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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Photo from Deposit Photos

By Daniel Dunaief

In a nod to the herd immunity from a combination of illnesses and vaccinations in the population, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is widely expected to reduce the recommended number of days of isolation after a positive test to one day from five days.

Even as most of the population has returned to a normal life after the pandemic — toughing through colds with relatively mild symptoms at work and staying home, for the most part, when symptoms become severe — the CDC had urged Americans to remain isolated for five days.

“Covid has diminished as a real threat for the majority of people,” said Dr. Sharon Nachman, Chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital. “The responsiveness between vaccinations and multiple events [such as infections] is reasonable to prevent hospitalization and death in most people.”

In addition, Covid treatments, such as Pfizer’s Paxlovid, have become effective in reducing the severity and duration of symptoms.

The CDC likely couldn’t have provided such guidance a year ago, but, for most people, the consequence of contracting the virus that altered the course of life for people for several years, has been less problematic for their health, doctors said.

Despite ongoing illnesses and symptoms, people have become less likely to test for Covid.

“Insurance companies used to pay for eight per month, but now, people just buy one [test box] at a time,” said Michael DeAngelis, the owner of Village Chemist in Setauket.

Dr. Sunil Dhuper, chief medical officer at Port Jefferson’s St. Charles Hospital, understood the CDC’s decision, with an important warning.

“The rationale behind changing the timing of isolation guidelines is based on looking at the evolving severity of cases,” Dhuper said.

“People who are younger get more mild levels of illness and recover,” he added.

Concerns for the elderly

“The disease is beginning to behave more and more like other respiratory viruses, but we are not there yet,” Dr. Dhuper cautioned, particularly for those who are over 65.

Hospitalization for people who contract Covid is 11.2 per 100,000 for people over 65, compared with 6.9 per 100,000 in the week ending Feb. 10, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

The mortality for those over 65 from Covid is higher than for the flu, Dr. Dhuper said.

“We have to be a little cautious, sending a message to the community that you can continue to do what you want to do,” Dr. Dhuper said. “When they are around the elderly” people, particularly those who might have symptoms even if they haven’t been tested, should consider wearing masks or keeping their distance.

The incidence of Covid, among other illnesses, climbed after the December holidays and the start of 2024, as people traveled to visit with family or on vacations. Those numbers have come down, although the upcoming spring break from secondary schools and colleges raises the possibility that illnesses could climb again, doctors predicted.

Be careful of grandkids

While the public may not want to hear it, Dr. Dhuper expected that it might take another five years before Covid reaches a comparable level of potential risk to the elderly as the flu, which could also present a risk to people’s health.

Dr. Dhuper urged those who have symptoms to test themselves for Covid. Even if they don’t isolate themselves for more than 24 hours, they should be cautious around vulnerable groups.

Dr. Dhuper’s advice to grandparents is to “be careful when you’re around your grandkids, because they are like petri dishes, harboring tons of infections.”

While for many people in the community, Covid has become like white noise, it’s still causing medical problems and leading to some hospitalizations, the St. Charles doctor added.

Any change in isolation guidance from the CDC should come with an asterisk that “yes, we are changing the guidelines, but people should still exercise precautions,” Dr. Dhuper said.

Vaccination research

Amid discussions related to vaccines, Dr. Nachman added that several compelling papers have demonstrated that people who are up to date on their vaccines, including flu, are at lower risk for dementia.

The link between vaccinations and overall brain health is unclear, and it is possible that people who receive vaccines also have a lifestyle that reduces the risk of developing dementia.

“We have an aging population in New York, particularly on Long Island,” said Dr. Nachmman. “If we want to keep them healthier longer, getting appropriate medical care, including vaccines, is probably helpful.”

Pixabay photo

By Aramis Khorso

The ongoing struggle between adolescents and suicide problems has become increasingly prominent in recent years. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide has been among the top three leading causes of death for children and young adults ages 10 through 34. 

The battle against anxiety and depression, which are the main causes of adolescent suicide, has been surging among young adults. According to the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, such mental health disorders, which are treatable, have increased since 2003 among children aged 6–17. The mental health and suicide epidemic rose to such unignorable heights that the U.S. Surgeon General declared the pediatric mental health crisis a national emergency in 2021.

