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Poloncarz says mask mandate is making a difference, despite worsening Covid-19 numbers

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Erie County Covid-19 press conference (copy)

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz says the county's Covid numbers are bad, but he believes the mask mandates are working.

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Amid worsening Covid-19 case numbers, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz on Tuesday defended his mask mandate, suggested a vaccination mandate for restaurants may not be necessary and noted a few positive developments.

The Covid-19 numbers in Erie County and Western New York remain high compared with other parts of the state. Last week, the county set record high daily totals three times, recording nearly 1,000 positive cases a day.

It comes down to several factors, including the Delta variant, the weather, not enough people being vaccinated and the waning efficacy of vaccines for those who did get the shot, according to Dr. Thomas Russo and Dr. Peter Winkelstein.

"Case data of 5,537 cases last week was the highest weekly case total we've ever had, and it was an increase of 30% from the previous week," Poloncarz said at his Tuesday news briefing. "This is scary because we know a certain percentage of those individuals are going to get very sick and require hospitalization."

New weekly Covid-19 cases by county ZIP code didn't paint a brighter picture.

"There is no part of Erie County that has good case rates," he said. "These are numbers we never would have believed six months ago, eight months ago. We would have never believed that our community could have numbers this bad."

He also pointed out that hospitals are "hanging on, pretty much for dear life," at or near capacity.

Poloncarz, however, said he believes his requirement that residents wear masks in all public places throughout Erie County is helping. Among all Western New York counties, Erie County has the lowest average positive test rate – 10.8%. Other Western New York counties have not enacted any mask mandate.

While municipal leaders on Grand Island, West Seneca, Marilla and Williamsville have expressed opposition to the mandate, they don't get to decide which public health mandates the county can apply, he said.

"As we don't tell the town of Grand Island or Marilla how to collect its garbage, because that's their responsibility, it is the responsibility of the Erie County Department of Health to provide the health care coverage," he said.

Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein and Dr. Thomas Russo, an infectious disease specialist with the University at Buffalo Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, expressed concern that the county's mask mandate is being derided and opposed by some.

"What's really killing people and causing great transmission of Covid-19 is misinformation," Burstein said. "And 'masks don't work' is one of the biggest pieces of misinformation in this pandemic. Masks work. There are scientific data, anecdotal data. Just because someone says masks don't work doesn't mean that it's true."

Burstein and Russo also said masks are only one element of a multi-faceted strategy to control the spread of Covid-19 and the highly contagious Delta variant.

Russo said evolving scientific data shows the immunity afforded by the initial vaccines administered in the spring is weakening. As time passes, more people are becoming susceptible to Covid-19 infection. That's why booster shots are important.  

Poloncarz previously stated that he would decide Monday whether to move the county to a second phase of restrictions that would require residents to be fully vaccinated to enter restaurants and entertainment venues. But on Tuesday, he pointed to several positive signs that he will weigh when deciding next week.

He reiterated that he believes the mask mandate has kept the overall positive test rate in Erie County lower than other areas. He also said he was heartened by the steps Gov. Kathy Hochul took to address capacity issues at hospitals, including implementing a ban on elective surgeries at hospitals with high capacity levels and sending the National Guard to temporarily assist with hospital and nursing home staffing shortages.

"We said Dec. 13 is the date to review all the data to determine if we needed to go into Phase 2," he said. "We haven't seen a big change in the overall hospitalization percentage, and about the same time we announced the mask mandate, we haven't seen a huge change in uptick in positivity rates."

He also said that last week's vaccination data shows the number of people getting vaccinations, including adults getting first-dose vaccinations, is on the rise.

"I think they realize the severity of the situation, and they're not taking any chances," he said.

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