Coronavirus

Western New York has emerged as the state's new coronavirus epicenter

And officials and experts aren’t sure why.

Western New York has been faring worse during the second wave.

Western New York has been faring worse during the second wave. Felix Lipov/Shutterstock

“The second wave is here, and it’s here with a vengeance,” Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said on Nov. 19. That was the day that his county reported the highest single-day number of positive COVID-19 tests since the beginning of the pandemic. According to Poloncarz, 651 people tested positive, breaking the previous record set just a week earlier. On Nov. 25, the county would break the record again with 718 positive tests, and it set a higher high of 771 cases on Dec. 2.

The entire region of Western New York has experienced a sharp increase in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. On Nov. 13, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul called the region the “epicenter” of the state’s current fight against the virus – a designation once bestowed on New York City and its suburbs – and the numbers have only gotten worse since then. Erie County, and in particular Buffalo, has been the main focus of restrictions so far, with nearly the entire county contained in two big yellow and orange zones, imposing different degrees of restrictions on nonessential businesses, indoor dining and schools. But Niagara County to the north has its own yellow zone and a sharp increase of cases, and the region’s other three counties each have high rates of positive tests.

Public health experts have theories about why Western New York has been faring worse during the second wave, but it’s unclear why this region in particular has emerged as the state’s new epicenter.

According to state data, the region began experiencing a sharp increase in the number of new cases at the start of November. On Nov. 6, Cuomo called Western New York “a problem” due to its increasing rate of positive tests. At the time, the region had a 2.9% seven-day average positivity rate – the highest of any region in the state – and 334 new cases, a far higher number than it had at any point during the spring. As of Dec. 2, the region still had the highest seven-day average positivity rate in the state at 7.4%, a position it has largely maintained for weeks. That’s far higher than the state’s seven-day average of 4.4%.

The region has similarly seen a rapid increase in new hospitalizations and deaths. On Dec. 2, the state reported that the region had 446 people in the hospital, far more than its peak of 263 people in late April. Cuomo ordered all Erie County hospitals to stop performing elective surgeries on Dec. 4 to free up space for coronavirus patients. One of the only bright spots is that the number of patients in intensive care unit beds, while going up, remains lower than at the worst of the spring outbreak. Dr. Thomas Russo, professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo, also noted that patients are spending less time in the hospital compared to the spring, and greater knowledge on how to treat the disease is leading to better outcomes for patients.

There are multiple theories about why Western New York is getting hit harder this time around. Dr. Rachael Piltch-Loeb, an associate research scientist at NYU School of Global Public Health, suggested that downstate officials were more prepared to respond to the first wave of the crisis. And she said that perhaps people downstate more strictly adhere to the public health guidelines after living through the worst of the initial outbreak. “That experience with the virus that really has shaped people’s risk perception, in the city and the city’s surrounding areas, I think has contributed to people being either more willing or more able to kind of buckle down the second time around as necessary,” Piltch-Loeb said. It’s a theory that Cuomo appears to think holds some weight. “Western New York never lived the full pain of COVID’s wrath,” he said while announcing Erie County’s new orange zone and Niagara County’s yellow zone on Nov. 18. “What caused so many people in New York to change their behavior? It was the fear.”

Cuomo’s opinion did not sit well with many in Western New York. And Piltch-Loeb said she was not trying to suggest that those in other parts of the state did not suffer terrible losses as well. But the impact of the outbreak’s severity on behavior is something she said should not be discounted. “It’s not to say that the western part of the state didn’t have a difficult experience early on, but based on numbers, and the burden on the population, it seems like it was less,” Piltch-Loeb said.

Russo acknowledged that there are likely people in Western New York who are taking lax approaches to public health regulations due to their own political leanings. The region is home to one of the most conservative and pro-Trump congressional districts in the state, a demographic that has generally opposed coronavirus-related restrictions. But he disagreed that the main driver of the new surge in cases comes from the public not taking the pandemic seriously enough.

Russo suggested that the shift in epicenters has more to do with the disparity in the rate of infection compared to the first time around. He suggested that a much higher percentage of downstate was infected in the spring compared to Western New York, leaving them with some degree of immunity and decreasing the pool of people susceptible to illness. “If you’ve got a party of 100 individuals and you invite the coronavirus in Erie County, there might be 85 to 90 individuals that it could pick on,” Russo said. “Whereas downstate it may be somewhere more in the order of they’ve only got maybe 65 to 70.” Piltch-Loeb, however, cautioned against attributing too much to natural immunity, or lack thereof, when trying to explain the shifting epicenter.

Both Russo and Piltch-Loeb agreed that it’s difficult to determine why Western New York specifically has emerged as the newest hardest-hit region of the state. Certainly, other parts of the state, especially the nearby Finger Lakes region, have had troubling numbers of coronavirus cases themselves. But at this point, with community spread occurring, the why and how is less important than attempting to bring down the numbers before area hospitals are overwhelmed. Cuomo can still implement a red zone in Western New York, which would close all nonessential businesses, restrict dining at restaurants to takeout only and prohibit mass gatherings. But in the meantime, state and local officials are saying that people should not attend or host indoor gatherings with people from outside your household, which they say is causing the surge in cases.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.