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County officials worry about rising COVID numbers, as hospitals reach full or near full capacity

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz is seen making remarks during a COVID briefing Tuesday, Nov. 30
YouTube/Erie County NY
Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz is seen making remarks during a COVID briefing Tuesday, Nov. 30

Erie County officials say Monday’s COVID positivity rate was at 12 percent, with 832 new positive tests reported for that day. During Tuesday’s COVID briefing, county leaders discussed ongoing efforts to curb the spread. They’re also concerned for an anticipated post-holiday increase, while also keeping their eyes on COVID’s latest variant, Omicron.

The Erie County Health Department reports a total 4,271 new cases among Erie County residents for the week ending November 27. That’s a two-percent decrease from the week before, but officials suggest that decline may be due to fewer tests being administered through the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.

“If we had received the traditional number of tests that we would get on a weekly basis, we would have in all likelihood far surpassed the case total for last week than we did the week before,” said Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz.

That count also represents a 59-percent increase over the past four weeks, and a 145-percent increase over the past six weeks.

Hospitals remained at or near full capacity, with ECMC reporting 100 percent capacity on Sunday. While only a fraction of those beds are occupied by COVID patients, public officials worry continuing increases in COVID numbers will cause further strain to hospital systems and their staff.

It’s been a week since Poloncarz imposed a mask mandate for public indoor settings, the first and lowest phase of a four-tiered plan to counter COVID spread, in response to a surge in positive tests November 23.

The next phase would mandate vaccination in order to patronize bars, restaurants, theaters and other entertainment venues. Poloncarz says the hope is to avoid reaching the next phase by continued, vigilant mask wearing.

“We're going to assess the need for additional measures using COVID-19 case data, the positivity rate, and especially hospitalizations on December 13, 2021, unless the conditions require an earlier implementation,” Poloncarz said.

Some establishments have openly defied mask mandates, claiming they do so in order not to discriminate against customers. The county executive said Tuesday many businesses had been identified and received earnings, but none to date had been fined.

Several Buffalo-area bars, meanwhile, have implemented their own vaccination requirements for entry.

Like state leaders, county officials are anticipating numbers will rise further in the coming days, following Thanksgiving gatherings. In addition, while the recently identified Omicron variant has not yet been detected in New York State, it was confirmed in Ontario. Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein suggests the variant is “breathing down our neck,” though health officials are still only beginning to learn about the new strain and the level of threat it may pose.

“We don't know if it's more transmissible or less transmissible. We don't know about the severity of illness it causes and we don't know about how protective the vaccines will be against preventing moderate to severe illness from the Omicron variant,” Burstein said. “We're going to hopefully know that all in another couple of weeks. But again, there is a lot we don't know right now, and we can't really make any assumptions.”

Burstein says the county’s public health lab is capable of detecting Omicron in its PCR tests.

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.