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One year of COVID-19: How virus has impacted WNY

WBFO file photo
Lona DeNisco, a nurse in the emergency department at Erie County Medical Center, counter-protests an anti-lockdown protest in Niagara Square in downtown Buffalo in April 2020.

It was a year ago Monday that Erie County declared a state of emergency over COVID-19. The ensuing sickness, death and shutdowns has changed life as we knew it. Here’s a look from the WBFO staff at the lingering effects the pandemic has had on Western New York.

Nursing homes

About a third of all U.S. COVID-19 deaths have been linked to nursing homes. In Erie County, nursing home residents make up more than half of all COVID deaths.

The New York State Attorney General, in a report released in January, found many nursing homes across the state failed to provide adequate personal protective equipment and follow infection protocols, especially during the early months of the pandemic.


Plus, visitor restrictions have left families unable to see loved ones in nursing homes for most, if not all, of the last year.



Credit WBFO file photo
Ann Pautler and her father Albert Pautler visit their mother and wife, Marilyn Pautler, at the Elderwood at Lancaster nursing home in August.

Richard Mollot, executive director of the Long Term Care Community Coalition, a group that advocates for New York nursing home residents, said the pandemic simply exposed the longstanding issues in the system.

“We know nursing home residents deserve better and if this doesn't serve as a catalyst for significant change, I don't know what will,” he said.


There’s now a big push for nursing home reform in the New York State Legislature. Proposed laws include safe staffing standards that would mandate nursing homes meet minimum staffing-to-patient ratios. There’s also a proposed profit cap that would force nursing homes to put at least 70% of their revenue toward caring for residents.


Racial equity

WBFO's Thomas O' Neil-White reports about COVID-19's impact on racial equity.

In late-March of 2020, Pastor George Nicholas of the African American Health Equity Task Force warned of the need for robust testing in Buffalo’s Black neighborhoods, communities which have extremely high rates of chronic disease.

“I think there’s this false sense that maybe the numbers aren’t so high in Western New York. We don’t know that because we haven’t done the kind of testing to give us the kind of data that we need,” Nicholas. “And so, when we begin to start doing the testing that needs to take place, I’m pretty confident we’re going to find a great number of people who have been exposed to this virus on the Eastside of Buffalo.”


Credit WBFO file photo
Betty Jean Grant and her daughter give free personal protective equipment to East Side residents in April 2020.

And Nicholas was right. 

On that day in March there were 122 positive cases. A month later, cases had jumped to nearly 3,000 and certain zip codes on Buffalo’s Eastside became hotspots for the virus.


By September, Black people had the highest death rate of any racial group in Erie County. Black Erie County residents had died at more than three times the rate of white residents, 68 per 100,000 people, compared to 21 per 100,000 for white people.



WBFO's Nick Lippa reports about COVID-19's impact on the arts.

One year ago, art and music venues couldn’t have imagined having to wait so long before returning to full operations, but as communities work toward distributing vaccines, concert halls and theaters still don’t have a date when venues can return to a semblance of normalcy. 

Many adapted though, via virtual concerts and limited viewings for exhibits. Torn Space Theater in downtown Buffalo put on 14 outdoor performances at Silo City over the summer. 



Credit WBFO file photo
North Park Theatre, located on Hertel Avenue in Buffalo, and other theaters have had their doors closed for most of 2020.



Terry Fisher, president of the Theatre District Association of Western New York, was one of many looking for aid.


“The whole theater community is desperate for any kind of something new that could help them,” he told WBFO in January.


Movie theaters have just started to reopen in New York state. Concert halls, too, all with restrictions. There’s hope to finally begin recovering from a year where the arts industry lost billions in revenue across the U.S.



WBFO's Marian Hetherly reports about COVID-19's impact on women.

Child care in New York State was already in crisis before COVID-19, but Sheri Scavone, executive director of the Western New York Women's Foundation, said it has been decimated by the pandemic. This has put unprecedented pressure on parents trying to balance work with child care responsibilities, and businesses trying to support and retain quality employees.

"In Western New York, we actually had the highest rate of childcare center closures of the state,” Scavone said. “Our childcare deserts will only grow."


Credit WBFO file photo
A child plays in the three-year-old room at the nonprofit Chautauqua Lake Child Care Center in Mayville in January 2020.

Men may have increased their caregiving role since the pandemic began, but Scavone said women overwhelmingly are the family caregiver, especially single women with children and women of color. Women also hold the majority of caregiving jobs, and have had to downshift their careers much more than men to carry out that role, support remote learning and still be able to pay the bills.

“Working women have now lost more than three decades of labor force gains in less than a year. It is truly astonishing and deeply concerning," she said.


The federal government has recognized the inequity, approving $2.3 billion for child care in New York State to date. The American Rescue Plan signed by President Biden last week also includes a third stimulus check worth $1,400 for individuals making up to $75,000 a year, another $1,400 per dependent, plus an expanded child care credit of $3,000 for children aged 6-17 and $3,600 for children under age 6. Cash vouchers issued for women and children through WIC also get a small boost for four months.


"I think what's really gratifying is, finally people get it," Scavone said.

WBFO's Marian Hetherly talks with WNY Women's Foundation Executive Director Sheri Scavone

WNY Women's Foundation Pandemic Impact Report by Marian on Scribd



WBFO's Michael Mroziak reports on COVID-19's impact on baseball.

With the COVID pandemic keeping the U.S.-Canada border closed to non-essential traffic, and the City of Toronto not allowing use of Rogers Centre, Major League Baseball’s Toronto Blue Jays needed to find a new home for its 2020 season. With the Buffalo Bisons and all of minor league baseball canceled, the Jays announced last July, they’d be coming to Sahlen Field

Credit Toronto Blue Jays
An overhead view of Sahlen Field, redecorated to fit the Toronto Blue Jays, in July 2020.

“We're going to show not just the Blue Jays, but we're going to show the world what Buffalo is about,” said Bisons president Mike Buczkowski, speaking on July 24, “and how we're going to come together to make this an advantage for the Blue Jays, to make this a place where they can call home.”

Buffalo wasn’t their first choice, but the ballpark proved a friendly home for the Jays, who won 17 games at Sahlen Field and clinched a postseason berth. With the Canadian border still not fully reopened, the Jays have suggested Buffalo could be home again to a few of its games this summer. 

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.
Nick Lippa leads our Arts & Culture Coverage, and is also the lead reporter for the station's Mental Health Initiative, profiling the struggles and triumphs of those who battle mental health issues and the related stigma that can come from it.
Born in Louisville, Kentucky, Thomas moved to Western New York at the age of 14. A graduate of Buffalo State College, he majored in Communications Studies and was part of the sports staff for WBNY. When not following his beloved University of Kentucky Wildcats and Boston Red Sox, Thomas enjoys coaching youth basketball, reading Tolkien novels and seeing live music.
Tom Dinki joined WBFO in August 2019 to cover issues affecting older adults.