Health director: Time to practice virus vigilance 

James Neiss/staff photographerMichelle Williams with Niagara County Emergency Services was at Newfane Town Hall on Thursday handing out smaller bottles of hand sanitizer and face masks. The county orchestrated six mass PPE distributions this week, in Barker, Middleport, Wheatfield, Ransomville, Newfane and at the Public Safety Training facility in Lockport.

Niagara County Public Health Director Dan Stapleton says now is not the time for citizens to let their guard down where COVID-19 is concerned. 

In fact, Stapleton says now is the time for Niagara County residents to be more vigilant.

“I’ve had as many new cases in one day that I’ve had in an entire month in the summer," Stapleton told the Union-Sun & Journal on Thursday. "That’s how quick it happened. Last week, we had 500 new cases, which is all the new cases combined that we got in the summertime.”

On Thursday, the Niagara County Department of Health reported 94 new coronavirus cases, bringing the total to date countywide to 3,077. County health officials said there are currently 575 active cases, including 564 individuals who are isolating at home and 11 who are hospitalized. The number of COVID-19-related deaths did not change, remaining at 103. 

On Wednesday, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo announced that parts of Niagara County, including the city of North Tonawanda and a portion of the town of Wheatfield, would be moved into a yellow precautionary zone under the state's COVID-19 response system. During his announcement, Cuomo suggested that Western New York has not “lived the full pain of Covid’s wrath,” while suggesting recent infection rates in the region may soon lead to an increase in hospitalizations and perhaps even virus-related deaths. 

In yellow zone areas, houses of worship may only hold 50% of capacity, mass gatherings are limited to 25 people whether they are indoors or outdoors, businesses can remain open and restaurants can offer indoor and outdoor dining, but with a four-person maximum per table.

Stapleton was hesitant to make any predictions about the possibility of the yellow designation in Niagara County being elevated to the more serious orange or red zones. He did say he would not be surprised to see the yellow zone extended to other parts of the county, given what recent infection numbers suggest about the spread of the virus within the community.

Regardless what color a given are may find itself operating under, people outside those designated areas must continue to be vigilant in their practice of Covid safety habits, Stapleton said.

“We’re trying to stop the spread of the disease as much as possible,” he said. “Of course, we continue to tell people they need to follow the guidelines. … Wearing masks, six foot distance, washing your hands, all those things, but I think, unfortunately, that’s not enough. We believe the public may be getting Covid fatigue.”

Stapleton said the county health department is working with the North Tonawanda City School District to slow down the infection rate and help district officials understand their responsibilities in terms of testing for students and teachers. He said the county is also providing the district with testing kits.

Similar work is being done with the Niagara-Wheatfield Central School District to determine how much testing is needed there.

“The Niagara-Wheatfield School District is not completely under the yellow,” Stapleton said. “There’s a small portion of Niagara-Wheatfield and we’re investigating whether or not any of the schools in that area needs to be tested, but we’re working with the schools on that.”

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