The launch last summer of Long Island's first mobile COVID-19...

The launch last summer of Long Island's first mobile COVID-19 testing and treatment vehicle in Oceanside. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

Long Island is home to the highest weekly COVID-19 reinfection rate in New York, according to the latest data from the state health department.

Statistics show 2,019 people in Nassau and Suffolk counties with a previous COVID-19 infection tested positive in the week starting Nov. 21. That comes to a 10.2 infection rate per 100,000 people, topping New York City’s rate of 8.6.

Infectious-disease experts on Long Island said the statistics do not fully reflect all reinfections in the region and state — only results reported from medical facilities were included, as opposed to those from at-home COVID-19 tests. And, more importantly, according to experts, the numbers don’t indicate how ill those reinfected became.

A person is considered to have been reinfected if they test positive again 90 days or more after their first positive test, according to the New York State Health Department.

What to know

  • Long Island is home to the highest weekly COVID-19 reinfection rate in New York State.
  • Statistics show 2,019 people in Nassau and Suffolk counties who had a previous COVID-19 infection tested positive in the week starting Nov. 21. 
  • The 10.2 infection rate per 100,000 people on Long Island tops New York City’s rate of 8.6.

Dr. Bruce Farber, chief of public health and epidemiology for Northwell Health, said Long Island’s reinfection numbers likely aren't actually higher than those in New York City or the surrounding areas. He said the figures might be affected by a large number of nursing homes in the region.

He said it is vital for people to understand that being reinfected a second time with COVID-19 should be taken as seriously as a first infection.

“There’s some data just coming out that suggests the rate of long COVID and complications is just as high with reinfections as it was with the original infection,” Farber said. “So I don't think people should have a false sense of security that if they had COVID once they are out of the woods because that’s not necessarily true at all.”

One recent study from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and the Veterans Affairs St. Louis Health Care system found repeat infections can cause adverse health conditions in organ systems and can contribute to diabetes, kidney disease and mental health issues.

Farber pointed out that immunity from prior infections and vaccination does wane over time, paving the way for reinfection.

“We also know that some people seem to get more reinfections than others and that requires additional research to understand why,” he said.

While it’s important to track reinfections, said Dr. David J. Cennimo, an associate professor of medicine and pediatrics at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, it's also key to parse the difference between reinfection and severe illness.

“In the setting of continued evolution of the virus, the virus itself can change enough to render the antibodies generated from the vaccine or past infection ineffective,” he said. “One way to determine if this is happening is to monitor reinfection rates just as you'd measure rates of infection after vaccination.”

Reinfections are not unusual, Cennimo said. Before the emergence of COVID-19, there were coronaviruses that would cause colds or upper respiratory infections every year. Some data showed people would get reinfected every three to five years, he said.

Infections on the rise

First infections of COVID-19 appear to be increasing in Nassau and Suffolk counties as well, said Dr. Bruce Polsky, chair of the Department of Medicine at NYU Langone Hospital-Long Island.

“Now that we are getting closer to winter, people are gathering and people are moving indoors,” he said. “The uptake of the bivalent vaccine that was released in September has been low everywhere … people are accepting less protection.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 12.1% of the eligible population of people in the United States have received the updated bivalent booster shot, which is designed to provide protection against both the original strain of the virus that causes COVID-19 and some of the omicron subvariants.

Being boosted will not prevent all infections and reinfections but it will protect against severe illness, the experts said.

“We need to remind people that a mild infection in a vaccinated person who likely would have otherwise become significantly ill from COVID-19 is a success and not a vaccine failure,” Cennimo said.

Looking head

Infectious-disease experts are generally reluctant to speculate on the future of COVID-19, which has cut an unpredictable path since emerging three years ago.

But Polsky said it’s safe to assume there will be a lot of infections and reinfections this winter.

“What we don’t know and what we care about most is whether it will result in severe disease that results in hospitalization and potentially bad outcomes such as death,” he said.

Farber said tracking hospitalizations is key to monitoring future surges of COVID-19. He said there is reason to be hopeful about this winter, but warned of another virus that might cause even more illness and possible death.

“We're already almost a week out from Thanksgiving and I’m happy to know that although COVID is still out there in large numbers, hospitalization rates have not increased,” he said, adding that the current circulating strains of the virus appear to be less virulent.

“That’s the good news,” Farber said. “The bad news is that influenza rates are sky high and people are not vaccinated. We could be looking at 60,000 flu deaths in this country this year if these trends continue and under 100,000 COVID deaths. No one would've ever guessed a year ago that flu-related deaths could be within the ballpark of COVID-related deaths. And that's something that we need to be very concerned about. People need to get their flu shots. This is a fatal disease.”

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