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Virus infection rates fall on LI, once the epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis

A car stops at a check-in point for

A car stops at a check-in point for COVID-19 testing at Huntington High School on April 10. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

As the coronavirus spreads rapidly through much of America, Long Island — once at the heart of the crisis — now has one of the lowest infection rates in the country, according to health experts and state statistics.

Long Island’s infection rate — determined by the percentage of those who test positive for the contagious COVID-19 virus — has hovered around 1% for the past two weeks, better than New York City and Albany, state records show. On March 31, Long Island’s one-day infection rate reached a peak of 54.9% based on 3,465 tests.

And among U.S. states, New York’s infection rate has been reduced dramatically since its height in April, so that it now ranks among those states with the lowest percentage of positive tests in the nation, according to a nationwide comparison by Johns Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Center.

During the past week, New York State’s 1.1% infection rate was better than every state except for Vermont and Connecticut, researchers say. On June 17, Long Island reached its lowest infection rate so far at 0.7%, based on 10,530 diagnostic tests.

With reduced traffic on trains and roadways — along with adherence to social distancing — Long Island has been able to blunt the type of widespread transmission now seen in other areas of the country, local health experts say.

Higher infection rates have also declined significantly in several minority communities in Suffolk and Nassau counties, experts said, thanks to increased testing at temporary facilities designed to deal with the crisis and a contact tracing system that has a manageable number of cases.

It’s a far cry from early April, when 3,265 new cases were identified in one day. Only 103 cases were identified Tuesday. Deaths of Long Island residents declined from 126 in one day to zero over the same period. Hospitalizations declined from 3,938 on April 7 to just 104 on Monday.

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“We saw firsthand the devastating impact of this virus and we kind of got it that we needed to do something drastic,” says Suffolk County Health Commissioner Gregson H. Pigott. “So shutting down schools, shutting down businesses, and pretty much an enforced quarantine order for the entire state — we saw that it actually works. And so we’re glad to see that we’re on the other side of it now.”

Health experts also agree that a huge increase in testing has helped Long Island cut its infection rate. But they warn a future outbreak could happen again if precautions are loosened and an effective vaccine or treatment doesn’t become available soon.

“We’re currently in good shape but I don’t think it’s because we’re so-called ‘safer’,” says Dr. David Battinelli, senior vice president and chief medical officer of Northwell Health, the state’s largest hospital system, which includes North Shore and LIJ hospitals. “We’re just practicing safer practices than everybody else in the rest of the country.”

“We’re in the best possible scenario right now — people aren’t back at work and we finally figured out how to do wide-scale testing,” says Hofstra University public health expert Anthony Santella. “But just like most communicable diseases, you’re never really going to [be] rid of it.”

Pigott said Suffolk’s fight against the virus has been greatly aided by open air “hot spot testing” sites set up in communities such as Brentwood, Huntington Station, Wyandanch, Amityville, Coram and Riverhead.

“That was a source of information, a source of support for these communities of color. We think it saved a lot of lives, in terms of limiting the transmission of the virus, in letting people know what their status was in terms of the virus,” Pigott explained. “Getting people to buy in to the point of isolation and quarantine — those sites set up in those distressed communities — really helped us a lot and things are much better now.”

State health records show per capita infection rates over the past week for communities of color are close to or essentially the same as those for nearby predominantly white communities. For instance, the seven-day average daily increase in Brentwood was 0.04 cases per 1,000 residents, the same as nearby Commack.

Some experts also suggest that Long Island’s geographic status — surrounded by water and without easy access to other states suffering high infection rates — could be a factor in preventing the spread of the virus.

“You’re on an island sticking out into the east, so you don’t have a ton of traffic from people who don’t live on the island,” Battinelli said. “The only way the virus can come in is from the outside.’’

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