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Erie, Monroe officials send joint message urging public to stem latest COVID spike

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Monroe County Executive's Office
Monroe County Executive Adam Bello speaks during a Monday briefing, during which Monroe and Erie County officials raised joint concerns about rising COVID numbers.

Leaders in Erie and Monroe Counties are sharing a joint message, as COVID case numbers rise again: they don’t want to go back to mandates, and they won’t have to if the public does its part and remains vigilant with safety measures, including vaccination.

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein and representatives of Buffalo-area hospital groups joined Monroe County Executive Adam Bello and that county’s health officials in a joint briefing hosted by the latter group. Both counties are experiencing a new rise in COVID cases, most of which involve unvaccinated patients.

More than 600 new daily cases were identified in Erie County November 11, but Poloncarz announced another concerning trend, that the latest daily infection rate for the county was 9.7%.

“We are in a fourth spike, there is no doubt about it,” he said in his initial remarks Monday. “You had our initial spike at the beginning of last year, the increase last fall, and the drop and then, of course, we saw a spike again in March and April. We actually are seeing cases and great totals in most recent days that are higher than what we saw in the spring.”

The rise includes younger patients. Oishei Children’s Hospital in Buffalo has admitted an estimated 200 COVID cases since March 2020. But chief medical officer Dr. Stephen Turkovich says there’s a noticeable recent bump.

“Since November 1 we've had ten Children admitted to the hospital. Seven of them are less than five years old. And all of them contracted COVID from a family member who was positive with COVID, who was unvaccinated. Whether that be a parent, or an older child,” Turkovich said. “We're also starting to see an increasing number of children admitted to the pediatric ICU with COVID. Thus far this month, we've had five admitted last month we had a total of five. So unfortunately, that rate is going up.”

Dr. Michael Mineo, chief medical officer for three of Kaleida Health’s hospitals, says their staff is once again being overwhelmed. Buffalo General Medical Center, for one, is according to Mineo above capacity.

“Right now we have 505 inpatients in a hospital built for 456 patients.” He said. “We’re at 110% capacity of that, about 10% of them is COVID Positive. The message can't be stressed enough to protect yourself, protect your family because our systems are strained.”

And in Monroe County, Bello says eight of every ten COVID patients currently in ICUs there are unvaccinated. He, along with Poloncarz and all other speakers, renewed a call to the public to get vaccinated for COVID, and continue practicing safety measures while out and about.

Poloncarz, when asked by a reporter about a few local classrooms implementing virtual learning amid multiple infections, said there’s no reason at this time to impose a return to online instruction for all students, though officials are concerned about rising numbers among all age groups.

Monroe County officials, likewise, stated they do not want to go back to mandates, and if the public heeds their warnings now, they won’t have to.

But Monroe County Public Health Commissioner Dr. Michael Mendoza says they cannot entirely rule it out.

“At the end of the day we cannot allow this pandemic to wreak havoc on our society, whether it's through mandates or through health related reasons. We want to take the path of health and safety and I think if we take these reasonable common sense steps I think that's the way we'll go.”

Poloncarz says there’s still a mask mandate for county government buildings which he suggests is working. While some county personnel have tested positive for COVID, he noted that contract tracers had found the origin of their infections to be from outside the building. He’s asking members of the public, and private establishments, to consider voluntarily continuing the use of masks as a means to stem the latest spike.

He also hints that while no officials want to go back to stricter measures, he’d do it if it becomes necessary, reminding the public that a state of emergency remains in effect in Erie County.

“I think I have a reputation that I'm not afraid to take the action if necessary, much to my detriment,” he said. “Last Thanksgiving, I had protesters in front of my house. If I have protesters in front of my house again this year, I'll deal with it. But I'm willing to do what's necessary to protect the overall general public. We know there's a call to action. If we see these numbers continue to rise, and we're seeing what would be considered lack of fellow patriotism and fellow belief in our neighbors by people not wearing masks, then it's an action I'm willing to take.”

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.