To many, these statistics are rightly shocking and frightening. For Stony Brook University undergraduate senior Vignesh Subramanian, they were a call for action. He had observed the consequences of untreated anxiety and depression in children throughout his own adolescence. This, as well as the declared national crisis combined, made him decide it was time to take a stance and help out other young adults suffering from mental health problems. 

“We were already aware that this was a new phenomenon,” Subramanian said. “People had not been this stressed before — I was seeing this among my peers. Something had to be done. It was amounting to something of a crisis, and then these official declarations came out.” 

Subramanian recognized that many communities, especially schools and other educational facilities, were unequipped to respond to this mental health crisis adequately. He pointed out that mental health disorders are still “overtly stigmatized,” adding, “Parents and schools alike don’t know how to support students and get the help they need or can’t accommodate them properly.” 

In early 2022, Subramanian established a youth-led organization called One More Option that is dedicated to helping provide as many resources and services as they can to young adults suffering from anxiety, depression or any suicidal-related mental issues. Subramanian emphasized during this interview that “a youth-led, youth-driven response to the crisis was what was needed.”

He decided to take his mission to the state Legislature in Connecticut in 2022. “Our M.O. is to draft legislation on our own, then present it to the state Legislature, then we advance it from there,” he said. 

Working with former Connecticut Sen. Will Haskell (D-Westport), Subramanian was able to successfully draft policies that he wrote himself into the Connecticut General Assembly. He was able to draft two main reforms: The establishment of mental health days in K–12 schools and more accessible outpatient counseling sessions that minors would be able to seek. 

As can be expected, there was some opposition that Subramanian had to face while fighting to get his reforms drafted. However, Haskell was able to provide what Subramanian called a “powerful rebuttal” of the counterarguments made against the reforms. “It was inspiring to see how we were able to surmount that opposition,” Subramanian recalled.

One More Option deservedly enjoyed its victory in Connecticut, but didn’t stop there. Subramanian and his organization hope to have the same success they’ve had in Connecticut in New York. Currently, New York has no policy on student suicide prevention. Since 2019, New York State Sen. Brad Hoylman-Sigal (D-Manhattan) and Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell (D-Manhattan) have been repeatedly presenting the Student Suicide Prevention Act to the state Legislature. Unfortunately, the SSPA has been stalled over the past few years due to “disputes over its contents.” 

Using the framework provided by the SSPA and with the support of over 20 collegiate student governments from schools in New York, Subramanian and One More Option hope to see a statewide suicide prevention law enacted. Recently, Subramanian and Hoylman-Sigal’s office have incorporated some reforms Subramanian wrote into the SSPA, which have been approved. 

One of the main reforms that Subramanian made to the SSPA was the inclusion of college students. With these revisions, the SSPA would require K–12 schools, as well as higher educational facilities, to create guidelines and policies on how staff would react to students in suicidal crises. Subramanian spoke about the “optimistic feeling” he has due to the widespread support the act is gathering for this reformed version of the SSPA.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

News Flash: Generated by ChatGPT, edited by our staff

• FDA approves RSV vaccines for the first time. These vaccines target the respiratory syncytial virus, a seasonal lung-related illness, with recommendations for adults over 60 and pregnant women in specific gestational weeks.

• Infants under eight months born to mothers without the RSV vaccination can receive monoclonal antibody treatment, providing immunological protection against severe RSV symptoms.

• There are challenges in accessing RSV shots, including delayed processing by insurance companies and pharmacy shortages. Health officials urge residents to advocate for themselves, emphasizing the importance of timely vaccinations given the approaching RSV season.

For the first time, vaccines against the respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV — a lung-related illness that crops up during the fall and winter — have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The FDA recommends that adults ages 60 and older receive a dose of the vaccine, either Pfizer’s Abrysvo or GSK’s Arexvy, within the next few weeks.

Women in their 32nd to 36th week of pregnancy at some point during September through January are also urged to receive Abrysvo.

For babies born to mothers who didn’t receive a dose of the RSV vaccine, the FDA has approved a monoclonal antibody treatment for infants eight months old and younger that will offer immunological protection against a common and prevalent respiratory condition that can lead to severe symptoms and hospitalizations.

Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend a dose of RSV antibody for children between eight and 19 months entering their second RSV season if they have chronic lung disease, are severely immunocompromised, have a severe form of cystic fibrosis or are American Indian or Alaska Natives.

