Cattaraugus County’s public health director plans a conference call with school district superintendents next week to give them the order to follow COVID-19 guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention when they start classes.
That includes everyone wearing masks if there is a significant or high rate of positive cases where there are more than 50 cases per 100,000 population, Dr. Kevin D. Watkins said.
On Thursday, the state Department of Health said it will not make any directives on opening schools next month, leaving decisions regarding masks and perhaps even in-person learning to county health departments.
That gives local districts the choice, as recommended by the CDC, whether to require students and staff to wear masks based on the rate of positivity in the community.
Watkins said the health department will work with the county’s districts to share positivity figures.
Since there are about 75,000 county residents, the 50 cases per 100,000 would mean there is significant county transmission with about 38 cases. Double that number and 76 cases would put the county in the high-transmission rate for COVID-19.
“If there is substantial or a high infection rate, the CDC recommendation is to wear masks,” Watkins said. “If there is a high rate, the recommendation is to wear masks indoors.”
Watkins urged school officials to reach out with any questions.
“We won’t be issuing any particular guidelines, but we will work with schools if masks are recommended,” he said. “It is a hot-button issue. We have to deal with it.”
Watkins noted that with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s emergency powers on COVID-19 ended, school superintendents will get their wish to make their own decisions on masks. “Last year, we didn’t have a high level of positives in the schools.”
If the county’s infection rate continues to creep up, “it might present a problem,” Watkins added. “If we see the current incline going higher, we will reach out to superintendents and discuss whether masks should be worn.”
Watkins said there may be some parents who would be uncomfortable with their children not wearing masks. “It depends on their comfort level and whether they (children) have been vaccinated.”
About 30 concerned parents and community members demonstrated Friday evening at Lincoln Park near the Union and State streets roundabout to express their opposition to the possibility of requiring kids to wear masks when Olean’s schools open.
Demonstrators held signs with phrases including “Unmask our children” and “No more mandates” while vehicles drove by, some honking their horns in support.
Sisters Ciara Buchanan and Cerrissa Lynch, who organized the group, said the mask mandates have gone on long enough and parents should choose whether their children wear masks.
Lynch said her three children are in Olean schools. “Kids shouldn’t have to decide between being able to breathe or being with people in school,” she said.
Buchanan said she knows of about 100 families planning to homeschool their kids this year rather than have them go back to public school.
“We’re going into two years of doing this. Enough is enough,” she added.
The health department has been encouraging vaccinations of eligible students — those age 12 and older — and it continues to offer vaccination clinics at schools across the county.
Watkins said wider vaccinations of county residents, including a greater percentage of children age 12 and older, would help protect those children under age 12 who are not yet eligible for the vaccine.
Watkins said he believes a majority of school staff are vaccinated, but his estimate of students 12-18, who number about 5,000, is that only about 1,000 are vaccinated.
“I wish everyone in our community would have gotten (vaccine doses) by now,” Watkins said. “We are getting more interest as word of the Delta variant being more contagious and dangerous gets out.”
The requests for testing “are also ramping up, whether they are symptomatic or have been exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19,” Watkins said. “We are requesting more testing supplies from the state.”
To register for a free COVID-19 diagnostic test through the county health department, go online to:
Watkins said there are 31,620 county residents who have completed their vaccine series and 34,284 people with at least one vaccine dose. That’s 54.% of the 18 and older population and 44.6% of the entire population with at least one vaccine dose.
The health department reported 13 new COVID-19 cases on Friday. The total is now 5,833 residents who have been diagnosed with the coronavirus.
Health department staff are now following 59 active cases, four people who are with COVID-19 and 273 in contact quarantine.
There have been 3,125 cases in the southeast part of the county, 1,117 in the northeast, 877 in the southwest and 714 in the northwest. Of the total, 3,113 of the cases involved women and 2,720 were men.
Friday’s daily positivity was 1.6%, the seven-day rolling average percent positive was 3.1% and the 14-day average percent positive is 2.7%.