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The Rainbow Bridge connecting Niagara Falls, N.Y., left, to Niagara Falls, Ontario, on March 18, 2020. The Canada-U.S. border was closed to non-essential traffic to contain the coronavirus. (AP) The Rainbow Bridge connecting Niagara Falls, N.Y., left, to Niagara Falls, Ontario, on March 18, 2020. The Canada-U.S. border was closed to non-essential traffic to contain the coronavirus. (AP)

The Rainbow Bridge connecting Niagara Falls, N.Y., left, to Niagara Falls, Ontario, on March 18, 2020. The Canada-U.S. border was closed to non-essential traffic to contain the coronavirus. (AP)

By Michael Hogan June 12, 2020
By Sean Mickey June 12, 2020

Fact-checking coronavirus infection rates in western New York

If Your Time is short

• A look at the data from the end of March to mid-May confirms that the per capita infection rate in Allegany, Cattaraugus and Chautauqua counties was typically in the bottom one-third of counties in the state.

• By contrast, the other two counties in western New York, Erie and Niagara, were consistently in the top half of counties for infections per capita.

As New York state began implementing a regional approach to reopening after coronavirus-related shutdowns, a lawmaker from western New York complained that many of his constituents faced a longer wait to reopen because they were geographically linked to more hard-hit counties. 

State Sen. George Borrello, who made the comments in a statement on May 11, represents New York’s 57th district, which includes three less-populated counties — Allegany, Cattaraugus and Chautauqua — south of more heavily populated regions near Buffalo (Erie County) and Niagara Falls (Niagara County).

"While infection rates in Allegany, Cattaraugus and Chautauqua counties have consistently been among the lowest in the state throughout the COVID-19 crisis, our linkage with Erie County and its higher infection rates means that we don’t meet the metrics for reopening, and our hurting, rural economies must remain shut down for at least another two weeks," Borrello said in the statement.

The state’s reopening plan allowed regions to begin Phase 1 of the reopening process on May 15 as long as they met seven metrics established by the state. The Western New York Region subsequently met all seven metrics on May 18 and entered Phase 1 the following day.

But we wondered whether Borrello was correct in his May 11 statement that the infection rates in the three rural counties was substantially lower than those of the more urbanized counties to the north, and consistently among the state's lowest.

We used the county-by-county infection tallies posted on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s pressroom page and converted them to a rate per 10,000 residents. We ranked the counties from the highest to the lowest for each week from March 30 to mid-May, when Borrello made his statement.

We found that, as Borrello had said, Allegany, Cattaraugus and Chautauqua counties ranked low in infection rates consistently over that period, while Erie and Niagara started higher and continued to rise:

Our analysis found that Chautauqua never ranked higher than sixth from the bottom for infection rates among the 58 New York counties for which data was available, and Chautauqua had the lowest rate of any county for much of the period.

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Allegany and Cattaraugus ranked marginally higher than Chautauqua, but well below Erie and Niagara. 

Overall, the three small counties usually ranked in the bottom one-third of counties in the state, and by the time Borrello made his statement, they were all in the bottom one-fifth of counties. By contrast, Erie and Niagara were consistently in the top half of counties as measured by infections per capita.

New York City (including all five boroughs) ranked at or near the top for the entire period.

The state reopening plan mirrored what many other states are doing, with certain types of non-essential businesses opening in phases in each of 10 regions, as long as certain health measurements are met in the region.

Borrello said in an interview that he just wants sensible reopening policies that are implemented "fairly and equitably."

"Even though the infection rates are higher in Erie County than the rest of the region, we’re still talking about keeping those same precautions and ensuring that they’re being adhered to," he said.

Our ruling

Borrello said that "infection rates in Allegany, Cattaraugus and Chautauqua counties have consistently been among the lowest in the state."

A look at the data from the end of March to mid-May confirms that the infection rate in each of the three counties was usually in the bottom one-third of counties in the state, and by the time Borello made his statement, they were all in the bottom one-fifth of counties. By contrast, Erie and Niagara were consistently in the top half of counties as measured by infections per capita.

We rate the statement True.

Our Sources

George Borrello, statement, May 11, 2020

New York Times,  New York City Coronavirus Map and Case Count, Updated May 20, 2020

New York State Department of Health, County-by-County Data, May 11, 2020

New York State Department of Health, COVID-19 tracker, Updated May 20, 2020

TAPinto Greater Olean, Cattaraugus County Health Director Provides Additional Details on COVID-19 Cases, April 8, 2020

New York State, Reopening Metrics, Updated May 20, 2020

New York State, Data and press briefing, May 4, 2020

New York State, Data and press briefing, April 27, 2020

New York State, Data and press briefing, April 20, 2020

New York State, Data and press briefing, April 13, 2020 

New York State, Data and press briefing, April 6, 2020 

New York State, Data and press briefing, March 30, 2020

Interview with George Borrello, June 11, 2020

Fact-checking coronavirus infection rates in western New York

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