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COVID-19 positivity rate continues slight decline, state data shows

COVID-19 test kits were handed out at the

COVID-19 test kits were handed out at the Alverta B. Gray Schultz Middle School in Hempstead Saturday. Tests were given to every student and family that wanted one, amid the latest surge of COVID cases. Newsday's Steve Langford reports. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Long Island’s COVID-19 positivity rate continued to decline slightly, according to state data released Saturday, and the region’s largest hospital system reported flattening numbers and fewer employees out sick, further signs the omicron-fueled surge could be plateauing.

"I think you’re seeing the tail end" of the omicron peak, said Dr. John D’Angelo, chief of integrated operations and senior vice president of emergency services for Northwell Health, where pediatric hospitalizations have started to decline after a rapid rise.

Statewide and New York City positivity rates also fell Friday, state Department of Health data shows.

On Long Island, the seven-day average of positivity rates dropped slightly, from 26.58% Thursday to 26.46% Friday, the second decrease in a row.

Experts typically focus on seven-day rates because they smooth out anomalies. Data shows the one-day rate also falling, from 26.73% on Wednesday, 25.9% on Thursday and 25.71% on Friday, with 13,609 Long Islanders testing positive.

Last winter followed a similar trajectory, with the one-day winter rate peaking on Jan. 5, 2021, and the seven-day rate peaking on Jan. 8, 2021.

Hochul 'cautiously optimistic'

Gov. Kathy Hochul said Friday she was "cautiously optimistic" that numbers may be plateauing.

At Northwell, the percentage of patients testing positive throughout its system — including at urgent cares, in emergency departments and at public testing sites — has been roughly stable, about 35% for the past few days after climbing precipitously, said D’Angelo said.

"Things have been flattening or getting better in a lot of the metrics we look at," he said.

In addition, he said, "hospitalizations had been going up steadily for the last month or so, but they’ve been flat the last four or five days."

On Thursday, about 5% of Northwell’s 77,000 employees were out sick with COVID-19, but by Saturday morning, that was down to just over 3%, D'Angelo said. That’s partly a reflection of relaxed state rules allowing health care workers to return to work in as few as five days after either testing positive or showing COVID-19 symptoms — as long as symptoms are gone or improving — instead of 10 days, he said. But it also indicates the omicron surge may have peaked.

Despite the possible plateauing, the positivity rate remains alarmingly high, and Long Islanders should continue wearing masks and taking other precautions, said Dr. Peter Silver, senior vice president and chief quality officer for Northwell.

"We’re very encouraged it’s starting to flatten out, but we can’t become lax about any of our measures to try to control the spread of this infection, because it’s extremely highly prevalent," he said.

Statewide and on Long Island, COVID-19 hospitalizations rose Friday, but at a slower pace than several days ago. On Long Island, the number rose by 52, to 2,112. Thirty-seven percent of those patients were admitted for a reason other than COVID-19 and tested positive upon admission, the state said.

New York's COVID-19 death toll remained far higher than just several days ago, with 154 New Yorkers dying of COVID-19 on Friday, including 19 Suffolk County and 11 Nassau County residents.

At Cohen's, drop in pediatric COVID-19 cases

A day after the release of a state health department report that revealed that pediatric COVID-19 admissions statewide jumped from 70 to 571 between the weeks of Dec. 5-11 and Dec. 26 to Jan. 1, Silver said Cohen Children's Medical Center in New Hyde Park has seen a drop in coronavirus patients, from roughly 50 a few days ago to 36 by Saturday morning.

"The thing that’s concerning is half the kids who have been admitted required the intensive care unit," said Silver, a pediatric critical-care physician and until recently medical director at Cohen.

Over the several months before the surge, there were often just a few kids in the hospital with COVID-19, and sometimes none, he said.

State Acting Health Commissioner Dr. Mary T. Bassett said at a state COVID-19 briefing Friday that child hospitalizations were rising more quickly than adult hospitalizations. The more than 700% increase contrasted with a 241% rise for those 19 to 64 and 187% for those 65 and older during the same December time period.

"The vast majority of children who are hospitalized are unvaccinated," Bassett said.

Some children tested positive after being admitted for reasons other than COVID-19, but about 70% had COVID-19 symptoms, Bassett said.

Nationwide, 735 children had died of COVID-19 in 46 states as of Dec. 30, and more than 29,000 had been hospitalized in 24 states, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Even though children are less likely to get seriously ill than older adults, "COVID is not a benign illness in children," Silver said. "I encourage all parents and all school districts to ensure children wear masks, and also parents ensure children are vaccinated, and that those adolescents who are 12 and above and eligible to be boosted, that they receive their boosters."

On Thursday, Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman issued an executive order allowing school districts to ignore the state mandate that masks be worn in all schools.

Although he said the county had the authority to do this, Hochul said the state mandate prevails.

On Saturday, Blakeman defended his executive order, saying Nassau residents have "mask fatigue" and insisting that Nassau "is not in crisis," so a school mask mandate is not needed.

Nassau gives out more tests

Blakeman Saturday was speaking at Tobay Beach, where the county was distributing 20,000 free coronavirus home test kits. Another 20,000 were distributed at Eisenhower Park. Each kit contained two tests. The same number of test kits will be distributed at the two locations from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sunday, said Chris Boyle, a spokesman for Blakeman.

The two sites were among several locations for test giveaways Saturday.

The Hempstead Union Free School District gave out more than 3,000 test kits Saturday at four schools, said James Clark, the district's assistant superintendent and its COVID-19 response coordinator.

The state sent the district more than 6,000 test kits, and the remaining ones will be distributed to parents throughout the month at schools, he said. More kits are expected later this winter, he said. Two tests are in each kit.

Clark said the tests will identify children with the virus and keep them from coming to school to potentially infect others.

"We’d like to make sure every family, every student in our district has a kit, so if a child is having symptoms the parent can immediately test that child before they get to school," he said. "If they’re negative, then we know they’re doing fine and they can come back to school. We’re trying to make sure every kid comes back to school and stays in school. We want to keep the schools open. This will help us."

Clark said more than 36% of students were absent Friday, a mix of kids with potential COVID-19 symptoms and children whose parents fear they could have been exposed to someone who tested positive.

"We know that over the [winter] break, the spread of COVID has been increasing," he said. "We hope this will slow it down."

Clark said the test giveaway was done to help parents who couldn't find them elsewhere.

Blanca Ramirez, 26, of Hempstead, said she was picking up a test at Alverta B. Gray Schultz Middle School for her 11-year-old son.

"I’ve gone to the CVS three times but I’ve never been able to find any," she said in Spanish.

Kensy Jimenez, 27, of Hempstead, also couldn’t find home tests in pharmacies, so she picked up two kits for her children, 4 and 9, at the school.

"We want to be ready to test them if they present symptoms," she said in Spanish.

Yisenia Rivera, 29, of Hempstead, was accompanied by son Daniel Fuentes, 9, who she will test if he gets sick.

"It’s important that he doesn’t bring back the virus into our home, and that he doesn’t bring the virus to the school to infect other children," Rivera said in Spanish.

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