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N.Y. vulnerability rankings: Several WNY counties rank high on list

Posted at 12:05 AM, Apr 21, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-21 00:10:07-04

(WKBW) — COVID-19 and New York State: while the epicenter is downstate, the most vulnerable live upstate.

“Where the disease was actually occurring wasn’t necessarily the same as the areas with a high concentration of people who would be extremely vulnerable if the disease were to reach them," Dr. Warren Brown, Senior Research Associate at Cornell Institute for Social and Economic Research, said.

Cornell demographers like Dr. Brown said these vulnerability maps illustrate just that -- very different scenarios for each of the state’s 62 counties.

“What we did was take this readily available public data and compile it, come up with indices for demographic characteristics and for health characteristics," Dr. Brown said.

Using CDC information, census data and surveys, the team at Cornell put together these two maps ranking the counties in both demographic and health vulnerability. Factors that contributed to scores for either includes age, health risks and living in group quarters. The hope is to provide planners, officials and the public with information to help better prepare

"It’s like standing on the shoreline and wondering: ‘is this hurricane going to hit us or is it going to go by us?’ but it’s not yet time to take down the storm shutters," Dr. Brown said.

Demographers found the highest vulnerability rates lie upstate in places like the “Adirondacks and Chautauqua-Allegheny regions.” Several Western New York counties fell in the "top 10" on both maps including Allegany, Orleans, Wyoming, Genessee and Cattaraugus.

"If we were to have a huge outbreak that we’re seeing in downstate New York I think that would be quite detrimental to this population," Dr. Kevin Watkins, Cattaraugus County's Public Health Director, said. Cattaraugus County ranked second in health vulnerability. Dr. Watkins said he is not surprised due to the county's overall age and health outcomes.

Orleans County ranked 10th in demographics vulnerability and 14th in health vulnerability. The Orleans County Health Department released this statement:
"Based on the criteria used to develop the vulnerability map, Orleans County falls into the high risk categories for both demographic vulnerability and health vulnerability and is not a surprise.

We are aware of the limited resources in our county, being the ‘home’ to two state correctional institutions and a population base of approximately 18% over the age of 65 are true statements of the make-up of our county. We also have significant access to care issues which lead to higher vulnerability when responding to a health crisis like COVID-19

We have been working with many community partner organizations on the health behaviors of county residents to help lower the incidence of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, adult obesity and smoking rates for years. In our efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 we are aware of the increased vulnerability of our residents and encourage them to look at their health behaviors and start making changes if they haven’t already started to improve their overall health status."

Chautauqua County Health Department released this statement:
"Fortunately, public health is always looking at data and working to improve the health of our community. Through these efforts and including data from sources such as those used by Cornell in this initiative, we can identify areas for improvement and the need for community action to improve health behaviors such as tobacco use, nutrition, and physical activity. We have known for some time that there is much work to be done to improve health in Chautauqua County and throughout Western New York.

Smoking, obesity, and chronic conditions such as asthma, diabetes, and heart disease puts a significant population of Chautauqua County at higher risk for complications of COVID-19 infection. We also have an aging population and many residents with disabilities who are at a higher risk. We are fortunate to have collaborative working relationships with our hospitals, nursing homes, other health care providers as well as our business, faith, and community agency partners. At a time like this, those relationships are crucial to protecting the health and wellbeing of our residents.

In the short term, social distancing, respiratory hygiene and appropriate PPE usage are important mitigation tools as we all work to protect our vulnerable populations from this highly contagious and potentially deadly virus. All of the Local Health Departments in WNY would like to see more robust testing capabilities so that we can appropriately isolate, quarantine and trace contacts to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In the long run, perhaps this COVID-19 pandemic will serve as another means to motivate people to take responsibility for their own health and well-being and that of their loved ones, including making good lifestyle and behavior choices."

"The only arsenal that we have as public health officials is to ask our residents to separate themselves from others in order to mitigate this virus throughout the community," Dr. Watkins said.

The team at Cornell is already working towards enhancing and improving the maps with additional information.