It was a year ago Monday that Erie County declared a state of emergency over COVID-19. The ensuing sickness, death and shutdowns has changed life as we knew it. Here’s a look from the WBFO staff at the lingering effects the pandemic has had on Western New York.
About a third of all U.S. COVID-19 deaths have been linked to nursing homes. In Erie County, nursing home residents make up more than half of all COVID deaths.
The New York State Attorney General, in a report released in January, found many nursing homes across the state failed to provide adequate personal protective equipment and follow infection protocols, especially during the early months of the pandemic.
Plus, visitor restrictions have left families unable to see loved ones in nursing homes for most, if not all, of the last year.
Richard Mollot, executive director of the Long Term Care Community Coalition, a group that advocates for New York nursing home residents, said the pandemic simply exposed the longstanding issues in the system.
“We know nursing home residents deserve better and if this doesn't serve as a catalyst for significant change, I don't know what will,” he said.
There’s now a big push for nursing home reform in the New York State Legislature. Proposed laws include safe staffing standards that would mandate nursing homes meet minimum staffing-to-patient ratios. There’s also a proposed profit cap that would force nursing homes to put at least 70% of their revenue toward caring for residents.
In late-March of 2020, Pastor George Nicholas of the African American Health Equity Task Force warned of the need for robust testing in Buffalo’s Black neighborhoods, communities which have extremely high rates of chronic disease.
“I think there’s this false sense that maybe the numbers aren’t so high in Western New York. We don’t know that because we haven’t done the kind of testing to give us the kind of data that we need,” Nicholas. “And so, when we begin to start doing the testing that needs to take place, I’m pretty confident we’re going to find a great number of people who have been exposed to this virus on the Eastside of Buffalo.”
And Nicholas was right.
On that day in March there were 122 positive cases. A month later, cases had jumped to nearly 3,000 and certain zip codes on Buffalo’s Eastside became hotspots for the virus.
By September, Black people had the highest death rate of any racial group in Erie County. Black Erie County residents had died at more than three times the rate of white residents, 68 per 100,000 people, compared to 21 per 100,000 for white people.
One year ago, art and music venues couldn’t have imagined having to wait so long before returning to full operations, but as communities work toward distributing vaccines, concert halls and theaters still don’t have a date when venues can return to a semblance of normalcy.
Many adapted though, via virtual concerts and limited viewings for exhibits. Torn Space Theater in downtown Buffalo put on 14 outdoor performances at Silo City over the summer.
Terry Fisher, president of the Theatre District Association of Western New York, was one of many looking for aid.
“The whole theater community is desperate for any kind of something new that could help them,” he told WBFO in January.
Movie theaters have just started to reopen in New York state. Concert halls, too, all with restrictions. There’s hope to finally begin recovering from a year where the arts industry lost billions in revenue across the U.S.
Child care in New York State was already in crisis before COVID-19, but Sheri Scavone, executive director of the Western New York Women's Foundation, said it has been decimated by the pandemic. This has put unprecedented pressure on parents trying to balance work with child care responsibilities, and businesses trying to support and retain quality employees.
"In Western New York, we actually had the highest rate of childcare center closures of the state,” Scavone said. “Our childcare deserts will only grow."
Men may have increased their caregiving role since the pandemic began, but Scavone said women overwhelmingly are the family caregiver, especially single women with children and women of color. Women also hold the majority of caregiving jobs, and have had to downshift their careers much more than men to carry out that role, support remote learning and still be able to pay the bills.
“Working women have now lost more than three decades of labor force gains in less than a year. It is truly astonishing and deeply concerning," she said.
The federal government has recognized the inequity, approving $2.3 billion for child care in New York State to date. The American Rescue Plan signed by President Biden last week also includes a third stimulus check worth $1,400 for individuals making up to $75,000 a year, another $1,400 per dependent, plus an expanded child care credit of $3,000 for children aged 6-17 and $3,600 for children under age 6. Cash vouchers issued for women and children through WIC also get a small boost for four months.
"I think what's really gratifying is, finally people get it," Scavone said.
With the COVID pandemic keeping the U.S.-Canada border closed to non-essential traffic, and the City of Toronto not allowing use of Rogers Centre, Major League Baseball’s Toronto Blue Jays needed to find a new home for its 2020 season. With the Buffalo Bisons and all of minor league baseball canceled, the Jays announced last July, they’d be coming to Sahlen Field.
“We're going to show not just the Blue Jays, but we're going to show the world what Buffalo is about,” said Bisons president Mike Buczkowski, speaking on July 24, “and how we're going to come together to make this an advantage for the Blue Jays, to make this a place where they can call home.”
Buffalo wasn’t their first choice, but the ballpark proved a friendly home for the Jays, who won 17 games at Sahlen Field and clinched a postseason berth. With the Canadian border still not fully reopened, the Jays have suggested Buffalo could be home again to a few of its games this summer.