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Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone

Ducks at Niegocki Farms in Mount Sinai enjoy the snow Feb. 1. Photo by Tricia Niegocki

Suffolk County officials urged residents to stay home during a winter snowstorm that’s predicted to add a foot or more of additional snow and will pack winds that could gust as high as 50 miles per hour.

Tricia Niegocki of Niegocki Farms in Mount Sinai took this photo of her son going out to feed the farm animals Feb. 1.

“We ask people to stay off the roads today,” County Executive Steve Bellone (D) said at a press conference at the Department of Public Works Maintenance Shed in Commack.

Bellone and Suffolk County Police Department Chief Stuart Cameron urged residents to be careful when shoveling snow, particularly if they are unaccustomed to physical exertion, to check on older neighbors and relatives, and to be careful with snow blowers.

“Never put your hand in a snow blower,” Cameron said. Cameron said a resident tried to clear the chute of his snow blower during the last storm and injured his hand.

Bellone said residents who are in need of heating assistance can call (631) 854-9100. Residents who have non-emergency issues can call 311, while anyone dealing with an emergency should call 911.

At around 1:30 a.m. on Monday morning, a car sideswiped a police car. The officer went to the hospital with minor injuries and was released.

Cameron said the officer had been in his car at the time of the accident. Had he been outside the car helping a motorist, he could have been killed.

The overnight accident “highlights the dangers [officers] face when they’re stopped,” said Cameron, who added that the county has had a “variety” of accidents that are related to the storm.

Gaynor Park in St. James is transformed into a winter wonderland Feb. 1. Photo by Rita J. Egan

“If you have to go out, please be very cautious,” Cameron said.

Bellone said the storm and efforts to remove snow will last more than a day, especially as wind pushes snow back onto the roads.

“This is something we’ will be dealing with throughout tonight and into tomorrow,” Bellone said. Snow plows will still be on the roads tomorrow.

Suffolk County has shut down busses today and will provide notifications and updates about tomorrow.

The Town of Brookhaven and Suffolk County Sheriff Department honored frontline workers, including the town’s Health and Human Services Department and its contracted food workers from Florian Foods. Photo from TOB

It would be impossible to commemorate every government worker in a single article, but the massive number of people busting their back in the midst of the pandemic helped an immeasurable number of residents when the worst was underway, whether they were custodial staff cleaning buildings for people to work in, or post office workers delivering mail, there are innumerable people the community owes their thanks to. 

In this case, it was a collective of government workers from the federal government on down whose job it was to keep those of us in pandemic hot zones up to date. For that, local municipalities depended on small communication offices to relay the most up-to-date and accurate information to both government and citizens, while residents were aided by public safety and food programs for homebound seniors. 

Communications

In any battle or crisis, those on the ground will tell you what helps most is having the latest information possible.

Lisa Santeramo, assistant secretary for intergovernmental affairs under Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), was at the lead in getting the information from New York State on down to the local governments on Long Island. Her office included Theresa Santoro, a Miller Place native who was in charge of reaching out to Suffolk, and Andrew Mulvey, who was in charge of Nassau.

Lisa Santeramo, assistant secretary for the state intergovernmental affairs office, worked alongside Theresa Santoro and Andrew Mulvey to get up-to-date info about the pandemic out to local municipalities. Photo from Santeramo

Santeramo was just coming back from maternity leave at the end of March but suddenly, as infections grew and places started to shut down, the small intergovernmental office was a focal point for every county, town, village, as well as the dozens of civic and chamber of commerce organizations for learning about new regulations, protocols, closings and reopenings. For months, Santeramo said her office was performing multiple daily calls with different groups from town supervisors to village leadership. They were also sending out constant email updates to inform what changes were happening, even during the middle of the day.

“On Long Island, we have these nuances we have to work through, such as all the different layers of government,” she said. “I joked with electeds that we were spamming their inboxes, but more information is better.”

It was a constant rush of sending information up and down the chain of government. Down the line was Nicole Amendola, the director of intergovernmental affairs for Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D). Amendola rose through the ranks to become director in April, and where she and others in the executive’s office worked long hours to supply local government with the latest information.

Amendola, who reiterated it was a team effort, said that along with her communication work, she was also on the side of making sure different bodies such as fire departments or hospitals were getting the PPE or resources they needed.

“Things were changing so rapidly, not even from the state but even from the federal level, so we had to make sure that we were able to communicate properly and efficiently to all levels of government,” she said. “The work, definitely, was very, very top heavy in terms of hours in the beginning of everything because there was just so much we didn’t know and understand, and things were literally constantly changing.”

