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Latest COVID-19 surge leaves many Long Islanders frustrated, concerned

Much is still unknown about the new COVID-19

Much is still unknown about the new COVID-19 omicron variant. Sean Clouston, associate professor of public health at Stony Brook University, explains what we know so far, and Long Islanders talk about their experiences. Credit: Newsday / Reece T. Williams

Long Islanders say they’re frustrated by the latest wave of COVID-19 infections spurred by the highly contagious omicron variant, but while many are nervous about their health or that of loved ones, others are not so worried.

"I’m very concerned. I’m over 70," said Rochelle Weiner, 72, of East Meadow.

Weiner, who was wearing a KN95 mask — more protective than standard masks — while walking through Eisenhower Park in East Meadow on Wednesday, said she was anxious while teaching in-person math classes at Queensborough College.

"I’m hoping this COVID goes through its peak and then comes down, because I have to be back by the end of January," said Weiner, who has received her booster shot.

Rich Saravia, 60, of Westbury, who is unvaccinated, believes the anxiety over omicron is overblown.

"It’s a nonstop narrative that everybody’s in danger, and everybody’s going to die," he said.

Early studies indicate that omicron tends to cause less severe symptoms than previous variants. Saravia said that’s one reason he’s not worried about omicron.

"Nobody’s dying from this," he said. "Initially, the first one that came out [in early 2020], people were dying a lot. Now you’ve got one death from this new variant" confirmed in the United States.

Dr. Alan Bulbin, director of infectious diseases at St. Francis Hospital and Heart Center in Flower Hill, said the omicron wave is still very recent. And, he said, "We’re still seeing how it’s going to play out in the most vulnerable groups, the unvaccinated, elderly, immunocompromised, multiple medical problems, all those same patients who we’ve seen throughout the pandemic that when they get sick, they often progress and require hospitalization or more support. Is that going to be the same story with omicron? To some degree, I believe it will be."

Sean Clouston, an associate professor of public health at Stony Brook University, said even if the variant is less severe for most people, "We are still at risk of having our hospitals overrun" because of how contagious it is.

"If let’s say half as many people go to the hospital with omicron [per COVID-19 case] as compared to delta, but it spreads four times faster, it means we have more people in the hospital," he said.

Bruce Essuman, 19, who works at a retail store in Deer Park, said he hadn’t heard about the surge in cases. But the Deer Park man has noticed more people wearing masks when they enter the store than in previous months. The store hands out masks to those without one, he said.

Shenelle Jones, 26, a restaurant server from Wheatley Heights, said she always wears a mask to "protect myself and others."

She’s worried about the coronavirus surge, but she hasn’t decided whether to get a booster shot. Jones contracted the virus in September, despite being vaccinated, and she hears about how it is now spreading rapidly among vaccinated people.

"You’re still capable of getting it," Jones said. "It’s not a 100% shield."

Bulbin said although the extreme contagiousness of omicron has led to infections of some people even with boosters, the extra shot significantly reduces the risk of infection and of getting seriously ill or dying, especially compared with unvaccinated people.

'I want to follow the science'

Jaime Ortiz, 62, of Deer Park, who works in customer service at Kennedy Airport, said he received his booster earlier this month because "I work with hundreds of people, and I want to protect myself."

That, and wearing masks, makes him feel safer amid the surge.

"I want to follow the science," he said. "If doctors and the scientists say this is the way we have to move forward, I’ve got to comply with that."

Clouston said mask-wearing is a critical part of helping control the spread of omicron. And a tightfitting mask like a KN95 is much better than a cloth mask, he said.

Abigail Cox, 20, who is in Garden City staying with her family during her college winter break, received a booster, as did family members. But the new variant still worries her.

"My concern is that of my parents and grandparents, not about myself," she said. "I know my chances of recovering are a lot higher than theirs."

Cox also fears that the omicron surge will lead to a return to remote learning at the college where she studies interior design, Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg. Classes have been in-person there since the fall.

"It ruins everything," she said of the possibility of online classes. "It’s selfish of us to say it’s ruining things for us, because there are people dying, but we [wouldn’t have] the same experience because of it."

Cristina Saravia, 57, Rich Saravia’s wife, said she was buoyed to find "packed" stores despite the surge in cases.

"You’re hearing a lot where people are very concerned, but you look out there, like at the mall, it’s crowded," she said. "Some people, they just want to live their life as normal as possible. So that’s what I’m seeing. … To me, it makes me happy, because we want it to be normal."

Like her husband, Saravia remains unvaccinated. She knows people who have gotten sick after getting vaccinated, and she worries the vaccine may be more dangerous than getting COVID-19.

There are "a lot of unknowns," she said.

Rich Saravia said he believes "I’m healthy enough that I don’t need to" take the shot.

Clouston said there has been extensive research on the safety of the vaccines, including comparing disease and death rates of people who are vaccinated and unvaccinated. Although there’s no evidence vaccines are causing higher disease rates among the vaccinated — research indicates people who became ill with a medical condition after getting vaccinated would have gotten that condition anyway — "COVID causes a lot of diseases at much higher rates than in people who are vaccinated," he said.

Clouston said even though people with certain health conditions are more at risk for severe COVID-19, as are the oldest adults, many people hospitalized with the virus do not have underlying conditions and are roughly the Saravias’ age.

"There are lots of people who have passed away at 60 without any comorbidities at all," he said. "You’re not protected because you feel healthy."

What to know

Long Islanders are frustrated by yet another COVID-19 wave, and some are worried they or a family member or friend will get sick from the omicron variant.

Experts say that although early signs are that the variant tends to cause less severe symptoms, the large number of people getting infected could lead to overwhelmed hospitals.

Masks are key to helping control omicron, as are booster shots for those who are vaccinated, experts say. The unvaccinated are at far higher risk for infection and serious illness.

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