As schools reopen amid COVID spike, districts to survey parents on at-home testing

As students return to school amid a massive wave of new COVID-19 cases across the region, districts plan to distribute a survey to parents to assess their desire to receive at-home testing kits provided by the state.

Participation is not required, according to similar-worded letters several districts have posted online in advance of Monday’s school reopening. And the districts will not automatically send home a kit for each student.

Gov. Kathy Hochul had discussed a program to send at-home tests to districts that could be distributed to students, possibly as soon as they arrive on Monday, Jan. 3. It created some confusion for parents over whether students would be required to test negative in order to return to school.

“In recent days, school officials were able to work with the governor to assist her team in understanding the logistical obstacles related to making this occur (including distribution, timeliness, as well as those who may not wish to participate),” Riverhead Superintendent Dr. Augustine Tornatore wrote on Dec. 31.

Once the districts receive the test kits, they plan to “develop a mechanism for testing kits to be distributed to interested families.”

Students exposed to COVID-19 at school can “test to stay” as part of an updated guidance from the Suffolk County Department of Health and further details are expected from the DOH, the districts reported. More information on “test to stay” can be found from the State Department of Health.

“So in the case where one of the classmates tests positive, everybody can take a test kit home in their backpack, come back the next day if they have a negative test, and get tested again in a couple of days,” Ms. Hochul said Friday. “This is how we believe listening to the experts that this is the safest way to keep children in school.”

Ms. Hochul has maintained that students should return to in-person learning. Students and staff will still be required to wear masks as they have all school year.

The state has ordered over 37 million tests and 5.28 million arrived by the end of last week for schools. Over 850,000 were delivered to Long Island, as of Dec. 31. An additional 6 million tests were expected to arrive for schools by Monday.

“We have ongoing calls with counties and with the local school boards, the superintendents and the principals, to make sure that they have what they need to keep kids in school because we, as the governor said, know that it’s so critical  for all of our young people,” said Kathryn Garcia, the director of state operations.

Suffolk County recorded a whopping 13,350 new cases over two days from Dec. 30-31. The number of cases that day nearly equaled the total from all of November.

Nearly 77,000 cases were recorded in Suffolk in December — by far the highest single month total since testing became widely available.

“We are being hit very hard without a doubt, but this is also a national phenomenon, a global phenomenon in fact,” Ms. Hochul said. “And also we are testing more. That’s one of the reasons we’re seeing high numbers, and that is a good thing.”

As part of the guidance to keep schools open, the governor on Friday announced a “Winter Surge Plan 2.0,” which includes extending the current mask-or-vax requirement an additional two weeks through the end of the month. The governor had previously said the mandate would be in effect through Jan. 15.

The governor said she’d be open to reassessing at that time and is “hoping that the picture is much more positive in February.

“But again, we just don’t have that information right now but this is another part of our 2.0 plan,” she added. 

The plan also calls for added hospital support through distribution of antiviral treatments in conjunction with the federal government. Dr. Mary Bassett, the state health commissioner, said the FDA recently gave an emergency approval to oral antiviral drugs, one called Paxlovid and the other Molnupiravir.

“So this is a huge advance and will give us a way of keeping people out of hospitals who are at risk for hospitalization and are infected,” she said. “But we need much larger amounts than we have received. The supply is dispensed by the federal government, and we’ve gotten our allocation of Paxlovid, we got 3,180 doses, which are being distributed around the state.”

The state will also require nursing homes to provide a plan to increase vaccination and booster rates among residents. Part of the focus will be on increasing vaccinations for New Yorkers in the 5-11 age group and to provide booster shots to children ages 12-15 when the Pfizer shot receives approval.

The governor again said on Friday that rising hospitalizations is “very concerning.” In Suffolk, the number of Covid patients in hospitals surpassed 700 on Dec. 31. Hospitalizations in the county increased by 346% from Dec. 1 to the end of the month.

Amy Loeb, executive director at Peconic Bay Medical Center, wrote a COVID-19 update Friday and said staffing levels are adequate for the hospital to maintain all services. The numbers of COVID patients is currently about half of what the hospital saw at this time last year and there are far fewer ICU patients, she said, although numbers continue to rise quickly. She said that’s evidence of the vaccines, boosters and other precautions working.

The hospital has suspended visitation, which Ms. Loeb said was “not an easy decision.”

Stony Brook Eastern Long Island Hospital in Greenport also suspended visitation as of Dec. 28. Some exceptions are allowed, such as for pediatric patients or imminent end-of-life situations.

While the number of COVID patients admitted is less than last year, the hospital’s emergency department is seeing roughly double the number of patients, she said. She said the hospital’s Manorville immediate care site remains open seven days a week and is seeing record numbers of patients.

PBMC still has seen a big jump in COVID patients from 8 on Dec. 1 to 43 on Dec. 30. The number of ICU patients climbed to five.

The new drive-thru testing site at PBMC that opened Tuesday has already served over 3,000 community members through Friday, Ms. Loeb said. The site has a capacity of 750 tests per day.

Correction: A previously reported COVID figure (13,350) released by the County Health Department accounted for two days worth of tests, not one. Those figures are for Dec. 30 and Dec. 31, not a single day.