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No 'red zone' for Erie County – at least for now

No 'red zone' for Erie County – at least for now

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When Erie County residents sit down for their Thanksgiving meals Thursday, the region will be battling record-breaking numbers of new cases of Covid-19 and patients being admitted to the hospital with the virus.

The skyrocketing numbers seemed to point to an inevitable shutdown of the economy in at least part of the county.

But on Wednesday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said that he wants to wait and see how "orange zone" restrictions impact those numbers through the Thanksgiving holiday before deciding on whether to downgrade to "red."

"We're watching the numbers. We're going to watch through this Thanksgiving season," he said.

He said the state will be looking to see what happens to the region's infection and hospitalization rates "in a few days, seven days or 10 days."

"Then we'll have announcements," he said.

The "red zone," a designation as part of the state's microcluster program, would shut down most economic and social activity by closing nonessential businesses and prohibiting gatherings of any kind. 

"We want to avoid red at all costs," said County Executive Mark Poloncarz at a news conference Wednesday afternoon. " ... I think the state wants to give us a chance to dig us out of our own hole."

Under New York state's new "microcluster strategy," red zone hot spots would have to adhere to the following restrictions.

Most of Erie County is in an "orange zone" at the moment. The easternmost and southernmost towns are in the precautionary "yellow zone."

By the state's metrics, Buffalo and many of its suburbs already qualify to be downgraded to a "red zone." The data points to both Erie County zones as being well above the state's main "red zone" criteria: having a seven-day average positive test rate above 4% for 10 straight days.

Wednesday's state data shows the region's daily positive test rate is 6.6%, a high going back to the first week of May. The seven-day average of 5.2% for the region is also a high since mid-May.

Poloncarz said had the numbers continued to rise as they had over the last three weeks, the state likely would have put Erie County or at least part of it in a "red zone."

"Are we doing a better job of managing the infection rate? If we do that, then we'll avoid the red," Poloncarz said.

There's no one thing that's driving the high infection rate in Erie County, Poloncarz said.

He said people should assume that if they go into a place with 200 people, there's likely somebody in there who has Covid-19. "It's everywhere," he said.

Cuomo said Wednesday that the state is formulating a plan of attack for the winter months. It would involve focusing more on hospitalization rates, prioritizing opening schools – especially for children in kindergarten to eighth grade – and formulating an effective vaccination strategy when it becomes available.

The state's move to a different winter plan may provide a much needed reprieve for businesses in the Western New York region.

The governor has suggested that any decision to scale back business operations, as would be the case in a "red zone" designation, would depend not only on high percentages of people testing positive but on available hospital capacity.

There are some signs that the state's restrictions, such as restricting gatherings of more than 10 people and closing gyms and barbershops, may be slowing the spread of the virus in Erie County.

Both Cuomo and Poloncarz have pointed out that Erie County's positive test rate is starting to level off and is no longer growing at an exponential rate, as it had been prior to recent days.

State numbers released Wednesday for the county show the seven-day rolling average for positive tests has been trending downward each day this week: from 7.2% to 6.94%.

One data point that doesn't bode well: Erie County's daily positivity rate for Monday was 7.9%, according to county figures. The state reported a lower rate for Monday, but the county and state data cover different 24-hour periods, Poloncarz said.

While ICU hospitalizations have been growing incrementally, there's no sign yet that ICU beds are in danger of reaching capacity.

However, the numbers in Erie County and Western New York remain higher than even during the first wave of the pandemic.

A record 900 new cases of Covid were reported in the Western New York region for Tuesday. Hospitalizations in the region hit a record high of 337 patients.

And that's before Thanksgiving gatherings, which all public health experts are extremely worried will further spread the virus.

"We'll be watching what happens 10 days from now," Poloncarz said, to see what impact Thanksgiving has on the numbers.

But if enough people heed social distancing and mask-wearing messages over the Thanksgiving weekend and beyond, there's reason to be "cautiously optimistic" that hospital bed capacity in Erie County may not be overwhelmed, said Dr. Peter Winkelstein, executive director of the University at Buffalo's Institute for Healthcare Informatics, who has been working with his team to try and forecast the impact of higher cases on hospital admissions.

The recent spread of Covid-19 is not being driven by nursing homes, the county executive said. In some ZIP codes, between 25% and 33% of new cases are being transmitted within the same household, he said.

Consistent with reports about growth in the suburbs and rural areas, recent data shows two-thirds of new cases in the county are happening outside the City of Buffalo, the county executive said.

Poloncarz said that 37% of all cases for 2020 have been recorded in just the month of November so far.

Hospitalizations in Erie County for Monday reached its highest-ever daily total ever at 264. In addition, 41% of all patients hospitalized as of Monday were 64 and younger.

Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul reinforced the governor's message in a Twitter post Wednesday.

"Erie County will remain in yellow/orange zones, and we will continue to monitor the numbers over #Thanksgiving," she tweeted. "If we continue to #MaskUp & stay physically distant over the holidays, we can get out of the danger zones."

News Staff Reporter Aaron Besecker contributed to this report.

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News Staff Reporter

Long Island native, University at Buffalo graduate, part of the breaking news and criminal justice team for two years. Hired by The News in 1999, I covered high school sports for 15 years before being named deputy sports editor.

Chief of the Breaking News/Criminal Justice Desk

I've worked at The Buffalo News since 2005. I previously worked as a reporter at the New York Daily News and the Charlotte Observer and was a special correspondent for the Los Angeles Times.

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