Once new regulations and lockdowns were underway, any new information coming in from the governor’s office was immediately poured through. Both state and county offices watched every one of the governor’s daily press conferences to make sure they could get that info to local government. 

Even with such things as trick-or-treating for Halloween, Amendola said they made it their jobs to let people know what was permitted and what was not. When people complained about what was or wasn’t allowed to open and which businesses were included in which reopening phases, their office also sent those complaints back up the chain as well.

Others in local governing offices made consistent remarks to TBR News Media on the good job both Santeramo and Amendola’s offices did during this hectic time. Their near-daily updates on COVID-19, what regulations and what restrictions may have changed, was a huge boon for people struggling to make heads or tails of what they needed to do. 

Now that numbers are spiking, both offices are on constant calls about what may or may not be coming down the pike. And with vaccines also in play, a new kind of communications blitz is incoming.

“I never thought I’d have to deal with people’s safety,” Santeramo said. “But this year and the work we did, it will be the most important work I think I’ll ever do in my life.” 

Public Safety

The year 2020 is going to go down in the record books locally not just because of the pandemic but because of other major events throughout the year. The May killing of Minneapolis man George Floyd sparked waves of protests throughout the country, including several largely peaceful demonstrations on Long Island. Interactions between law enforcement and protesters in Suffolk were mostly harmonious, but in a few places the reaction to those protests grew into a hotbed of misinformation and rumor, especially in the Town of Smithtown. While officials tried to quash those rumors, it was the Smithtown Department of Public Safety that was in the middle of the storm, both figuratively — and it turned out later in 2020 — quite literally.

The Town of Smithtown Public Safety Department made several water rescues during the summer 2020; just one of a few complications to a complicated year. Photo from Thomas Lohmann Jr.

Thomas Lohmann Jr., director of the town public safety office, said when the pandemic first hit, their office was in charge of restricting who could and could not enter town buildings, as well as handling the distribution of PPE throughout Smithtown. While other offices were being cut or shut down, Lohmann’s, with his 55 or so sworn officers and 50 additional civilian staff, was seeing a rapid need for more assistance.

“Everybody here really had to step up and work,” he said. “The communications section, which not only do they dispatch — we also serve three fire departments in the township — and they were extremely busy handling alarms for COVID-19 calls.”

Once things started to reopen, they were there in the local community enforcing restrictions on beaches and in parks. This year, with more boaters out on the water, they completed several water rescues. In enforcing compliance, Lohmann said it was not so much about shutting down businesses as much as talking with owners face-to-face to get them to meet restrictions.

“We recognize the businesses were faced with challenges, and from early onset what we focused on was voluntary compliance,” he said.

During Tropical Storm Isaias in August, the town safety office also became engaged in the work of checking up on people who lacked power. The year 2020 has been fraught with challenges, but for many law enforcement out there, as COVID numbers have risen dramatically in the past two months, the work does not stop.

“We can’t hang a shingle and say we’re shutting down,” Lohmann said, “We’re doing everything we can.”

Government Meal Programs

When the pandemic was at its zenith in late March and early April, the thousands of people who relied on government meal programs found themselves at an even greater loss, unable to get out of the house to even go to the local deli. As senior centers and government offices closed, the many people responsible for getting people food did not back down.

The Suffolk County Office for the Aging works with towns throughout Suffolk in their weekly meal programs. Holly Rhodes-Teague, who heads up the office, is not only in charge of a network of meal programs throughout the 10 towns, she had to keep up with case management, home care, transportation and home repair to allow older adults to remain at home while the pandemic raged outside.

The Town of Brookhaven and Suffolk County Sheriff Department honored frontline workers, including the town’s Health and Human Services Department and its contracted food workers from Florian Foods. Photo from TOB

Before COVID hit, the office was helping to arrange meals for around 2,700 seniors in congregate programs and home deliveries. Once the shutdowns occurred, that jumped to 4,200 people. To this day, those numbers have only slightly dropped to a little over 4,000 folks who depend on these daily meals.

“We were able to transition overnight to adding onto home delivery — we took the current program and made it into a grab-and-go type program for meals,” Rhodes-Teague said. “It was amazing how fast they did that. They didn’t skip more than a day.”

And it wasn’t just food. Through the towns, Holly-Teague said they managed to give out items like hand sanitizer and toilet paper, especially when such items were vacant on store shelves. In between everything, her office was calling elders, some of whom are over 100 years old, to just check up and see how they were doing. In one instance, a caseworker could not get a hold of one of their clients after August’s tropical storm. After visiting the elder at home, the caseworker found the electricity was gone, and the person’s life support had gone out.

“All our people stepped up to the plate,” she said.

