Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul and local elected leaders sitting on her Western New York Zone COVID Control Room panel are sending a renewed warning to the public: don't let up on prevention practices or else the region may head into even stricter restrictions, including a new shutdown of non-essential businesses.
"We're all here today, united to warn our community that the spike in coronavirus is very dangerous and potentially very deadly to residents of our community," said Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown. "We are asking that every member of the Buffalo, Erie County and Western New York community do their part to stop the spread of coronavirus in Western New York."
Brown sits on the Control Room panel led by Hochul, who was also joined Friday afternoon by Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz and Dean Michael Cain of the University at Buffalo's Jacobs School of Medicine to state that the region is indeed in its fall coronavirus surge, but the rate of increase is higher than they had hoped.
"If you look at the numbers we experienced yesterday, Erie County's yellow infection rate being over eight percent, that means that Western New York is the epicenter of New York State's pandemic," Hochul said. "We are three times higher than New York City. Let that sink in."
Officials are especially concerned for the coming Thanksgiving holiday, when families will seek to gather, and when college students returning home may seek to reunite with friends. Under the restrictions imposed under "yellow zone" status, which covers most of Erie County, gatherings are to be limited to no more than ten people. Bars and gyms must close at 10 p.m., which restaurants may only serve at curbside 10 a.m.-5 a.m. Those rules went into effect Friday night.
Poloncarz reported the latest numbers he had in hand showed four people in the county have died of COVID-related complications since Tuesday. And positive test results? Those keep rising sharply, as well. Last week, according to county figures, there were 1,500 new cases within the county.
"It's very possible we'll have over 3,000 cases for this week, which means we will have doubled cases again," he said.
Poloncarz added that contact tracers in Erie County are reporting that many cases are resulting from people attending a party, or going to a friend's house to socialize. Those situations, he warns, lead to people unknowingly becoming infected and then passing it along to peers or loved ones, some of whom may be at greater risk for dangerous adverse effects.
"The other thing that has been very discouraging lately are the individuals who are going to work sick. They don't know they have COVID-19," he said. "I don't want people to think people are going to work or going to school with COVID-19. But they're sick. We know what season this is. This is cold and flu season. People have head colds or they think they have a head cold...and then they find out afterwards they did not have a sinus infection, they had COVID-19. Maybe they will get through COVID-19 okay, but maybe their coworker won't."
Hochul acknowledged other upcoming holidays, including Christmas and Hanukkah, and said those are holidays that must also be held differently than desired, for the good of reducing the COVID spread. In her words, the calendar cannot be changed, but behavior can.
She also offered a thought on the phrase "COVID fatigue," a feeling most people may admit to after following social distancing, mask wearing and other adjustments made since March. Hochul likens the pandemic to this generation's "World War II effort" by the homefront, undergoing sacrifices to ultimately win the war, this time against a disease.
"It might sound a little harsh but the only ones who are entitled, in my opinion, to have 'COVID fatigue' are the frontline workers, who every single day since late February, March, through the summer, through the fall, are the healthcare workers who put on their uniforms, put on their masks, and go into the heat of battle on our behalf," she said. "They have the ability to say they're tired. They're exhausted."