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When will we reopen? How WNY is scrambling to meet the benchmarks

Area leaders are optimistic about their ability to meet the criteria needed to slide out from under the heavy shutdown orders imposed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo – but it's not likely by Friday.

Local officials instead are sharply focused on reopening the economy by the start of next month. And they have a game plan for meeting the seven key benchmarks laid out by the state.

"We are very hopeful that the Western New York region will open June 1, and we think we have statistical data that will show that we're capable of doing that," Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said Friday.

Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul offered a similar assessment.

"The overall numbers are trending in a much better place than they were a couple of weeks ago," Hochul said Friday, "so I’m feeling optimistic about this region."

The Western New York region, as defined by the governor's reopening plan, includes Erie, Niagara, Chautauqua, Cattaraugus and Allegany counties.

Erie County's numbers eclipse the combined numbers for the other four counties. Those counties' fates are tied to what happens in the region's population center.

There are some things counties can't directly control – such as seeing a 14-day decline in Covid-19 hospitalization levels.

But ramping up testing? Yes.

Getting more people trained as contact tracers? Yes.

Of all the criteria, ramping up diagnostic testing is Poloncarz's most ambitious goal because it depends not only on having enough testing material available but also on having enough residents step forward to be tested.

No upstate county has yet met the governor's benchmark of having 30 people a month tested for every 1,000 residents. Even though Erie County's testing capacity has ramped up considerably within the past few weeks, it is still behind.

"Testing is a big issue," Poloncarz said. "We believe we're about 300 tests a day short of where we need to be."

According to an analysis by The Buffalo News, Erie County has gone from an overall testing average of less than one diagnostic test per 1,000 residents to 22 tests per 1,000.

That is still a lower number of tests per capita than any other major upstate county, but Erie has now overtaken all other major upstate counties in the total number of diagnostic tests performed. It surpassed Monroe County in mid-April.

Aside from testing, Erie County either already meets the reopening criteria laid out by the state, or currently appears capable in the coming weeks.

"We're not where the state wants us to be, but we believe we can get there, and we have a plan to get there," Poloncarz said.

Here is how the county stands on each of the seven criteria that must be met in order for a relaxation of the governor's "pause" orders to take effect.

Criteria already met

Erie County meets three of the seven reopening criteria laid out by Cuomo.

The Western New York region has met the governor's criteria for a 14-day decline in hospital deaths, based on a three-day rolling average. Whether it stays that way remains an open question.

Virtually every upstate region also meets the state's two criteria for having at least 30% of hospital and intensive care unit beds available in case a surge in Covid-19 cases occurs. Western New York has reported having capacity of 40% or more in both total bed capacity and ICU bed capacity.

Given the relatively low number of admissions, Erie County hospitals have been successfully requesting waivers from the state to begin offering elective surgeries.

On Friday, Hochul announced Kaleida Health's Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital and Oishei Children's Hospital will be allowed to resume offering elective surgeries, following similar waivers for Erie County's three Catholic Health hospitals.

Expanded testing

When it comes to expanding diagnostic testing and the number of contact tracers to help find and isolate people who have, or have been directly exposed to, Covid-19, Erie County leaders have expressed increasing confidence in their ability to meet those criteria.

"We know we can meet the testing requirements, which are basically 27,000 people tested in a month, if we continue to test at the rate we're testing now," Poloncarz said Friday.

The aggressive push to have people tested, regardless of whether they have symptoms, marks an about-face for the county. Only a month ago, the county had so little testing material that Poloncarz and Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein heavily restricted who could get a test, didn't publicize drive-through testing sites and refused to release information on testing capacity.

Back then, Burstein also downplayed the need for residents to get tested, saying that even if someone tested positive and had mild symptoms, there was little doctors could do to treat them.

Now, with the number of testing sites rapidly multiplying and testing being used as a state benchmark for reopening, she and Poloncarz have urged people to get tested and break the chain of viral transmission.

"Since there's an increased demand for testing, we've heard you, we've expanding testing to five days a week, and we're going to all different locations throughout the county," she said. "So give us a call, and I'm sure there will be a testing location near you."

The county has so much testing capacity now that this past week Poloncarz expressed concern that many drive-through testing centers have appointment vacancies. He and Burstein urged people to call 716-858-2929 to schedule an appointment.

"We have lots of tests," Poloncarz said. "We don't have people to test, so we want people to get tested."

The county is also working to increase antibody testing, but it is the diagnostic testing that counts toward the state's benchmarks for reopening.

Because of Erie County's slow start with testing, it still lags behind other major upstate counties in terms of overall tests done per capita, according to The News' analysis, but has shown improvement.

More contact tracers

The governor is requiring that a region have at least 30 contact tracers for every 1,000 residents tested monthly to ensure that if someone is exposed to Covid-19, they can be identified and isolated to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

As of early last week, Erie County had about 20 contact tracers. It needs far more.

"We can handle the caseload right now, but we do need to meet the governor's standard, so I have authorized our Department of Personnel to work with various departments to increase contact tracers to meet the New York State standard using current employees," Poloncarz said.

Erie County is one of the region's largest employers, with roughly 5,000 full- and part-time employees. That includes many nonessential employees who are being paid while either working from home or not working at all.

They will be retrained as contact tracers, Poloncarz said. While the state has said it will train and provide some contact tracers, Poloncarz said, he's not waiting.

"I want to make certain Erie County can meet that metric, and we're one of the first counties to meet that metric," he said.

He also said he remains in touch with the leaders of other counties in the region to ensure they can meet the contact tracer threshold.

"I'm not going to allow it on my watch that we're not able to reopen as quickly as we can because we don't meet the contact tracers," he said.

The toughest benchmarks

The greatest threat to the region's ability to reopen is the governor's two requirements that counties be able to show a 14-day decline in hospitalizations and in hospital deaths, on a three-day rolling average.

Hochul said she checks daily with all five counties in the state-designated region to see how hospital numbers are moving, but acknowledged there isn't much officials can do about those metrics.

Modeling by the University at Buffalo shows Erie County hospitalization rates staying flat or rising over the next few weeks, not falling.

To drive hospitalizations downward, all county, state and health leaders have repeatedly urged the public to observe social distancing and mask requirements, and to stay home if at all possible to prevent the virus's spread.

"It comes down to whether people are truly adhering to what we’ve asked them to do," Hochul said. "I think people may be dismissive of this, but the governor talks about this. He says, ‘I can tell you by people’s behavior today how many increases or decreases in cases we’re going to have in the next three or four days.’ So that is why it is so important that people keep adhering to this as we make the best case for this region in terms of meeting those metrics."

No matter when the region gets to move forward with the governor's reopening plan, not everything will suddenly open for business.

Reopening will occur in four phases, with the first phase only allowing for reopening of construction, manufacturing, the wholesale supply chain and "select retail" locations using curbside pickup only.

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