A potential COVID-19 perfect storm may be hitting Long Island: new cases of the virus and positivity rates are soaring, a new variant has arrived, the holiday season surge has started, winter is coming, and many people still refuse to get vaccinated.
Infectious disease specialists say they expect the current trend to get worse before it gets better, but they are hoping Long Island doesn’t repeat the worst days of the pandemic.
"There are a lot of factors that, taken all together, would suggest we’re going to see things get worse before they stabilize and get better," said Dr. David Hirschwerk, an infectious-disease expert at New Hyde Park-based Northwell Health.
Dr. Sharon Nachman, chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Stony Brook Children's Hospital, agreed that the numbers would probably get worse in the near term, but is optimistic Long Island will weather the surge, especially as more people get vaccinated.
"Even with a lot of people not being vaccinated, we still are making progress with vaccinating adults, getting boosters, and more importantly, the ability to vaccinate children is definitely going to help us," Nachman said.
What to know
Medical experts say they're worried as new cases of the virus and positivity rates soar on Long Island, a new variant has arrived, the holiday season surge is just starting, and many people still refuse to get vaccinated.
Doctors are hopeful the region will not see a repeat of the worst days of the pandemic — especially if more people get vaccinated.
“COVID fatigue” is hurting the Island’s campaign against the virus as mitigation measures — including masking and social distancing — are loosened.
Long Island’s COVID-19 indicators have taken off in the past few weeks, and especially this week in a post-Thanksgiving surge.
New cases rising on LI
The number of new daily cases jumped to nearly 2,000 on Wednesday. That included 1,079 in Suffolk County and 890 in Nassau County, for a total of 1,969.
That came close to the total for New York City, which logged 2,364 new cases, though the five boroughs have nearly triple the population of Long Island.
The figures on Long Island were about half the all-time pandemic highs for each county. In contrast, on May 22, the number in Nassau was 15, while it was 13 in Suffolk on June 1.
The numbers were high again on Thursday, again hitting almost 2,000. Suffolk had 1,102 cases, and Nassau had 856, for a total of 1,958. New York City had 2,389.
On top of that, the first case of the omicron variant was reported in Suffolk County on Thursday, along with four cases in New York City. Medical experts expect many more to come.
Long Island’s positivity level for testing for the virus also has nearly tripled from a low of 2.08% on Oct. 28 to 5.83% on Thursday. On Tuesday, it was at 5.17%.
The positivity level is the percentage of people who test positive for the virus — meaning they are infected — out of the total that get tested that day.
Statewide, 49 people died on Thursday of causes linked to the virus, including one death on Long Island.
Grace McGovern-Kelly, a spokesperson for the Suffolk County Department of Health, said Suffolk was seeing an increase in cases like much of the country. "Fortunately, nearly 90% of our residents have received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine, which has kept our hospitalization rates comparatively low," she said.
Outgoing Nassau County Executive Laura Curran's office did not respond to a request for comment. Incoming executive Bruce Blakeman said he was monitoring the situation, including the omicron variant, and that the county health department was working with hospitals "to ensure they are prepared should cases emerge."
'COVID fatigue' drives increase
Dr. Alan M. Bulbin, director of infectious disease at Catholic Health St. Francis Hospital & Heart Center in Flower Hill, said the rise in the indicators on Long Island is "concerning and it’s clearly what’s been predicted — there would be a winter surge."
Another factor driving the increasing numbers was what he called "COVID fatigue" — the loosening of mitigation measures such as masking and social distancing, partly because people had become tired of them and wanted to return to normal life.
He now feels more comfortable eating dinner at a restaurant in New York City than on Long Island, he said, because in the city people must show proof of vaccination before entering — a mandate that covers everything from Knicks basketball games to Broadway shows to fast-food restaurants.
"It’s no wonder you have surging numbers" on Long Island given the confluence of factors, he said. "Who knows how far it is going to go is the big question."
The omicron variant is not yet part of the equation, Hirschwerk noted, because it is just arriving.
"All of what we are seeing now is driven by delta," he said. "It has nothing really to do with omicron."
Vaccination rate high on LI
Yet the experts are hopeful Long Island won’t see a complete repeat of the worst periods of the pandemic.
The region has better vaccination rates than other parts of the country, doctors now have better means of treating COVID-19 patients, and children 5 and older are now eligible to get the shots, along with all adults.
Nachman believes many people who are "on the fence" about getting vaccinated have decided to do so, she said, partly because of the omicron variant.
She said she didn’t think the COVID-19 situation on Long Island would "get as bad as last year. I have a fair amount of optimism that the vaccine will in fact prevent hospitalizations and deaths, and that’s going to be key for us."
The critical factor, she and others said, is for more people to get vaccinated or boosted.
"We want to be optimistic," she said. "We want to say there is going to be a way out, and it’s going to take all of us pulling together to work that way out."
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