Western New York has just begun its first phase of reopening, but concerns already exist about how swiftly the region will be able to move into phase two as hospitalization numbers rise once again.
Erie County Covid-19 hospitalizations have gone up for three straight days between Saturday and Monday, prompting County Executive Mark Poloncarz to express concern about how quickly the region will be allowed to reopen for phase two.
"We still need to follow smart social distancing guidelines," he said Wednesday during a press briefing in front of the Rath Building. "Don't be cavalier about it. We do not want to go backwards. I don't want to hear that our hospitalizations have spiked so much that we then have to shut down again."
The rise in hospitalizations began before the state cleared the region to reopen for phase one as of Tuesday. With Memorial Day weekend coming up, Poloncarz said he was "very concerned" the hospitalization numbers will continue moving in the wrong direction.
The state based its reopening decision on a three-day rolling average for hospitalizations for the five-county Western New York region. Net hospitalizations for the region had fallen Friday and remained low Saturday.
But the state's Regional Monitoring Dashboard, which shows the region's reopening metrics, has showed a rise in hospitalizations for the region since then. Hospitalization metrics still matter because they will help determine whether and when the region can proceed to the next phase of reopening.
The total number of Erie County hospitalizations rose from 171 to 182, though the numbers are still lower than they were a week ago. Poloncarz pointed out that the recent increase in hospitalizations was driven by those age 65 and older.
The hospitalizations for younger residents has fallen, and the number of serious Covid-19 cases continues to show an overall decline. As of Monday, the county had 45 patients in intensive care. That represents the lowest number since late March.
The state has been vague about exactly what standards each region must meet, in terms of the seven reopening metrics, before the region will be allowed to move forward to the next phase. If the metrics worsen, a region may be barred from moving forward. In a worst case scenario, a region may be forced to roll backward and shut back down.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has said a sharp spike in hospitalizations and deaths could result in another shutdown. By contrast, if a region sees no adverse impact to any metrics, it may be allowed to move ahead to the next reopening phase in an expedited manner. Barring that, the standards appear to fall into a gray area.
"It's semi-squishy," Poloncarz said. "We do know we need to keep the hospitalizations down and the deaths in the hospitals down. ...As long as the hospitalization numbers don't go shooting through the roof, the death numbers don't go through the roof, we're still able to keep the regular beds and ICU beds open and they can do elective surgeries, I think we'll be OK."
Poloncarz said he is following with great interest the reopening progress of the Finger Lakes and Central regions, home to Rochester and Syracuse. Those regions were allowed to reopen ahead of Western New York but have since seen sharp increases in their hospitalization levels since the reopening for phase one.
"We're going to watch and see what happens to them, because they would go first," he said.
Another six people died of Covid-19 on Tuesday and four more died on Wednesday, bringing the total number of county deaths to 459.
Antibody testing has been in such great demand that Poloncarz said the county has booked all appointment slots through May and is now taking appointments for June. The county has made 100,000 antibody tests available to residents.
"Thousands have signed up in the last 24 hours," he said.
In regard to the impact the public health crisis will have on the budget, Poloncarz said the deficit currently stands at $170 million, based on projections.
He had hoped for answers regarding federal stimulus assistance before submitting a revised budget plan, but that is slow in coming. He said he will submit a spending plan to the County Legislature the first week of June.
He said he will likely recommend some county program cuts and cuts to pay-as-you-go construction projects that are not funded with borrowed dollars.
In regard to layoffs, Poloncarz said, "Everything is on the table." Other county officials have pointed out, however, that layoffs are unlikely to be a major source of county savings.
The county will be able to allocate some of the $160 million already received in federal stimulus money to offset certain payroll costs. Poloncarz also said the loss in sales tax revenue for the month of March was "very bad" but not as catastrophic as expected.
Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw said his deficit-reduction plan recommends, among other things, a hard hiring freeze and saving more than $10 million by cutting vacant positions.