This story was reported by Matthew Chayes, Robert Brodsky, Bart Jones and Joie Tyrrell. It was written by Jones.
Suffolk County has reached a "troubling" new stage in the coronavirus crisis with rising positivity levels, County Executive Steve Bellone said Thursday, while New York City public hospitals suspended elective surgeries to make room for COVID-19 patients in a deepening crisis.
The city stopped the elective surgeries on Tuesday, fearful the growing number of coronavirus patients could overwhelm the hospitals, the head of the municipal health system, Dr. Mitchell Katz, said Thursday.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has told hospitals statewide to suspend elective surgeries if they grow concerned that their facilities may be perilously close to reaching or surpassing capacity due to the virus. Some locations upstate already have done so.
Cuomo also has said entire regions could be shut if hospitals can't cope with the number of patients.
The freeze on elective procedures comes as the state experiences a second surge of cases, with numbers on par with some of the worst days of the pandemic's peak in April. Cuomo and other health officials have attributed the new wave to indoor gatherings in people's homes, with growing infections starting with Thanksgiving and continuing through the holiday season and into mid-January at a minimum.
Officials are calling on residents to curtail such gatherings to prevent more spread of the virus, and ultimately more deaths. While vaccinations have begun at hospitals, officials say it will be months before enough of a critical mass of the population is inoculated to bring the virus under control.
A total of 128 people died statewide on Wednesday of COVID-19-related causes, according to data released Thursday. They included 10 people in Suffolk County and three in Nassau County.
During the summer, the statewide daily total of deaths often was in single digits.
"I have been doing these numbers for 292 days, and the hardest number every day is the number of New Yorkers that we have lost," Cuomo said at a news briefing. "One hundred twenty New Yorkers — that's one hundred twenty families, that's mothers, and brothers, and children who are coming into the holiday seasons losing a member of their family."
The number of new confirmed cases in test results issued Wednesday was 1,169 in Suffolk, 853 in Nassau and 3,627 in New York City. Long Island typically had under 100 new daily cases in the summer.
"COVID cases, hospitalizations and deaths are all on the rise all across the country. We are on an unsustainable trajectory and if we don't act now, hospitals could become overwhelmed come January," Cuomo said in a statement.
Bellone said the numbers are moving in the wrong direction in Suffolk, too.
"Yesterday we reached a troubling new level in this ongoing crisis, an 8.2 percent positivity rate for new COVID-19 cases," he said of Tuesday's test results. "While we don’t put too much stock into any one day’s numbers, it is clear that we are moving in the wrong direction with new cases and hospitalizations continuing to rise at alarming rates.
"We have all worked incredibly hard over the last nine months, and because of the efforts of our residents, countless lives have been saved. With the vaccine here, now is not the time to take our eye off the ball."
Cuomo: One case can cause spread
The number of people hospitalized with the virus statewide increased by 50, to a total of 6,147, Cuomo said. Of 849 beds in intensive care units on Long Island, 612 were occupied, leaving 29% available, he said.
"Right now, New York is focused on growing hospital capacity through our Surge and Flex program and requiring hospital systems to begin working together so they are prepared," Cuomo said. "As those operations continue, it's on all of us to be smart, tough, and do what we know stops the spread — socially distance, wear masks and wash our hands. The goal is to avoid another shutdown."
The positivity rate on Long Island was 5.97% in results Wednesday, a slight increase over recent days. New York City's level was 4.16%, also a slight increase over recent days. Throughout the summer, both Long Island's and New York City's level was about 1%.
The statewide positivity level on Wednesday was tracked at 5.25%, which Cuomo noted was an improvement from a recent high of about 6.2%.
He urged New Yorkers to comply with social distancing, gatherings, and mask mandates, as hard as that can be.
"It's a difficult situation. Holidays, people come together. There's a feeling of safety in your home, there's a feeling of safety when you're with your family, but it just takes one person who's infected and doesn't know it. Half the cases are from people who had no symptoms," he said.
During the holidays, for instance, "Uncle Joe comes over, Aunt Nancy comes over, and they're your family. But Uncle Joe or Aunt Nancy could be infected and not know it, and you sit at a table and you have a nice meal and you have a good conversation, and the next day you could have issues."
His plea came as COVID-19 cases and deaths soared to record-breaking heights in the United States, which has registered more than 17 million confirmed positives — more than any country in the world, according to Johns Hopkins University.
The virus has killed more than 309,000 Americans, also the most of any country. On Wednesday, the United States broke its record for daily COVID-19 deaths, with more than 3,600.
Schools respond to local spread
Citing the recent spike in Suffolk, the Northport-East Northport school district will begin remote instruction for all students Monday through Wednesday and for two days following the holiday break — Jan. 4 and 5, Superintendent Rob Banzer said. School will resume its regular instruction schedule Jan. 6.
Despite the rise in cases, Birch Lane, East Lake and McKenna elementaries in the Massapequa school district, located in a yellow zone, where higher spread has been measured, can remain open for in-person instruction since testing showed a lower positivity rate in the schools than within the community, officials said.
The positivity rate in the schools fell below 1%, compared to the community rate of 6.3%, Massapequa schools Superintendent Lucille Iconis said. All students will go on remote instruction, starting Dec. 21 and until the holiday break ends, as a proactive measure.