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Erie County COVID cases down for everyone but 5-17 year olds, especially student athletes

Erie County / YouTube
In a briefing Tuesday, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said 5-17 year olds are the only residents currently seeing a rise in COVID-19 cases.

The average age of COVID-19 patients in Erie County continues to drop heavily, because there has been so much effort to vaccinate older residents. Now young people playing sports has become a major issue.For much of the long pandemic, sports just weren’t allowed. But as the lockdown eased, sports returned.

Since last year, County Executive Mark Poloncarz and County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein have been pushing to enforce the rules on teams, forcing dozens into lockdown and quarantine as virus cases surfaced, because the rules were often broken.

"Students, faculty, other staff than we have ever recorded," Poloncarz emphasized during his Tuesday briefing, "642 new cases for the most recent week ending, which is the highest we have ever seen. And you can look at the chart here and see how it keeps increasing. And this is almost all, not every case, but almost all cases are students. So it's very disconcerting."

Credit Erie County / YouTube
Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said Tuesday that nearly all new COVID-19 cases in schools are students.

Poloncarz said school sports is a particular problem.

"There’s a lot of people out there saying there’s no transmission in schools and they’re stopping as if it’s the classroom," he said. "We are seeing transmission in schools associated with school sports. We haven’t been able to determine solely classroom transmission, but we have been able to determine transmission from sports teams associated with schools."

Two-high school football games are known to have been played last week with players who were infected with COVID. One was the match between Gowanda and Alden April 12.

Gowanda School Superintendent Robert Anderson blamed it on out-of-state travel and COVID fatigue.

"Spring break has been a real troublesome thing for us here, people not adhering to, I’m assuming, universal precautions while they’re on break and just people in general getting sloppy with their precautions," Anderson said. "And if it wasn’t a school transmission, it was an outside of school issue that came to us, unfortunately, in the guise of athletics."

Poloncarz said the infections fortunately led to the cancelation of a game last weekend.

"There were three players from Gowanda who were sick with COVID-19. One was symptomatic. Two were asymptomatic, but they were shedding the virus," Poloncarz said. "I’m glad that in the end the game was cancelled between Alden and JFK. I’m glad not every student was put in quarantine, and that was done after discussions in which we finally found out who the individuals were who were most at risk."

Credit Gowanda Central School District
Three students were found to be positive for COVID-19 shortly after the April 12 football game between Gowanda and Alden high schools.

Alden Superintendent Adam Stoltman said some players now quarantined really didn’t have any contact with the ill Gowanda players. There are 21 in quarantine, but he said it should have been closer to five.

"The same exact thing happened last week, Saturday morning," Stoltman said. "There was a JV football team that had student athletes test positive. Their opponent on Thursday, on Thursday their opponent was neither contacted nor put on quarantine."

Stoltman said the infected players played for the West Seneca West JV football team and that the county Health Department needs to be fair about enforcement.

The problem areas are in middle and high school. Albany and Washington now allow elementary school students back in the classroom five days a week and districts are letting them back.

The vocal citizens group Western New York Students First has called for Burstein's ouster because all students aren’t back in school. However, the county executive defended Burstein.

"They're gonna demand the resignation of Gale Burstein or to fire her. Fact: No. Dr. Gale Burstein has saved countless lives in this community and the individuals who are out there critiquing her have the right to their opinion, but they don't have the right facts," Poloncarz said. 

He then told Burstein, "You are not being fired."

Not all students want to be back in the classroom. Buffalo Public Schools, for example, are seeing thousands of families keeping their children on remote learning.

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.
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