospitalizations," he said.

"If it didn't go well, we would not move on to the next phase until we could show we can handle the new caseload, so to speak, in both the hospitals and otherwise. I've got a lot of parents who are like 'please, open up youth sports.' I don't make that call. That's part of the phase four, in recreation as well as the arts and culturals."

Major League Baseball has reportedly been eyeing a shortened season by the start of July. When asked who would decide whether to allow minor league baseball, including the Buffalo Bisons, if it sought to begin play sooner than phase four begins in Erie County, Poloncarz answered that he was still awaiting guidelines. He added that if the Bisons were cleared to play at Sahlen Field, it would most likely be with no fans in the seats.

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.
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