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Tracing infections might become difficult

Disease experts fear rise in cases complicates contact tracing

Contact tracing — when public health agencies attempt to locate anyone who was in close contact with someone who tests positive and tells them to quarantine — might become more difficult, health officials say.

Experts expect an increase in COVID-19 cases in the next few weeks because of family gatherings over Thanksgiving weekend. And as the number of cases rises, health agencies will have longer lists of people to try to locate, said Dr. Bruce Hirsch, an infectious diseases expert at New Hyde Park-based Northwell Health.

"I’m worried that with the increasing rates we’re seeing right now — and the way it’s going to accelerate as we get to that three-week mark after Thanksgiving — we’re going to exceed the capacity to use contact tracing in any meaningful way," he said.

From Nov. 13 to Nov. 26, for example, 7,300 tests of Suffolk County residents came back positive, said Derek Poppe, a spokesman for Suffolk Executive Steve Bellone. The county sought contacts from each of these people, he said, and if a person said they had no contacts to give, the county took them at their word. Of those 7,300, 144 refused to isolate, provide contacts or otherwise cooperate with the contact tracer, he said.

Even if there is adequate tracing, determining the root of infections gets harder as people socialize more often with people outside their households, said Dr. Sharon Nachman, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at Stony Brook Medicine.

"What we’re seeing with the holiday season is that people are going to multiple events, and it’s going to be hard to tease out at which event the transmission occurred, and who also was at that event," she said.

On Thursday — one day after announcing the state will receive its first batch of vaccines — Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo showed off a box with dry ice, vials and trays to demonstrate how the effort to fight the virus is crystallizing.

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Have questions about the COVID-19 surge on Long Island? We have answers.

Keep up preventive measures until vaccine arrives, doctors say

Doctors urged Long Islanders to keep practicing preventive measures as vaccine distribution may take months to reach the general public, doctors said in a Newsday Live webinar on Wednesday.

The discussion featuring Syed and Dr. Sharon Nachman, division chief of pediatric infectious diseases at Stony Brook Children's Hospital, came on the same day Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced New York will receive the first batch of vaccines for about 170,000 people in about two weeks.

"Hope is on the horizon. And we’ve made it this far," said Dr. Uzma Syed, an infectious disease specialist at Good Samaritan Hospital Medical Center. "If we just get through the next few months, we can really hopefully all be together in good health for the next holiday season."

Questions about vaccines? Here's an FAQ with everything you need to know.

LI toy drives scramble to meet need during pandemic

The holiday season is in full swing, and organizers of local toy drives are trying to find ways to keep the pandemic from becoming the Grinch this year.

Especially since toy donations are down, in some cases dramatically, compared to prior Christmas and holiday seasons, local organizers said. But the need seems greater than ever, and some organizations are ramping up their efforts.

In years past, the St. James Fire Department would run its annual pancake breakfast, solicit toy donations at the event and donate those toys to Islandwide charities like the U.S. Marines Toys for Tots program or the John Theissen Children's Foundation.

This year? With Long Island families hit so hard, the fire department is teaming up with Celebrate St. James and other groups to gather toy donations, cash, gift cards and food pantry items to help specific families in need.

"You don't know who's been affected by COVID, how many people are out of work, in need," St. James Fire District Commissioner Vice Chairman Thomas Donohue said. "I've got two boys … and I couldn't imagine as a parent having to decide whether I should pay my phone bill or put a gift under the tree."

Adapting to COVID-19 at Long Island wineries

The year 2020 will go down as an exceptional one for Long Island wine makers, and not just because the grapes — and the flood of new visitors — had decent weather all the way into November. For many of the 50 or so wineries and vineyards, 2020 was about making the best of a difficult situation.

Wineries that have long adjusted to weather and Mother Nature were thrown a new curve: trying to sell wine with their tasting rooms, and many of their client businesses, closed.

But just like the weather, the worst of COVID-19 held a silver lining for wine makers, most of whom are based on the North Fork. Crowds turned out in record numbers once wineries were given the green light to reopen at the end of June. Most benefited from newly captive audiences who flocked to the East End for staycations, or who bought new homes there.

"Clearly, we were being handed lemons," said Kareem Massoud, president of Long Island Wine Country, a regional industry group, and wine maker for family-owned Paumanok Vineyards in Aquebogue. "How do we make lemonade? Move inventory, generate cash flow, do curbside pickup, all while keeping people safe."

More to know

There were more than 3,100 COVID-19 deaths in a single day recorded in the U.S., and the number of Americans hospitalized with the virus eclipsed 100,000 for the first time, according to figures released Thursday.

Stop & Shop plans to hire 5,000 workers — including 450 on Long Island — as pandemic demands grow and so does customer demand for contactless retail services.

The Rockefeller Center Christmas tree had its holiday lights turned on Wednesday, and what's normally a chaotic, crowded tourist hot spot was instead a mask-mandated, time-limited, socially distanced one.

As the pandemic threatens retail businesses on Farmingdale’s Main Street, the village board is considering changes to the downtown’s zoning district to allow medical and legal offices at ground level — something the mayor says will "fill up our buildings."

U.S. unemployment benefits claims fell last week to 712,000 from 787,000 the week before, a Labor Department report said.

News for you

How businesses are doing holiday parties. In pre-pandemic times, companies this time of year would be gearing up for their holiday parties. But this year, they're getting more creative with how they spread holiday cheer, from distanced gatherings to virtual activities.

A free holiday drive-in movie series. The Town of Hempstead is hosting a Winter Movie Festival featuring a free series of drive-in movies at Town Park Point Lookout, starting this weekend. The series features holiday- and winter-themed films for town residents only.

Melanie Martinez plans a streaming concert. Baldwin-raised pop star Melanie Martinez had to postpone what would have been her largest world tour but has now set a streaming concert for Dec. 17 at 8 p.m.

Plus: Thinking about the weekend already? Take a look at this list of socially distanced or virtual events you can do safely.

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Commentary

Virus vaccines are close. A Newsday editorial writes: A COVID-19 vaccine is on its way.

In just two weeks, the first 170,000 New Yorkers may start receiving the Pfizer vaccine.

That's an enormous step out of this hell, one that merits a healthy dose of optimism and hope.

But to get this right, federal regulators, scientists and experts must still conduct thorough, independent reviews, and make some difficult choices. And Americans must be able to trust those assessments, have confidence in the decisions and maintain some patience.

The British government's approval of the Pfizer vaccine Wednesday is another piece of good news. Yet some in the Trump administration are reportedly upset the United States wasn't first. White House chief of staff Mark Meadows has met with Food and Drug Administration commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn two days in a row, reportedly pressing him to move even faster.

But the FDA is already on a fast track toward its own emergency authorization. FDA officials will meet Dec. 10 to discuss the Pfizer vaccine, and Dec. 17 for the Moderna vaccine, in sessions open to the public, complete with data and other materials. That public review process is important, not only for the federal approval itself, but also to gain public trust and allow states like New York to satisfy their own questions.

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