Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz on Sunday beseeched the public to do its part to not spread germs as he declared a state of emergency to help the county prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Poloncarz announced the action to use expanded emergency powers as a total of seven county residents tested positive for the novel coronavirus by Sunday night.
"We don't want to become like Italy," Poloncarz said. "We don't want to have to shut down the community."
Poloncarz said he would move cautiously, pushing for a $5 million transfer from the county's 2019 year-end surplus to combat the spread of the virus. That includes money to expand the number of epidemiologists and other staff needed at the county Health Department to help track all potential exposures to COVID-19.
Poloncarz also said he would use his expanded powers to shut down schools in the county on Monday. By Sunday night, school superintendents took that a big step farther: agreeing to close schools through April 20, according to Buffalo Public Schools Superintendent Kriner Cash.
Cash said there was no way to safeguard students and staff when a single lunch period alone might involve more than 500 students.
"We are entering uncharted waters," Poloncarz said. "What we will be seeing in the next few weeks is something we would not have even foreseen to ask of the public a couple weeks ago. The coronavirus does not discriminate based on age, sex, race, net worth, or for that matter, political affiliation. Folks, we are all in this together. I ask for everyone to take what we are going through at this point very seriously."
County leaders had been bracing for news of a confirmed case but were still scrambling Sunday to make decisions with far-reaching consequences. Conference calls among major leaders, school superintendents and the heads of major departments were going on for much of the day.
A state of emergency does not mean the county is on lockdown, Poloncarz said. But the county executive implored residents to do what they can to reduce contact with others and to help stop the spread of the disease.
He urged parents with school-age children to keep them close to home.
Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown also declared a state of emergency Sunday and began a crackdown on downtown bars and restaurants that were celebrating St. Patrick's Day by openly flouting the governor's directive to only run at half capacity to prevent a potential virus spread. Many other counties and municipalities also made similar declarations.
"We want people to do the right thing," Brown said.
Seven cases in Erie County
The states of emergency were prompted by the news late Saturday that three Erie County residents had tested positive for COVID-19. By Sunday night, that total had grown to seven. Allegany County reported Sunday evening that two people tested positive for COVID-19.
As of Sunday evening, 67 Erie County residents were in quarantine. Another 222 people had completed quarantine and were released.
"We expect that number to change today," said Poloncarz. He said epidemiologists were working to identify people who may have been in contact with those who tested positive.
Poloncarz said he would send a request to the Erie County Legislature this week to grant him the authority to spend $5 million as needed under the state of emergency, without the usual requirement that every unplanned expenditure of more than $10,000 be approved by lawmakers and subject to a formal bidding process.
Legislature Chairwoman April Baskin said she expects the Legislatures to take up the emergency measure at its Thursday meeting.
County officials said the current epidemiology team – which is responsible for the identification, tracking and control of diseases – has been working to determine COVID-19 exposure stemming from the residents who have been identified. They warned, however, the team is understaffed. Nurses from county clinics, and even graduate students, have been brought in to assist the three full-time staff epidemiologists, said Erie County Health Department spokeswoman Kara Kane.
Officials expect some of the $5 million would go toward hiring more epidemiologists and other Health Department personnel to help the work of tracking cases. Kane said that work can be as detailed as gathering restaurant credit card information to find other people who may have been exposed to an infected individual.
Erie county is also looking into worst-case scenarios if the number of severe COVID-19 cases exceeds hospital capacity.
Poloncarz said he and the county's public works commissioner visited the vacant Erie County Home in Alden, a former hospital and nursing home that closed nearly a decade ago. He said they were exploring the idea that it could be retrofitted to reopen as a wing for coronavirus patients, if they could not be accommodated in existing hospitals.
"We're looking at everything," he said.
Erie County has set up a phone number for people who have questions or are looking for information about COVID-19: 716-858-2929. Anyone who believes they may have been exposed to COVID-19 or feel sick are asked to call their physician directly, or call an urgent care center if they have no regular doctor.
Public cooperation urged
With coronavirus testing capacity expected to increase over the next week, Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein said the county will expand the criteria for who will be allowed to be tested to include anyone with symptoms who may have traveled outside the area.
Roughly 80% of people who are confirmed to have COVID-19 show only mild symptoms, and only about 12% of cases in New York State require hospitalization. However, the virus has a disproportionately negative impact on those who are elderly or have chronic health conditions or immune system deficiencies, and they may require hospitalization and intensive care.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Saturday was the first to announce the confirmed cases in Erie County, prompting some residents to question a more than 15-hour delay before Erie County release more details about those cases.
Poloncarz and Burstein said the county automatically reports its lab results to the state and was in the process gathering more information when the governor held his scheduled press conference Saturday evening. Going forward, as more details become known of the confirmed cases and who else may have been exposed, he said, they will be released to the public promptly.
"We want people to understand that this is going to be an evolving matter," Poloncarz said, "and once we have information that needs to be shared with the public, we will share it, because our goal, once again, is to protect the public."
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For more information about the novel coronavirus
Erie County: www.erie.gov/covid19
New York State Department of Health: https://www.health.ny.gov/diseases/communicable/coronavirus/
Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: http://www.coronavirus.gov
For general questions about COVID-19, call the Erie County phone line: 858-2929.
People who believe they may have been exposed to COVID-19 and who exhibit symptoms of the disease should call their primary care physician or an urgent care center if they have no physician.