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Long Island reaches grim milestone, surpassing 10,000 COVID-19 deaths

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data shows

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data shows Long Island has recorded more than 10,000 COVID-19 deaths since the start of the pandemic in early 2020. Newsday's Steve Langford reports. Credit: Newsday / Raychel Brightman and James Carbone

Vivian Rivera-Zayas of Deer Park hasn’t been able to find her mom’s carrot-cake recipe. There are still World War II stories untold that Katherine Caruso of East Northport will never hear from her veteran dad. The Rev. Theodore J. Howard isn’t around anymore to hold Mass at his South Setauket retirement home.

Three lives lost from the COVID-19 pandemic on Long Island. There are at least 10,024 more.

Long Island has reached a grim milestone: a COVID-19 death toll surpassing 10,000 people since the pandemic came to the Island in early 2020, according to the latest statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Island’s death toll — 10,027 — is bigger than the populations of Woodbury, Amityville or Bohemia. It’s more than three times higher than the casualties on 9/11.

"It’s pretty unprecedented, in terms of scale," said Sean Clouston, an associate professor and epidemiologist at Stony Brook University who studies population health. "We have lost 10,000 neighbors and friends. They are no longer there. That is an enormous number of people in our community."

What to know

As of Nov. 27, coronavirus is to blame for the deaths of 5,161 people in Nassau and 4,866 in Suffolk — totals that are almost certainly an undercount.

Before vaccines were widespread, most fatalities were elderly; now those who are dying tend to be in their 30s or 40s, with preexisting health problems, and unvaccinated.

COVID-19 caused the total death rate to jump higher than it’s been in decades.

As of Nov. 27, at least 5,161 people had died in Nassau County from the virus, and 4,866 in Suffolk — tallies that are almost certainly an undercount, the CDC says. It’s a subset of the 59,280 who have died in New York State and the 782,233 nationwide.

For the families of those who have died on Long Island, each one represents so much more than annals of infectious disease statistics — especially to those still in mourning.

Ana Celia Martinez, 78, who died April 1, 2020, left behind her siblings, Rivera-Zayas, her sister, nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, one of whom she didn’t get to meet.

"My world has been upside down since, and my sister and I have tried to pick up the pieces as best we can, never expecting that she would never meet her other great-grandchild," Rivera-Zayas, 50, said through tears, while remembering her mom. "This is our, now, second Christmas without her."

COVID-19 eclipsed top killers

Clouston estimates that death increased dramatically — around 18.2% — in 2020 on Long Island compared with past years. The spike was driven almost entirely by COVID-19.

Based on historical trends, epidemiologists forecast how many people will die in a given week — and from what causes. Typically, the names of the top killers have stayed consistent for more than a half century on Long Island and much of America: heart disease (about 7,400 people on the Island annually), cancer (5,100), accidents (1,200) and lower respiratory disease (1,000).

In 2020, COVID-19 eclipsed nearly every other cause, sending the total number of deaths way up. (The CDC considers a death to be COVID-19 related if a death certificate lists the virus as a contributor to the death.)

To be sure, there was less death in certain categories and more in others. Fewer people died from certain accidents, because fewer were out during the lockdown. On the other hand, more people died of drug overdoses, due to the stress of the lockdowns and the pandemic itself, Clouston said.

Roughly 7,000 more people died on Long Island in 2020 than in recent years. In 2018, about 25,000 people died; in 2020, it was about 32,000.

The jump in the death rate hasn’t been so dramatic since the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918.

COVID-19’s distinction as one of Long Island’s top killers was before vaccines became widely available.

In the first year of the pandemic, most deaths were of older people. Nearly all COVID-19 fatalities on Long Island since have been of younger people.

Over the past six months, about 95% of those who have died have been unvaccinated, 75% to 80% in their 30s and 40s, and most have had existing chronic health problems such as diabetes, hypertension, asthma, or are overweight, according to Dr. Mangala Narasimhan, Northwell Health’s medical director of the Acute Lung Injury program.