Dr. Sharon Nachman, chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital. File photo from Stony Brook Medicine

While local doctors welcomed the opportunity to inoculate residents, they said finding these treatments has been difficult.

“People are having a hard time getting” the vaccine, said Dr. Sharon Nachman, chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital.

Some pharmacies have told patients to come back, which decreases the likelihood that they will return for vaccinations in time, Nachman said.

Additionally, insurance companies have not immediately processed requests for vaccinations, which also slows the process, she said.

Nachman recommended that residents “continue to go back and advocate for yourself” because that is “the only way you’ll get what you need.”

RSV season starts around November, which means residents qualified to receive the vaccine or parents with infants need to reach out to their health care providers now to receive some protection against the virus.

Childhood illness

According to recent data, RSV caused 2,800 hospitalizations per 100,000 children in the first year of life, Nachman said. The range can go as low as 1,500 per 100,000.

However, that only captures the number of hospitalized people and doesn’t include all the times anxious parents bring their sick children to doctor’s offices or walk-in clinics.

“Hospitalizations are the worst of the group, [but] it’s a much bigger pyramid” of people who develop RSV illnesses, Nachman said.

In addition to recommending monoclonal treatment for children under eight months old, the CDC urges parents to get this treatment for vulnerable children who are under two years old.

Dr. Gregson Pigott, commissioner of the Suffolk County Department of Health Services. File photo

Like other vaccinations, the RSV vaccine won’t prevent people from getting sick. It will, however, likely reduce the symptoms and duration of the illness.

“In trials, RSV vaccines significantly reduced lower respiratory tract lung infections serious enough to require medical care,” Dr. Gregson Pigott, Suffolk County Health Commissioner, explained in an email.

At its worst, the symptoms of RSV — such as fever, cough and serious respiratory illness — are problematic enough that it’s worth putting out extra effort to receive some immune protection.

“If you’re a little kid or an elderly patient, this is a disease you don’t want to get,” Nachman said.

Pigott said that data analysis shows that RSV vaccines are 85% effective against severe symptoms of the virus.

While people can receive the COVID-19 and flu vaccines simultaneously, doctors recommend getting the RSV vaccine two weeks later.

According to preliminary data, eligible residents may benefit from the RSV vaccine for two seasons, which means they would likely need to receive the shot every other year, according to Pigott.

With two vaccines approved for adults, Pigott recommended that people receive whichever shot is available.

“Both reduce a person’s chances of getting very serious lung infections,” Pigott explained, adding that several measures can help people protect themselves from the flu, RSV and COVID.

Getting a vaccine, washing hands, avoiding touching your eyes, nose or mouth, avoiding close contact with people who are sick with respiratory symptoms and wearing a mask in places where respiratory viruses are circulating can all help.

Those who are symptomatic should stay home when they are sick and wear masks when they are around other people.

Suffolk County Department of Health Services officials indicated they are aware of the challenges of getting shots and monoclonal antibodies and “ask people to be patient.”

As children return to school this fall, doctors in Suffolk County expect COVID-19 cases to rise. Photo by Ronny Sefria from Pixabay

People may think COVID-19 is out of sight and out of mind, but the virus, which is still around and is making people sick, doesn’t care. 

The new variant of COVID, EG.5, or “Eris,” is making people sick in the area, with hospital admissions and visits creeping up over the last few weeks.

Left, Dr. Gregson Pigott, commissioner of the Suffolk County Department of Health Services. Right, Dr. Sharon Nachman, chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital. Left file photo; right file photo from Stony Brook Medicine

As of Aug. 9, 105 patients were hospitalized with COVID across the entire Northwell system, including 82 people on Long Island. That compares with 63 hospitalized patients on July 9, with 46 on Long Island exactly a month earlier.

That’s also the case for other area hospitals, doctors said.

“The numbers are definitely going up,” said Dr. Sharon Nachman, chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital. “That’s probably a snapshot of what we expect in the fall and the winter.”

Dr. Gregson Pigott, commissioner of the Suffolk County Department of Health Services, explained that COVID-19 is “no longer an emergency” but is “still with us and we continue to see new variants.”

In an email, Pigott explained that the county has seen a “slight uptick in hospitalizations” that is still low in comparison to the earlier days of the pandemic.

He urged those at high risk to take precautions that could include avoiding crowded places, wearing a mask and meeting people at outdoor venues rather than indoors.

