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Rate of positive tests on LI trending down, data shows

Jones Beach is one of two state-run coronavirus

Jones Beach is one of two state-run coronavirus testing locations on Long Island. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

The percentage of people testing positive for the new coronavirus on Long Island has fallen for three weeks, but public health experts cautioned the trend may not indicate the rate of new infections is slowing.

The decline in positive results comes amid efforts to expand testing on Long Island and elsewhere. Epidemiologists and elected officials, including Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, have said a massive increase in testing for the virus is necessary to safely relax stay-at-home orders. And Suffolk and Nassau counties are expanding testing in minority communities after data showed the virus has disproportionately killed New Yorkers of color.

Thirty-six percent of the 34,700 people tested for COVID-19 on Long Island in the week ending April 18 had the virus, a Newsday analysis of data published on the New York State Department of Health website showed. That’s down from 45% of 39,400 tests the week prior and 51% of 29,900 tests the week before that.

New York State has seen a similar trend in recent weeks. Thirty-five percent of tests came back positive in the week ending April 18, compared with 42% the week before and 48% the week before that.

Health Department spokesman Jonah Bruno linked the declines to measures aimed at mitigating the virus’ spread.

“Reductions in cases help demonstrate the success of the Governor’s PAUSE order and the work of state, local and federal health officials to respond to the pandemic,” he wrote in an email. “However, that success only indicates that we must continue to remain indoors as much as possible and practice social isolation, to prevent infection rates from rising once more.”

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However, the drop in positive results does not necessarily signal the outbreak is receding in New York, public health experts said.

Danielle Ompad, a professor of epidemiology at New York University School of Global Public Health, noted testing has so far been restricted primarily to symptomatic people, while many others who feel fine but may have the virus have gone untested.

“It could be slowing down a bit,” she said. But “we want to understand how many people in the community are infected or previously were infected. And there has just not been enough testing to accomplish that.”

More than 500,000 tests have been conducted in New York in the past four weeks, more than a fifth of which were on Long Island. But Cuomo said last weekend that is "only a fraction of what we need.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have estimated some 25% of infected people have no symptoms. But a fever, cough or shortness of breath have remained criteria for receiving a test in many places on Long Island.

Those seeking a test at Jones Beach or Stony Brook University — two state-run sites that together average more than 1,200 tests per day — must first answer a series of questions on the state Health Department website about symptoms, contact with infected people, travel history and medical conditions.

Bruno said the criteria for receiving a test at state-run sites have not changed.

On Saturday, however, Cuomo announced the state would expand testing to allow front-line workers and employees of essential businesses to get tested even if they aren't showing symptoms.

But because testing has thus far mostly been limited to the obviously ill, the falling rate of positive results on Long Island does not clearly reflect the breadth of the outbreak locally, said Jaymie Meliker, a professor at Stony Brook University School of Medicine.

“It might be that social distancing has reduced the number of people who are getting sick and that's reflected there. But you just can’t tell without it being random samples,” he said.

While more than 271,000 New Yorkers had tested positive for the virus as of Friday, Meliker estimated the true number of infections in the state is at least 10 times that amount.

While the positive test rate has declined, Nassau and Suffolk counties have worked to increase testing in communities of color that have among the largest numbers of cases per capita on Long Island.

Suffolk County has opened “hot spot” testing sites in Brentwood, Riverhead, Huntington Station, Wyandanch, Coram and North Amityville. On Wednesday, Nassau-backed testing sites opened in Hempstead and Freeport.

“The goal was to get more testing in African-American communities that we saw were hit hard by the virus,” Nassau County Executive Laura Curran said.

African-Americans make up 10% of Long Island's population but 16% of those who had died from the virus in Nassau and Suffolk as of Thursday, state Health Department data shows.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said he hopes increasing testing in hard-hit communities will slow new infections there. 

He said on Thursday that 1,477 people have received tests at the Suffolk sites. The county had received results for 1,077 of those tests and 54% were positive.

“That number is a lot higher than the overall number in the county, which stands at around 40%,” Bellone said. The higher rate could reflect the small sample size or it “could mean more people are infected there,” he said.

But figuring out who currently has the virus is only one front in the campaign to use testing in the fight against the pandemic.

To estimate the true scope of the outbreak, New York last week tested a random group of 3,000 people for antibodies against COVID-19. Cuomo announced Thursday the study suggests 14% of New Yorkers may have had the virus.

Meliker said routine, randomized tests for both the virus and antibodies would be the ideal testing strategy. But he noted such an approach has not yet been feasible.

“That would help us learn a lot,” he said. “But we’ve mainly been in trying-to-prevent-catastrophe mode.”

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