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'Distressing' rise in Erie County hospitalizations keeps the region shut down

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz confirmed Wednesday there's likely no way Western New York will reopen this weekend, given the rising hospitalization numbers for Erie County over the last several days.

"When you see that curve starting to go back up again, that's a little dismaying," he said. "It's a little distressing."

Poloncarz has no idea when the region will be able to reopen for business, even though ICU cases continue to show an overall downward trend.

"As long as those hospitalization numbers are going up, New York is not going to allow us to reopen," he said. "I've had those conversations."

[RELATED: Hospitalizations dropped in Erie County for the first time in four days, Poloncarz shared Thursday]

The Buffalo News reported Tuesday that the five-county Western New York region did not appear likely to be able to reopen this weekend, based on a Buffalo News analysis of state data.

What happens in Erie County has a direct impact on the ability of the four other counties that comprise the Western New York region to reopen.

Even if Niagara, Allegany, Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties meet all seven metrics laid out by the state, they would likely remain shut down if any one of Erie County's metrics remains unmet. Erie County's population has an outsized impact on the data used for deciding when to reopen Western New York.

"Trust me, folks," Poloncarz said. "I want to reopen. I want to get us reopened as quickly as possible. I want to get our businesses back working, but we also have to do what's best to protect our community."

Western New York currently meets five of the seven benchmarks laid out by the state. But it is one of five regions – out of 10 – that fail to meet two or more of the benchmarks.

This region meets the criteria for hospital and intensive care bed capacity, new hospitalizations, diagnostic testing and contact tracing.

But aside from failing to meet Covid-19 hospitalization benchmarks, the region also does not yet meet a requirement for the sustained decline in the number of Covid-19 related hospital deaths or an average number of deaths at five or fewer.

Western New York has seen a four-day decline in deaths so far, and the average number of deaths stands at nine.

The county had another 13 Covid-19 deaths since Sunday, bringing the total to 400 as of early Wednesday afternoon.

Covid-19 deaths and hospitalizations statewide continue to trend downward as four regions prepare to reopen later this week, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Wednesday.

The number of people who died of Covid-19 across the state on Tuesday was 166. Of those, 122 people died in a hospital and 44 died in nursing homes, Cuomo said.

The state's Covid-19 tracker showed 21,845 New Yorkers have lost their lives due to the virus.

The good news is that four regions – the Finger Lakes, Mohawk Valley, Southern Tier and North Country – are on track to reopen Friday, according to the state's website reporting on regional statuses. The North Country became newly eligible Wednesday after improving testing capacity.

Western New York joins the New York City, Long Island, Mid-Hudson, Capital and Central New York regions in missing at least one state benchmark. The Western New York and Capital regions are the only two that fail to meet the state's standard for low or declining Covid-19 hospitalizations.

Poloncarz said he held out hope until late Tuesday that the county's hospitalization numbers were on a prolonged downward trend, keeping the possibility of a weekend reopening within reach.

"Based on the data and the conversations that I've had, I felt – up until yesterday night – that we were trending in the right direction to meet the first criteria with regards to hospitalization decline," he said.

He pointed out that while the county has not been able to meet the standard of a "sustained decline" in average hospitalizations over a 14-day period, the actual number of hospitalizations from 14 days ago until now has fallen.

In related news:

  • Poloncarz said he has taken the Covid-19 antibody test and tested negative, meaning he has not contracted Covid-19 and has no immunity to the virus. Of all county residents who have taken the antibody test, 7.8% have tested positive.
  • The state has still not decided which reopening phase will apply to barbershops, hair salons and churches.
  • The Burmese and Karen immigrant communities have been testing positive for Covid-19 at a higher rate than the rest of the population. That has led Buffalo's Jericho Road Community Health Center to offer walk-up Covid-19 diagnostic and antibody tests this week and next week at various locations. Call (716) 881-6191 for more information.

While Poloncarz expressed confidence about Western New York being able to reopen by June 1, he made no reference to that target date Wednesday in light of the disappointing state data.

When the region eventually reopens, it will occur in four phases, with the first phase allowing for reopening only construction, manufacturing, the wholesale trade, agriculture and forestry, and retail locations using curbside pickup only.

The first reopening phase would be followed by three more phases that would allow professional services, retail, restaurants, entertainment and schools to reopen.

While the governor has previously said that regions must wait 14 days between each reopening phase, state officials said Tuesday that the waiting period is not set in stone.

Western New York, however, is still trying to gain approval to reopen the first phase.

Poloncarz urged all residents to do their part to practice safe social distancing to keep hospitalization numbers down.

"County government has exhausted what we can do to keep the community spread down," he said. "It's up to the residents. I said this on Monday – it's really in our hands. And when I say our hands, I mean all of us, all of us in Western New York."

He added, "We have to be our brothers' and sisters' keeper. We do that, we have the opportunity to open. We don't, we can be stuck in this space of not opening for some time."

Watch video of the Poloncarz news briefing here:

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