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The percentage of positive COVID-19 tests in Suffolk County continues to plummet, raising expectations of more mask-optional or mask-free options for businesses and public places in the weeks and months ahead.

The percentage of positive tests, which the Omicron wave caused to crest in the mid to high twenties in the first few weeks after the start of the year, continues to plunge into the low single digits.

Indeed, as of Feb. 20, the seven-day average for positive tests was down to 2.2%, which is considerably lower than the mid to high 20% tests in the first few weeks of January, according to public information from the New York State Department of Health.

“The data are very promising and supportive of the idea that masks may not be necessary in social settings,” Sean Clouston, associate professor in the Program in Public Health and the Department of Family, Population and Preventive Medicine at the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University, explained in an email.

A spring and summer that lifted some pandemic rules would relieve the strain of a public health threat that claimed the lives of community members, shut down businesses, altered school learning environments and created a mental health strain.

Dr. Gregson Pigott, commissioner of the Suffolk County Department of Health Services, explained that the decline in positive tests was “expected” and that it was “reassuring that the predictions held.”

The Health Service Commissioner is hoping, unless new, more virulent variants develop that “we will enter into a period of respite from COVID-19.

Pigott, however, added that Suffolk County hospitals still had COVID patients. People over 65 have seen the greatest decrease in hospitalizations. The senior age group had accounted for 65 to 70% of hospitalizations last January. 

That rate has steadily declined amid a high rate of vaccinations and boosters.

The most recent surge caused by the Omicron variant has elevated the levels of hospitalizations among younger age groups, especially for those who are not vaccinated, Pigott explained.

On the positive side, hospital stays have likely generally been shorter than in the earlier days of the pandemic as the “medical profession has learned over the course of time what interventions work best,” Pigott added.

Monoclonal antibodies and antiviral medications such as remdesivir have reduced the likelihood of significant illness when people with positive tests receive these treatments soon after diagnosis, Pigott explained.

As for boosters, Pigott didn’t anticipate the broad need for additional shots in the immediate future.

“Recent studies are showing the booster shot to hold up quite well over time, so perhaps a booster will not be needed, at least not for a while,” he wrote.

Although doctors have identified a new subvariant of Omicron called BA.2 that the county is monitoring carefully, the World Health Organization has not classified it as a variant of concern.

Mental health

Even as the physical threat from COVID-19 may be receding, health care professionals suggested that the mental health toll from the pandemic may require continued monitoring and support.

Pigott cited two new CDC studies that indicated the children’s mental health crisis has gotten worse during the pandemic.

Adam Gonzalez, associate professor of Psychiatry & Behavioral Health at the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University, explained that young adults, in particular, have been struggling with increased rates of anxiety and depression.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Household Pulse Survey, which is a 20-minute online survey, 39.2% of people nationally aged 18 to 29 had indicators of anxiety or depression between Jan. 26 and Feb. 7 of this year. 

The group with the lowest percentage of such indicators was 80 years and above, with 9.3% of that age experiencing these indicators.

“The elevated rates of mental health problems highlight the need for mental health screening, referral and treatment — incorporating mental health as part of one’s overall health and well-being,” Gonzalez added.

Stony Brook Medicine is screening for depression throughout its practices to identify people who need mental health care support, Gonzalez wrote.

Cognitive behavioral therapy in particular is effective in helping improve mental health, with a group format proving just as effective as individual therapy, Gonzalez explained.

Gonzalez added that even a single session can help improve mental health, putting people back on a healthier path.

Gonzalez has been partnering with Jessica Schleider, assistant professor in Clinical Psychology at Stony Brook University, to teach people “how to break down problems into manageable steps. Our overall goal is to help get people the skills they need to effectively manage their mental health.”