As COVID-19 hospitalizations increase more than 50% in a five-day span statewide and Long Islanders are desperate for COVID tests, Nassau County on Thursday handed out free at-home tests in Uniondale. Newsday's Cecilia Dowd reports. Credit: Newsday staff

This story was reported by John Asbury, Lisa L. Colangelo and David Olson. It was written by Olson.

COVID-19 hospitalizations are soaring on Long Island and statewide, and hospitals are reporting fewer employees available to treat those patients, as many call out sick with the virus.

Amid the rapidly increasing case numbers, long lines persisted Thursday at coronavirus testing sites.

Hospitalizations of people with COVID-19 on Long Island increased more than 55% in just six days of results, to 1,230 on Wednesday, from 793 on Dec. 24, state data shows. Last year during the same time period, hospitalizations increased just over 18%.

New York State saw a similar trend: about a 51% increase in those six days this year — to 7,373, from 4,891 — compared with less than 14% last year.

"The numbers are very concerning," said Sean Clouston, an associate professor of public health at Stony Brook University. "The health system isn’t built for these enormous surges."

What to know

  • COVID-19 hospitalizations are up 55% in six days of results on Long Island, to 1,230, and up about 51% statewide, state data shows. Increases were a fraction of that a year ago.
  • The number of COVID-19 cases nearly doubled across Long Island between Monday and Wednesday. The seven-day positivity rate is nearing 19%.
  • Hospitals worry about a staffing crunch, as an increasing number of employees call in sick with the coronavirus. 

Meanwhile, the number of new daily COVID-19 cases has nearly doubled Islandwide since Monday.

In Suffolk, there were 2,811 cases on Monday and 5,772 positives out of 23,372 people tested on Wednesday. The daily positivity rate in Suffolk on Wednesday was 24.7%.

"We haven’t seen numbers like this since the start of this pandemic," Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said during a COVID-19 update.

In Nassau, there were 3,523 cases on Monday and 6,861 positives out of 28,597 people tested on Wednesday. Nassau's daily positivity rate on Wednesday stood at 24%.

Long Island’s seven-day average of coronavirus tests coming back as positive jumped to 18.78%, up from 12.13% a week before. The statewide rate was 16.21%, and it was 16.90% in New York City.

Staffing concerns at hospitals, nursing homes

Hospital employees are among those becoming infected. Stony Brook Medicine reported 482 positive COVID-19 tests among its employees between Dec. 16 and Dec. 29. Mount Sinai South Nassau hospital in Oceanside says more than 100 employees are out sick, and other medical systems and nursing homes also are reporting big increases in sick employees.

Hospital officials said they’re able to handle the surge, even with more sick employees, but they’re preparing for the worst.

Based on the huge increase in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations are on track to at least double before the current surge is over, Clouston said, if the trajectory of the spread of the virus follows last winter’s pattern.

Last winter, hospitalizations statewide peaked on Jan. 19.

"What we don’t know at this point is really what omicron is going to do — if this is all it’s doing and it will recede like last year, or whether it will continue to increase because it’s a different beast," Clouston said. "We don’t really know. If we assume it’s similar to last year, it’s at least a doubling. If we assume it’s worse, it could be worse."

At Mount Sinai South Nassau, the number of COVID-19 patients more than doubled in the past week, from 32 to 67.

None of the employees out sick need hospitalization, a reflection of the effectiveness of the vaccines and of the booster shots that the large majority have received, said Dr. Adhi Sharma, president of the hospital.

But the sick employees — along with lower staffing numbers because of those who were let go or resigned after refusing to get vaccinated, and people who left given the stress of the pandemic — will make it "very challenging to be able to maintain [adequate] staffing if this trend continues," Sharma said.

He said it appears that most sick employees contracted the virus outside the hospital.

Even if the staffing crunch worsens significantly, the hospital will be able to provide the same level and quality of emergency services, Sharma said. But, if necessary, some screenings and elective procedures could be rescheduled, he said.

The surge is causing some patients at Stony Brook to ask for postponements of their elective surgeries, Clouston said.

"From at least anecdotal evidence, patients are starting to not come in because they’re worried about being infected with COVID," he said.

