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Why drastic measures are being taken without any confirmed COVID-19 cases in WNY

Bewildered local residents have asked, "Why?"

If Erie County – as of Thursday afternoon – still did not have a single confirmed case of anyone infected with the new coronavirus, then why were parades, the Home Show, sports tournaments and college classes already canceled? Why were government leaders recommending people to avoid restaurants, nursing homes and churches?

The answer is simple: Local leaders believe the virus has already infected people here. They just haven't found them yet.

"We are going under the assumption that there are people in our county that have it," said Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz. "We believe in all likelihood, there is a case here now."

Since the coronavirus outbreak began, the county has had 19 people fully tested as of late Thursday afternoon. That number did not include 10 additional county residents whose samples were still being tested Thursday afternoon at the Erie County Public Health Lab.

As of Thursday afternoon, the county had placed 60 people under voluntary quarantine and two people under mandatory quarantine, county officials said. Another 136 residents were previously quarantined and have been released.

[Read our full coronavirus coverage]

Given that the vast majority of those infected with the virus – now considered a worldwide pandemic – experience only mild symptoms, and that testing capacity is still limited, health experts believe the number of people who have the virus is actually greater than what local lab facilities can confirm.

Currently, only the Erie County Public Health Lab can test samples locally. The Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center lab will eventually come online to test more suspected cases, but is not yet open.

If the county waits until COVID-19 cases are confirmed, the potential exists for the number of cases to rapidly exceed local health care capacity, said Poloncarz and Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein.

The proactive approach to preventing a huge influx of cases has never been done before. Local officials acknowledge that it will be difficult.

"This is a scary time," Burstein said in her appearance before the Erie County Legislature. "None of us has lived through a pandemic. The last one was over 100 years ago."

[Related: Monroe County's first case of coronavirus is Rochester man who had traveled to Italy]

Poloncarz announced Thursday afternoon that for the next two weeks Erie County now recommends:

  • The cancellation of all events with more than 250 people
  • That individuals "seriously consider" avoiding any event or location with more than 50 people, especially if it involves individuals from outside the county
  • That anyone over the age of 60, or with underlying health conditions, is "strongly recommended" to avoid any such event

These drastic measures, in effect for at least the next two weeks, are being taken as precautions to prevent an outbreak that would strain capacity, officials said.

There are good reasons not to be alarmed. About 80% of COVID-19 symptoms are mild, and in the case of children, often nonexistent. No one in New York State is reported to have died of COVID-19. The statewide risk remains low, officials said.

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However, those who are elderly or have an underlying health condition are considered to be at much higher risk of becoming seriously ill or dying. And based on what has been seen in other countries, local officials said, Erie County does not want to be in a position of having the number of patients needing care to exceed the number of beds and treatment facilities available.

Burstein described the mortality rate as ranging from 1% to 3% overall, but because there are so few cases of COVID-19 in the United States, it is not possible to get a truly accurate read on what the mortality rate is here, though many suspect it may be lower than the worldwide average.

The overall mortality rate for COVID-19 appears to be higher than in the mortality rate for the flu, but there are far more people who contract the flu and many times more people who die from it.

Burstein said the new coronavirus is more contagious than the flu and that for every one person who contracts it, two others are infected.

Poloncarz said this is not a time to panic but to exercise good judgement and to avoid crowded places. When asked about people eating out as part of St. Patrick's Day celebrations this weekend, he answered, "I’m not going to them. And I don’t recommend other people go until it’s safe."

Burstein was also asked about what she would recommend for people who go to the gym or attend church.

"Stay at home," she said.

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