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As Erie County gropes through the fog of Covid-19, region must remain wary

The urge to find that lost jewel called normal is overwhelming.

This is true even though – and maybe because – most Western New Yorkers have been diligently keeping their distance from one another, understanding that the fight against Covid-19 is lost if we don’t pull together.

But it’s been a couple of months now, and the itch is becoming irresistible. The weather is finally warming. Parks and parties and road trips beckon. So do families, separated by the imperative to maintain a healthy distance, especially from older relatives who may be at especially high risk.

Don’t. Especially don’t in Western New York which, unfortunately but unsurprisingly, failed to qualify to begin its reopening last week. Only four of the state’s 10 regions met all seven of the state’s criteria as the state’s pause ended on Friday. Those that didn’t – again, unsurprisingly – are among New York’s most populous, where close quarters are more common and social distancing takes more effort.

But even as Western New Yorkers’ internal clocks say it’s time to play, and some regions begin a cautious, phased reopening, the risks remain high and more than a little mysterious. Carelessness may have lethal consequences while prudence will save lives.

What we know is that each of the 10 regions is somewhere on the downside of what is likely to be only the first wave of infections. In fact, Dr. Anthony Fauci, probably the country’s most trusted medical expert on the coronavirus pandemic, says a second wave later this year is inevitable. Whether it is also calamitous is up to us.

“If by that time we have put into place all of the countermeasures that you need to address this, we should do reasonably well,” he told CNN last month. “If we don’t do that successfully, we could be in for a bad fall and a bad winter.”

Among the factors that could sabotage the nation’s chances, he said, is if states ease restrictions too quickly. That, he said, would “get us right back in the same boat that we were a few weeks ago.” Avoiding that fate requires widespread testing, he said.

That kind of testing remains only a goal, with the nation still nowhere near the 2 million to 3 million daily tests that experts say are needed to identify hot spots and keep outbreaks under control. Much of the failure is Washington’s. It can, and must, do better.

Surveillance of nursing homes and other institutions is also lacking, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., complained at Tuesday’s hearings, despite the money Congress has provided for that purpose. In this state and across the country, nursing homes are hotspots of Covid-19 deaths. Washington must help.

New York, at least, is approaching the work of reopening wisely. Other states, including Georgia, are wanton about the public health. Their recklessness could harm not just their own residents, but other Americans if infections rise and residents travel into or out of those states.

And even with its cautious process of reopening, New York needs its own residents to agree to take the baby steps it has outlined. Some, we can be sure, will resist and they will put others at risk. We know who they are. They’re the ones who come too close, who won’t wear masks, who clamor for reopening now, regardless of the danger to others.

There are other factors to consider, as well. In the expected second wave, will those who have already had the virus be immune from infection? We don’t know that. Would a second wave still count only as the beginning? Some experts think we are in for a longer haul.

It’s important to understand, too, that science is only beginning to understand the virus. Researchers are still discovering new ways it attacks bodies – not just as a potentially fatal respiratory disease, but as a danger to the brain, the heart, the immune system and more.

As some advocates of reopening have observed, the goal isn’t to have eliminated the virus before business can resume. That’s an impossible test – indeed, it’s a test that no one has suggested. Instead, it’s a matter of lowering the risk of exponentially expanding infections that overwhelm hospitals and intensive care units.

That’s crucial and it’s why Cuomo is right and Rep. Tom Reed is wrong about Erie County’s role in the Western New York region. The Corning Republican wants to allow this region’s less populous, less infected regions to start reopening now, even as Erie County continues to struggle. But where will those people seek hospital care if beds become unavailable here? This is where they’ll want treatment for Covid-19 or other serious illnesses. It’s difficult and it’s frustrating, but we have to take the long view.

So, as the state begins winding down the pause of the past two months, it’s a time both of measured hope and continued wariness. We may be turning a corner, but we’re still in a bad, bad neighborhood.

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