As the five counties of Western New York enter Phase Four of reopening Tuesday, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul was again urging the public to keep respecting practices including wearing masks and maintaining physical distancing in order to prevent a new rise in COVID cases. On Monday, she was joined by experts from the Jacobs School of Medicine at the University at Buffalo who also called for continued caution.
Hochul says the region's entry into Phase Four is a tribute not only to state leadership but also to a public which willingly followed the steps they were asked to take. She also insists New York State will not allow itself to take steps backward, and is doing so through new measures such as its quarantine advisory for travelers from states with known COVID case increases.
"We're going to continue to be vigilant here in the state of New York. We're not reducing our commitment to what has been so successful and getting us where we are today," she said.
Hochul joined faculty from the Jacobs School of Medicine inside the Main Street facility, first touring some of its rooms and then joining them in an auditorium where seating was already arranged to promote distancing. This included the rows of desktops where students would sit.
Dr. Peter Winkelstein displayed a series of slides including one of a study which projects varying levels of hospitalizations if only a certain percentage of people were to wear masks in public. If 50 percent of people wear masks, the data suggests, the COVID curve can stay flat but if most people wear them, as Finkelstein explained with the slide, "we can keep this completely under."
Dr. Thomas Russo, professor and the chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the Jacobs School of Medicine, calls COVID the greatest challenge of his career at UB. He explained that the university, in partnership with hospitals and researchers, has undertaken a series of clinical trials of drugs to improve outcomes and lead closer to a vaccine.
"However, until we get to that moment we need to do everything that we can to minimize the number of infections, which in turn will minimize the number of bad outcomes," Russo said. "Fortunately, we actually know in the absence of drug and a vaccine that public health measures are pretty good substitute for that, if we could go ahead and employ them across the population, across the community. We know how to prevent infections, but we need people to buy in."
He described three categories of people who are the most difficult to educate: underserved populations, young adults and "anti-maskers."
Russo also added his thoughts about certain popular institutions remaining closed when Phase Four begins locally. These include shopping malls, gyms and movie theaters. The Cuomo Administration has stated that concerns for large gatherings and air circulation within those facilities are behind their decision to keep them closed. Russo says among them, he finds gyms the riskiest to reopen.
"We know indoors is riskier than outdoors. Gyms are going to be indoors for the most part, and when everyone can use masks, it's safer. But in gyms, when people are exercising hard, they're either going to be reluctant, to often feel that they can't wear masks, and when you exercise hard you generate a lot more respiratory secretions and go a lot further. So, you know, if you take the theatres, malls and gyms combination, I think, by far, gyms, are the riskiest of those three endeavors."
Hochul, meanwhile, was asked about the class action lawsuit gyms are planning to file against the Cuomo Administration.
"We get sued all the time," she replied. "I will defend a lawsuit where the State of New York stands up and says, every step we took was to adhere to our requirement that, as government officials, we protect the health, safety and welfare of our citizens. I think we win that one."