COVID-19 positive test rate in Riverhead above the county average as new testing program set to begin in school

Riverhead Town is currently seeing some of the highest positive test rates for COVID-19 in Suffolk County, according to County Executive Steve Bellone.

The current five-day test rate in Riverhead Town is at 5.6%, he said during a media call Thursday afternoon, which is why the Suffolk County Department of Health is partnering with the Riverhead Central School District to conduct rapid tests to about 20% of the school population. Riverhead interim superintendent Christine Tona announced the testing Wednesday. Suffolk County is at a 3.5% positive test rate on a seven-day average, according to the latest figures. It wasn’t entirely clear why the data Mr. Bellone provided for Riverhead was a five-day average, when the rest of the data is typically listed as a seven-day average.

A similar testing program began in the Hampton Bays School District Thursday. The Hampton Bays hamlet is at 6.5% positive test rate and along with Riverhead is an area with the highest concern in the county.

Mr. Bellone emphasized that the elevated numbers are largely from community spread and not directly tied to the school districts. He said the school based testing initiative is designed to isolate positive patients, quarantine anyone potentially exposed and to keep schools open.

“Our goal today is to be proactive in our effort to get control of these numbers in the county,” he said.

Mr. Bellone repeated throughout the briefing that the county’s focus is on slowing the community spread and he did not indicate that any particular area was set to be identified as a micro-cluster focus zone under the state’s system. While contact tracers are working to identify any types of clusters associated with the increase in numbers, there have been none identified as of yet, acknowledging the data could be a statistical anomaly.

“We don’t know at this point,” he said.

Earlier this week, the county announced six COVID-19 cases had been connected to the Riverhead Friendly’s and anyone who had visited the restaurant on Nov. 5-6 was asked to monitor for symptoms for 14 days.

Supervisor Yvette Aguiar said Wednesday that the Riverhead area was in danger of becoming a micro-cluster focus zone, which would potentially lead to closures. Focus zones — based on increasing scales from yellow to orange and red — are in effect in various communities throughout the state, including parts of the New York City boroughs.

Mr. Bellone said there are a lot of factors that would determine when a geographic area is given the focus zone designation.

“There’s no exact formula,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is be very proactive in reducing that spread so we don’t get to that place. There’s no simple answer to say if you meet this one or two criteria, you’re going to be designated as a focus zone.”

The county has ramped contact tracing after a recent surge in numbers last weekend. More than 200 people are now involved with contact tracing, up from about 30. That’s in addition to about 1,000 state tracers.

The testing at Riverhead schools begins Friday and results will be available in 15 minutes for each test, Mr. Bellone said. He said he believes the short window before the school closes for the Thanksgiving holiday will provide enough data for an adequate insight to help curb the current spread. And he said the health department has confidence in the accuracy of the rapid tests. The data from the schools will be released by the health department.

“We want to make sure we’re doing everything that we can to avoid school closures,” Mr. Bellone said. “We want to keep our kids in school.”

He added that testing at schools allows for a large sample size of testing. And even if the spread is not going on in the schools, the community spread will ultimately impact schools if it doesn’t slow. He also pointed to the ripple effect on the economy when schools close and parents can’t go to work.

“Schools are the highest level of concerns we have,” he said.

The tests are provided by the state and county health department officials are assisting on location in Hampton Bays and Riverhead.

There were 431 new cases reported across the county on Thursday for the prior 24 hours. There are currently 112 people hospitalized in the county, an increase of nine over the prior 24 hours.