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COVID-19 flare-ups in Riverhead and Hampton Bays have Suffolk officials wary

Main Street in Riverhead is seen on Thursday.

Main Street in Riverhead is seen on Thursday. Credit: Newsday / Steve Pfost

This story was reported by John Asbury, Robert Brodsky, Catherine Carrera, Matthew Chayes, Matt Clark, Lisa L. Colangelo, David Reich-Hale and John Valenti. It was written by Colangelo.

A spike in COVID-19 cases across Hampton Bays and Riverhead has officials urging residents to get tested and take precautions to prevent further spread and avoid being designated a micro-cluster under state guidelines.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said a targeted school testing program has started in Hampton Bays, where the testing positive rate reached 6.5% over a five-day period. Riverhead was not far behind with a 5.6% positivity rate.

"The second wave seems to be here," Bellone said, who noted the county level of positive COVID-19 in tests has fluctuated between 3% and 4%. for all of Suffolk County. "Schools in Suffolk should remain open … the community spread we are seeing throughout Suffolk County is not happening through the schools."

The seven-day positivity rate for Long Island is 3.26%, according to the state.

The number of new positive COVID-19 tests across New York State dropped slightly in Wednesday test results to 2.7% from 3.4% the previous day, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Thursday. But he backed up the positive statistics with a sober reminder that the virus could spread widely during the Thanksgiving holiday if people do not take precautions and avoid travel.

"I will wager you that if people are not extraordinarily diligent and act in a way they have never acted before, you are going to see a very large spike," Cuomo said during a telephone briefing with reporters.

His comments come on the heels of new recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday that people should avoid travel during Thanksgiving and stay close to home with people from their own households.

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In addition, Cuomo announced new micro-cluster zones in Westchester, Rockland and Orange counties but none on Long Island.

The state has imposed tighter restrictions in micro-clusters or hot spot zones, closing down businesses and schools and limiting gatherings, depending on the severity of the spread in those neighborhoods identified through positivity rates.

Of the 195,239 tests reported on Wednesday, 5,310 were confirmed positive for COVID-19 — 431 in Suffolk County and 374 in Nassau County. The state recorded 31 additional deaths.

Riverhead Supervisor Yvette Aguiar said in a statement posted on the town's website that a local outdoor testing site will be operational in the "immediate future."

"With colder weather upon us, residents are spending more time indoors, within confined spaces," Aguiar said in a news release issued Wednesday. "Suffolk County officials are working with us to identify and monitor clusters, and will be providing rapid testing in an effort to slow the uptick of positive cases in our area."

School closings in Planview, Old Bethpage, Hempstead

Judy Jacobs Parkway Elementary School in Plainview and Old Bethpage Elementary School in Old Bethpage were closed for in-person instruction on Thursday after two staff members in the district tested positive for COVID-19 this week, the district said.

"One of the staff members works in both buildings which makes this a more difficult contact tracing investigation," said Mary O’Meara, superintendent of the 5,000-student district, in a letter to families on Wednesday.

Hempstead Superintendent Regina Armstrong, in a letter to families Wednesday, said the district’s 10 schools would be shifting to a remote schedule for two weeks, citing what she said was "a 9% COVID positivity rate of 7 days or more" in Hempstead Village.

At a Hempstead school board meeting Thursday, Armstrong said: "I will be making a little retraction to the letter that I sent out to the community and I do apologize if the information was confusing to anyone."

She said the data shared "came from Newsday."

"I now have recognized that Newsday is reporting and tracking the number of positive cases on a daily basis, but that information is different information than what is being utilized by our state Department of Health," she said.

However, the district still plans to close schools from Nov. 23 through Dec. 4 "out of an abundance of caution," she said.

A spokeswoman for the district said a follow up letter would be sent to families.

County officials provide Newsday with the number of cases that have been identified within each Nassau community — including villages and hamlets but not school districts — nearly every day.

Newsday uses that data to calculate the average number of new cases identified each day for the most recent seven days of data, as well as the seven days before.

Because the communities range widely in population, Newsday also calculates a per capita infection rate, which is the number of new cases identified each day on average per each 1,000 residents of a community.

For the seven days ending Nov. 17, Newsday calculated that an average of 11 new COVID-19 cases were identified each day in Hempstead Village. The per capita infection rate for the same time period was 0.2 cases per day per 1,000 residents on average. For the prior seven days, nine cases were identified per day, on average.

State officials use a different infection rate in determining how to combat the virus, one based on the percentage of all tests that come back positive within particular ZIP codes.

Officials have not provided that data to Newsday, which has not published any positivity rates for the Hempstead School District or Hempstead Village.

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran said the uptick in cases is from social gatherings.

"It's not happening inside our schools," Curran said during a Thursday news conference in Freeport. "It's not happening in our businesses, all of which are working incredibly hard to keep their employees, their students; their staff and their customers safe."

Curran said while residents who may have "pandemic fatigue" not to put down their guard during Thanksgiving with large and unsafe celebrations.

"Remember the decisions you make this Thanksgiving will dictate how we can celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah," she said.

The number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients continues to climb at Northwell Health, the largest health system in the state.

Northwell said Thursday it had 319 hospitalized patients at the 19 hospitals it owns and operates, up from 299 on Wednesday and 237 a week ago.

NYC: Indoor dining and gyms could close

In New York City, a closure of indoor dining and gyms is likely to be imposed again within days or weeks as its coronavirus infection rate continues to rise, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Thursday.

"It’s not if, it’s when," de Blasio said during a news conference where he discussed additional restrictions to be imposed on New York City.

Indoor dining and fitness gyms had been banned in New York City from mid-March until September, when the state lifted the ban under certain conditions, including reduced occupancy, face masking and social distancing.

"The numbers keep ticking up," de Blasio told 1010 WINS radio on Thursday. "You can see it. So I think it’s quite clear that within the next week or two those restrictions are gonna be applied in New York City."

De Blasio spoke as the schools closure he ordered a day earlier began Thursday. His schools chancellor, Richard Carranza, told the radio station that the goal is to reopen by the end of November, but no date is set yet and the closure is indefinite.

The terms under which schools could reopen are still being decided, he said, noting that more testing in school buildings is certain to be one of the criteria. De Blasio said he is also considering a more surgical approach to closures in the future, such as only closing schools with higher rates of infection.

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