At Northwell Health, the state’s largest health care system with 19 hospitals, including 11 on Long Island, the staff shortages "are causing us to do a lot of juggling," said Dr. David Battinelli, a senior vice president.

Nursing homes on Long Island and statewide also are struggling with staffing shortages, said Jim Clyne, CEO of LeadingAge New York, which represents nonprofit nursing homes and other facilities for older adults.

Gurwin Healthcare System, which includes Gurwin Jewish Nursing & Rehabilitation Center in Commack and Island Nursing and Rehab Center in Holtsville, has 40 employees out sick with COVID-19, said Stuart Almer, the system's president and CEO.

Even so, "we are starting to get a reach-out from area hospitals asking us about our capacity and ability to take in residents because they’re feeling that crush of increase in [hospital] census," he said.

Gurwin will only take them in if it has enough staffing, he said.

As of Wednesday, 26% of Long Island hospital beds remained available, state health department data shows. The state defines limited capacity as below 10% staffed bed capacity, or as determined by the state health department.

Although hospitalizations are spiking, a smaller percentage of people are ending up in intensive care compared with previous surges, Battinelli said. Studies have indicated that on average, omicron causes less severe illness.

"We have a much lower percentage of [COVID-19] people in the ICU — about a 50% decrease," he said.

In addition, the rapid spread of omicron throughout Long Island means that a higher percentage of people with COVID-19 in area hospitals were admitted to the hospital for reasons other than COVID-19 compared with a few weeks ago, hospital officials said.

At Northwell, 20% to 40% of patients with COVID-19 were admitted for conditions like heart failure, abdominal pain or stroke and later tested positive for the virus, Battinelli said.

At NYU Langone Hospital-Long Island in Mineola, a majority of COVID-19 patients initially were admitted for something else, said chief medical officer Dr. Marc Adler.

New York had 74,207 positive test results on Wednesday, about an 82% increase over the 40,780 on Monday and yet another record. Experts say case numbers likely were higher early in the pandemic, when testing was scarce.

Four Nassau residents and seven Suffolk residents died of COVID-19 complications on Wednesday, the state reported. They were among 76 deaths statewide.

Bellone reiterated that Suffolk would not fine businesses for violating Gov. Kathy Hochul’s mandate requiring masks or proof of vaccination in indoor public places. The focus would remain outreach and education, he said.

Traffic backs up for miles at Uniondale test-distribution site

Demand for tests remained high, at urgent-care centers and at government-run sites. Traffic backed up for miles on Charles Lindbergh Boulevard Thursday morning as cars lined up to receive free state-supplied rapid tests at a site at Mitchel Field in Uniondale set up by Nassau County. Some people waited hours.

"People are desperate and we’re seeing it now and we’re working as efficiently as possible to get tests to them," Nassau County Executive Laura Curran said after a news conference. "There’s such scarcity and it is like a bread line. As many as the state can give us, we will take them."

The county expected to give away 20,000 boxes containing 40,000 tests. Each car received six tests.

In Suffolk, Bellone said county-operated COVID-19 testing sites will be able to administer about 5,500 tests a week by next week, and that the county already has distributed 7,600 rapid at-home test kits to 86 first-responder agencies.

Curran said residents are scouring drugstores and Amazon looking for tests that are sold out and on back order.

Jenna Summer, 20, of Hicksville, who waited with her mother at Mitchel Field for about an hour and 20 minutes, said she works in a bakery where half the staff was sick with COVID-19.

Her mother, Cynthia Summer, is a teacher and vaccinated but doesn’t know if she’ll have to test before returning from winter break.

"We are dropping like flies," Cynthia Summer said. "I’m happy we have them and hope they all come back negative, if and when we have to use them."

Wilson Walker, 72, of Uniondale said he wanted to get tested because he was feeling sick.

"I want to make sure I’m OK," Walker said. "It does scare me a little bit. I had COVID before and this variant is not as bad, but it’s still very scary."

He and his wife were both hospitalized for a week last year with COVID-19.

At nursing homes, "it’s difficult to find tests," Clyne said. "But I have not heard of anybody saying we can’t get the test."

LeadingAge has been "scrambling to help them find tests" and then connects vendors with nursing homes, he said.

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