As Congress approves an $8.3 billion spending package to deal with the coronavirus, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo and Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz held press conferences today. Poloncarz was joined by Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein.
Toronto has emerged as a hotspot for the virus, with 19 individuals having tested positive. While there are no confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Western New York at this time, it must be remembered that for approximately 3 1/2 weeks, we have had no ability to conduct testing in the field. Only about 1% of the suspected cases have actually been tested, and those were sent to the federal CDC, and only if they met very strict testing guidelines: individuals returning from countries designated Level III high-risk by the federal government, from China, Italy, Iran, or South Korea, or with clinical symptoms from known exposure to someone who has tested positive. Next week, this will change. The Erie County Public Health Lab has been approved as a testing site for the reverse transcription - polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) assay for COVID-19, and 1.5 million new field testing kits nationally are going out this week, with the previously faulty reagent replaced, and should be arriving here by next week.
Until then, all should assume that the virus is currently in the community, and all NPIs, non-pharmaceutical interventions, should be followed, including handwashing, good respiratory etiquette, good environmental surface decontamination with bleach, good social distancing and staying home from work or school if sick. Schools, businesses, nursing homes, places of worship, and other locations of close interpersonal contacts are receiving ongoing new and updated recommendations and guidance per their licenses from the New York State Health Department and Education Department, and the CDC.
The County Executive confirmed that anyone returning from high risk countries will be automatically quarantined for 14 days. This list of countries is likely to expand, to include people returning from “do not travel to” countries as well as those returning from a growing list of “recommended not to travel to” countries. The Johns Hopkins website maintains a hot map documenting the location of the illness worldwide.
The Health Commissioner confirmed that she has the power to issue a Commissioner’s Order enforced by the Erie County Sheriff’s Office on anyone required to be quarantined whether they choose to voluntarily sign the quarantine agreement or not. Officials confirmed that they have long have the power in cases of regional pandemics, to require compliance with mandatory quarantine and that there is a legal proceeding in place for a due process hearing for anyone objecting.
County officials would not confirm how many people are currently under quarantine in Western New York. They claimed it would be a HIPAA violation. This is not the same information provided by Governor Cuomo at his press conference, and clarification is expected.
County officials did acknowledge that a number of UB students returning from China are or were under quarantine, getting support services to ensure their clothes are washed and food is brought to them. Quarantined individuals must keep a log of who comes in and out of their room, take and document their temperature on a thermometer log twice a day, and answer the phone calls from the Health Department at least twice a day.
“It’s our obligation during a public health epidemic to keep the public informed. Faith in government competence is paramount in these situations” - Governor Cuomo’s Office