The state of emergency ended. The mask mandate was lifted. And life has returned to as close to normal as before the pandemic started in early 2020.
While vaccinations have allowed that return to normal, COVID-19 has yet to be eradicated and cases in Suffolk County are gradually on the uptick, leading to a renewed sense of urgency to increase the percentage of the population that becomes fully vaccinated.
Across the United States, new COVID-19 cases have increased by nearly 200% on a 14-day average, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“By far, the majority that we are diagnosing are unvaccinated people,” said Dr. Bettina Fries, chief of infectious diseases for Stony Brook Medicine.
The CDC still urges unvaccinated people to wear masks in public settings, although that has relied largely on the honor system with little to no enforcement.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Tuesday that the state’s mass vaccination site at Stony Brook Southampton would close following vaccinations on July 26. It was one of four sites slated to be closed in the latest round of downscaling as the vaccination supply now steadily outpaces demand.
“With this accessibility comes the state’s responsibility to target and shift resources to areas with the lowest vaccination rates,” Mr. Cuomo said in a statement. “Downscaling state sites is necessary to redirect these resources, but it does not mean that you should not get your vaccine if you haven’t already.”
The most recent state data shows a 1.5% positivity rate in Suffolk County on a seven-day average. There were 114 positive cases reported Monday, the highest single-day total since late May. The positivity rate had dropped to 0.4% exactly one month ago. Those recent increases have not yet led to a surge in hospitalizations, which Dr. Fries said can be attributed to more younger people getting the virus who are not at as great a risk for serious symptoms as older people and those with compromised immune systems. The CDC currently lists the level of community transmission in Suffolk County as moderate (higher risk counties are labeled as substantial or high).
Dr. Fries said enough time has passed for anyone who was hesitant about the vaccination.
“There’s just absolutely no doubt that you should get vaccinated,” she said.
Much of the nationwide surge in cases has been centered around the delta variant. Multiple variants of SARS-CoV-2 have emerged throughout the pandemic as viruses constantly change through mutation. Dr. Fries said the delta variant is more infectious.
“The prediction is that everybody who is not vaccinated is at super high risk and most will get it,” she said.
Across New York, 56% of the total population is now fully vaccinated, an increase of 4% in the last month. The Suffolk County percentage mirrors the statewide numbers.
Dr. Fries pointed to the Mastic/Shirley area, which has the lowest vaccination rate in the county at around 40% or less, and noted that based on current mortality rate for COVID-19 and that area’s population, as many as 100 residents could potentially die.
“The more infectious the virus is, the more people you need to be vaccinated,” Dr. Fries said. “Even if we don’t see an enormous surge in the hospitals because the majority of people that get it are young, we still run the risk that were incubating this virus and that we will generate an escape virus that will not be covered by the vaccine. Then we are all vulnerable again. And we start from scratch.”
While cases are increasing, that has not yet led to a significant bump in hospitalizations. There are currently 28 individuals hospitalized in the county and four in ICU units. By comparison, more than 800 people were hospitalized at points in January when the vaccination effort was still just beginning. There was one COVID-19 fatality recorded in Suffolk Monday.
Dr. Fries noted it can be difficult to convince people who are skeptical to get vaccinated.
“I don’t know what holds them back,” she said. “This should not be a political question. This is a medical question.”