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Erie County discloses nursing home outbreaks to Legislature, but still no public announcements

Dr. Gale Burstein, Erie County health commissioner, speaks at a press conference March 4, 2020 at the county building, discussing the testing of county residents for COVID-19 during the early stages of the pandemic.
Tom Dinki/WBFO file photo
Dr. Gale Burstein, Erie County commissioner of health, speaks with the media in March about COVID-19.

The Erie County Department of the Health has begun notifying the county Legislature about COVID-19 outbreaks in local nursing homes, but it is still not notifying the general public.

County Health Commssioner Dr. Gale Bustein sent a letter to the Legislature Thursday, notifying them of three nursing homes where 5% or more of beds are occupied by residents sick with COVID-19.

Those nursing homes include Autumn View Health Care Facility, a 230-bed facility in Hamburg where 51 residents have tested positive; Greenfield Health and Rehabilitation Center, a 160-bed facility in Lancaster where 12 residents have tested positive; and Elderwood at Grand Island, a 90-bed facility where five residents have tested positive.

A portion of the letter that Erie County Commissioner of Health Dr. Gale Burstein sent to the county Legislature Thursday about COVID-19 outbreaks in local nursing homes.

The letter comes after the Legislature passed a resolution two weeks ago demanding the health department disclose COVID-19 outbreaks in nursing homes. The Buffalo News had reported last month that Erie County was not publicly announcing COVID-19 outbreaks at nursing homes — something that four other county health departments in Western New York have done.

“I'm happy to see the administration got us that information,” said Minority Leader Joseph Lorigo, who co-wrote the resolution with his fellow Republicans. “Historically, they haven't been willing to do stuff like this.”

However, the letter does not appear on the county health department website, nor did the health department send out a press release about the outbreaks. Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz also failed to mention the outbreaks in his Thursday press briefing.

“I think they have a duty to put that on the website and let people know,” Lorigo said. “It's certainly a concern that people have given the dire situation in nursing homes, and a lot of people whose relatives are in these nursing homes don't have any way to know what's going on. They should have a way to go to the internet and find out.”

In an email, a spokesperson for the county health department, Kara Kane, said any communication between the health department and Legislature is automatically public record, and therefore the letter is available to the public.

She also noted that data from the letter is based on the New York State Department of Health’s Health Electronic Response Data System, or HERDS, and it maintains the most accurate and up-to-date data about COVID cases in nursing homes.

The federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid also posts data about COVID-19 cases and deaths at all nursing homes in the U.S. weekly on its website.

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