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Erie County’s shortage of diagnostic kits underlines need for individual vigilance

The novel coronavirus pandemic will at once make citizens feel more reliant on government and also acutely aware that we need to develop self-reliance when we run up against the limits of what government can do.

The latest example is Erie County running out of testing kits for Covid-19. Whether it was bureaucratic bungling or simple miscalculation that allowed that to happen, it underscores the need for individuals to be extra cautious and follow the public guidelines for minimizing the spread of the virus.

County Executive Mark Poloncarz and Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein announced Wednesday that the county no longer had swabs or chemicals to conduct new tests. Everyone who already had an appointment to get tested would be able to, but no new appointments were available. More than 300 samples taken by the county were awaiting testing.

Burstein pointed out that the shortage of supplies and testing kits is national. The federal government has been playing catch-up since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sent out an initial batch of test kits in February that included many that proved defective. The CDC at first required all tests be analyzed at its labs in Atlanta, which further delayed the process.

The U.S. and New York State have been ramping up since. The state is conducting some 7,500 tests per day. Drive-thru test facilities have opened in New Rochelle, on Long Island and even in Lancaster, but we are still far from the point where anyone who wants a test can get one.

A Buffalo News report this week showed that only individuals who had already made appointments could be tested at the Lancaster site. There were even people showing up and falsely claiming they had appointments, a disappointing and dangerous development.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s leadership during the coronavirus crisis has stood out and raised his national profile. There’s little doubt the state will put a high priority on getting more testing kits where they are needed, but our public officials’ sense of urgency must match the intensity and exponential growth of the virus.

Poloncarz on Wednesday dashed hopes that Kaleida Health, Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center and Erie County Medical Center labs could help fill the testing void. He said that “our partner agencies” had not received approval from the state to conduct tests, nor did they have the necessary materials. Like everything else connected to coronavirus, that outlook could change.

Following the guidance of health experts and public officials is more critical than ever. People with a fever, cough or shortness of breath should take their temperature, twice a day or more if symptoms persist. A temperature of 100.4 or greater means self-isolation is in order.

And going to an emergency room because of coronavirus symptoms is not advised. Calling your primary care physician, an urgent care center or the county’s Covid-19 line should be the first steps. (See the information below for details.)

“Your emergency rooms back up,” Cuomo said this week. “If you do have coronavirus, we don’t want you walking into emergency rooms and possibly infecting other people and staff, and if you don’t have coronavirus, we don’t want you to go to an emergency room where other people may have the coronavirus.”

Be careful. Be thoughtful. That’s urgent as this pandemic spreads, but especially so while Erie County is flying blind.

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If you feel sick and think it’s Covid-19

The symptoms: Fever, cough or difficulty breathing.
Self-observation: Take your temperature. If it’s above 100.4 degrees, self-isolate, limit contact with others and seek advice by calling a primary care provider, an urgent care center or the Erie County Covid-19 line at 858-2929.
Self-monitoring: If symptoms continue, take your temperature twice a day and watch for a cough or difficulty breathing. If this happens, reach out again to your primary provider or county health department. They will decide if a COVID-19 test is warranted and tell you how you can get one.
Self-monitoring with delegated supervision: Those in the health or service fields should self-monitor with oversight by the appropriate occupational health or infection-control program in coordination with the health department.
Close contact: Being within 6 feet of someone with Covid-19 for a prolonged period of time – including close contact that can occur while caring for, living with, visiting or sharing a health care waiting area or room with someone infected – raises the risk for contracting the novel coronavirus.
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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