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Anxious wait for more tests; officials say 'hundreds, maybe thousands' probably infected in Erie County

The Erie County Public Health Lab has enough material to conduct just 15 more Covid-19 tests, and they're being reserved for the most critical cases or for health care workers who have come into contact with multiple patients, especially elderly ones, Erie County Health Commissioner Gale Burstein said Friday.

"We are expecting a shipment sometime in the middle of next week," Burstein said.

But there's no guarantee amid a nationwide shortage of both specialized swabs and testing reagent to do the tests.

In the meantime, the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in Erie County rose to 36 – with six of those people in hospitals throughout the region.

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said that number shouldn't be assumed to be a total.

"Look at the big picture," Poloncarz said. The 36 positive cases are just the people who exhibited symptoms and were able to get tested.

"We know there's probably hundreds, maybe thousands at this point," he said. "We are not going to be able to track the whereabouts of a lot of them. We will never know about a lot of them if they can't get tested in the first place."

The Erie County Public Health Lab has completed 256 tests for Erie County residents, with 220 negative results.

The lab has enough material to test specimens for 299 pending cases.

But without new swabs and testing reagent, the lab cannot even collect more specimens. The specimens are viable for only 72 hours and must be refrigerated.

Quest Diagnostics, a private laboratory, has conducted some tests for Erie County patients, but county officials said state guidelines bar them from having Quest do testing for the county.

Quest could conduct the actual tests, but they don't have the ability to collect the specimens safely, Burstein said. Quest doesn't have the equipment or proper protective gear for its health care workers to collect specimens, Burstein said.

That goes for area health care providers as well, she said. Urgent care clinics and emergency rooms are also running out of the protective gear.

The county has reached out to area hospitals to see if they can do the tests, Poloncarz said.

Those include Kaleida Health and Roswell Park Comprehensive Care Center, but they don't have the ability to get the swabs or testing reagent either, Poloncarz said.

Absent more testing, Poloncarz and Burstein implored anyone showing the symptoms of Covid-19 – such as a fever, coughing and sore throat, or had contact with someone known to have tested positive – to isolate themselves as much as possible, even from their own families.

If you are sick, Burstein said, try to stay in one room. If there's more than one bathroom in the house, devote that bathroom to the person who is sick. If there's only one bathroom, use disinfectants to clean the toilet, sink and bath or shower between each use.

"Stay at home," she said. "Stay away from others in your household."

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