Even before some family gatherings provide a potential breeding ground for the coronavirus, Suffolk County residents have tested positive for COVID-19 at rates not seen since the worst of the first wave, in April.
In the last day, 501 people have tested positive for the coronavirus which is the highest number since April. That represents a 4 percent positive test rate, which is also the highest figure since May 18.
“It is unclear if we are plateauing or whether [these numbers] will continue to go up,” County Executive Steve Bellone (D) said on a conference call with reporters. He is concerned about “where we may go after the Thanksgiving holidays.”
Indeed, Dr. Shahida Iftikhar, Deputy Commissioner for the Department of Health, said the numbers were likely climbing as a result of smaller gatherings, which is what triggered an increase after the Halloween weekend.
Long Island surpassed 1,000 cases on Tuesday, according to officials. More communities on Long Island are close to being named so-called yellow zones by the state, which might mean more restrictions and the potential rolling back of the phased reopening seen earlier this year.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) said during his Wednesday livestream the virus is being spread mainly by bars and restaurants that sell alcohol, gyms and small gatherings. New restrictions have been placed on all three earlier this month. Cuomo also said places like Monroe County, whose officials said cases were mainly due to small gatherings and not places like gyms, were outliers, and stressed people limit gatherings on Thanksgiving.
“I give thanks for the intelligence of New Yorkers, but we have to stay safe, we have to keep the infection rate down through the thanksgiving holiday,” he said. ““Don’t be a turkey, wear a mask this Thanksgiving.”
Despite the move away from contact tracing in other regions with widespread community spread, Suffolk County continues to use contact tracers to call people who have received positive tests and to warn anyone they might have infected.
For those residents who have received a negative COVID test and plan to gather with family and friends, Dr. Gregson Pigott, Commissioner in the County Department of Health, cautioned that people can have a negative test and still transmit the virus after they are exposed.
There is a lot of “asymptomatic spread,” Pigott warned.
To limit the spread of the virus, Bellone urged people to follow state guidelines, limiting gatherings to 10 people, washing their hands, wearing face coverings where possible and keeping a distance of at least six feet, particularly from vulnerable members of the population.
In anticipation of gatherings, the Suffolk County Police Department has added patrols and will perform compliance checks with bars and restaurants to ensure that these businesses are adhering to the state requirements that they shut down indoor food and beverage service after 10 p.m.
The SCPD will not go from house to house counting cars, but they will respond to any reports of private residences that exceed the 10-person limit.
New York State has designated Riverhead and Hampton Bays as yellow zones. Bellone encouraged residents living within these zones to get tested. Residents can find testing sites at the web site suffolkcountyny.gov.
Cuomo said New York, among other states, has started adding field hospitals again, much like what was seen during the first wave of the pandemic. The first field hospital has been set up in Staten Island, though more be on the way.
Free testing sites, supported by New York State, are opening Monday at the Northwell Health Dolan Family Healthy Center in Huntington and on Tuesday at Sun River Health in Patchogue.
As the Board of Elections continues to count votes, Bellone said one of the people who worked for the elections tested positive. The county has tested 111 people who worked in the building, with eight people testing positive and 37 quarantined because of close contact.
On the positive side, Suffolk County’s testing in schools in Riverhead and Hampton Bays has demonstrated a low rate of infection. In Riverhead, 12 out of 524 people tested positive, while Hampton Bays had four positive tests out of 417 people tested.
“While we continue to monitor the rise in cases, we are not currently seeing community spread happening in our schools,” Bellone said. “As long as students and faculty are kept safe, schools should remain open.”
Additional reporting by Kyle Barr