The daily COVID-19 positivity rate neared 14 percent in Suffolk, County Executive Steve Bellone said Tuesday. Long Island has the highest seven-day average in the state. Newsday's Cecilia Dowd reports. Credit: Kendall Rodriguez; Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone's Office

This story was reported by John Asbury, Matt Clark, Scott Eidler, Bart Jones and Bridget Murphy. It was written by Eidler and Jones.

The daily level for positivity in testing for COVID-19 has soared to 13.7% in Suffolk County, officials said Tuesday, as the highly contagious omicron variant fuels an "enormous surge" in the county.

At the same time, a leading infectious-disease specialist on Long Island said he believes the surge likely will last until spring.

"We had hoped that the surge that we saw last year, at this time … might be the last big surge that we saw with the COVID-19 virus," Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said.

"That gave hope that we could get the virus completely under control. Obviously, we know that hasn't happened. We are once again witnessing an enormous surge that is taking place with the virus, in this case with a variant to the virus," Bellone added.

What to know

  • The daily level for positivity in testing for COVID-19 has soared to 13.7% in Suffolk County.
  • A top infectious disease specialist on Long Island believes the surge likely will last until spring.
  • Positivity levels and deaths remain below levels during the worst of the pandemic in March and April of 2020.

Hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients in Suffolk have doubled since the start of December, to 326 people, he said. That is still below the figure of 526 a year ago, though the numbers are "rising rapidly," Bellone said.

The daily positivity figure is different than the seven-day average, which for Long Island was 10.32% in test results ending Monday. But the latest daily average is concerning, medical experts said, and probably portends a rising seven-day number.

The 13.7% positivity rate is "the highest rate that we have seen in nearly a year now," Bellone said.

While the indicators are rising rapidly, in some ways they are not as severe as the worst days of the pandemic in early spring 2020. At the height of the pandemic, nearly 800 people were dying of COVID-19-related causes in the state daily. On Monday, 57 New Yorkers died of causes linked to the virus, including five each in Nassau and Suffolk counties.

The one-day positivity rates for Nassau, Suffolk or Long Island as a whole have not exceeded 12% since early May 2020. Before then — during March and April 2020 — the average daily positivity rate was 33.65%. For Suffolk, the average for that time was 32.76%, and for Nassau it was 34.78%.

Dr. David Battinelli, vice president and chief medical officer at New Hyde Park-based Northwell Health, said Suffolk's latest positivity level and other indicators are "concerning."

His biggest worry, he said, are people who are not vaccinated or not boosted, since they remain vulnerable to the omicron variant and potentially serious illness.

COVID-19 case numbers and positivity levels have been rising rapidly the past few weeks. The seven-day average for Long Island was as low as 2.08% as recently as Oct. 28.

Nassau County's daily COVID-19 positivity rate for results on Monday was 12.7%.

The number of new confirmed cases in results Monday was 1,955 in Nassau, 1,670 in Suffolk and 13,760 in New York City.

Expanding testing capacity in Suffolk

Bellone said he will use emergency powers to expedite testing at three sites: Gabreski Airport in Westhampton Beach and a site in West Sayville, both starting Monday; and another in Sound Beach, beginning Jan. 4.

Bellone repeated his stance that he will not enforce through inspections and $1,000 fines a state mandate from Gov. Kathy Hochul that all public indoor places, including offices, gyms and sports venues, must require people entering to either wear a mask or show proof of vaccination against COVID-19.

The county, instead, is pursuing the mandate through the "education" of business owners and others, he said.

Nassau County Executive-elect Bruce Blakeman said Tuesday he will not use a portion of the $65 million the state is offering for enforcement of the mandate.

Despite Long Island now having the highest seven-day virus positivity level of any region in the state, Blakeman said he has not changed his stance on the mask or vaccine mandate and will not enforce it after he takes office Jan. 1.

"Instead of spending $65 million to issue fines to struggling residents and small businesses, the governor should instead use that money to make sure testing and vaccinations are available to everyone who want and need them," Blakeman said in a statement.

He added that he hopes he can still get some of the money and use it to bolster testing and vaccination sites.

State officials said that is not possible, since the funds — announced Monday by Hochul — are available only to counties enforcing the mandate.

Current Nassau County Executive Laura Curran said Nassau will not actively inspect locations for compliance, but will respond to complaints.

Local health departments are expected to enforce the state law, Hochul said.

Local governments can use the money for personnel costs associated with mask protocol enforcement; public awareness efforts; staffing costs for sites offering vaccines, boosters, and/or tests; and personnel costs associated with mask, test and vaccine/booster distribution.

Battinelli said confusion over the mandate, the sharp rise of the highly contagious omicron variant, and the onset of cold weather forcing people indoors have created a bad situation that could last for months.

"Most of the epidemiologists think that this thing at least with omicron will peak sometime in the early to mid-spring," he said. "Unless we do something, what’s going to hold it back?"

On Long Island, he added: "We haven’t had the best policies with respect to indoor masking [or] vaccinations required for restaurants" and other locations.

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