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Erie County infection rate down, but U.K. variant discovered

Erie County
Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz holds a virtual COVID-19 briefing Tuesday.

Erie County’s COVID-19 infection and hospital rates continue to decline, but a more dangerous variant of the virus has now been confirmed in the county. 


Erie County’s seven-day positivity rate has fallen to 4.2%, the lowest it’s been since October. Meanwhile, the death toll this month is on track to be close to half of what it was in January when 267 people died, and hospitalizations have dropped about 26% over the last two weeks.


“So we've gotten through the fall and winter and we are headed in the right direction when it comes to the positivity rates,” said County Executive Mark Poloncarz during his COVID-19 briefing Tuesday.


But, the good news comes as the county got confirmation of its first two cases of the U.K. variant. They are part of 18 new U.K. variant cases announced by Gov. Andrew Cuomo Tuesday, bringing the state’s total to 154. The U.K. variant had already been found in Niagara and Allegany counties.


The variant, first discovered in Great Britain, is more contagious and may be up to 70% more deadly. 

County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein said the county’s two U.K. variant cases were from people whose specimens were collected in late January, so their quarantining and contact tracing has already been completed. 


Still, she expects to eventually see more variant cases.


“It's a more easily transmissible strain, it's a more aggressive strain. Until we see more people in the communities that are immunized, we're going to expect to see more of these cases,” Burstein said. “So this is really considered just the beginning of more variants that are identified in Erie County and throughout New York state and throughout the rest of the United States. That's why it's really important that we vaccinate as quickly as possible.”


Scientists believe vaccines are only slightly less effective against the U.K. variant. There’s more concern about the South Africa variant, as Johnson & Johnson and Novavax both reported their vaccines were only 57% and 49% effective, respectively, in South Africa clinical trials.


About 13.5% percent of Erie County residents have received at least the first dose of the vaccine, while 8.3% percent have received their full dose. 


Poloncarz said the county has had 13 people under the age of 60 die of COVID so far this month. In fact, the county has had more people under 60 die in the last three and a half months — 67 people — than in the first eight months of the pandemic combined, 55.


“So whether it's the variant or just plain old, regular coronavirus, COVID-19, it can kill you,” Poloncarz said. “And we just want everyone to act appropriately so that no matter which one is out there, you're protected from it.”

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