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COVID-19 deaths, hospitalizations up in New York as state awaits vaccine, officials say

Free COVID-19 testing provided by Northwell Health, Suffolk

Free COVID-19 testing provided by Northwell Health, Suffolk County, and the Town of Huntington at the Dolan Family Health Center in Greenlawn on Tuesday. Credit: Barry Sloan

The number of New Yorkers hospitalized with COVID-19 and dying from the disease continued to rise, the state announced Saturday, while New York awaits the first shipments of a coronavirus vaccine that officials hope will stem a weekslong surge in cases.

States will begin receiving the first batches of Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine on Monday, Army Gen. Gustave Perna, of the federal Operation Warp Speed, said Saturday.

New York’s initial shipment will be 170,000 doses, with 170,000 more doses arriving within three weeks, state officials said. Pfizer’s vaccine must be taken in two doses three weeks apart.

There are 90 sites statewide that will store the vaccine in specialized freezers with temperatures of minus 70 degrees Celsius or lower that are needed to preserve it, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has said.

When Catholic Health Services of Long Island receives the vaccine in the coming days, it will offer inoculations to employees based on risk of exposure to the coronavirus, with top priority given to those working in intensive care units, emergency departments and dedicated COVID-19 units, said Dr. Patrick O’Shaughnessy, chief clinical officer of the six-hospital system.

Priority also will be given to long-term care, home care and hospice workers who regularly interact with patients and residents, he said in an email.

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At New Hyde Park-based Northwell Health, the state’s largest health system, "We have a number of leaders on the front lines willing to publicly take the vaccine … to instill confidence in the rest of the workforce and the community," said Dr. David Battinelli, Northwell’s chief medical officer.

Polls show that roughly half of Americans either will not take the vaccine or probably won’t. Experts say about 75% to 85% of the public must take the vaccine to achieve the herd immunity needed to make transmission of the virus uncommon enough to safely lift mask-wearing and social-distancing recommendations and requirements.

"It’s going to take several months for the effect of the vaccine to be noticeable," Battinelli said. "During that time, it’s critical people continue masking, distancing and other behaviors. There’s light at the end of the tunnel, but that tunnel is months long."

Even though the research and approval process for the vaccine was accelerated, "it’s going through the same rigor," he said.

O’Shaughnessy said the clinical trial for the vaccine, which found it was 95% effective, indicates the vaccine was "highly impressive for efficacy and safety."

The vaccines will arrive amid a nationwide spike in cases that experts fear will worsen as Americans travel for the holidays and gather in indoor settings that carry an elevated risk of coronavirus exposure.

Ten Suffolk County residents and one Nassau County resident died of COVID-19 on Friday, along with 84 people elsewhere in the state, a Saturday news release from Cuomo’s office said.

The 95 statewide deaths are up from the 87 who died on Thursday. A few months ago, daily death totals were in the single digits.

There were 5,359 people in New York hospitals with the disease on Friday, up from 5,321 on Thursday but still far below the April 12 peak of 18,825. The number in intensive care also rose, to 1,029.

In Long Island hospitals, there were 842 people hospitalized with COVID-19, leaving only 18% of hospital beds available, according to a seven-day rolling average. That’s the lowest percentage of the state’s 11 regions. Bed availability elsewhere ranged from 19% in New York City to 46% in the North Country, and 22% statewide.

"Hospitalizations have more than doubled over the past three weeks and we are working with our hospital systems to closely monitor capacity," Nassau County Executive Laura Curran said in a statement Saturday.

In New York City, infection indicators continued to rise Saturday, according to a tweet from Mayor Bill de Blasio.

As of Thursday, the city's infection rate was 6.26%, as averaged over seven days, more than double what it was for much of last month, and much higher than parts of the summer, when it was a fraction of a percentage point.

"This weekend will be a pivotal moment in our fight," de Blasio tweeted. "The vaccine is imminent. We need to keep our city safe in this last stretch."

Northwell said the number of its COVID-19 patients fell slightly for the second straight day on Saturday, but the overall trend continues to be worrisome. There were 788 COVID-19 patients at Northwell hospitals, compared with under 700 a little more than a week ago.

A record 242,927 coronavirus test results were reported on Friday, the state announced. The positivity rate was 4.58%, down from 4.98% on Thursday. The state’s seven-day average of positive test results was 5.03%. Long Island’s was 5.58%.

On Friday, 1,163 Suffolk County and 899 Nassau County residents tested positive.

With Catherine Carrera, Matthew Chayes, David Reich-Hale and AP

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