"Younger than before, and they’re unvaccinated, and they’re just as sick as they were last March," she said, referring to older people.

As a heart rate monitor beeped inside Long Island Jewish Medical Center's intensive care unit, she added: "It’s striking, when I walk down the hall here, and look, it’s all unvaccinated young people."

In rare cases recently, vaccinated people died, but they have had organ transplants or were otherwise severely immunocompromised. Absent these dire conditions, Narasimhan said, she knows of no vaccinated person who has died at Northwell. She said the hospital system isn’t tracking deaths of those who may have had natural immunity.

Narasimhan said that in general, older people aren’t dying anymore because the vaccination rate in that age group is so high.

"They jumped on it right away," she said.

Spokeswomen for the Nassau and Suffolk health departments directed inquiries about Islandwide trends to the state health department, which referred inquiries back to the counties and to the CDC. But Narasimhan said the rates at New Hyde Park-based Northwell are almost certainly reflective of Long Island at large and beyond.

Among the 49 U.S. counties with 1 million or more residents, Nassau has had the second-highest rate of death of all but one of them, Bronx County in New York City. Nassau has seen 3.7 deaths for every 1,000 residents since the pandemic began, compared to the Bronx seeing 4 deaths per 1,000 residents. Suffolk ranks eighth among counties with 1 million or more residents with a per capita rate of 3.2.

There are now two counties outside of New York that rank higher than Suffolk, including Bexar County, Texas — where San Antonio is located — with 3.6 deaths per 1,000 residents, and St. Louis County, Missouri, with 3.2 deaths per 1,000 residents.

After vaccines, death rates dropped

The number of deaths tallied weekly on Long Island has dropped considerably since spring, when vaccines became widely available. It’s now in the lower double digits. Previous declines had been achieved only with strict measures such as masking, social distancing and capacity caps.

Before there were vaccines, the death rate grew out of control on the Island soon after the first three were reported on March 16, 2020. So steep was the increase that morgues, crematoriums, cemeteries and others who handle final arrangements couldn’t keep up.

Each week in April and May 2020, hundreds died. The worst was the week ending April 18, with a count of 863.

It was during those horrific weeks that Katherine Caruso’s dad, John Milone, 99, died at Stony Brook University Hospital of COVID-19, on May 19, 2020.

The father and daughter had reconnected after he was absent from much of her life, a result of what would later be called PTSD.

"He got older, and he got comfortable with us and spending holidays with us as a family," said Caruso, 56. "All the holidays, we’d spent with him."

For Vivian Rivera-Zayas, the holidays are yet another reminder of her mom’s loss. Her family has tried to replicate her baking, without luck.

"It still hasn’t hit the mark," Rivera-Zayas said. "We’re still on an expedition to master her recipe that we still don’t have, and we didn’t find."

For some families, the mortuary backlog dating to spring 2020 has meant that arrangements remain incomplete still.

The gravestone memorializing the Rev. Theodore J. Howard, 81, is unchiseled, said his sister-in-law, Maureen Howard, 78, of Williston Park.

She said the family hopes the stone will finally be done this spring, which will be some two years after the priest’s April 5, 2020, death. The memorial will be to a man who, after leaving full-time ministry, held Mass on weekends at his retirement home at a parish in Wading River, and for retired nuns there and in Mastic.

"It’s devastating. It’s really devastating, and so hard to believe," she said of the unchiseled stone. "You just want to bury him properly and have his name put on the grave."

  • As of Nov. 27, coronavirus is to blame for the deaths of 5,161 people in Nassau and 4,886 in Suffolk — totals that are almost certainly an undercount.
  • Before vaccines were widespread, most fatalities were elderly; now those who are dying tend to be in their 30s or 40s, with pre-existing health problems, and unvaccinated.
  • COVID-19 caused the total death rate to jump higher than it’s been in decades.