As COVID-19 cases in Suffolk surge, a reason for optimism emerges

On Dec. 1, the number of positive COVID-19 cases in Suffolk County surpassed 1,000 in a single day for the first time since early February. For weeks, health officials and government leaders had cautioned about another holiday surge. And the discovery of a new variant known as omicron only accelerated those concerns. 

Coming off a month in November when the average number of cases in the county hovered around 460 per day, the turn to December quickly saw those holiday surge fears become reality.

The number of cases recorded each day mirrored those seen a year ago when the vaccination effort was just getting underway. More than 23,000 cases were recorded in the first 19 days of the month, an average of 1,235 per day in Suffolk. Three separate days in the past week have seen cases that rank as top 10 for a single day in the county since testing became widely available. On two days, the number of cases nearly hit 2,000.

The spike in cases was not unique to Suffolk County. New York State set a record for cases in a single day with 23,391 on Sunday.

The numbers may seem daunting, but officials reiterate that the situation remains much different than a year ago or when the pandemic first began.

“We knew the winter surge was coming. We’ve been talking about this,” said Gov. Kathy Hochul. “But as we talk about this winter surge and the vertical increase in the number of cases — and it is vertical, it’s going straight up — this is not March of 2020. It is not even December of 2020.”

For starters, hospitalizations — a key metric in analyzing the state of the pandemic — have not risen on the same level as the number of cases. For example, at Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead, the number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 in December 2020 averaged 39 per day. So far this month, the hospital has averaged 11 patients hospitalized per day.

“We hope what we’re seeing is going to continue where people who are vaccinated, and more importantly at this point with the booster shot, are not getting sick to the point of requiring hospitalization,” said Amy Loeb, PBMC’s executive director. “With the percentages of folks who are vaccinated particularly in high risk folks and with the booster shot, that’s what we should continue to see.”

Ms. Hochul said the state is still under two thirds of where hospitalizations were at this time during the last winter surge. And while the omicron variant appears highly transmissible, it so far appears milder than the delta variant that was responsible for an uptick in cases earlier this year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday announced a “potential for a rapid increase in infections of the new variant.” The CDC “expects that anyone with omicron infection can spread the virus to others, even if they are vaccinated or don’t have symptoms.”

Ms. Loeb said patients who are unvaccinated in general are those who are sickest and require the most care. But the hospital also finds positive cases among patients admitted to the hospital for separate reasons. She said every patient is tested and some test positive who are not symptomatic.

She said that’s where vaccinations come into play.

“You are not seeing the symptoms,” she said. “That’s what vaccinations is all about — protecting you from getting very sick and hospitalized with serious illness. That’s why it’s important.”

Ms. Loeb said there’s no specific data broken down of variants by hospital, but she would expect omicron figures on a regional level to be similar on a local level. She said there has been good news with fewer patients requiring intensive care. As of Dec. 19, PBMC did not have any patients in ICU with COVID-19. Last December, the hospital had an average of 3.5 patients per day in ICU.

“It’s not a great situation and we wish we were not in it at all, but fortunately we’re seeing things going in the correct direction in terms of patients requiring intensive care,” she said.

New fatalities attribute to COVID continue to be reported and on Monday the state reported 60 deaths in the prior 24 hours. There have been 50 fatalities in Suffolk County so far this month.

To help with vaccination efforts, Ms. Hochul on Monday announced a $65 million initiative to assist individual counties. Most counties would be eligible for up to $1 million and larger counties like Suffolk would be eligible for up to $2 million. The funds would apply to expenses counties and health departments take to enforce the “mask-or-’vaccine” mandate announced earlier this month. Other eligible expenses would be for staffing and venue-specific costs for sites offering vaccines, boosters or tests. Other costs could be eligible for distributions of masks and public awareness efforts.

She also said 10 million free at-home tests would be deployed to local health departments by the end of January. Half of those tests would be available before the new year.

“We’re continuing to amass more supplies, get them out to the communities and encourage people to get tests,” Ms. Hochul said.

She said the state will be sending tests to schools as well and made clear that schools will remain open.

“So part of our winter surge plan is we are committed to keeping our schools open,” she said. “And so we wanted to make sure that school districts will follow the test to stay protocols and make sure that they’re no longer required to have a PCR test for kids to return, but just a rapid test.”

Jackie Bray, the acting commissioner for the New York State Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services, said an testing portal is being brought online where residents can order at-home PCR tests. The tests will be mailed overnight and the person sends back the swab in a prepaid envelope. Results are available within 48 hours. She said more information on the portal will be available at the end of the week.

With Christmas this weekend and New Year’s celebrations a week later, Ms. Loeb encouraged residents to stay safe during the holiday season and wear a mask in indoor settings, avoid large crowds and be considerate of any vulnerable family members.

“The message for the community is please really consider getting vaccinated,” she said. “It’s been a year now. Many, many people have received this vaccine at this point and we know that’s is safe and that it helps.”

She added: “It is really very different from a year ago where we have this vaccine and we do have the majority of our community members vaccinated. It is a reason to be optimistic that we’ll get through this hopefully with less impact and less people who pass away from COVID.”