Many people are celebrating the rapid decline in COVID-19 cases and levels amid the omicron surge, but medical experts on Long Island warned Wednesday that the numbers are still relatively high and the surge is not over.
They said the trend is moving in the right direction, but it is too soon to start removing masks in crowded indoor public settings.
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Many people are celebrating the rapid decline in COVID-19 cases, but medical experts on Long Island warn that the numbers are still relatively high and the surge is not over.
The seven-day average for positivity has fallen from a high of nearly 27% to about 7%.
Doctors said the trend is moving in the right direction, but that it is too soon to start removing masks in crowded indoor public settings.
"I don’t think we are out of the woods, but we are in a much better place than we had been in the past few weeks," said Dr. David Hirschwerk, an infectious disease expert at New Hyde Park-based Northwell Health.
The number of new daily cases on Long Island has dropped from a record-setting 14,519 a month ago to 1,191 on Tuesday. But that is still far above the levels last May and June, when they dropped to well below 100.
The seven-day average for positivity has fallen from a high of nearly 27% to about 7%. But that is still well above the levels last spring and early summer when they were below 1%.
DAILY POSITIVITY RATE
7-DAY POSITIVITY RATE
Source: New York State Department of Health
"If we looked back to the calendar and saw that we had 7% positivity rate in our community at any point before omicron, we would have been fairly concerned about that and maybe even alarmed," Hirschwerk said.
But now 7% doesn’t seem so bad compared to the record highs, he said.
Sean Clouston, an associate professor of public health at Stony Brook University, said: "It’s become relative. We’re not doing that great. Certainly if you said we’d be celebrating a 7% positivity rate this time last year, I don’t know that anybody would be celebrating."
But "the omicron surge hit so many people, that now it just feels so much better. It feels like a relief," he said. Yet "COVID is not done with us, and we are not out of the clear here."
While the numbers are improving, medical experts are uncertain when they think it will be safe enough to drop the mask mandate for indoor public places.
Though a new variant could send numbers soaring again, Hirschwerk does not think that will happen, and believes it is possible the need for masks in indoor public places may vanish as early as March.
"I think we will get to the point where we are not masking inside but … we’re not quite there yet. We are moving in that direction," he said.
Clouston is less certain of the timeline. He would like to see the positivity level be at least below 2.5%, with perhaps 200 new cases a day on Long Island.
"I don’t think we are there yet" to drop the mask mandate, he said. "I think the percent is way too high. I think 1,000 cases a day is way too high."
"Every time we see these waves receding, we get very excited as though this is the end of it and we’re done," he said.
Dr. Alan M. Bulbin, director of infectious disease at Catholic Health St. Francis Hospital & Heart Center in Roslyn, said he would like to see the positivity level get close to 1% before any measures are dropped.
"I think I would be a little more optimistic or a little less cautious when it starts getting closer to 1%, which I think it probably will as the spring and summer unfold," he said.
Other factors — hospitalizations and deaths — may be even more important to look at as we assess how we are doing with COVID-19 and when mitigation measures should be dropped, he said.
Many people were infected with omicron but did not get seriously ill and hospitalized, Bulbin said, adding that a key to handling the pandemic is not overwhelming hospitals.
Long Island had 1,116 people hospitalized with COVID-19 on Saturday, down from the omicron peak of 2,254 in mid-January. Last June 1, the figure was 125.
And people continue to die: There were 136 virus-related deaths in New York State on Tuesday, with 12 in Nassau and five in Suffolk. At the height of the pandemic in 2020, nearly 800 people a day were dying from COVID-19. Last year, the number was in single digits at times.
Hirschwerk said that at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, where he is medical director, fewer COVID-19 patients are arriving this week, fewer staff are out sick, and normal operations have resumed for the most part.
"I think the surge maybe is coming to a close," Clouston said. But "it’s still dangerous."
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