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St. Catherine’s Medical Center

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Even as the newer omicron subvariant of COVID-19 continues to spread throughout Long Island, hospitalizations and infections have been lower.

Hospitalizations, which had risen to 490 in mid-May from about 130 in early April, have been “slowly declining for the past week or two,” according to Dr. Gregson Pigott, commissioner of the Suffolk County Department of Health Service.

Area health care professionals suggested that the severity of symptoms also had eased up.

“COVID hospitalization rates are lower than in prior COVID waves,” Dr. Adrian Popp, chair of infection control at Huntington Hospital, explained in an email. Most of the patients have mild to moderate illnesses, although Huntington Hospital still does have some severe cases and/or a COVID-related death.

The average number of positive tests per 100,000 people in Suffolk County has declined from recent peaks. As of June 3, the 7-day average number of positive PCR and rapid tests per 100,000 people was 33, which is down from 52 on May 27 and 67.7 on May 20, according to New York State Department of Health data.

“If anything, Suffolk County rates are dropping,” said Dr. Michel Khlat, chief medical officer at St. Catherine of Siena in Smithtown. “We’re seeing a drop in inpatient cases.”

Many of the cases St. Catherine is finding are incidental, as the hospital tests for the virus in connection with other procedures.

At this point, the newer subvariant of omicron, called BA 2.12.1, accounted for 78.1% of the positive samples collected between May 22 and May 28 in New York, which is up from 593% in the prior two weeks, according to figures from the New York State Department of Health.

“Preliminary data suggest that Omicron may cause more mild disease, although some people may still have severe disease, need hospitalization, and could die from the infection with this variant,” Pigott added in an email.

Khlat suggested that hospitals aren’t tracking the type of variant. Even if they did, it wouldn’t alter the way they treated patients.

“It doesn’t make a difference” whether someone has one or another subtype of omicron, Khlat said. The treatment is identical.

Area doctors and medical care professionals continue to recommend that residents over 50 receive a second booster, particularly if they are immunocompromised or have other health complications.

“People over 50 should get the booster — it decreases the severity of COVID,” explained Popp.

Like much of the rest of the country, some Long Islanders have also contracted COVID more than once. The reinfection rate per 100,000 is currently 7.3%, according to New York State Department of Health figures.

“We are certainly seeing symptomatic COVID infections in persons who report having COVID at the beginning of this year or last year,” Dr. Susan Donelan, medical director of the Healthcare Epidemiology Department at Stony Brook Medicine, explained in an email. 

Popp explained that natural immunity from a COVID infection generally lasts about two to three months. Vaccine-related immunity generally lasts twice that duration, for about four to six months.

Doctors continue to urge caution during larger, poorly-ventilated indoor gatherings.

“Close crowds without masks, in an indoor setting with poor air flow, would be one version of a scenario with potential super-spreader potential,” Donelan explained.

Donelan said Stony Brook encouraged staff and patients to consider receiving boosters when they are eligible.

Popp believes wearing masks indoors while in a large gathering is a “reasonable” measure. That includes theaters, airplanes, buses and trains.

At Huntington Hospital, meetings continue to take place online.

“We decided as an organization that the risk of transmission is high enough to continue these measures,” Popp wrote. “We cannot afford to lose team members to COVID since it can negatively impact our operation.”

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Vicki Burns stopped by St. Catherine's Medical Center to thank the health care workers who cared for her during her battle with the coronavirus earlier this year. Photo by Rita J. Egan

Among the grateful North Shore patients who have beaten the odds by surviving a severe case of the coronavirus is Ronkonkoma resident Vicki Burns.

A health care worker, right, shares memories with Vicki Burns, with walker, July 31. Photo by Rita J. Egan

The 61-year-old stopped by St. Catherine of Siena Medical Center in Smithtown July 31 to say thank you to the health care workers who cared for her as she battled COVID-19 this past spring. Two dozen of those workers were on hand to greet her outside of the hospital’s entrance, and each of them, one by one, presented her with a flower that they placed in a vase to form a bouquet.

“You don’t have a bouquet with one flower, right?” said nurse manager Lisa Koshansky to Burns after the presentation. “This is your team. So, each person was part of your bouquet that made up that whole team that took care of you.”

Koshansky added that Burns affected everyone in the hospital during her two-month stay and, when she left, they all excitedly lined the halls as the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” played.

Burns said she remembered the day, too.

“It was another step for me to get closer to home,” she said.

The original visit to the hospital was followed by a few weeks in a rehabilitation center and countless doctor visits. During her stay at St. Catherine’s, Burns was in the COVID unit, the intensive care unit, critical care unit and then moved to a room in the hospital’s 3 North section.

Many of the staff members shared stories with her about her time at the hospital including how her husband, Ed Burns, called every day to check in. Workers would talk to him via FaceTime and show him his wife, even when she was in the prone position to increase oxygen levels; he was happy if all he saw was her head.

“He never left her side,” physician assistant Dana Lamparter said. “He would park in the parking lot and call us.”

When asked what she remembered about her stay, Burns said the crazy dreams she would have. Lamparter told her that once she did wake up, she was chatty and making up for the time she missed talking.

It was the first time Burns was able to connect names to faces since she was unconscious most of her hospital stay.

“It’s so hard to remember the name to each person, but it’s nice to see everybody that helped me,” Burns said.