While the numbers of people sick with COVID are substantially lower than they were during the worst of the pandemic in 2020, health care professionals suggested that the fall and winter could be challenging for families, particularly as children return to school.

“The first two weeks of school, every kid is sick,” said Nachman. “Come November-ish, that’s when we see” that increase.

Dr. Bruce Hirsch, attending physician in Infectious Disease at Northwell Health, also anticipates a rise in COVID-19 cases coming this fall and early winter.

“I think there’s a very good chance that a lot of people will be having COVID,” he said.

Hirsch added that the symptoms for those people who don’t have underlying medical conditions, such as cardiac or lung-related problems, are likely to be considerably milder than they had been in the early stages of the disease, when no one had resistance.

“The sickness will not have the severity and mortality except in those of us who are unfortunate to have weak immune systems, other health problems or who are elderly or frail,” Hirsch said.

Pigott added that Eris, which is a subvariant of omicron, is not a variant of interest or concern, according to the World Health Organization.

Vaccine options

Doctors urged people to consider getting vaccines for COVID, the flu and respiratory syncytial virus for this coming fall.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration are expected to approve the latest booster for COVID in late September or early October.

The newest booster, which should be available from Pfizer, Novavax and Moderna, should include protection against the latest COVID strain.

“The new booster formulation is much more similar and much more protective [against] the current strains,” Hirsch said. “The booster available now is protective against a couple of strains ago.”

Pigott urged people to get the new vaccines in the fall when they become available and before the holidays.

The vaccination may not prevent infection or all symptoms, but doctors suggested it would make illnesses shorter and less severe and could make the virus less infectious.

That could be particularly helpful for those who might otherwise develop more significant symptoms as their bodies attempt to fight off the virus.

Health care professionals suggested residents could receive several vaccines at the same time, enabling their immune systems to build resistance to a host of potential health threats.

“Our immune systems can chew gum and walk at the same time,” said Hirsch. “They are miraculous at reacting to all kinds of things every day anyway. The immune system is more than up to the challenge of handling two [shots] at the same time.”

Receiving several shots at once could give people a sore arm and a short-term fever that will likely respond to Tylenol, Nachman said.

“The science has shown that if you give a bunch of vaccines, you get a great response to everything,” Nachman added.

People who would prefer to get the vaccines in separate doses should space them out over several weeks, rather than getting one after another on consecutive days, she said.

Warning to pregnant women

Apart from viral infections, doctors warned pregnant women and those who might get pregnant  this winter about the ongoing shortage of a form of penicillin to treat syphilis.

Penicillin G benzathine, or Bicillin, is expected to be in short supply through the start of the summer of 2024.

The medicine is not only the only treatment recommended for pregnant people with syphilis, but is also the only one recommended for infants.

“We are prioritizing that medicine specifically only for that vulnerable population,” said Nachman.

The dangers of syphilis in pregnant women are significant, with the CDC estimating that about 40% of babies born to women with untreated syphilis can be stillborn or die from the infection.

Other dangers from syphilis include bone damage, anemia, enlarged liver and spleen, jaundice, nerve problems causing blindness or deafness, meningitis and skin rashes.

With cases of congenital syphilis more than tripling in recent years, the demand for Bicillin has exceeded the supply.

“It has been a concern for those in our Bureau of Sexually Transmitted Diseases,” Pigott explained. “They have been in consultation with the state. We defer to the state regarding supply.”

Locally, hospitals have been exploring other options without much success.

“We are looking for alternatives” to Bicillin, said Nachman, but “we are not necessarily finding them.”

Doctors urged pregnant women who think they might have syphilis to get tested to protect themselves and their unborn children.

Dr. Sharon Nachman, chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Stony Brook Children's Hospital. File photo from Stony Brook Medicine

With COVID-19 pandemic restrictions in the rearview mirror, residents have been returning to the open road and the open skies, visiting places and people.

In addition to packing sunscreen, bathing suits and cameras, local doctors urge people to check the vaccination status for themselves and their children, which may have lapsed.

“During COVID, many people did not keep up with their vaccines,” said Dr. Sharon Nachman, chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital. “That has led to a decrease in the amount of children who are vaccinated.”

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a health advisory to remind doctors and public health officials for international travelers to be on the lookout for cases of measles, with cases rising in the country and world.

