As New York’s battle with COVID-19 nears an anticipated second peak, the positivity rate in Suffolk County climbed above 8 percent for the first time in seven months this week.
Long Island might not return to the positive testing levels it saw in April, but with Christmas just days away, officials are bracing for a dark start to the new year.
“[Last Tuesday] we reached a troubling new level in this ongoing crisis, an 8.2 percent positivity rate for new COVID-19 cases,” said County Executive Steve Bellone. “While we don’t put too much stock into any one day’s numbers, it is clear that we are moving in the wrong direction with new cases and hospitalizations continuing to rise at alarming rates.”
While the county rate has not returned to 8% in the days since — the seven-day average is 7.1%, nearly double the rate on Thanksgiving Day — a sense of dread over what the Christmas and New Year’s holidays will bring looms large over the region. The continued high positivity rates and increasing hospitalizations has Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who said he hopes state residents learned from the Thanksgiving spike, discussing possible economic shutdowns in the future.
“Shutdowns are very, very harmful,” he said Friday. “They hurt a lot of people. They hurt businesses. They have mental health consequences. They hurt children. This has been a long year and the last thing anyone wants is a shutdown.”
The governor again talked about hospital capacity as the key metric in terms of a potential shutdown. The State Department of Health law through executive order says if a hospital believes it could hit 85% of maximum capacity in the next three weeks, it must notify the state. He said no hospitals have currently notified the state of being in danger of hitting that mark in the next three weeks, which brings us close to the anticipated Christmas peak.
A hospital reaching that capacity mark would trigger a shutdown in that area, the governor said. Still, he remained cautiously optimistic.
“We’ve gone through this before and I believe we can do it again,” the governor said. “I believe we can manage [hospital capacity].”
COVID-19 hospitalizations across the state stands at just over 6,300, more than double the 3,100 on Thanksgiving Day. Suffolk County has been on a similar trajectory with more than 550 hospitalized coronavirus cases, including 89 in intensive care, as of Monday. Only 28% of hospital beds and only 22% in ICU were available. There were 67 COVID-19 fatalities in Suffolk County this week.
“Vigilance got us through the first wave, and it will get us through the second as well,” Mr. Bellone said.
Stony Brook Eastern Long Island Hospital received its first shipment of the Pfizer vaccine Monday.
The Greenport facility was the first, last March, to diagnose a COVID-19 patient in Suffolk County.
“Last March and into the spring it was pretty bad for us,” said Dr. Lawrence Schiff, chief of the emergency department and the second person to receive the vaccine at the hospital, where he has worked since 2003. “We had that first patient and we worked with him and sent him off to Southampton Hospital. Happily he survived.”
Dr. Schiff said he and his staff are certain a second wave is about to hit the facility and, with critical staff receiving the vaccine, he feels they are better prepared for it.
“So much has changed since March,” he said. “We now have a better understanding of the disease itself. We can treat with stronger medicines and put off intubation. We have learned a lot since the first wave.”
Like other medical professionals, Dr. Schiff is stunned at the speed with which a vaccine was developed. Up until now, the speed record went to the mumps vaccine “and that took four years,” he said.
“Getting the vaccine is very good,” he added. “But it does not take the place of masks and social distancing and staying away from crowds.”
Mr. Cuomo said Monday that more than 86,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been designated for Long Island. Statewide, about 38,000 people have already received their first shot of the vaccine, which requires two doses three weeks apart.
By next week, residents and eligible staff at all local nursing homes are expected to have received their first dose.
New strain emerges
Am emerging new strain of the coronavirus, said to be more easily transmissible has been reported in the United Kingdom, causing Mr. Cuomo to call for travel restrictions from the country.
In a series of announcements Monday, the governor said the three airlines with direct flights from the U.K. — British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and Delta — had agreed to begin testing travelers for the coronavirus before allowing them to board a flight to New York.
The governor also called on the federal government to restrict travel from the country.
“The U.S. should halt travel [from the U.K.] until we know what we’re talking about [with the new strain],” Mr. Cuomo said.
Several European nations, including France, Italy and Germany, have banned incoming travel from England due to the strain.
Officials have said the COVID-19 vaccine should work against the strain, which was first detected in September.