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Drastic Rise

Bunker Mentality Promotes Area Spike

Fieldbrook Foods in Dunkirk, according to state Gov. Andrew Cuomo has had 53 positive cases of COVID-19.  Photo by Natasha Matteliano

Monday afternoon’s press conference came far too late. Some workers and individuals who could have received a warning long before Aug. 21 regarding the cluster of positive COVID-19 cases at Fieldbrook Foods in Dunkirk ultimately became victims.

It was a cruel and unfortunate outcome, but that was the decision made by top Chautauqua County leaders in determining how to handle the incidents with the major employer in the north county. Instead of taking action or addressing a high-risk situation, they deliberately waited or wished it would go away.

Maybe that’s being too harsh, but when this newspaper sent a pair of texts last weekend to the interim County Executive PJ Wendel asking a question about the number of cases at the company, there was no response.

That was a red flag.

Realistically, county leaders are partly responsible. A major outbreak at a location with more than 500 employees who often work closely together and no one says anything until there are more than 20 infections?

Something is scary wrong with that picture.

Let’s be clear. COVID-19 information for this county comes from its Health Department, nowhere else. They have dictated to us how we will receive the details and when, even eliminating weekend updates in the last month.

After this recent outbreak, however, the process has become open to highly justified criticism.

This newspaper, in an online post on Saturday, was the first to report the COVID-19 infections at a major business. It happened after a number of individuals bravely came forward beginning Thursday evening. They were doing it with the best of intentions. They believed others, especially those who work there, should know the risks and be able to fully protect themselves.

Two days later, we received confirmation of at least eight cases. Not from Chautauqua County or its Health Department, we might add.

Those sources, it should be noted, included copies of positive test results. These individuals were fearful and concerned — unlike county leadership, which couldn’t even offer a statement regarding the outbreak until seven days after the first positive case at the business.

It did not get better Monday. That morning, state Gov. Andrew Cuomo beat county officials to the punch by noting in a televised press conference a food processing factory had contributed to a recent increase in COVID cases in Western New York.

Only then did county officials seem to understand the urgency. They called a press conference later that afternoon. It was a real head-shaker that included comments from Wendel, a written statement from Fieldbrook and a bit too much self-praise for what could be considered carelessness.

“The initial case investigations found several confirmed cases associated with this employer, indicating the potential for a larger outbreak to occur,” said Christine Schuyler, county health director during the event. “As such, we have been proactively working with New York State Department of Health and administration of Fieldbrook Foods to manage and control the spread of disease. The increased number of positive tests reported this weekend substantiated our concern about a potentially larger outbreak.”

For the record, there was nothing proactive about how the county handled this. The Health Department is supposed to be our first line of defense. If it begins to see cases mounting that date back to Aug. 16, why so mum?

Residents here have been told by this same Health Department since April they cannot know exactly where the cases are happening. Instead, the department hides behind the county’s COVID-19 map that is broken down by the four fire battalions in the north, south, east and west. Those statistics offer an indication of where the cases are, but the map can hide major flare-ups such as the one that occurred at Fieldbrook.

“We absolutely know that it is imperative to share information that will help prevent the spread of this virus while also protecting the privacy and well-being of individuals,” Schuyler said April 3 at a press conference defending its controversial mapping decision. “In more rural counties, such as Chautauqua, details such as age, gender, township, employer, travel history … will not be released unless there is a clear and compelling reason to do so that will protect the public’s health.”

Fieldbrook’s outbreak is exactly a “compelling reason” to speak up. But this was not the first time the county kept outbreaks out of the public’s eye. One of those incidents happened during a Fourth of July boat gathering on Chautauqua Lake. Another occurred before Memorial Day at a birthday party with nine cases.

Making the lack of action even worse was the fact that Chautauqua County’s Board of Health met Aug. 20 — four days after the first Fieldbrook positive case. Instead of addressing the potential north county “cluster,” Schuyler instead chose to spend her time at the meeting criticizing directives from the state. “We don’t have the capacity or the jurisdiction to do a lot of what’s being handed down to us,” she said at that meeting.

But there are no limits on being more open with the public you serve during the greatest health crisis of our lifetime. Those Fieldbrook employees, and others tied to the facility, would have been grateful for that.

John D’Agostino is the regional editor of the OBSERVER, The Post-Journal and Times Observer in Warren, Pa. Send comments to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call 366-3000, ext. 253.

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