Cases of COVID-19 on the rise once more as spread in Suffolk County reaches ‘high’

As COVID-19 cases steadily climb once more, health experts say the public should remain cautious to current surge, but it’s not yet cause for alarm.

In the last two weeks, the community level in Suffolk County as noted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has climbed from low, to medium and now high. The CDC recommends people wear a mask while indoors in public when the community level is high, although there are currently no state or county-issued mandates requiring that.

“I think cautious is a good word for where we should be right now,” said Dr. Andrew Handel, an infectious disease expert at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital. “We’re certainly seeing cases go up, which isn’t surprising. We know that’s what this virus does. And we’re certainly seeing some mutations within the Omicron variant that are allowing people to get reinfected.”

While vaccines are less effective at preventing infection now, they are still helping prevent serious illness, Dr. Handel said, adding that there’s less of an alarm now compared to when the Delta variant began spreading last summer.

Cases in Suffolk County have climbed to their highest levels since late January. An average of 810 cases per day were recorded from May 7-13. By comparison, the number of cases one month earlier from April 7-13 was 335 per day.

The greater availability of at-home tests, however, has made those daily numbers less reliable as a full indicator of community spread. The true number of positives is likely higher since people may not report a positive at-home result. Still, the county’s positivity rate stands at 10% on a seven-day average.

The easing of mitigation measures such as mask wearing, the contagiousness of the different Omicron subvariants as the virus mutates and the cyclical nature of the virus are likely all factors driving the increase, Dr. Handel said. The challenge continues to be that people are most contagious just before they become symptomatic or during the first day of symptoms.

“We’ve all that situation where we go to a party and everyone feels fine, and you get a call the next day that someone at the party suddenly had a fever or sore throat and got tested and they’re positive,” he said. “And low and behold, everyone in that party is now infected with Covid and no one was symptomatic when they were actually at the party.”

Hospitalizations remain a key indicator when evaluating the vast trove of Covid data. The number of patients hospitalized with Covid has been on the rise since the beginning of April, both across the state and in Suffolk. While increasing, the number are still far off from the peak seen during the prior three major waves.

A total of 179 patients were hospitalized with Covid in Suffolk as of May 14 and 47% of those patients were hospitalized specifically due to Covid. Since hospitals test every patient for Covid, some end up testing positive when admitted for a different reason, which is why the state and county now separate that data.

At Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead, the number of Covid patients recently climbed back to double digits for the first time since late February. The hospital had 12 patients hospitalized with Covid on May 13, according to data published by the New York State Department of Health. New patients were admitted due to Covid every day from May 5-14. On May 6, there were eight patients admitted, the highest single-day total since Feb. 5.

“Fortunately at this point in time we feel very well prepared,” said Amy Loeb, the executive director at PBMC. “We know what this looks like. … We tend to be right in line with what the data shows with what we’re actually seeing here on the ground.”

Ms. Loeb said unvaccinated people tent to be the patients in the hospital due to Covid who are most sick.

She noted that doctors have more at their disposal to treat patients now compared to earlier in the pandemic. For example, the hospital can offer monoclonal antibody infusion and an antiviral medication called Paxlovid. And the greater availability of testing now is also a big boost in the overall response, she said.

While the mortality rate is less than what was seen earlier in the pandemic, new fatalities attributed to COVID-19 remain. There were three fatalities reported in Suffolk on May 14, bringing the county total to 4,404 since the start of the pandemic. The latest data from the CDC shows a seven-day average of 263 fatalities per day across the U.S., which is still well below the last peak when the figure reached above 2,700 in late January and early February. Total deaths in the U.S. has now neared 1 million.

In a statement Monday, Gov. Kathy Hochul said she’s called on Congress to pass additional federal funding to help states “unlock further resources needed for future COVID-19 variants and surges.” She said the state has distributed more than 75 million at-home tests in recent months. She said last Friday she spoke with county executives about the state’s ongoing preparedness plans.

“We know that tools such as vaccines, boosters, testing and treatment have been critical to fighting COVID-19, responding to variants, keeping hospitalizations down, and saving lives,” she said.

Health experts continue to urge many of the precautions that have been repeated throughout the pandemic, starting with vaccination.

“Getting vaccinated and boosted is absolutely the most important thing you can do if you’re eligible,” Dr. Handel said. “If you’re going to be holding an event or visiting with other people, doing anything outdoors is the best way to go about it to avoid getting infected. And if you’re going to be in close proximity with a large group of people you may want to think about wearing a mask while you’re indoors. If you have any mild symptoms, it’s not a bad idea to get yourself tested.”

In Suffolk County, 76.2% of the total population is fully vaccinated. About 38.1% of Suffolk residents have received a booster dose, which is close to the state average of 39.1%.