As of June 8, the CDC has learned of 16 confirmed cases of measles across 11 jurisdictions, with 14 cases arising from international travel.

Measles, which is highly contagious and can range from relatively mild symptoms to deadly infections, can arise in developed and developing nations.

Measles can be aerosolized about 60 feet away, which means that “you could be at a train station and someone two tracks over who is coughing and sneezing” can infect people if they are not protected.

The combination of increasing travel, decreasing vaccinations and climbing levels of measles in the background creates the “perfect mixture” for a potential spread of the disease, Nachman said.

Typical first symptoms include cough, runny nose and conjunctivitis.

Conjunctivitis, which includes red, watery eyes, can be a symptom of numerous other infections.

“Many other illnesses give you red eyes,” Nachman said, adding, “Only when you start seeing a rash” do doctors typically confirm that it’s measles.

People are contagious for measles when they start to show these symptoms. Doctors, meanwhile, typically treat measles with Vitamin A, which can help ease the symptoms but is not an effective antiviral treatment.

As with illnesses like COVID, people with underlying medical conditions are at higher risk of developing more severe symptoms. Those with diabetes, hypertension, have organ transplants or have received anticancer drugs or therapies can have more problematic symptoms from measles.

In about one in 1,000 cases, measles can cause subacute sclerosing panencephalitis, or SSPE. About six to 10 years after contracting the virus, people can develop SSPE, which can lead to coma and death. 

In addition to children who need two doses of the measles vaccine, which typically is part of the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, or MMR, doctors urge people born between 1957 and 1985 to check on their vaccination status. People born during those years typically received one dose of the vaccine. Two doses provide greater protection.

Two doses of the MMR vaccine provide 97% protection from measles. One dose offers 93% immunity, explained Dr. David Galinkin, infectious disease specialist at Port Jefferson-based St. Charles Hospital.

People born before 1957 likely had some exposure to measles, which can provide lifelong immunological protection.

Nachman also urged people to speak with their doctor about their vaccination status for measles and other potential illnesses before traveling. People are protected against measles about two weeks after they receive their vaccine.

Doctors suggested that the MMR vaccine typically causes only mild reactions, if any.

Tetanus, Lyme

In addition to MMR vaccines, doctors urged residents to check on their tetanus vaccination, which protects for 10 years.

“The last thing you want to do is look for a tetanus vaccination in an international emergency room,” Nachman added.

During the summer months, doctors also urged people to check themselves and their children, especially if they are playing outside in the grass or near bushes, for ticks.

Intermediate hosts for Lyme disease, a tick typically takes between 36 to 48 hours from the time it attaches to a human host to transmit Lyme disease.

Nachman suggested parents use a phone flashlight to search for these unwelcome parasites.



METRO photo

With the holiday season just around the corner, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged Americans on Friday to celebrate upcoming holidays by taking basic safety measures against the Covid-19 pandemic that still plagues the nation.

“Holiday traditions are important for families and children. There are several ways to enjoy holiday traditions and protect your health. Because many generations tend to gather to celebrate holidays, the best way to minimize COVID-19 risk and keep your family and friends safer is to get vaccinated if you’re eligible,” the CDC said in a press release.

The CDC recommended the following safer ways to celebrate the holidays:

Generally:

  • Protect those not yet eligible for vaccination such as young children by getting yourself and other eligible people around them vaccinated.
  • Wear well-fitting masks over your nose and mouth if you are in public indoor settings if you are not fully vaccinated.
    • Even those who are fully vaccinated should wear a mask in public indoor settings in communities with substantial to high transmission.
      • Outdoors is safer than indoors.
    • Avoid crowded, poorly ventilated spaces.
    • If you are sick or have symptoms, don’t host or attend a gathering.
    • Get tested if you have symptoms of COVID-19 or have a close contact with someone who has COVID-19.

If you are considering traveling for a holiday or event, visit CDC’s Travel page to help you decide what is best for you and your family. CDC still recommends delaying travel until you are fully vaccinated.

Special considerations:

  • People who have a condition or are taking medications that weaken their immune system may not be fully protected even if they are fully vaccinated and have received an additional dose. They should continue to take all precautions recommended for unvaccinated people, including wearing a well-fitted mask, until advised otherwise by their healthcare provider.
  • You might choose to wear a mask regardless of the level of transmission if a member of your household has a weakened immune system, is at increased risk for severe disease, or is unvaccinated.
  • If you are gathering with a group of people from multiple households and potentially from different parts of the country, you could consider additional precautions (e.g., avoiding crowded indoor spaces before travel, taking a test) in advance of gathering to further reduce risk.
  • Do NOT put a mask on children younger than 2 years old.

