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44 coronavirus cases confirmed in New York; 116 monitored in Erie County

The Erie County Department of Health is monitoring 116 individuals for potential exposure to the coronavirus disease, or COVID-19.

No one in Erie County has tested positive for the illness.

"Our epidemiology office is in contact with these individuals daily throughout the course of their quarantine period," said Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein in a statement. "The quarantine process is a safeguard and a proven preventive measure to protect public health."

The 116 people in quarantine have no symptoms, but they are being monitored to see if they develop any. They are being separated from the general population due to their travel history.

Meanwhile, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Friday that the number of confirmed cases of the coronavirus illness statewide has grown to 44.

Anyone who has recently traveled to Italy, China, South Korea or Iran, where travel restrictions and advisories have been issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is being asked to stay in quarantine for 14 days upon their return home.

Since the end of January, the health department has managed 147 quarantine cases; 31 completed their quarantine without contracting COVID-19. A group of University at Buffalo students from China was also previously monitored for exposure to the virus, but only one was actually tested for potential infection in January and found to be negative.

The individuals in quarantine reside across the county and are at varying points in the quarantine process, according to the Erie County Health Department.

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That includes students and staff in multiple school districts, including Amherst, Kenmore-Tonawanda and Buffalo. Buffalo Superintendent Kriner Cash said Friday that two students and two staff have been quarantined.

In Niagara County, four residents are under quarantine and not showing any COVID-19 symptoms, Niagara County Public Health Director Daniel J. Stapleton said Friday.

All of them recently returned from trips to one of the countries under CDC travel advisory or restrictions.

Stapleton wouldn't say which countries they visited, nor would he disclose any information about where in the county they live. They have not been tested for the virus.

Cuomo: 'The number will continue to go up'

The governor said that all 44 of New York's confirmed coronavirus cases are downstate (New York City, Nassau, Westchester, Rockland). Most of the suburban New York City cases are connected to the Westchester family that initially tested positive for the virus.

Cuomo added that he expects the number of confirmed cases to rise as more people are tested for the coronavirus.

"The number will continue to go up because it’s mathematics," he said.

He reiterated comments made universally by U.S. health care officials that regular cases of the seasonal flu remain a much more serious health threat than COVID-19. The new virus has not killed anyone in New York, and most people who contract it recover without hospital admission.

"I’m not urging calm," he said. "I’m urging reality. I’m urging a factual response as opposed to an emotional response."

About 4,000 people across the state are under a precautionary quarantine, Cuomo said, while 44 are under a mandatory quarantine, in which individuals are checked on by health officials daily to ensure they are staying put.

Those under a mandatory quarantine include anyone who has tested positive for the virus, who has visited a country labeled by the CDC as a country with a major outbreak and who exhibits symptoms, and anyone with direct, close contact with person who has tested positive.

The new information comes after state health officials met with county health commissioners and county executives across the state Thursday.

Also on Thursday, the Erie County Legislature unanimously approved a resolution demanding the county administration and county health department release local quarantine numbers it had been withholding.

The county health department announced Friday that it will now release the number of local quarantine cases and update that figure weekly. However, it will not share personal information – including age, occupation, school district and location.

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"Protecting the privacy of these individuals while also keeping the public informed is of paramount importance and we are doing everything we can to maintain that," said Burstein, Erie County's health commissioner. "By releasing this aggregate data, we will be able to keep the public up to date on the quarantine process while protecting that privacy. This number will change constantly from day to day, so releasing it weekly is the most practical means to get this information out."

The Governor's Office rebuked County Executive Mark Poloncarz on Wednesday for suggesting Cuomo broke the law by sharing aggregated information regarding some people who were being monitored in Erie County after having returned from Italy. Poloncarz later apologized for the remark.

When Cuomo was asked Friday about their relationship, he said it was "going very well" and that many local health departments are "feeling their way" on the issue of how much information to share, while still protecting personal privacy.

State officials also confirmed Friday that foreign study students who return to the United States will have the option of being quarantined at home or at a SUNY facility like the dorms at SUNY Buffalo State. The state is looking to determine which students will need temporary accommodations and which ones already have a place of their own to remain quarantined locally, said Elizabeth Garvey, special counsel to Cuomo.

Health officials urged people to exercise the same good hygiene protocols that protect against the flu and other viruses, such as frequent hand-washing and avoiding close contact with those who appear sick. Older adults and those with chronic conditions and compromised immune systems are asked to be particularly cautious.

Stapleton, the Niagara County public health director, urged residents to get a flu shot even though the vaccine doesn't directly protect from COVID-19.

"This is an aggressive year for the flu," Stapleton said. "It also strengthens your immune system to fight against other diseases."

— News Albany Bureau Chief Tom Precious contributed to this report.

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