ERIE COUNTY, N.Y. (WIVB) — She’s led Erie County’s response to the pandemic, always trying to maintain a positive attitude and a look-forward approach. But the past year has been filled with challenge after challenge, most of them unexpected. But County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein says the story of COVID-19 is far from over.
“It’s been a long year. It’s been a journey. And hopefully, we’ll emerge stronger and in a better position. And what’s most important, prepared for the next pandemic. Because there will be another pandemic.”
It’s been a long year for Dr. Burstein.
It was far different one year ago this week — which started with just 11 people in the hospital, a few dozen total cases, and many towns without even their first case.
Supplies for Coronavirus test kits were limited, and county officials were scrambling to find enough to meet the rapidly growing demand to track the virus spread.
Indeed, supply and demand has been a major problem during the past year. It’s now shifted from testing to vaccinations, as the chain from the federal government to the state to the county is still evolving.
Burstein prefers to pick out the positive in the current local dearth of shot clinics.
“It’s great that there’s a high demand for vaccinations. That is our way out of this pandemic, is vaccinations and getting our immunity numbers up in our community.”
But despite the fact fewer than 15% of the county’s population is inoculated, progress is being made. And the effects are showing.
“We’re not seeing anybody in the hospital that’s been vaccinated. And that’s the goal of vaccines, right? They’re going to get that protection. And if they do get infected, they’re not going to wind up in the hospital. They’re not going to get that ill,” Burstein said.
The county’s attention must now turn to reopening.
Given the shrinking COVID numbers, schools, mass gatherings like weddings, and businesses will be more in play — putting added pressure on the county’s contact tracing team and juggling a potential surge in cases as the weather warms.
“We still have high numbers. CDC has indicators for communities to gauge where they are for transmission risk. And Erie County, we’re still in the high transmission risk zone.”
And COVID variants are on the rise. It’s just a matter of time until the impact is felt locally.
“We’re all still recovering from the surge we saw last year and the holiday surge. But we have to remember, we’re still where we were in the fall. And that’s not our goal, or where we want to be.”
In addition to vaccine supply, parents across the county are wondering whether public schools will offer in-person learning five days a week — and whether that decision will happen yet this school year.
But there’s promising news: Cases don’t appear to be spreading within the classroom.
“Most of those infections are brought in from outside the school.”
“In Erie County, we’re still high risk for transmission. That doesn’t mean we can’t open the schools. It just means that for the schools to stay open safely, we have to make sure that we keep our foot on the pedal and keep all of our prevention strategies in place,” Burstein added.
There’s also greater hope in the wake of announcements from the federal government that vaccine supplies will ramp up as the spring evolves.
States are responding, with Michigan announcing last week every adult will be eligible for a shot by April 5.
But Burstein’s next challenge will be to convince more people here — especially in local minority communities — to roll up their sleeves.
“If you get a flu vaccine, you’re not going to say, oh you want that brand and not this brand. So it’s really the same situation.”
“We know there are still many people who are questioning vaccines, about their effectiveness and their safety. Is one safer than the other. And I can confidently say that all the vaccines — all three of the vaccines that we have available on the market — Pfizer, Moderna, the Johnson and Johnson, those are all very effective, and they’re all very safe.”
“It’s a race, right? It’s the vaccine vs the virus and we have to win, so we have to try to get vaccinated as many people as possible so it will be more difficult for any strain of covid19 to take a hold in our community again.”