“By working together, we can enjoy safer holidays, travel, and protect our own health as well as the health of our family and friends,” said the release.

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Along with falling leaves, colder weather and comfy sweaters, autumn also brings the flu, and while the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said last year’s season was one of the worst on record, only time will tell how serious this season will be.

Despite the prevalence of the influenza virus and availability of vaccines, the virus still remains deadly on an annual basis. The CDC reported an estimated 80,000 people in the U.S. died from health complications related to influenza during the 2017-18 season, the highest fatality rate compared to any contemporary season on record since first published in 1976.

Of those deaths 183 were children, the most since 171 died in the 2012-13. Approximately 80 percent of those children who died did not receive a flu vaccination, according to the CDC.

The 2017-18 flu season yielded 30,453 influenza-related hospitalizations from October 2017 through April 2018. People 65 years or older accounted for the majority of those hospitalizations, according to the CDC. Overall hospitalization rates were also the highest on record.

Influenza viruses are hard to pin down, as they come in several forms which can require different vaccinations. The influenza A virus was the preeminent strand throughout the 2017-18 season, though influenza B viruses showed up in different parts of the season.

The CDC report for 2017-18 said the flu shot was only 25 percent effective against the H3N2 virus and 65 percent against H1N1, both type A viruses. Meanwhile it was 49 percent effective against B viruses. The report estimated the overall vaccine effectiveness at 40 percent, meaning it reduced a person’s overall risk of having to seek medical care for flu illness at that rate.

The CDC still strongly recommends vaccines as the best way to prevent contracting the virus, but especially for children at least 6 months old, and people aged 50 and older. Children aged 6 months through 8 years who require two doses should receive the first vaccination as soon as possible, and their next dose four weeks later, according to the CDC. For those looking to travel this season the CDC recommends a vaccination two or more weeks before departure.

The new vaccines being rolled out for the 2018-19 flu season will contain agents to specifically target the A(H1N1) and A(H3N2) viruses along with the usual B viruses.

The CDC recommends everyone 6 months or older gets a shot before the end of October. Flu shots are available at most primary care physicians, but also in CVS Pharmacy, Rite Aid and Walgreens stores free with most insurance plans. The shot is also available in pharmacies in local Stop & Shop, Walmart, Target and Kmart stores. Many colleges, such as Stony Brook University, are offering flu shots to its students. Call your doctor or local pharmacy to ask whether they currently supply flu shots.

A free alcohol testing kit comes with one urination cup and test strip. Photo from Suffolk County Sheriff's Office

A new Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department program is looking to keep kids safe this prom and graduation season, while creating a way for parents to more easily open a dialogue with kids about underage drinking and drugs.

“We just want everyone to be prepared,” Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. said. “It’s a celebratory moment for people graduating high school and moving on, and they feel a little empowered.”

On May 22 the sheriff’s office announced it is passing out free alcohol and drug testing kits.

“This is not supposed to be a punishment, and I don’t believe that was ever the purpose. It’s important to show kids that they can have fun without being high or drinking.”

— Janene Gentile

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the leading cause of death for people in the United States between the ages of 15 and 24 is motor vehicle crashes. In Suffolk County, the leading causes of motor vehicle crashes are driving while ability impaired by alcohol or dugs and reckless or distracted driving.

The test kits include standard urine test that contains a single cup and stick that changes color depending on the presence of alcohol.

“We want parents to ask tough questions and [have] tough discussions early on so that they don’t get the knock on the door by a police officer telling them that their child is in the hospital or telling them that their child was driving while intoxicated,” Toulon said. “We would rather let them take care of their children so that law enforcement does not [have to] get involved.”

The North Shore Youth Council already offers these kits. Executive Director Janene Gentile said she doesn’t see the kits as a punitive measure, but as a way for parents to more easily talk about the topic with their children.

“Drinking is cultural in our society, but it’s an adult choice and not a young person’s choice,” she said.
“This is not supposed to be a punishment, and I don’t believe that was ever the purpose. It’s important to show kids that they can have fun without being high or drinking.”

