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Nursing home deaths a concern, but Poloncarz still hopeful for June 1 reopening


While expressing concern for the percentage of COVID-19 deaths traced to nursing homes, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said Friday he and his counterparts from neighboring counties are still hopeful the Western New York region can be ready by June 1 for phase one of the state's gradual reopening of the economy.

For its reopening strategy, Governor Andrew Cuomo's administration is measuring seven metrics that must be met by the economic regions defined by Empire State Development. Erie County, along with Niagara, Chautauqua, Cattaraugus and Allegany Counties, is part of of the Western New York Region.

As of Friday, the region met three of the seven metrics. The region is not yet caught up on the level of testing required, 30 tests per every 1,000 people. Poloncarz reported that Erie County has tested more than 23,000 people and was increasing its efforts.

"We know we can meet that. We know we can meet the testing requirements, basically 27,000 people tested in a month, if we continue to test at the rate we're testing now," he said.

The county executive noted that the rate of positive tests is decreasing in Erie County. He did not have updated hospitalization rates available Friday afternoon. Citing that the state was updating its system, he advised reporters that the county had not received updated local hospitalization rates since Wednesday.

Earlier in the week, Poloncarz suggested he did not think Erie County would be ready for phase one consideration by May 15, when New York State's PAUSE order is set to expire, but expressed hope the county would be ready by June 1. Based on a conference call held Thursday with leaders of the other counties of the Western New York Economic Region, it appears they, too, have that hope.

"We had a very good call talking about what we all need to do to try to meet these standards of reopening," Poloncarz said. "Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul was on that call as well. I think we all know where we need to go. And we're going to share appropriate data with New York State to show that it's time to reopen or it's not."

One trend Poloncarz pointed out is the percentage of COVID deaths in Erie County traced to nursing homes. Data suggests 55 percent of the 346 fatalities reported to date were among nursing home occupants. He pointed to one facility in East Aurora as a problem spot. In Niagara County, a nursing home in Newfane has also emerged as a COVID-19 hotspot.

Poloncarz was asked if the limited space in where these cases were occurring may factor in the state's decision whether the rest of the region could be ready to go with phase one of reopening. He replied that yes, it is part of the conversation but he also expressed a sensitivity for those directly affected.

"We are certainly concerned about the number of deaths we've had in nursing homes, and it may be skewing our numbers slightly but we also have to remember that was a life," he said. "And sometimes, people are in nursing homes not because they're just old and frail, but because they may have just come back from a surgery. They could be rehabilitating in a nursing home.

"If you are rehabilitating in a nursing home after a major surgery, such as having a hip replacement, and you catch the coronavirus, your death is just as important as the person who was 90-year-old and frail. I mean, every death matters. Every life matters."

In the meantime, he also called to the public to continue physical distancing and other safety measures to help the county inch closer to reopening.

"It's a lot of work for many people to get to that point. We've all been working very hard, but the biggest thing we can do is the public continue to follow proper social distancing guidelines so we can stop the spread of the coronavirus," Poloncarz said.

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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