Members of the Erie County Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee were advised Thursday morning of the county's short-term and medium-term goals for responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein told lawmakers that the ongoing effort will not be quick, and that even after the local peak comes and goes, the virus will never entirely be eradicated.
"I've been getting a number of calls from people who, especially after the last couple of days of press conferences, people that are worried," said Legislature Minority Leader Joseph Lorigo. "Everybody wants to see this come to an end. And when you have a daily briefing where you say that we're looking at end of May, or end of April middle of May and possibly 10,000 hospitalizations, people are scared."
Dr. Burstein fielded questions ranging from the availability of personal protective equipment for local medical professionals, to concerns about infections and the mental well-being of senior care facility residents, to enforcement of physical distancing guidelines. She explained that social distancing policies are set by the state and do not allow local governments to modify them. She noted that it is state and federal policy which drives most of the policy being conducted.
Dr. Burstein told lawmakers that COVID-19 will still exist here, even after the region's cases peak and lower. The strategies put in place now, she explained, are allowing time for scientists to discover and develop a vaccine for the future.
"In the short term, here in Erie County, we are focused on two goals. One, to slow the spread of the virus so that the hospitals are not overwhelmed, giving them some time. And, to procure personal protective equipment, or PPE, so that healthcare workers and other essential personnel can do their jobs safely," she said. "Right now, our best guess is that Western New York will see a COVID-19 first peak in the middle of May, so not not this month, but really about a month from now. Our short term goals are based around pushing out that date as far as possible by smushing the curve and extending it out, and that is making sure that our hospitals are as ready as possible for when that time comes. Again, giving them more time."
Medium-term goals, she continued will involve testing and tracking. Eventually, she added, a vaccine will be developed but there will be immediate and intense competition to acquire that and testing once created.
Dr. Burstein also advised lawmakers that overcoming the current pandemic will be "not a sprint, but a marathon."
"Once the current set of cases peak and diminish, COVID-19 will still be out there ready to spread again," she said. "Only widespread immunity in about 60% or more of the population will put a stop to COVID-19 and we are not there yet. Right now everything we are doing is to buy more time. The governor's New York PAUSE orders social distancing, and other non-pharmaceutical interventions are all designed to give us more time."
Legislator Jeanne Vinal acknowledged New York City as the state's current hotspot but is concerned that, while equipment and attention is placed on that area, the people preparing for a local case increase are not properly prepared.
"I was wanting to have our body just put a resolution, just asking them to consider giving PPE to Western New York so that we have more than a six day supply," Vinal said. "I don't know if it's still six days supply. Usually they have like a 30 day supply. I don't think it would hurt. I think it would help . Even though they're obviously the hotspot of the state, it's an important topic to healthcare workers in our area."