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Monroe County Officials Share Facts to Calm Emotions Around First COVID Case

Dr. Michael Mendoza, Monroe County Commissioner of Public Health: “The most important way to combat fear is with facts.” Video by Patti Singer for Minority Reporter Media Group

Patti Singer

Monroe County’s first case of COVID-19 is in a man who flew from Italy to New York City and then came home to Rochester.

The man called the Monroe County Department of Public Health to say he was not feeling well, and the response plans that the county has been working on for weeks were put in place.

Dr. Michael Mendoza, center, commissioner of Monroe County Department of Public Health, talks about COVID-19. County Executive Adam Bello is at left and sign language interpreter is at right. Photo by Patti Singer/Minority Reporter Media Group

“It wasn’t a matter of if, but when the virus would arrive,” County Executive Adam Bello said at a news conference March 12,approximately 12 hours after officials were told the patient tested positive.

New York had recorded 216 cases as of March 11, not counting the one in Monroe County. Westchester County had 121. No Finger Lakes or western New York counties had yet to report a confirmed case, according to the state Department of Health.

“While we are rightly concerned, at this time we believe the risk of infection in Monroe County remains low,” Bello said.

However, the county and city have called off the St. Patrick’s Day Parade scheduled for March 14, and officials are urging people to reconsider hosting events of more than 50 people.

Monroe County Public Health Commissioner Dr. Michael Mendoza said that 50 wasn’t a magic number but a guideline and for people to use their judgment. Minimizing contact with large groups is seen as a prudent way to reduce risk of community spread.

On that note, Mayor Lovely Warren canceled the open door event scheduled for 5 to 7 p.m. March 12 at City Hall. The event would have allowed the public to meet with city officials to ask questions or seek help. Warren and the Democratic committee also canceled the mayor’s ball, scheduled for March 14.

Mendoza also reminded the public to be more vigilant about hand washing and cough and sneezing into an elbow – the etiquette health officials preach during flu season – now that novel coronavirus has reached Rochester. Officials also urged the public to stay home if they are ill and that nursing homes and facilities that have vulnerable populations should consider changes to visiting rules.

“We are entering a very unsettling time,” Mendoza said. “It’s understandable that people are experiencing fear, anxiety and uncertainty. To combat these emotions, I believe we need to share facts and information, and do so in a calm, rational manner. We need to recommit ourselves to the importance of science and facts. We need to work together to prevent infection and also to prevent illness. We all have a role in fighting this emergency. Together we will get our way through this in the coming weeks and months.”

Mendoza and representatives from UR Medicine and Rochester Regional Health said that the risk to the public is low. He said if people think they have symptoms of the respiratory infection, they should call their primary care doctor or the health department, and to not go to the emergency room unless it is a true emergency. If so, people are being asked to call the ER so they can be prepared to prevent potential spread of infection.

If people have questions about symptoms and they don’t have a doctor, they can call (585) 753-5555 or email

Bello and Mendoza said discussions continue with school officials and that decisions will be made in partnership.

Warren said that because the virus was slow to arrive in Rochester, it gave health officials, school districts and government leaders time to prepare. “We are better equipped to deal with this issue than other cities may have been.”

Saying that “the most important way to combat fear is with facts,” Mendoza provided as many facts much as he could while adhering to federal privacy guidelines.

Here is what Mendoza and Dr. Bilal Ahmed, associate medical director at UR Medicine’s Highland Hospital:

  • The individual is a male in his 30s.
  • The man is in isolation at home.
  • The health department is monitoring the person’s close contacts and all will remain in quarantine until the health department, in concert with state health officials, determine they have no symptoms.
  • The health department is doing what’s called contact tracing, which means finding everyone with whom the person was in touch.
  • The man flew from Rome, Italy to John F. Kennedy International Airport on March 10 then took ground transportation to Rochester.
  • The man went home. He later called the health department to report symptoms. Arrangements were made for him to go to Highland Hospital, where he arrived in the afternoon March 11. He stayed isolated.
  • He was met outside the hospital by staff who were wearing personal protective equipment and he donned protective clothing.
  • He was brought into a decontamination room that was developed several years ago to deal with Ebola if that surfaced in the community.
  • Three hospital staff treated the man.

Later March 12, visitor restrictions and screenings were announced in collaboration with the county health department.

At Rochester General and Unity hospitals, part of Rochester Regional Health, access is only at designated entrances and they will be staffed to screen people at arrival.

Patients with a previously scheduled hospital appointment who exhibit symptoms will be provided a mask and asked to notify the department their appointment is with prior to entering.

Visitors will be asked upon arrival if they are experiencing a cough, fever or shortness of breath. Visitors with symptoms will be asked to leave the hospital/facility and advised to call their primary care provider. Visitors with symptoms who are requesting to see end-of-life patients will be provided a mask and allowed to see their family member/friend.

No visitors will be permitted to visit Rochester Regional skilled nursing facilities until further notice. All Rochester Regional volunteer programs have been suspended.

The regulations take effect at noon, March 13.