County, state to ramp up testing sites amid COVID-19 surge

Anticipated holiday gatherings and travel is fueling a rush to get a COVID-19 test.

With long lines forming outside of clinics and urgent care offices, state and county officials have announced new testing sites will open to meet the growing demand.

“We need more testing given the surge we are seeing with the omicron variant,” Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said during a media briefing Tuesday afternoon.

The county executive announced that three testing sites will open starting Dec. 27 in areas health officials are seeing “significantly” higher positivity rates.

The three locations are Gabreski Airport in Westhampton Beach and unspecified locations in the Sound Beach and West Sayville areas, Mr. Bellone said, also noting that he used emergency powers in order to expedite procurement of COVID-19 tests.

The announcement comes after Gov. Kathy Hochul announced plans to deploy 10 million free at-home tests to local health departments to disperse by the end of January.

In Suffolk County, health officials on Monday reported a positivity rate of 13.6 percent — the highest in more than a year and higher than the peak of 12.8% during last year’s surge on Dec. 29, Mr. Bellone said.

He said there’s “no question” that the surge is fueled by the omicron variant. According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, the omicron variant is now the most dominant strain in the country and now accounts for more than 73% of new virus cases.

“The unfortunate thing is that this variant is still here…impacting another holiday season in a big way,” Mr. Bellone said, continuing to urge residents to take “common sense” precautions like wearing a mask and social distancing.

County health commissioner Dr. Gregson Pigott said getting vaccinated — and a booster shot — is the best way to prevent serious illness. “That will give you the maximum protection,” he said.

But Dr. Pigott also said testing can give families peace of mind as they gather to celebrate the holidays.

“If you’re not vaccinated at all or if you haven’t gotten your booster, you should know your Covid status before you get together,” he said.

Officials reported 326 hospitalizations in Suffolk today, a number that has doubled since the beginning of the month and is continuing to rise. The hospitalization rate is much lower than it was on this day last year at 526, which Mr. Bellone said is because of access to vaccines.

More information is expected to be released on the county vaccination sites, including whether appointments will be required, on the county’s website.

During Tuesday’s update, Mr. Bellone did not directly say whether he would be enforcing the state’s indoor mask mandate that recently took effect. He said the county remains focused on expanding testing access, educating and providing information to people and businesses. “We’re seeing high compliance when people go into stores, people are wearing masks,” he reported.

The county executive stopped short of describing the current surge as a crisis. “The numbers are increasing significantly,” he said. “And we have to respond to that.”

He also declined to speculate if skyrocketing positivity rates could lead to more extreme measures, like a shutdown, but said his office is thinking ahead to those scenarios.

Local school districts are also preparing their response to rising cases in the region.

In a letter to parents Tuesday, Greenport High School principal Gary Kalish asked students to make sure they bring their school-issued Chromebook and other school materials home with them over the holiday break in case virus conditions force the school to transition into a remote or hybrid model.

“At this time, we plan to return after the break to our normal schedule,” Mr. Kalish wrote.