An all-time worst record for Covid-19 was reached Tuesday.
Erie County recorded 878 new cases, the highest one-day total since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz announced Wednesday.
Mandatory mask-wearing is back in Erie County's restaurants, gyms and other public places, and the county executive is considering much more restrictive measures if Covid-19 hospitalizations increase.
The number of positive cases and hospitalizations has steadily risen over the last month, prompting Poloncarz to reinstate a mask mandate this week for restaurants, bars, grocery stores and other establishments.
"This is not the Thanksgiving we thought it would be," Poloncarz said as he again pleaded with people to wear masks, get vaccinated and stay home if they are sick.
The positivity rate was 11%, and the 4,693 cases over the last week was also a record number over a seven-day period.
"I wish I had better news, but, unfortunately, we are going in the wrong direction," Poloncarz said. "This is the worst direction we've ever had."
The indoor masking requirement is considered Phase 1 of a four-phase restrictions and shutdown plan if Covid cases and hospitalizations continue to rise.
Poloncarz said the spike over the last few weeks has touched all areas of the county, with 28 ZIP codes having 450 cases or more.
North Collins had 44 new cases of Covid-19 last week, which Poloncarz said translated to more than 1,312 new cases per 100,000 persons in the past seven days. His hometown of Lackawanna had 130 cases, which computes to almost 700 new cases per 100,000 persons in the same time period.
"If these rates continue, we will get into an uncontrolled phase that we may not be able to control and stop the further spread unless we have some serious actions taken, including shutdowns, and nobody wants to do it," Poloncarz said.
"I have no interest in doing that. But these numbers are just bonkers, they're just ridiculous," he said.
The county executive also sounded off against other county leaders in Western New York "for acting reckless by not implementing appropriate standards."
“Normal” now and in the immediate future, health experts say, will likely still include some level of ongoing, fluctuating precautions as communities react to Covid-19 surges.
He noted Covid-19 rates in some counties are worse than in Erie County.
"If they want to talk about their freedom, they can have their freedom to die and let their constituents die, but I think it is reckless, whether it is Allegany, Genesee, Niagara or Wyoming. They should be acting to protect their public," Poloncarz said.
That drew a swift reaction from Niagara County Legislature Chairwoman Becky Wydysh, who said she believed wide availability of free testing – and not mandates – was needed to curb the spread of Covid-19.
"It's truly disappointing that Mark Poloncarz would choose to call Niagara County 'reckless' over a policy difference on how best to handle the increase in Covid-19 cases across the region," Wydysh said in a statement. "We have no interest in turning this into a political hot potato between neighboring counties."
Erie County "has the resources to offer free testing to its residents and Canadian citizens, but is excluding Niagara County residents from such testing," she said.
The number of new Covid-19 cases among students and teachers in Erie County recently hit an all-time high: more than 1,000 new cases the week of Nov. 7.
Hospitals nearly full
Hospitals are close to capacity, and if Covid-19 hospitalizations continue, Erie County may have to order that all elective surgeries be canceled or postponed, Poloncarz said. Another concern: Wait times at local emergency rooms in hospitals are growing longer, as much as eight to 12 hours for non-life-threatening issues.
The past two weeks have seen hospital beds with Covid-19 patients increase by 55 percent, with 365 people hospitalized Tuesday.
The largest age group hospitalized was 55 to 64, followed by ages 65 to 74. Nearly 50 patients were 44 and younger, including six under 20.
Forty of the 56 people in the ICU on Tuesday weren't vaccinated, as well as 22 of the 31 people requiring airway assistance.
Some 90% of hospital beds are occupied, including nearly 86% of ICU beds.
"We cannot let our hospitals get overrun. It's as simple as that," Poloncarz said.
Some bars are requiring proof of vaccination as the mask rule went into effect ahead of Thanksgiving Eve, traditionally one of the busiest nights for bars in Buffalo.
Poloncarz blames the unvaccinated
The reason for the increase in Covid-19 is the 29% of county residents who are not fully vaccinated, including about 25% who have not had a single dose, Poloncarz said. The unvaccinated make up 61% of people testing positive and being hospitalized for the coronavirus.
"This is what is driving our problems," Poloncarz said. "There is one out of four adults who have not received a single dose, and some of them are very proud that they haven't. Well, they are the ones who are driving this problem."
Poloncarz hopes people will keep the numbers of unvaccinated in mind when they're in social situations.
"When you are in a room with 40 adults, 10 of them, in all likelihood, on average, probably haven't gotten even a single dose," he warned.
Poloncarz also noted that three-quarters of all deaths since July 1 were persons under the age of 80 and not fully vaccinated. In addition, 64% of all fully vaccinated people who died since July 1 were 80 and older.
"If you are unvaccinated, your odds of dying are so much higher, and we are losing people in the prime of their life because they were not vaccinated," he said.
He said he will revisit his mask mandate on Dec. 13 and hopes he won't have to implement tougher requirements. A decision to do so, he said, would be made only after consultation with the county Health Department, Department of Homeland Security, hospitals, business leaders and others.
Poloncarz expressed concern that people could pack into bars Wednesday night on what he said was the busiest bar night of the year. He also expressed concern about the impact Thanksgiving gatherings could have on the disease's spread.
He reiterated again that Covid-19 doesn't have to get worse if the public gets vaccinated and wears a mask.
"I just want people to understand it really is in the public's hands," he said.
Poloncarz's ability to mandate changes isn't sitting well with four Republicans in the Erie County Legislature, who on Tuesday introduced a resolution urging the Western New York delegation to the State Senate and Assembly to revoke Poloncarz's emergency powers.
The resolution in the Democratic-controlled branches has little chance of success.
Mark Sommer covers preservation, development, the waterfront, culture and more. He's also a former arts editor at The News.