Local schools have long tried to curb drug and alcohol use at prom while still trying to ensure graduating classes celebrate the final days before graduation.

Frank Pugliese said in his first year as principal of Shoreham-Wading River High School, he hopes his students can enjoy prom while staying safe.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime moment, but please be responsible in your actions so you do not harm yourself or anyone else.”

— Errol Toulon Jr.

“We strongly advise all students to always make appropriate decisions,” Pugliese said in an email. “With that being said, we have great students. The vast majority make smart choices regardless of the policies in place, and we trust that they will continue to do so on prom night.”

Smithtown High School West participates in the county District Attorney’s Office new Choices and Consequences program that shows the dangers of reckless and drunk driving. Members of the DA’s office will be in the high school June 18.

In a letter to students, Smithtown West High School Principal John Coady said anyone caught drinking during prom will be suspended and kicked out. Prom tickets will not be refunded, and the student may be barred from the graduation ceremony.

Fifty alcohol and 25 drug testing kits were sent out to numerous schools to kick off the program. The kits are also available free at each Suffolk County legislator’s office and will remain offered through the North Shore Youth Council.

Each alcohol testing kit costs .74 cents while drug testing kits are $1.50. The $5,000 program is being paid for with asset forfeiture funds.

“I would like for all of them to enjoy the moment,” Toulon said of seniors attending prom and graduation. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime moment, but please be responsible in your actions so you do not harm yourself or anyone else.”

Graphic by TBR News Media

Suffolk County’s police department has new numbers to get excited about.

Despite being less than halfway through the year, the police department and medical examiner’s office report the county is on trend to see a nearly 100-person decrease in opioid-related deaths in 2018, compared to the last two.

Chief of Detectives Gerard Gigante and Chief Medical Examiner Michael Caplan confirmed at the May 31 Suffolk County Legislature’s health committee meeting that if numbers remain low through June and July, Suffolk might see overdose deaths drop to 2015 levels — 260 total — compared to 2016 and 2017, where there were 362 and 359, respectively.

“It feels like we’re making headway,” Gigante said. “Like we’re getting somewhere.”

The total number of opioid deaths for this year is 120 as of May 1, which includes 78 cases still pending, in which the medical examiner could not yet attribute the overdose to causing the victim’s death.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 64,000 people nationwide died from drug overdoses in 2016. Caplan said Suffolk mirrors the national statistic that approximately 80 percent of all drug overdoses are caused by opioids.

Gigante attributed the decrease to large-scale drug busts, like the arrest of six people involved in a Brookhaven-based drug ring in Middle Island in March.

In the last few years the number of overdoses involving prescription drugs has decreased, according to Caplan, while those involving illegal and nonprescription substances have increased.

“[2011] was the peak of where prescription medications like oxycodone were our biggest problem,” the medical examiner said. “We saw the trend going away from prescription opioids and to semisynthetic opioids like heroin and fentanyl.”

Members of the health committee said the trend down is uplifting.

“We’re amazed,” Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport) said. “These numbers are nearly 10-fold less than previous years.”

Gigante also spoke during the meeting about the department’s High Intensity Drug Tracking Area system, which maps overdose detections in real time for police officers out in the field. SCPD members can report the location, time and other details of an overdose, which is used to determine where to concentrate resources.

The police department used the system to map 13 opioid overdoses Memorial Day weekend, three of which were fatal. This is compared to last year’s Memorial Day weekend where nine of 40 reports resulted in a fatality.

The numbers reflected in the statistics do not account for people who drive themselves to hospitals, but Gigante said he hopes to get medical institutions involved in reporting those numbers too.

“If we can override June and July then we will really start to see the ratio decrease,” Gigante said. “I’m cautiously optimistic we can turn that corner.”

Flu season is hitting New York and the country as a whole especially hard this year. Stock photo

Flu season is hitting harder than usual across the United States this year, and New York has been no exception.

The New York State Department of Health Weekly Influenza Surveillance Report for the week ending Feb. 3, the most recent week available, said it was the ninth consecutive week that widespread influenza activity was reported. The “widespread” distinction means two or more additional lab-confirmed cases of influenza were reported in greater than 31 of the 62 counties in the state per 100,000 people. Nearly 16,000 lab-confirmed cases were reported for that week in New York, compared to about 5,300 for the same week in 2017.

