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Abandoning precautions would mean certain spike, Mendoza says

To understand the steps necessary to reopen the economy in Monroe County, public health commissioner Dr. Michael Mendoza asked members of the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce to look at the decisions just as they would a business plan.

Dr. Michael Mendoza, commissioner of public health for Monroe County.

Dr. Michael Mendoza, commissioner of public health for Monroe County.

Yes, new confirmed COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are trending in positive directions. But social distancing precautions must remain in place well into the future for long-term success.

“Many of you in business know this: actions you take today won’t manifest in the P&L statement until two or three months later, so we have to be looking with the long game in mind,” Mendoza told chamber members during a webinar on Tuesday afternoon.

“We want and need to reopen the economy; what we’re doing today is not sustainable,” Mendoza said. “We have succeeded in flattening the curve, we have succeeded so far in protecting our health care system from what we’ve seen in other parts of the country, but we still need to be vigilant in preventing those surges from happening locally. Because if we were, hypothetically, to reopen everything tomorrow, it is a certainty that we will unleash a surge in our community.”

A phasing-in approach, however, will lessen the chances of a spike. Mendoza said the goal is to have a plan in place so if New York on Pause restrictions indeed are lifted on May 15, the county can “hit the ground running.”

The trick will be determining which business environments pose the least risk.

“It’s always going to be a little risky, and that’s OK,” Mendoza said. “We’re going to have to take risks; there’s no risk-free solution in life. When it comes to reopening the economy, we have to take some risks, and I’ll be the first to say, as a public health commissioner, we’ll have to take a few calculated public health risks in the interest of reopening the economy. It’s not sustainable as a society to continue as we are.”

He said social distancing will still be necessary. Face masks, he said, “will be a reality for some weeks and months to come.” That may include in a workplace where there is not sufficient space between employees.

Those measures are why hospitalizations and intensive care admissions have declined.

“This is, I think, a reflection of our collective effort for the last month to implement social distancing, to do all the things our governor and county executive have asked us to, and a testament to the working-together spirit of our community,” Mendoza said.

“I look at this as very reassuring. Even though there is quite a bit of uncertainty ahead of us, I have much less uncertainty because I know we have been able to accomplish this.”

The state and county haven’t determined what types of “nonessential” businesses will be allowed to reopen first. Mendoza was asked about theaters, and also restaurants.

“Theaters are actually an easier place to implement social distancing because, generally speaking, you don’t move when you’re in the theater, so it’s conceivable you can open up a movie theater and every fourth seat be occupied,” he said.

“I think there are ways to do that in a restaurant. Now, the challenge in a restaurant is that you have to take your mask off to eat, so there will have to be ways that we look at restaurants creatively to reopen them. I think bars, unfortunately, are more difficult because in bars you tend to move around and people are in closer proximity.”

One thing is certain: people in Monroe County will continue to contract the coronavirus. In the big picture, that’s a good thing, because no preventative vaccine is expect for at least a year, Mendoza said.

“We’re going to have to have natural infection be the way that we develop herd immunity in the absence of a vaccine,” he said, “and nobody yet knows what amount of community immunity is necessary to protect those who are not immune; probably between 40 and 80 percent and probably closer to 60 to 80 percent of the community will need to get infected to have that herd immunity.”

The positive part of so many infections, Mendoza said, is “80 percent of people who get this illness are very unlikely to have any major symptoms.”

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