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Reopening Remains Far From Relaxed

Interim County Executive PJ Wendel is pictured during Monday’s press conference. P-J photo by Cameron Hurst

Economically, we were stuck in neutral. Many area businesses, in the midst of a global pandemic, had been forced to close their doors while restaurants could only serve take-out meals as New York state endured some 64 days in a “pause.”

From March 15 to May 18, only essential workers were allowed to be at their place of employment. Even then, numbers at the site needed to be greatly reduced by 50% to 75%.

Our Empire State was the focal point regarding the international health crisis with COVID-19 with many of the cases based downstate or in the larger upstate cities. At the time, state Gov. Andrew Cuomo was making daily appearances online and on television giving updates on the numbers and where the state stood as a reopening of the economy was set to begin.

Here at home, that date was set for May 19. Our total number of cases through that day? Fifty-three.

Fast forward to Monday. During a press conference held by Interim Chautauqua County Executive PJ Wendel and Christine Schuyler, public health director, that same number was significant again. It was the amount of cases over the three-day weekend, which included a spike at the highly respected Tanglewood Group facilities in the south county.

How different our world remains as we navigate through this troubling and frustrating age. When we were in a slowdown forced by the virus, one to two cases a day brought fears. Single-digit infections daily are now almost met with a sigh of relief.

Chautauqua County’s tallies, though still on the low end, have to be of some concern. Since our reopening, we have seen an additional 759 infections for a total of 812 through Wednesday afternoon.

From Oct. 8 to Wednesday, there have been 78 cases — at least 10 per day. That led to the county and the Health Department taking action.

It began on Saturday and continued Sunday. An uptick was ultimately traced to the adult-living facilities.

With information in hand, both Wendel and Schuyler announced the outbreak almost immediately to the public. It was the proper course of action.

“We have been working with Tanglewood, New York state Department of Health, UMPC Chautauqua, and other community partners to contain this spread,” Wendel said during the hastily planned press conference. “This situation is still evolving, but as we have with other clusters, we wanted to get the information out to the community quickly and effectively.”

It was a much different scenario than what we witnessed in August. At that time, infections were spreading rapidly at Fieldbrook Foods, but workers and community members in Dunkirk were left in the dark for nearly four days before the crisis was disclosed.

Only one other moment compared to the county’s handling of the August incident. It was early on when, incredulously, residents were told they would not be able to know the cases by municipal listing. “We are a rural county,” Schuyler said on March 27. “The last thing that I want to see happen are people picking up pitchforks and going on a witch hunt. It’s not right and it’s not fair.”

It was a peculiar response that has since been rectified. If you visit the county’s COVID-19 map online, it is broken down by ZIP code.

This shows a trend that has been evident from the beginning with the virus. Where population centers are largest, the greater chance of spread.

That major outbreak in Dunkirk, however, continues to be a haunting moment as county cases quickly multiplied. On Aug. 21 — less than two months ago — there was a total of 286 confirmed cases. Through Wednesday evening, that number has increased by 284%.

Some may want to point fingers at the State University of New York at Fredonia, which also was the site of a major spike in early September. Amazingly, through precautions and by taking COVID-19 seriously, SUNY Fredonia has been a model campus. Its infections total around 120 since late August.

Compared to other campuses, it’s a tremendous victory. That’s a credit to the university community, which was kept informed from the very first positive result on campus.

Knowledge is power, especially in our ongoing fight to keep the economy moving and open while staying safe.

County leaders, from the beginning, were like everyone else. To be fair, they had never dealt with a pandemic and there was no trial run.

Despite a shaky beginning, there is much more data available today to residents here to assist in fighting and preventing COVID-19. Maintaining this current state of normalcy depends on that immediate action and information.

That’s exactly what we had Monday. It was both unsettling and reassuring.

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

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