Medical staff check people for COVID-19 testing by appointment at ProHEALTH...

Medical staff check people for COVID-19 testing by appointment at ProHEALTH Urgent Care in Jericho Saturday, March 28. Credit: Barry Sloan

Long Island coronavirus cases have dropped by 91% since the pandemic’s peak in April, a dramatic reversal that set the stage for this week’s long-awaited easing of social distancing restrictions, a Newsday analysis of Nassau and Suffolk data show.

After weeks of staying home and wearing masks, the number of new cases dropped in Nassau County from an average of 1,234 per day during the week starting April 7 at the height of the county’s infections to 93 per day for the most recent week of data — a decline of 92%.

In Suffolk County, the daily average dropped 89%, from 1,062 cases for the week starting with its peak on April 8 to 115 during the most recent week of data.

Perhaps most striking, only one case or none at all were identified in 82% of Long Island's communities — areas where 57% of the region's population lives.

Faced with an unprecedented medical crisis, without any available pharmaceutical cure or vaccine, health experts say Long Island was aided by some time-honored techniques for dealing with a flu-like epidemic, such as wearing masks, 6-foot distancing, and a long-term stay-at-home order issued by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on March 22.

“It’s safe to say social distancing is responsible for this drop,” said Jaymie Meliker, an epidemiologist and professor in Stony Brook University’s Program in Public Health, in reviewing Newsday’s analysis showing the decline in cases.

Though critics complained about the financial and emotional toll of social distancing, Meliker said the safety precautions saved many lives and spared many others from suffering bouts of serious illness. He said it would have been much worse without these measures.

“Within a few months, there would have been more hospitalizations than we could have dealt with — we’re pretty confident that would have happened,” he said.

On Wednesday, Long Island began the first stage in reopening businesses that have been shut since the March 22 order. Nevertheless, health data suggests much more needs to be done to combat the virus.

Despite the rapid decline in cases across Long Island, communities with mostly black and Latino residents remain at the top of the list for new cases, even as the overall number of cases has plummeted.

Majority black and Latino communities account for 17% of the region's population but 30% of the coronavirus cases, with municipalities like Brentwood, New Cassel and Uniondale still among the hardest-hit zones.

Since the peak of the pandemic, the number of coronavirus cases identified daily in minority communities has declined 88%, only slightly less than the 91% decline seen in other areas of the region.

The 25 Nassau communities and 25 Suffolk communities at the peak of the pandemic with the largest number of cases identified per 10,000 residents each week had a population that was 58% black or Latino. For the most recent week of data, the population of the new highest-ranking communities had declined to 54% black or Latino.

Nonetheless, the declines in majority black and Latino communities have been significant. For the most recent week of data, the communities saw 59 cases, down from 481 for the week beginning with the pandemic's peak.

Looking ahead, health experts warn that Long Islanders headed out to parks, beaches and everyday activities need to keep vigilant with masks, lest the hard-won progress in fighting the infectious disease be lost.

Anthony J. Santella, a Hofstra University associate professor of public health, is concerned that the good news about the decline in cases may lead to an unwarranted loosening of safety precautions by some.

“I worry that people will see the stages of reopening as a sign of going back to pre-COVID times,” Santella said. “I’ve seen it being out in my car in recent days — a lot of big gatherings, no one wearing masks, no social distancing. That worries me because we are just at Day 1 of reopening. This is not like, “just forget about everything’.”

A Newsday analysis of health records from the virus peak in early April through reports filed over last week show how dramatically COVID-19 impacted the region. Among the findings:

  • Reduced risk locally. At the pandemic’s peak, 70% of Long Islanders lived in communities where five or more coronavirus cases were identified each day on average over the course of a week, and 47% lived in communities that generated 10 ten or more cases daily. According to the most recent week of data for each county, just 8% of Long Islanders lived in communities where infections grew by five or more cases and only 2% where they climbed by 10 cases or more.
  • Some with no cases at all. The number of communities with zero cases over the course of a week has dramatically increased. At the peak of the pandemic, when Nassau identified 1,938 and Suffolk 1,569 cases, there were just 29 communities with zero cases. Now, there are 66 communities where no cases have been identified in a week. The population in zero-case communities increased from 1% of the region's residents to nearly a tenth of them.
  • Hot spots cooled. Some communities like Woodmere and Lawrence, virtual hot spots during the peak, experienced sharp declines since then. For the week beginning at the pandemic's peak, seven cases per day were identified on average in Woodmere and four cases per day were identified in Lawrence. For the most recent week of data, both communities had one case identified about every two days, with Woodmere posting a 91% decline and Lawrence achieving an 87% decline.

Newsday’s analysis shows that many of these trends emerged as medical testing for the virus increased, including a record-breaking 9,164 tests completed Wednesday.

Health experts say Long Island’s curve of reported cases — which escalated rapidly starting in mid-March — has lowered sufficiently so that safety precautions like contact tracing can now be done effectively. If there were too many virus cases, they say, government agencies wouldn’t have enough tracers to find and alert those who have come into contact with those infected by the virus.

“We’re starting to see the benefit of having so many resources at our disposal to combat the pandemic,” said Hofstra’s Santella, comparing New York’s success with social distancing to other regions around the nation with cases still on the rise.

“I fear what will happen with other parts of the country that haven’t taken this as seriously, their curves look very different because their implementation of these measures has been done very differently.” 

Meliker said Long Island’s drop in reported cases should somewhat ease the minds of those hoping to relax this summer at Jones Beach State Park or other parks as some restrictions are lifted with the phased-in reopening.

“I think it’s important to realize that individual risk is low,” said Meliker. “The likelihood of most individuals getting very sick from this is still small.”

Meliker said it will be important for government health officials to keep an eye on seven-day averages of reported cases to spot any sudden outbreaks and respond quickly to keep infected people away from a large segment of society that hasn’t yet been exposed to the virus.

While Newsday’s data analysis reflects the first chapter in a long saga of combating the COVID-19 disease, Meliker suggests a new chapter is about to begin as thousands of Long Islanders return to work and outside activities under the state approved reopening plan.

“The question now is what the numbers [of cases] will be when we go back,” he said. 

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