As the number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continues to spike, and the highly contagious omicron variant spreads, medical experts are urging ramped-up caution during the holidays, and in higher-risk activities like indoor dining.
A year after many Long Islanders canceled holiday gatherings or held them via Zoom, Dr. Leonard Krilov of NYU Langone Hospital-Long Island said he understands why families and friends are loath to do so again.
What to know
Health experts are urging caution during the holidays as the number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise sharply, and the highly contagious omicron variant spreads.
The seven-day positivity rate on Long Island soared to 8.73% on Friday, up from 8.19% on Thursday and 7.53% on Wednesday. The statewide rate rose to 6.29%, from 5.11% on Wednesday.
Nearly 291,000 New Yorkers received COVID-19 test results on Friday, up 40% from two weeks earlier. The number of positive cases — 21,908 — broke an all-time record set Thursday.
"I won’t say absolutely abandon ship, so to speak," said Krilov, an infectious disease specialist and chief of pediatrics at the Mineola hospital. "But I think we need to think about it more carefully."
The seven-day average of coronavirus tests coming back positive on Long Island approached 9% on Friday, the highest level since January. Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, predicted on Thursday that omicron would be the dominant variant nationwide within a few weeks.
Dr. Uzma Syed, an infectious disease specialist at Good Samaritan Hospital in West Islip, said "very large holiday parties are probably not a good idea at this time with the amount of virus that’s in the community."
She recommended limiting gatherings to immediate family, "to ensure you can still have your holiday celebration but do it at a smaller scale."
Syed said special care should be taken by people who are seniors or have medical conditions that put them at higher risk for severe COVID-19 — or those who will be in close contact with them.
Getting a COVID-19 test shortly before a gathering, and opening windows to increase ventilation, help reduce risk, said Dr. David Hirschwerk, an infectious disease specialist at Northwell Health.
Tougher to find testing kits
Getting a COVID-19 test has been a challenge for some Long Islanders, who have found store shelves empty of at-home test kits and long lines at testing sites.
Nearly 291,000 New Yorkers received coronavirus test results on Friday, a 40% increase compared with two weeks earlier. The 21,908 positive results broke Thursday's record, although experts have noted that the lack of tests early in the pandemic greatly underestimated coronavirus levels then.
To locate a test site, go to coronavirus.health.ny.gov.
Hirschwerk said getting a booster shot if you’re eligible is key to protecting yourself and others, "because we know boosting significantly improves the ability to both fight off COVID infection and reduce the risk of severe illness."
Although "the vast majority of patients who are hospitalized with COVID are not fully vaccinated," there continue to be breakthrough cases of vaccinated people — "but those who are fully vaccinated who are hospitalized are likely to be of very advanced age or to have significant underlying medical conditions that make it less likely they will respond to the vaccine in the first place," he said.
"It’s very rare to see somebody who is boosted to be hospitalized," he said.
But, he said, "It's a very dangerous world right now for people who are not vaccinated."
The potential effects of omicron are still unknown. Early indications are it may tend to lead to milder disease than previous virus strains.
"It may be during this current wave that we’ll see very, very high levels of community spread, but compared to previous waves, proportionately a lower percentage of people becoming hospitalized," Hirschwerk said.
But the sheer number of new cases may mean that even though the percentage of people needing hospitalization could be lower, the number of COVID-19 hospital patients may increase, he said.
"Because it spreads so significantly and is likely to lead to very, very high rates in our community, there will still be a significant proportion of infected people who will become sick enough to be hospitalized, which has the potential to stress our health care system even further," Hirschwerk said.
Experts agree that venues with large numbers of people gathered indoors — like the inside of restaurants, gyms, theaters and sports arenas — are much more risky now than a few months ago.
Syed recommended that such places be avoided entirely until virus levels decrease.
Krilov said "the safest thing from the virus end is to not do any [of those activities]. Stay home."
But, he said, being isolated has mental, and potentially physical, health consequences. Certain precautions, such as going to restaurants during less busy times, can reduce risk, he said.
That’s especially true in places like Long Island, where elected officials have vowed little or no enforcement of Gov. Kathy Hochul’s mandate that businesses require either masks or proof of vaccination, he said.
LI's positivity rate remains higher than NYC's
The vaccination requirement in New York City to enter many types of businesses, and greater mask-wearing there, are likely why the city continues to have a lower positivity rate than Long Island, despite much greater population density, Syed said.
Long Island's seven-day positivity rate jumped to 8.73% on Friday, up from 7.53% only two days earlier, state data released Saturday shows. It was 5.23% on Friday in New York City, the lowest in the state.
Long Island has a higher positivity rate than most of upstate, despite a higher vaccination rate. Hirschwerk said greater density is likely a key reason.
Upstate, though, has a much higher hospitalization rate. There was an increase of 70 hospitalizations statewide on Friday, to 3,909.
Of the 59 COVID-19 deaths in New York Friday, 41 were upstate, even though far more people live downstate — a disparity that experts attribute to much lower vaccination rates upstate. Five Suffolk residents and two Nassau residents died.
Meanwhile, one Long Island school district Friday reacted to the potential of a vaccine mandate for all schoolchildren eligible for inoculations. Hochul Friday said she supports a mandate for the 2022-23 school year.
In a letter to the governor, the Bayport-Blue Point Board of Education said if the state mandates vaccines as a condition for children to attend school, there should be a testing option for unvaccinated children.
Pointing to how parents in the district are "deeply divided" on a vaccine mandate, board president Michael Miller wrote, "With this potential option, our focus can remain on keeping students in school safely, and lessen the divide currently felt in our community and so many other communities across the State."
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