Governor Andrew Cuomo announced Wednesday the state would take a few more days to determine whether to elevate Western New York's current COVID orange zones into shutdown red zones. Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz also addressed this, while the Erie County Health Commissioner displayed a model predicting how no restrictions might affect local hospitals.
Poloncarz announced at his late afternoon session that Erie County's daily positivity rate was 7.9 percent for November 23. On that date, 639 new cases were also reported, with 264 people in local hospitals battling COVID infections.
Following his briefing, Poloncarz released updated numbers for Tuesday, November 24.
COVID-19 new case report for Nov. 24: 521 new cases were confirmed by @ECDOH out of 9,109 diagnostic reports received for a daily positivity rate of 5.7%.
The 7-day positivity rate average is 6.7%.
Total cases through Nov. 24 are now 22,791. pic.twitter.com/RTLsvc3ZLF
— Mark Poloncarz (@markpoloncarz) November 25, 2020
He warned prior to releasing those numbers that local health leaders fear for the near future.
"Hospitals are preparing for a surge in patients and they're very worried about staff capability and capacity," Poloncarz said. "(Erie County Health Commissioner) Dr. (Gale) Bernstein and I were on a phone call earlier today, with the hospital CEOs and they agreed that we have not seen the peak yet. It's going to be some time before we see a peek at hospitalizations, and they're very worried about their full capacity, not just with regards to beds, but with staff capabilities of being able to meet the needs of the greater community."
Dr. Burstein, during the briefing, displayed a model prepared by the University at Buffalo which offered a prediction for hospitalizations if the county were to avoid any lockdowns or restrictions. It projected up to 3,000 beds could be occupied by COVID patients by the end of December, if no steps were taken to prevent public spread of the virus.
"Again, this is just a prediction. We'll have to see what happens as we are in our orange zone still," Dr. Burstein said.
At first glance, the infection rates in Erie County's existing orange zone could qualify for elevation to red status. But one of the criteria is that a geographic area must have 10 or more new cases daily per 100,000 residents on a seven-day average.
"One of the things that we noticed, as a result of looking at the data on a ZIP code basis, is that some of the biggest areas of concern just a month ago, like the parts of the City of Buffalo - 14215, 14206, 14207 - have some of the lower infection rates per hundred thousand now," Poloncarz said. "The information that we were getting out to the public, that we have to reduce these numbers in these ZIP codes, seems to have worked. Unfortunately, now it's in other parts of the county."
Governor Cuomo held his COVID briefing earlier in the day and, late into that session, faced a question about whether he planned to elevate the color status in Erie County.
"We're watching the numbers," he said. "We're going to watch through this Thanksgiving season. This is where I think if we're going to get into trouble, you're going to see it a few days, seven days, after this Thanksgiving weekend."
Immediately after Thanksgiving comes Black Friday, the traditional opening day and busiest day of the holiday shopping season. In Erie County, Poloncarz was asked whether the state might be offering the region a little mercy so that some sales could be made before moving to turn the region red. He suggests the reason is more about public health numbers and not an economically motivated decision.
"I know the state is trying to avoid red zones, just like we are trying, hoping, to avoid red zones. Seeing that plateauing of the infection or positivity rate for a number of days, it wasn't necessarily making me feel great, but it made me feel better that we weren't continuing to see that positivity ratio skyrocket," he said. "Yesterday's numbers were not great. We'll be the first to admit that, with a 7.9% positivity rate, but I do believe the state wants to give us an opportunity to kind of dig us out of our own hole."