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Erie County needs all the help it can get to track positive COVID-19 cases

Public health officials acknowledged Monday that it has already become impossible to trace everyone who may have been exposed to COVID-19 from the seven confirmed cases so far in Erie County.

So the county announced where those with COVID-19 shopped and traveled in recent weeks and will rely on the news media and social media to help spread the word.

"With thousands and thousands of contacts – and these could be people from all over the United States with the plane and the train – there will be more," said Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein. "We can’t possibly contact all those people."

The decision to publicize the information is a 180-degree turn from two weeks ago, when county officials were reluctant to even publicly give broad numbers about the numbers of residents in quarantine.

But the county needs all the help it can get now.

"The ninth floor is absolutely a madhouse right now," Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said of where Health Department employees work in the Rath Building. "Our budget only has three epidemiologists and a chief epidemiologist for a total of four people, but right now, there’s dozens that are doing the work."

As of Monday evening, there were seven confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Erie County. The confirmed cases stretch across urban, suburban and rural communities. New York State leads the country in total number of cases in the United States, with cases turning up in more counties every day.

The county has worked to add to its epidemiology team. Administrators have recruited graduate students, hired contractors and transferred in nurses, health sanitarians, clerks and volunteers to help conduct COVID-19 tracking investigations or to support that work by staffing phone banks.

"People are stepping up and helping us, not only on the 'epi' side, but on the phone bank side because we are getting hundreds and hundreds of calls every day," Burstein said. "So it’s all hands on deck. We’re training people every day to come work with us."

Disease tracing is time-consuming work. For instance, as of Monday morning, the county was still struggling to determine the time frame an infected individual had been to the Galleria Mall on March 10, a day when the mall held a job fair.

The number of COVID-19 cases is expected to rise exponentially in the coming days and weeks, with labs at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, Erie County Medical Center and Kaleida Health expected to perform COVID-19 tests as early as this week. That testing will dramatically expand the number of confirmed cases that will need to be traced by the Health Department.

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Also, Poloncarz announced Monday that the county Health Department is expanding its criteria for patient testing beyond the highly restrictive parameters that previously existed.

Any area physician who believes they have a patient with symptoms associated with COVID-19 may now request testing.

That will prompt the county's epidemiology unit to prioritize the tracking and monitoring of individuals who are at the greatest risk of COVID-19 exposure. They include:

• Family members and other known close contacts of an infected individual

• Individuals who are elderly or have chronic health conditions

• Health care providers and those who work at health facilities

For everyone else who might have been exposed to someone with COVID-19, the county is relying on the media to spread the message of when and where infected individuals have been in the community. Anyone who thinks he or she has been exposed to the virus as a result should self monitor for symptoms of fever, cough and shortness of breath, officials said.

(Erie County)

County officials said those with COVID-19, but have not been diagnosed, are likely in the community and infecting others. They just haven't yet been identified by the Erie County Health Department.

That's why county leaders continue to urge the public to be understanding and to cooperate with county efforts to slow the spread of the new coronavirus by not gathering in large groups – as many did on St. Patrick's Day weekend.

Of the seven who tested positive for the virus as of Monday, six were in their 20s and 30s. And all seven had traveled outside the area. None was a senior citizen.

"We have to go under the assumption it is everywhere," the county executive said. "There are people who are probably feeling wonderful, who may in the next few days not feel so good because they came into contact with an individual at one of those sites. So we’re telling everyone, that’s why we’re taking this as seriously as we are."

County officials do not believe the virus is containable any longer, so the Health Department is not demanding that hundreds or thousands of people place themselves in mandatory quarantine if they may have been in the same rough location as a person with COVID-19.

Instead, the county is asking that anyone who may have been in the same area as an infected individual “self monitor” for symptoms for a 14-day period since the potential exposure. That would include having people take their temperatures twice a day, report any symptoms to their doctors, and to the extent possible, practice voluntary quarantine measures.

Poloncarz has also sent a request to the County Legislature, which will likely be approved Thursday, to authorize him to allocate $5 million to slowing the spread of the coronavirus. County leaders expect a good portion of that money would cover the costs of bringing on more epidemiologists and other Health Department personnel to help the work of tracking cases.

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