Testing for COVID-19 may be important in stopping the spread...

Testing for COVID-19 may be important in stopping the spread of the virus at holiday gatherings. Credit: Newsday/William Perlman

COVID-19 rates rise every holiday season, as people gather for celebrations and meals and unknowingly spread the virus to family and friends. We asked four medical experts what to expect this year, amid what one doctor called “very poor” uptake of the new vaccine.

How many people have received the updated vaccine?

Two months after the release of the new vaccine, uptake remains low. As of Friday, the state reports that only 7.2% of Nassau residents, 6.8% of Suffolk residents and 8.7% of New Yorkers statewide outside New York City had received the vaccine — although the Department of Health warns that these numbers may be undercounts, because reporting no longer is mandatory. A separate federal survey, based on answers to a questionnaire rather than actual vaccinations, found that 14.8% of adults and 5.4% of children had received the new vaccine. Another 17.8% of adults said they will "definitely get a vaccine."

Why are Long Island vaccination numbers lower than the overall state numbers?

“I'm not sure that it matters a whole lot when there are minor differences between Long Island and the rest of the state,” said Dr. Bruce Farber, chief of public health and epidemiology for Northwell Health. “The fact is that all of the numbers are very poor and nothing in the range that people in public health would have hoped for.”

Why are so few people getting the COVID-19 vaccine?

“Vaccination fatigue” is one reason, said Dr. Martín Bäcker, associate director of the NYU Langone Hospital–Long Island Vaccine Center and an infectious disease expert.

Dr. Martin Bäcker, Associate Director of the NYU Langone Hospital-Long...

Dr. Martin Bäcker, Associate Director of the NYU Langone Hospital-Long Island Vaccine Center. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

But he said more needs to be done to promote awareness of the vaccine. Bäcker said he regularly tells patients and subjects in his research studies that “an, updated COVID-19 vaccine is recommended for everybody six months and older. I cannot tell you how many people say, ‘I didn't know that.’”

I’m 30 and healthy. Why should I get vaccinated?

Even though the main benefit of the vaccine is to give protection against severe illness, the vaccine provides about two to three months of “good protection” against even mild infections, Bäcker said. So if you’re vaccinated and at a family gathering, you’re less likely to infect others.

“It’s something nice to do for yourself but also your loved ones, to get updated protection,” said Bäcker, adding that it can take up to two weeks for the vaccine to reach its peak effect.

“The overwhelming majority” of healthy younger adults won’t get seriously ill from COVID-19, Farber said.

Yet older adults, and “people who are frail with chronic underlying illnesses — heart disease, lung disease, diabetes and the like” — remain vulnerable to serious complications from COVID-19, as do immunocompromised people, said Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville.

If I got vaccinated a year or two ago, or I got sick from COVID-19, doesn’t that protect me?

It provides a “low level of protection,” Bäcker said. By July-September 2022, more than 96% of Americans had some COVID-19 antibodies from vaccination or previous infection, according to a CDC study released in June.

But, Bäcker said, “The level of protection decreases with time,” and the updated vaccine provides a boost to the immune system and is more effective against the variants of the virus now circulating.

Besides vaccination, what can I do to reduce my risk of infection or to protect vulnerable loved ones?

Wear a mask in crowded places, especially if you are at higher risk for severe COVID-19 or will be in contact with vulnerable people, Schaffner said.

Few likely will wear masks at Thanksgiving get-togethers, but you can reduce risk by testing before you go, Farber said.

How do hospitalizations this year compare with previous years?

On Nov. 17, 2022, there were 461 hospitalizations on Long Island, the highest mid-November level of hospitalizations since the pandemic began. As of Nov. 17 of this year, that number is less than half, 185. Each year of COVID-19 has had somewhat different patterns. One similarity: Cases have always risen significantly after Thanksgiving.

What's been the recent trend for COVID-19?

COVID-19 hospitalizations have been roughly level on Long Island for the past few weeks after increasing more than 500% between late June and early October, to 326 cases on Oct. 5.

Where will numbers go in the coming weeks?

Schaffner said that with most people having at least some immunity, and with “seemingly less severe strains” of the virus circulating, there likely won’t be a huge surge in hospitalizations.

“But we will see an increase,” he said.

Bäcker said the trajectory of COVID-19 is difficult to predict, in part because the virus is constantly changing. He pointed to the unexpectedly “astronomical” number of infections during the first omicron wave of late 2021 and early 2022.

“What curveball is this virus going to throw at us?” he asked.

Why will numbers probably go up during the holidays?

“There’s a lot more traveling, there’s a lot more congregation of families and people,” said Dr. Grace Ting, chief medical officer at Nassau University Medical Center in East Meadow.
With the virus currently less virulent for most people, many people don’t have symptoms, she said.

Dr. Grace Ting, Deputy Chief Medical Officer of Nassau University...

Dr. Grace Ting, Deputy Chief Medical Officer of Nassau University Medical Center and Associate Director of the emergency department. Credit: Johnny Milano/Johnny Milano

“People are less apt to test, and they don’t know they have the virus, and then they will go visit their families,” Ting said.
The end of the federal public health emergency in May meant that tests often are no longer free, and that also likely will decrease testing, she said.

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