Most Long Island hospitals will not need to postpone elective surgeries to handle a possible increase in COVID-19 patients, officials with hospital systems said Saturday, a day after Gov. Kathy Hochul declared a "disaster emergency" that would give the state the power to do so.
Citing concerns that coronavirus cases will continue to climb, and that the new omicron virus variant eventually will arrive in New York, Hochul on Friday issued an executive order allowing the state Health Department to limit nonessential, nonurgent procedures in hospitals or hospital systems with "limited capacity."
Dr. David Battinelli, a senior vice president at Northwell Health, which operates 11 hospitals on Long Island, said Northwell could handle increases in patients without postponing nonemergency procedures.
"Right now, that is only going to happen upstate because of the number of new cases and the very poor vaccination rates there," he said. "Hopefully that won’t happen here if we keep moving the vaccinations forward, if the kids get vaccinated, and if everyone who’s eligible gets a booster."
Vaccination rates upstate, he said, are "the same as some of the very worst states in the country," and that has led to a surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations there.
In some upstate counties, less than half, or barely half, of the entire population is vaccinated, compared with 83% in Nassau County and more than 75% in Suffolk, according to state data.
"Given Long Island’s high vaccination rate, we are optimistic that there shouldn’t be any impact on our ability to continue to provide quality care," Dr. Jason Golbin, chief medical officer of Catholic Health, which runs six Long Island hospitals, said in a statement. "We do not think it will be necessary to cancel elective surgeries."
NYU Langone Hospital-Long Island in Mineola also has "more than enough capacity for elective surgeries, even were there to be a spike in COVID cases," hospital officials said in an email.
Officials with Stony Brook Medicine, which operates four hospitals, said in a statement that the hospital system is "adequately staffed and has the resources necessary to receive an influx of patients."
Officials from Oceanside's Mount Sinai South Nassau hospital, which closed its Long Beach Emergency Department for four days because of a shortage of vaccinated nurses, and reopened it Friday with state help, did not respond to questions about elective procedures.
Battinelli said Hochul acted "very appropriately and preemptively."
"Obviously what the governor is concerned about is making sure we’re prepared, and we could avoid all this if people got vaccinated," he said.
Greater increase in cases upstate
COVID-19 caseloads, hospitalizations and deaths have increased statewide since the early summer, as the highly contagious delta variant spread and, in recent weeks, as cold weather pushed New Yorkers to gather more often indoors, where coronavirus transmission is easier.
But the increase upstate has been much greater.
For example, the number of COVID-19 patients in Western New York's hospitals increased nearly 3,300% over the past 4 1/2 months, to 473, compared with a 465% increase on Long Island, to 305, and 176%, to 463, in New York City, which has the state's most stringent vaccine requirements and lowest COVID-19 positivity rate.
Statewide, the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations rose to 2,696 on Friday — 827 patients higher than two weeks ago.
Of the 67 New Yorkers who died of COVID-19 on Thursday and Friday, 50 were upstate residents, even though far more people live downstate. Four were from Suffolk and two were from Nassau.
The statewide seven-day COVID-19 test positivity rate reached 3.95% on Friday, up from 3.82% Thursday. Western New York had the highest rate of any region: 10.15%.
Long Island’s rate continued creeping upward, to 4.43% Friday, up from 4.4% Thursday. There were 274 new coronavirus cases in Suffolk and 238 in Nassau.
The state’s power to limit or temporarily bar elective surgeries in certain hospitals goes into effect Friday, the governor’s office said.
A news release Friday from the governor’s office said the "limited capacity" that would trigger a possible suspension of nonemergency procedures would be "below 10% staffed bed capacity, or as determined by the Department of Health based on regional and health care utilization factors."
It’s unclear whether decisions would be based on capacity in individual hospitals, or whether they would be based upon capacity throughout hospital systems or throughout entire counties or regions.
Health Department spokesman Jeffrey Hammond said in an email Saturday that no further details were available on the new policy beyond what is in the news release and executive order.
Then-Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo banned elective surgeries statewide during the spring 2020 surge, lifting the bans county by county as cases declined, and temporarily reinstituting a ban in Erie County in late 2020.
Battinelli said some Northwell hospitals — including Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New Hyde Park and South Shore University Hospital in Bay Shore — have regularly been at or close to capacity since before COVID-19.
But, he said, the system, the largest health care provider in New York, could quickly transfer patients and send ambulances to other Northwell hospitals if needed.
Flu vaccination rates down
Battinelli said COVID-19 isn’t the only concern for hospitals. Flu vaccination rates are below pre-pandemic levels, he said. Last year, flu hospitalizations and deaths plummeted because masking, social distancing and other coronavirus precautions also protected people against the flu — including older, more vulnerable people, thousands of whom die from the flu in a typical year. But with fewer people taking precautions, flu cases will be higher this year, he predicted.