It was on March 14, 2020 when Erie County learned of its first three positive COVID-19 cases. The following day, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz announced a state of emergency, while Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein and her staff embarked on what would become months of long hours, struggles to find enough equipment and supplies, and public reactions ranging from warm support to angry protests. Burstein recently spoke to WBFO to reflect on the year that was.
In the earliest weeks of the pandemic, the concern was for having enough supplies, including testing kits. At first, Dr. Burstein recalled, the county needed to send its tests to New York State's Wadsworth Center in Albany, as did other counties.
There were also concerns for securing enough ventilators. Along the way, Burstein told WBFO, some hospitals got creative out of necessity.
“We were lucky - a bit of luck, a bit of skill - that we were able to secure some good PPE supply. You know, we're in good shape now, but at the beginning it was very scary," she said. "And the ventilator shortage was very scary. Our hospitals were were also great planners. They were very smart and they looked actually at alternative methods to keep people oxygenated well, without necessarily having to go to ventilators.”
Dr. Burstein had been urging the public to take preventive measures such as hand washing as early as January, when COVID-19 cases had been identified in four states but had not yet been positively identified in New York.
Less than two months later, the pandemic came to Western New York.
When asked to grade the county's COVID response efforts, she gave her department an A+. While acknowledging many people suffered losses in the pandemic - she, too, lost relatives to the coronavirus - she credited leadership and partnerships for steering the county through a health crisis not seen in a century.
"I think we in general, in Erie County, had a very strong response. And the response is not just with the county working together within government. I mean, the response also relied heavily on our community partners," Burstein said. "We have strengthened many of the partnerships we've had, and we've created new partnerships. It was very helpful that we had trust from the community from the general public, the medical and healthcare community, the businesses. I think another strength is that we were very aggressive about providing accurate information."
Not everyone has enthusiastically endorsed the county's COVID response efforts. Only about a month into the pandemic, protesters were already parading around Niagara Square demanding the immediate and full reopening of businesses, schools and churches. The original protest took aim at Governor Andrew Cuomo's decision making, but County Executive Poloncarz was also a target for hot criticism in subsequent protests.
Even Burstein was targeted. By her observation, folks either appreciated her department or loathed it.
“On Thanksgiving Day morning, I had protesters in front of my house," she recalled. "And I live in a suburban cul-de-sac, so that was a first for me. I hope it's the last. I never thought I would ever see protesters in front of my house, especially on a holiday. And then on the other extreme, I had surprises with bouquets of flowers and cookies and, you know, many, many really warm thank-you notes of people, thanking me for the good work that that our county has done.”
Burstein, in her approximately 30-minute interview, touched on subjects including vaccination, trying to achieve health equity in the pandemic, and reopening schools safely. She also talked about the other health crises that have worsened as a result of the pandemic, including addictions and mental illness. (Click on the audio file above to hear the interview in its entirety.)