With the omicron surge fading, medical experts on Long Island say they are more confident going without a mask in public, but have yet to completely ditch face coverings.
Physicians and health educators contacted by Newsday — all of whom have provided authoritative information about the coronavirus pandemic for previous stories — said the signs are clear that the pandemic could be waning. Nonetheless, the possibility of another omicron surge or a new variant, despite the falling COVID-19 case and positivity numbers, has kept them cautious and weighing personal safety choices based on the situation.
"I’m personally still more comfortable wearing a mask in public spaces like supermarkets, when there are gatherings, just until I see the numbers consistently staying low for a couple of weeks," said Dr. Eve Meltzer-Krief, a pediatrician in Huntington and a local representative of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
She is also recommending that unvaccinated or immunocompromised people keep their masks on for now.
"When I feel like there is no new variant on the horizon and when we’ve been able to keep those numbers consistently low," Meltzer-Krief said, "I’ll be more comfortable and looking forward to taking it off."
Fading omicron cases represent a "transition" moment but the variant is still out there, said Dr. David Battinelli, physician-in-chief at Northwell Health.
Even so, Battinelli said he is comfortable at this point going without a mask in many situations such as in stores.
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Source: New York State Department of Health
"I think for the first time people including myself are starting to feel more comfortable not wearing a mask certainly at outdoor events and at some indoor places," he said.
But it also largely depends on who he will be around — vaccinated or unvaccinated people — and who he needs to protect, Battinelli said.
He does not currently have a parent or grandparent living with him, but if he did, "I might be a little bit more careful."
Battinelli said that if he was going to visit his mother in the near future, he would probably wear a mask for at least the week before help protect her.
He expects the situation to get better and better as the weeks go on — provided the COVID-19 numbers continue to stay low.
But if numbers reverse, Battinelli said, he will put the mask right back on.
"If there was any uptick at all," he said, "I think early masking is going to be the key."
Dr. Aaron Glatt, chair of the department of medicine at Mount Sinai South Nassau hospital in Oceanside, said he routinely goes without a mask in most public places, including the synagogue where, as a rabbi, he leads weekly services.
If he is in a location that is poorly ventilated, and unfamiliar with others there and whether they are vaccinated, Glatt said he wears a face covering.
"I think we’re in a pretty good place but not to be complacent," he said, stressing that people who have COVID-19 symptoms should stay home.
He added that getting vaccinated and boosted is still the best way to avoid becoming seriously sick from the virus.
Dr. Alan Bulbin, director of infectious disease at Catholic Health St. Francis Hospital & Heart Center in Roslyn, said he has a similar approach as Glatt — if it is a big, open, well-ventilated store, he will go without a mask. But in smaller, more crowded locations where there may lines of people waiting, he still wears one.
Bulbin said he is not ready to eat indoors at a restaurant, "but probably getting there."
He has not had a chance to attend an indoor concert or sports game, but would go — though he might wear a mask.
"If it was something that I definitely wanted to do, I would do it," Bulbin said. "I do think the trends are quite encouraging and the numbers are down and the hospitalizations are down."
Even if there is a small uptick in cases, the hospitals will be able to handle it, he added.
Sean Clouston, an associate professor of public health at Stony Brook University, said he recently hosted a brunch with friends at his house for the first time since the omicron variant hit.
But he and his family are still playing it safe in general since they have an upcoming trip that will involve air travel.
"If it’s a small, packed store, I still feel uncomfortable" and wear a mask, he said.
COVID-19 indicators remained at relatively low levels in the latest test results, with 78 new daily cases in Nassau County and 58 in Suffolk County in results from Sunday.
Long Island's seven-day positivity average was 1.62% while it averaged 7.10 cases per 100,000 people — the second-lowest level of any region in the state.
Statewide, 17 people including two in Suffolk died on Sunday of causes linked to the virus.
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