Dr. Mangala Narasimhan checks on a patient inside the MICU,...

Dr. Mangala Narasimhan checks on a patient inside the MICU, or medical intensive care unit, at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New Hyde Park last month. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

Despite the wide availability of coronavirus vaccines, nearly as many Long Islanders died of COVID-19 last month as in January 2021, when most people could not access the shots, state data shows.

"The people who are dying of COVID are the unvaccinated," said Elyse Isopo, a critical-care nurse at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset. "That’s the most devastating thing for us: seeing people dying when it most likely could have been prevented."

Amid the surge in COVID-19 cases because of the spread of the highly contagious omicron variant, 708 Long Islanders died of COVID-19 in January 2022, 9% fewer than the 779 who died in January 2021, when most residents did not yet qualify for vaccines and those who did often faced weekslong waits, according to state Department of Health data.

Statewide, 4,592 people died of COVID-19 in January 2022, compared with 5,111 in January 2021.

Those numbers are incomplete, because they include only deaths reported to the state daily by hospitals, nursing homes and adult-care facilities. Deaths elsewhere eventually are counted after death certificates are analyzed.

Omicron, which led to a record number of confirmed COVID-19 cases, is typically less severe than previous variants, so the percentage of infected people who died is significantly lower, said Dr. Jessica Justman, an epidemiologist and infectious disease expert at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University in Manhattan.

But, she said, even if the death rate is lower, the death toll "will be a very big number when you have a case count so high."

Some people who died in January may have been infected with the delta variant and had been sick for a long time, but most probably died of omicron, Justman said.

Nationwide, an average of more than 2,000 people a day have been dying of COVID-19 for the past two weeks, and on Friday the nation reached another grim milestone, when the total number of deaths passed 900,000, according to the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center.

Dr. Mangala Narasimhan, director of critical-care services for Northwell Health, said those who are dying of COVID-19 today are on average younger than those who died last winter or in spring 2020.

"They’re not old people," she said. "A lot of old people got vaccinated. It’s really people in their 40s and 50s. It’s heartbreaking because we see these families, and they have young kids. It’s very traumatic for the staff to watch because it doesn’t need to happen."

Dr. Mangala Narasimhan is director of critical-care services for Northwell...

Dr. Mangala Narasimhan is director of critical-care services for Northwell Health. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

Dr. Frank Coletta, chief of critical care at Mount Sinai South Nassau hospital in Oceanside, said that before they died, some COVID-19 patients told doctors and nurses they regretted not getting inoculated.

Some family members said they tried in vain to persuade loved ones to get the shot, he said.

"They say to me, 'We did everything we could to try to get the person vaccinated, but they wouldn’t listen,' " he said.

Coletta recalled how a man died at the hospital after receiving conflicting advice from his children.

"The daughter was an anti-vaxxer, the son wanted the father vaccinated, and the father listened to the daughter and didn’t get vaccinated," he said. "And now the patient’s passed, and now there are strong emotional issues and friction between the siblings."

The number of COVID-19 cases has fallen precipitously in the past few weeks. But Justman said the number of deaths will fall more slowly, because "it will take a longer period of time for the patient to begin to lose out to the virus and eventually pass away."

Andy Powell, the owner of Powell Funeral Home in Amityville, said about half his funerals in January were of people who died of COVID-19. Other funeral homes also have been especially busy, he said.

Powell said family members are more reluctant to talk about someone dying of COVID-19 than of other diseases.

"They try to skirt around the issue, not in a bad way," he said. "I think they think having COVID has become so politicized that it’s almost like wearing a scarlet letter in some instances … They don’t necessarily feel the need to advertise that their loved one had that. They just want to move on with the grieving process without all the outside noise that seems to come along with COVID."

He said the large number of COVID-19 funerals still can’t compare with April 2020, when more than 2,750 Long Islanders died of COVID-19, nearly four times the number who died last month. That was before vaccines were available.

Narasimhan recalled how during the earlier COVID-19 surges, "Families were grateful for our care and we had good rapport with our families."

Now, she said, some families don’t believe doctors when they insist that their loved one is sick with COVID-19, with some convinced that the COVID-19 surge is only "media hype."

"The families are angry," she said. "They’re definitely feeling like COVID is not a real thing, and how could my family member be dying from this, that this is somehow a failure of care in some way. There’s a lot of anger from the families to the caregivers, which is very hard for the team here who have been dealing with this now for two years."

Coletta said he, too, is angry — at those spreading the vaccine disinformation online and elsewhere that leads people to distrust vaccines and then potentially end up gravely ill or dead.

"The more heartbreaking issue is the fact they may have paid attention to disinformation and used that as a reason not to get" the vaccine, he said.

Dr. Frank Coletta is chief of critical care at Mount...

Dr. Frank Coletta is chief of critical care at Mount Sinai South Nassau hospital in Oceanside. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

The biggest reason patients give for not getting vaccinated is concern about potential long-term effects, he said.

Yet medical experts say that, historically, with any vaccine, a potential long-term effect almost always emerges within a few weeks of injection, not years later. Serious COVID-19 vaccine side effects that could cause long-term health issues are very rare, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Roughly 10% of those who have died of COVID-19 at South Nassau had been vaccinated, Coletta said. Most were older, with chronic diseases or with weakened immune systems, he said. Most vaccinated people who did not receive a booster likely had waning immunity, he said. A tiny number of boosted patients died.

Nationwide, an unvaccinated adult is 68 times more likely to die of COVID-19 than someone who is fully vaccinated and received a booster shot, and 15 times more likely to die than a fully vaccinated person without a booster, according to CDC data.

Isopo recalled how one man’s serious illness spurred family members to get vaccinated. People often assume COVID-19 will be relatively mild, but "now they’re actually seeing it with their own eyes how sick people get," she said.

Some who survived a stay in the hospital have turned into evangelists for vaccines, Narasimhan said.

"We had a police officer who almost died, a young guy in his 20s, who when he finally got off ECMO [a machine that adds oxygen to the body] and left the hospital two months later, was very pro-vaccine and is trying to get the word out to his fellow officers that they should all get vaccinated," she said. "He was very regretful he didn’t do it. He didn’t realize the importance of it. He thought a 20-something-year-old was invincible and nothing would take him down."

With Matt Clark

What to know

Almost as many people died of COVID-19 on Long Island and in New York State last month as died from the disease in January 2021, state data shows.

There were slightly more people who died of COVID-19 in Nassau County in January 2022 – 303 -- compared with January 2021, when 286 people died.

In Suffolk County, 405 people died in January 2022, and 493 people died in January 2021. In both counties, a smaller percentage of people who contracted the coronavirus died last month than a year ago.

Latest videos