Medical experts say that with the omicron variant spreading rapidly and New Year’s gatherings expected to lead to a further spike in infections, the next few weeks will be an especially dangerous time to engage in public indoor activities.
"I know everybody’s frustrated and exhausted, but I would say it’s worth a pause for two weeks, meaning you should probably delay nonessential activities for two weeks," said Dr. Adhi Sharma, president of Mount Sinai South Nassau hospital in Oceanside.
That means indoor dining and going to movie theaters, concerts, sporting events, gyms and other indoor venues where the risk of contracting the coronavirus is higher, he said. The chance of contracting the virus is especially high this winter because omicron is so infectious, Sharma said.
"We’re not looking for a long-term hold," he said. "I do think this will go through quickly."
Sharma predicts positivity rates will peak in the days after New Year’s gatherings.
On Thursday, 27.1% of the coronavirus test results on Long Island were positive, and the 13,893 new COVID-19 cases were more than double the number from Monday. The seven-day positivity rate was 20.75%.
Late 2020 also saw a surge in cases and the positivity rate, largely because of people gathering indoors for the holidays. But this year is far worse because of omicron, experts said. On Dec. 30, 2020, the seven-day positivity rate on Long Island was 8.04%.
Dr. Bruce Farber, chief of public health and epidemiology for New Hyde Park-based Northwell Health, said that with the coronavirus, "It’s always been risk versus benefits, and everyone needs to make their own decisions on what risks they’re willing to take."
But, he said, the risk level is exceedingly high now.
"This wave will not last at this level, so whatever risk people are willing to take at this time, that risk I think is going to be dramatically lower a month from now, or by six weeks at the most," he said. "I think people should put that in the equation."
Although the numbers are much higher this winter compared with the same time last year, Sharma expects a roughly similar pattern.
Last winter’s peak in the seven-day positivity rate on Long Island was on Jan. 8, when it was 9.70%. The single-day peak was on Jan. 5, when 10.48% of tests came back positive.
Hospitalizations up 73%
Avoiding higher-risk activities also will help prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed, Sharma said. COVID-19 hospitalizations on Long Island rose more than 73% in just seven days, to 1,374 on Thursday, from 793 on Dec. 24, state Department of Health data shows.
Last winter, hospitalizations on the Island peaked on Jan. 18, at 1,701.
Unlike last year, hospitals are facing major staff shortages because of omicron, which is much more successful than previous variants in infecting vaccinated people, especially those who have not received booster shots — although the vaccine is still highly effective at keeping people from getting seriously ill. That means fewer health care workers to take care of a rapidly increasing number of patients.
"We’re seeing staff get sick at a rate we’ve never seen before," Sharma said.
By Friday morning, more than 200 employees of South Nassau were out sick with COVID-19, up from about 120 in a single day, Sharma said.
Farber predicted the massive spike in cases won't last long.
"The virus, when it burns through this many people this quickly, runs out of people to infect from a practical point of view," he said. "It cannot continue at this pace. There’s no question this wave will end. We’d have to be clairvoyant to guess whether that will be the first week in January, or the third week in January, or the first week in February."
It’s also difficult to predict what level coronavirus infections will remain at after the peak is over.
"Is that plateau going to very, very low, or will it just be lower than it is now?" he asked.
Omicron not only has caused a lot of breakthrough cases in vaccinated people, it also is much better able than previous variants to cause people who previously had COVID-19 to get sick again, Farber said. Studies show the re-infection rate could be as much as 10 times higher with omicron, he said.
"There’s no question omicron causes a dramatic increase risk in re-infections," he said. "The data is very strong."
Vaccinations have kept the omicron wave from being worse, said Dr. David Battinelli, a senior vice president at Northwell Health. Even though hospitalization rates are spiking, they would have surged far more without vaccinations.
The effect of vaccinations also is seen in death rates, which are far higher upstate than downstate.
Over the past several months, most people who have died of COVID-19 in New York have lived upstate. The disproportionate number of deaths upstate — far fewer people live upstate than downstate — is another indication of how the vaccine remains highly effective against severe disease and death, Battinelli said. Vaccination levels are much lower upstate than on Long Island and in New York City.
"If you’re not vaccinated or boosted, you’re putting yourself at extraordinary risk," Battinelli said. "If you’re vaccinated and boosted, with both variants, including omicron [and delta], it’s a less severe disease. And that’s the goal. The goal is to prevent as much infection as you can, but more importantly, prevent as much serious illness as you can."
K-12 schools prepare to return
Meanwhile, Long Island's K-12 schools return from the holiday break on Monday, with some districts looking to distribute rapid test kits to parents for their children and at least one going remote.
The Freeport district said it will operate on a virtual schedule. The district, which enrolls about 6,700 students, posted on its website that "due to the increase of positivity rates on Long Island, along with the potential of staffing impact," Freeport will go remote Monday through Jan. 7.
Eastern Suffolk BOCES chief operating officer Julie Lutz said BOCES will distribute 151,391 test kits to 51 school districts. Districts started picking up the kits Friday, and some will be picking them up on Sunday. BOCES will deliver to the remaining districts on Monday morning, she said.
The districts will come up with their own plan for distributing the kits, Lutz said. Eastern Suffolk BOCES has 5,000 students of its own, some full time and others part time. BOCES has yet to decide how it will distribute kits to those students and their parents, she said.
Huntington school district Superintendent James W. Polansky, in a letter to parents Friday, said parents can pick up kits Sunday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. in a drive-thru line at the high school. Kits also will be available Monday afternoon and thereafter at each student's school, the district said.
In Islip, Superintendent Dennis P. O’Hara said in a letter to parents that the district had received more than 500 test kits from Suffolk County and expected more from the state. He emphasized that there is no requirement for students to test to return to school and that the district is not yet sure how they will be distributed.
Nassau BOCES spokeswoman Angela Marshall said in a statement Friday that "Nassau BOCES gave out nearly 100,000 test kits to more than 20 districts today. We hope to distribute the rest on Monday or early next week."
At a COVID-19 briefing with Gov. Kathy Hochul on Friday, state operations director Katheryn Garcia said the state is continuing to ship tests to districts and BOCES.
By Saturday night, more than 5.28 million tests will have been shipped for distribution to schools, Jordan Guerrein, spokesman for the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services, said in an interview.
Another 6 million tests are expected by Monday, with some going to schools and others being sent elsewhere, such as to county emergency managers, he said.
With Joie Tyrrell and Craig Schneider
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What to know
Medical experts say the next few weeks will be an especially dangerous time to engage in public indoor activities, with the omicron variant spreading rapidly.
People should pause any nonessential activity for two weeks, said Dr. Adhi Sharma, president of Mount Sinai South Nassau hospital in Oceanside.
The risk of contracting COVID-19 is exceedingly high now, but the wave should be dramatically lower in a month or so, said Dr. Bruce Farber, chief of public health and epidemiology for Northwell Health.