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Reopening nears as WNY clears two stubborn metrics

Western New York has met six of the seven metrics needed to reopen, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Sunday. Now all that remains is for the five counties in the region to bolster the number of "contact tracers" who will work to contain the spread of the Covid-19 virus as society gradually reopens.

"If everything goes well, hopefully we could reopen by the end of the week," said Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz, who also tweeted out the news Sunday. He said county leaders in the region would discuss the development in a conference call later in the day.

Poloncarz said he talked to Cuomo before the governor's daily press briefing Sunday and learned Western New York had met the two metrics that had loomed as the highest hurdles: 14-day declines in hospitalizations and hospital deaths from the novel coronavirus.

Based on the state's "regional monitoring dashboard," Western New York's hospitalizations and deaths had been trending downward, following the statewide trend, but not for two straight weeks. However, the region met the metrics through alternate measures: keeping its net increases in new hospitalizations under 15, based on a three-day rolling average, and its net increase in deaths under five, again based on a three-day rolling average.

Speaking to reporters in Albany, Cuomo said Western New York, like the Capital Region, now needs to hire and train at least 30 contact tracers for every 100,000 residents. Another 352 tracers are needed for Western New York, Cuomo said.

Erie County, the largest in Western New York and upstate, needs 276 tracers, Poloncarz said. While it has just 20 now, Poloncarz said his team has identified 291 people, mostly nonessential county workers, ready to take the approximately six-hour online course and begin work.

[Related: How Erie County intends to meet demand for Covid-19 'contact tracers']

Cuomo called getting enough tracers "a purely administrative function" and said "we can get that done."

When allowed to reopen, regions may do so in phases, led by sectors such as construction, manufacturing, agriculture and wholesaling, with curbside pickup allowed at certain retail outlets. Two weeks later, under the system, service industries such as law firms, real estate agencies and insurance agencies, can reopen. Bars and restaurants would reopen, at limited capacity, about a month after the launch of the first phase. Some two weeks after bars and restaurants reopen, sporting events and entertainment that tends to attract large crowds would be allowed.

[Related: Here's how reopening may unfold in Western New York]

The rationale for the staggered reopening is explained in a state document called NY Forward. But distancing requirements will still be in place, the document says, noting the experience of cities that abandoned certain safety measures when the 1918 flu pandemic subsided, only to see a second wave.

Officials have said spikes in Covid-19 cases could upset the reopening plan.

"Just because we have theoretically met the metrics and can reopen soon doesn't mean we are out of the woods," Poloncarz said Sunday as he urged people to continue wearing face masks when they can't stay at least 6 feet from others.

Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul reiterated the message in a conference call with reporters later Sunday, saying it's important that people continue to practice safe habits, even after the metrics are achieved.

“If we start getting complacent and say, 'Well, we hit the metrics, we’re all done,' that’s not the right answer,” Hochul said. “The answer is to keep doing what you’re doing to keep yourself, your family and your neighbors and community safe.”

It will be the work of contact tracers to help stem the spread of new cases.

Local health departments have employed them for years to help stem the spread of serious communicable diseases, tuberculosis, for example, or sexually transmitted diseases.

With Covid-19, contact tracers are to phone people recently diagnosed with the virus to determine with whom they have had close contact. Calls are then placed to those people to urge them to take precautions and see if they need help to quarantine. The goal is to "break the chain of transmission," county Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein said recently.

Speaking to reporters Sunday, Cuomo urged New Yorkers to get themselves tested for Covid-19, saying it will help officials track the virus as the state reopens. New York now has some 700 testing sites and performs some 40,000 tests per day, Cuomo said. But there is the capacity for many more people to be tested.

"We have more testing capacity and more sites than we are actually using," the governor said, adding that many people may be reluctant to be tested or may not know the process is simple.

He said anyone who displays Covid-19 symptoms – coughs, a fever, the loss of taste or smell – can show up at a testing site. So can health care workers, essential workers exposed to the public, people who will return to the workplace in phase one and anyone who has been in proximity to someone diagnosed with Covid-19, Cuomo said.

Admitting his own reluctance to go see a doctor, Cuomo wanted to show how quickly a test for Covid-19 can be done. He introduced Dr. Elizabeth Dufort, who had been waiting in the wings in personal protective equipment.

She told him to tip his head back and close his eyes.

"Why do I need to close my eyes," Cuomo asked.

For his own comfort, the doctor said, because his eyes might tear up during the process.

She then inserted a swab into his nasal passage. An instant later, she declared the test over.

"That's it? Nothing else," asked the governor, who later clarified he had been tested before.

"That's it," Dufort said.

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