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Poloncarz, Cuomo spar over coronavirus transparency

More information about how many Erie County residents are being monitored, quarantined or tested for possible exposure to the new coronavirus is coming from Albany and other sources than from the county's health department.

At a Wednesday news conference, County Executive Mark Poloncarz accused Gov. Andrew Cuomo of breaking the law by revealing the number of Erie County residents being monitored for possible exposure to the coronavirus.

"The state violated the law," Poloncarz said. "We’ve been told that we can’t disclose that."

That prompted the Governor's Office to demand the county executive "correct the record immediately" – which Poloncarz later did.

The County Executive's Office issued a statement walking back Poloncarz's original remarks:

"Earlier today Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz said it was illegal for New York State and the Governor to release the number of coronavirus tests being performed for residents of Erie County, as well as the location of the individuals," the statement read. "While it may not have been illegal to release aggregate data, it was probably inappropriate to release identifying information such as the town or location of residence, considering that one of the families does not live in Buffalo but in one of the other 27 communities that make up Erie County. The County Executive strongly apologizes for any inference he made that was incorrect."

Cuomo announced Tuesday that 12 people from the Buffalo area who had returned from a trip to Italy were quarantined and that six who had shown symptoms associated with the COVID-19 illness had been tested. He announced Wednesday that their tests showed they did not have the virus.

[Related: More WNYers could be quarantined as coronavirus cases multiply]

The Erie County Health Department did not share or confirm any of that information until after the governor released it.

Rich Azzopardi, senior adviser to the governor, pushed back against Poloncarz's remarks about the state violating the law and said it's Erie County that is not adhering to standards of transparency that other counties around the state are embracing.

He listed the counties that had voluntarily shared information regarding the number of cases it was monitoring.

  • Westchester County last week announced it was monitoring 26 travelers on voluntary quarantine, mostly in their homes. As of Wednesday, eight remained on voluntary quarantine. The other people completed the quarantine period without showing signs of illness, county officials said.
  • Dutchess County on Wednesday said 11 residents are in self-quarantine, and two have finished the 14-day quarantine period.
  • Rockland County officials said two people were in similar quarantine, and another three people had completed the 14 day self-isolation. Monroe County health officials were monitoring six people earlier this month.
  • Nassau County reported Wednesday that 83 people in Nassau County were being monitored for possible coronavirus exposure.

‎"State and county health departments in New York and around the country have been routinely providing this information," Azzopardi said. "It’s our obligation during a public health epidemic to keep the public informed. Faith in government competence in is paramount in these situations, and misinformation undermines that."

When reporters asked Poloncarz and county Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein Wednesday why none of the information about Erie County residents was being shared by the county, they responded that health privacy laws and guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention forbid sharing any information unless it's to confirm a case of COVID-19, where an actual health threat has been identified.

Burstein said the release of even general numbers could be considered "personally identifiable" information, even though Erie County has a population of more than 900,000 residents.

Neither would the county release numbers on how many county residents have been tested for the virus and received negative test results.

Poloncarz did say that the only other group of residents who had been previously tested were University at Buffalo students from China.

Note: On Thursday, the University at Buffalo corrected his statement, saying that there was only one UB student from China who was tested in January, and that student tested negative.

Meanwhile, other institutions and agencies are opting for transparency. The Kenmore-Tonawanda school district announced on Wednesday that one of its students, who recently traveled to Italy, was asked to maintain a voluntary quarantine as a precautionary measure.

Cuomo: SUNY students called back from countries with coronavirus outbreaks

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