More than 1,100 cases were reported for the same week in Suffolk County, bringing the season-to-date total to 3,301. The week ending Feb. 3 saw nearly identical numbers for the preceding two weeks in Suffolk combined. Three influenza-associated pediatric deaths have been reported in New York so far this season, and 63 nationwide.

A Feb. 9 update from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicated influenza-like illness reached 7.7 percent, the highest rate since the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, or Swine Flu, which peaked at 7.7 percent. The overall hospitalization rate was higher for the past week than the rate reported for the same week in 2015, a high severity season, according to the CDC. Of the last six flu seasons, the 2017-18 hospitalization rate — 60 hospitalizations per 100,000 people — is the highest at this point in the season. Hospitalization rates have only exceeded 60 per 100,000 people over that span for nine weeks cumulatively — six weeks in 2015 and three weeks in 2017. Influenza-like illness has been at or above the national baseline for 11 weeks. During the last five flu seasons, influenza-like illness remained at or above baseline for 16 weeks on average, meaning the current flu season should be expected to continue for at least the next several weeks.

Flu prevention tips from the CDC:

1. Avoid close contact.

Avoid close contact with people who are sick. When you are sick, keep your distance from others to protect them from getting sick too.

2. Stay home when you are sick.

If possible, stay home from work, school, and errands when you are sick. This will help prevent spreading your illness to others.

3. Cover your mouth and nose.

Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing. It may prevent those around you from getting sick.

4. Clean your hands.

Washing your hands often will help protect you from germs. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub.

5. Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth.

Germs are often spread when a person touches something that is contaminated with germs and then touches his or her eyes, nose, or mouth.

6. Practice other good health habits.

Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces at home, work or school, especially when someone is ill. Get plenty of sleep, be physically active, manage your stress, drink plenty of fluids, and eat nutritious food.

“I think something that the public tends to forget from year to year is that influenza is a significant health issue,” said Dr. Michael Grosso, the chief medical officer at Huntington Hospital. “Were this any other kind of infection, we would be rather alarmed as a country. We’re sort of accustomed to the flu.”

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) and Health Commissioner Dr. James Tomarken announced last week the county is offering free influenza immunization to residents following Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) declaration of a statewide public health emergency.

“The health and wellness of our residents is of utmost importance,” Bellone said in a statement, also thanking Cuomo for the emergency declaration, which resulted in the release of funding to allow for the free flu shots.

Tomarken and Grosso each stressed it is not too late in the season to obtain a flu shot.

“I think it’s important that leaders not ever send mixed signals about this,” Grosso said.

Cuomo also directed the Suffolk DHS to provide educational information to schools, colleges and other service providers about obtaining flu shots and other preventative measures, according to a letter from Tomarken dated Feb. 9 on the DHS website.

Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) is sponsoring legislation that would, for the first time, collect data on all deaths resulting from influenza virus, not just deaths of those 18 years and younger. If approved, the statistics would be reported monthly during flu season and would become the basis of an annual report on that year’s flu season due to the Legislature each May.

“Our understanding of annual influenza outbreaks is limited by the limited data being collected by national, state and local health officials,” Hahn said in a statement. “When the statistics used to monitor this epidemic excludes nearly 79 percent of Suffolk County’s population it is difficult to get a clear picture of its impact on public health. I know having complete information will aid county officials who need to make reasonable predictions based upon available datasets.”

Legislator William ‘Doc’ Spencer (D-Centerport) is also supporting the bill.

Northwell Health, a health system that oversees several area hospitals including Huntington Hospital, has instituted a new “biosurveillance” system to track and respond to the volume of influenza cases it’s handling this season. Among other benefits, the system enables Northwell Health to proactively manage the distribution of resources, including supplies needed to treat patients and protect staff, such as antiviral medications, rapid-flu tests, masks and gloves.

Grosso said the implementation of the statistics yielded from the new system is still coming along, and he said he anticipates it will be a useful tool during subsequent flu seasons.

Free flu shots are available for Suffolk residents age 2 and older at local pharmacies and for those at least 6 months old at pediatrician and healthcare provider offices. Additionally, the county is offering free immunizations for residents 6 months old and up Feb. 13 from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Riverhead Free Library and Feb. 15 from 5 to 7 p.m. at the H. Lee Dennison Building in Hauppauge. Residents are asked to call 631-787-2200 Monday through Thursday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. to schedule an appointment.