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Testing capacity lags as COVID-19 cases grow in Monroe County

Monroe County public health commissioner Dr. Michael Mendoza speaks at a news conference about COVID-19 on Wednesday.
Brett Dahlberg
Monroe County public health commissioner Dr. Michael Mendoza speaks at a news conference about COVID-19 on Wednesday.

Monroe County no longer has enough testing capacity to keep up with the demand for diagnosing COVID-19, public health commissioner Dr. Michael Mendoza said at a press conference on Wednesday.

“In the last two days, we’ve had a large spike in demand,” Mendoza said, adding that the health department would need to prioritize the processing of some people’s specimens but could not yet give details about how those decisions will be made.

Mendoza said as a result of the spread of the novel coronavirus in the Rochester area, social distancing has become even more important.

“We need to take that very, very seriously,” Mendoza said, adding that the medical system alone cannot handle the influx of patients he anticipates. 

“We need these community actions,” he said.

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Monroe County Executive Adam Bello also called on businesses and other community institutions to limit people’s exposure to the virus.

“If you are not providing an essential function to help the people in this community, such as providing food, gas and health care, I am asking you to please send your employees home,” Bello said.

Under an executive order, Bello said he would shut down county government for nonessential employees.

A Regional Transit Service bus driver was among the four people who tested positive for COVID-19 in Monroe County between Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning, the health department said.

The driver’s last contact with passengers was March 3, the county said. Mendoza said his office is contacting passengers who were on the bus that day, but “they are no longer at risk due to the time lapse, and they are not being placed into quarantine.”

Since Tuesday evening, the county has confirmed five additional cases of COVID-19, Mendoza said, for a total of 19 locally.

Health officials have said it is impossible to know how many total cases of the disease there are locally, as testing capacity has been limited.

The county reported its first known death from the coronavirus Tuesday, a 54-year-old man who worked at Rochester General Hospital, according to hospital spokesperson Veronica Chiesi Brown.

Mendoza said the county is tracing that man’s contacts in an effort to determine the origin of his infection and anyone else at risk of contracting it from him.

The health department said a total of 142 people are under mandatory quarantine in the county.

Mendoza said the health department has heard reports of people being in public when they’re supposed to be under quarantine. “That is a very real risk,” he said.

“If you are under isolation, and we discover that you are not where you ought to be, we will take swift and rapid action,” Mendoza said.

Under Monroe County’s isolation and quarantine plan, obtained by WXXI News through a freedom of information request, the Sheriff’s Office is tasked with enforcing compliance with quarantine orders.

If a person does not comply with isolation, law enforcement should “assist in moving the individual to a pre-identified isolation or quarantine site that has the appropriate monitoring and security” to keep the person confined, the plan says.

Brett was the health reporter and a producer at WXXI News. He has a master’s degree from the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.