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infection rate

Doctors recommend mask-wearing during indoor gatherings. Stock photo from Pixabay

In Suffolk County, the number of positive COVID-19 tests has been steadily climbing in the last month, mirroring the increase in other counties in the state and in parts of the country.

As of May 9, the number of people who tested positive per 100,000 residents on a seven-day average was 47.8. That is up from 34.9 a week earlier, 13.4 on April 9 and 6.3 on March 8, just over two months earlier, according to data from the New York State Department of Health.

“The numbers are creeping up,” said Dr. Mickel Khlat, chief medical officer at St. Catherine of Siena Hospital in Smithtown. Catholic Health had about 28 to 30 patients a month ago with COVID-19 and that number has now risen to the mid-60s. Most of those are incidental, he added, as the hospital discovered a positive test when a patient came in for another procedure. These positive tests, however, reveal the ongoing presence of the virus in the community. “I was hoping in 2022 that this would go away, but I don’t see this going away any time soon.”

Area doctors and health officials suggested familiar practices to reduce risks, including social distancing and mask-wearing in confined spaces indoors and ensuring up-to-date vaccinations.

“Immunity from vaccines and immunity from infection with SARS-CoV-2 virus wanes, so we urge everyone to get vaccinated and to get their booster or second booster if you are eligible,” Dr. Gregson Pigott, commissioner of the Suffolk County Department of Health Service, explained in an email. 

Dr. Sharon Nachman, chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital, suggested that the hospital is recommending that people speak to their primary care providers to get the best advice on their need to get a second booster.

“Often, individuals may not realize that they fall into a category of vulnerable populations,” she explained in an email. “These can include not only adults with immune issues, but also those with heart and lung diseases, kidney issues, obese individuals and, of course, those who are elderly.”

Khlat said since the virus first reached Suffolk County, obesity is often the underlying condition that presents the greatest risk factor for dying, which was evident in the first and second surges.

People of all ages in Suffolk County have been hospitalized, even children, Pigott added.

Recently, fewer sick people have needed medical attention in the intensive care unit.

The majority of people who are under 65 years old and in the ICU are unvaccinated, Pigott added.

In general, the most common symptoms for COVID-19 include respiratory issues as well as fever, Nachman said. Other symptoms include gastrointestinal issues.

“If you have symptoms, please consider doing a rapid test to evaluate the possibility” of having the virus, Nachman added.

The coming fall and winter

In the broader context, state and national officials are anticipating a challenging fall and winter. Earlier this week, the White House estimated that the country could experience as many as 100 million new infections without renewed mitigation measures.

While daunting, particularly in the third year of the pandemic, the large number of potential new infections could encourage Congress to appropriate more funds to combat the virus and alert state officials to the need for measures to protect residents.

Area hospitals have already started to consider the possibility of a rise in infections later this year.

“We are anticipating increase in illness this upcoming fall and winter and are addressing those needs now” through supply chain preparations and other measures, explained Nachman. 

Khlat said St. Catherine continues to make sure the hospital has enough personal protective equipment, including N95 masks. While he suspects the tighter quarters in colder weather could contribute to a surge, he doesn’t expect people will be as sick this time.

If they do get sick, patients can receive the first and second dose of remdesivir in the hospital and then get their next few doses at home, through a hospital-at-home program.

Medical options

Pigott urged those who are at risk and test positive to contact their medical providers soon after testing positive and/or developing symptoms.

Those who contract COVID-19 have several therapeutic options, especially if they have mild-to-moderate symptoms and are at risk for severe disease.

“COVID-19 antiviral medications or therapies should be started within five to seven days of symptom onset,” Pigott explained.

Nachman added that treatments for Covid include monoclonal antibodies and Paxlovid.

“They can be difficult to get, difficult to take and, particularly for Paxlovid, have serious drug-drug interactions,” Nachman cautioned. “They are indicated for those with underlying medical issues. Other therapies, although less commonly available, include intravenous remdesivir.”

Khlat said he’d recently heard of two cases in which patients took a five-day course of Paxlovid.

“A week or two later, they came back for monoclonal antibodies,” he said. People had “relapsed from Paxlovid. That, I never heard of before.”

Generally, Khlat said Paxlovid works well, although he, too, cautioned about drug interactions.

With fewer and shorter hospital stays for people who contract COVID-19, hospitals continue to have capacity. “We are not seeing an influx of patients getting admitted for COVID,” Khlat said.

As the new school year begins, students will have to wear masks once again. File photo from Smithtown Central School District

What a difference a month, or two, makes.

The percent of positive tests in Suffolk County on Aug. 29 stood at 5.1% with a 4.7% positive seven-day average, according to data from the Suffolk County Department of Health.

That is considerably higher than just a month earlier, with a 3.2% positive testing rate on July 29 and a 2.7% rate on a seven-day average. The increase in infections for the county looks even more dramatic when compared with June 29, when positive tests were 0.2% and the seven day average was 0.4%.

“With the highly transmissible delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 [the virus that causes Covid-19] circulating, we are urging everyone who is eligible to get the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as possible,” Gregson Pigott, commissioner of the Suffolk County Department of Health Services, wrote in an email. “We also advise residents to wear masks when indoors in public.”

With students returning to school during the increase in positive tests, including those who are under 12 and ineligible to receive the vaccination, Pigott explained that he was concerned about the positive tests in the county.

Nationally, the spread of the Delta variant is so prevalent that the Director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Rochelle Walensky at a White House briefing urged people who are unvaccinated not to travel during the Labor Day weekend.

While area hospitals aren’t seeing the same alarming surge towards capacity that they did last year, local health care facilities have had an uptick in patients who need medical attention.

“The increased community transmission is concerning as it is correlating with hospital rates also slowly rising,” Bettina Fries, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Stony Brook Medicine, wrote in an email. 

Meanwhile, most of the patients hospitalized at Huntington Hospital are younger, from children who are transferred to people in their 20s to 50s, explained Adrian Popp, chair of Infection Control at Huntington Hospital/ Northwell Health, in an email.

As schools in the area prepare to return to in-person learning, Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University has been coordinating with officials to prepare for a safe return to in-person learning.

“Stony Brook faculty are working with a diverse group of school districts in planning for the upcoming school year,”  Sharon Nachman, chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital, explained in an email.

In recent weeks, Stony Brook Children’s Hospital has had few pediatric hospitalizations for COVID-19, with more pediatric positive cases in the outpatient setting.

Area hospitals including Stony Brook and Huntington Hospital continue to have strict guidelines in place for health care workers including social distancing, hand washing and the proper use of personal protective equipment.

Amid increasing discussion of the potential use of boosters, Stony Brook awaits “formal guidance and will continue to follow all DOH directives on vaccine administration,” Fries wrote.

Ida and Covid

Outside of Long Island, Hurricane Ida has the potential to increase the spread of the virus, as larger groups of people crowd into smaller spaces.

The hurricane “may become a super spreader event since vaccination rates in the South are low and people may crowd into shelters or at home indoors,” Popp explained. “I am concerned not only about the hospital capacity in Louisiana, but also of the impact the hurricane can have on hospital functioning.”

Popp cited a loss of power, lack of supplies, and the difficulty for ambulances trying to reach patients in flooded areas.