In the individual towns, the separate Meals on Wheels programs were suddenly inundated. Laura Greif, Smithtown’s senior citizens program director, said the number of seniors they service doubled during the beginning stages of the pandemic, to over 320 meals a day. What made the situation harder was they had half the staff on, and half off. Other staff within the town came through to help instead. With the Smithtown Senior Center closed to visitors, she said they were making over 2,000 calls to elder folk within the town to check up on them regularly.

Once things calmed down, she said her crew even started taking some seniors food shopping. She thanked everyone who worked with her.

“In the beginning it was difficult as we were half-staffed,” Greif said. “Without such an amazing staff and town, it would have been difficult to get it all done. We’re very happy to do this much-needed service.”

Alison Karppi, commissioner of Housing & Human Services at the Town of Brookhaven, said before the pandemic they were supplying meals to 130 homebound seniors, plus those in their congregate program. Once the senior centers closed, that number jumped to over 500 seniors a day. Additionally, the town’s senior citizen division delivered 208 boxes of food to residents in need through Suffolk County’s food insecurity program.

It would take a whole host of Brookhaven employees to reach every single one of those who needed food every day, and not just those from HHS. Workers from other town offices such as the parks department would become drivers to get meals out to seniors spread throughout over 500 square miles. Karppi said unlike other municipalities that were forced to make meals cold, thanks to the town’s cafeteria in Town Hall and its food contractor, Florian Food Service, Brookhaven was regularly sending out warm meals to its seniors. 

Making sure the food stayed warm took a whole lot of effort on the part of multiple employees, and Karppi wanted to thank all those drivers whose constant work provided such a necessary service, as well as Dawn Marcasia, who created the route list for drivers every day of the week. Delivering meals also served as a way to check up on seniors, and when there was no response at the door, that information was passed onto the senior citizen division.

Through all of that, the town workers helped deliver over 75,000 meals to seniors at their homes from March through December. 

Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) expressed how this service has been critical, even as we’re still not out of the woods yet.

“This pandemic is far from over, we’re at least another year anywhere back to where we were before,” he said. “This has been a lifeline to so many of these people.”

METRO photo

We want you to compare a few numbers. Look at these figures: 27 to 34; then 106 to 2,923.

The news is consistently stacked with such figures, but it’s all our job to prioritize them to make sure we’re doing the right thing.

On a call with reporters last week, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) said people are dying at higher rates because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In just the first week of December, the county counted at least 34 dead. This means we can expect a horrific month, as just 35 people died from COVID-19-related issues in the entire month of November. 

When we look at national figures, on Thursday, Dec. 10, at least 2,923 Americans died from COVID-19. That is more deaths than all those who perished when the towers fell on 9/11, and it is happening on a daily basis. This is what our focus should be on. If we can get through the winter months, then hopefully we can see more broad use of the vaccine and then, if we stay focused, a return to where we were before March 2020.

Instead, another figure drags our attention to political irrationality. Only 27 of 249 Republican members of Congress were willing to say as at Dec. 5 that President-elect Joe Biden won the election in a Washington Post poll, despite the fact that all states’ voter rolls were already certified.

A total of 106 U.S. representatives signed onto the State of Texas’ attorney general’s plea to the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the ballots of four swing states that went to Biden. Of those pledging onto this strange and ill-conceived attempt to usurp the national election includes U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY1). Last week, the Supreme Court threw out the plainly ridiculous Texas AG’s suit, but that original act by the GOP underlays a deepening resentment to the very foundations of our democracy.

In an article published last week in TBR papers, Suffolk Republican Committee Chairman Jesse Garcia spoke about how Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) used the pandemic to “scare voters away from the polling places,” and used the crisis to hurt GOP primaries. It’s important to note that Suffolk Republicans only had one primary this year, while the rest of their candidates were appointed by party leadership. Democrats had four of their primaries delayed by these new rules in Suffolk alone. While more Dems voted by mail than Republicans, there was a significant number of absentee ballots sent by conservatives, as evidenced by the end total of votes compared to those shown on Nov. 3.

Giving little evidence of any real fraud, Garcia cited a case in which a Water Mill man, a Democrat, was indicted for allegedly requesting two mail-in ballots for his deceased mother back in October. He was indicted by Suffolk District Attorney Tim Sini, a Democrat. If anything, this example shows that current efforts to account for fraud have worked, rather than the opposite.

Erroneously saying such fraud was widespread in Suffolk also discounts the work of the Suffolk County Board of Elections, of which there are two commissioners, one appointed by the Republicans and one by the Democrats. 

If there turns out to be real evidence of fraud, and not just partisan hyperbole, we expect it to be looked into through the proper channels, but anticipating illicit activity with no proof does little but reinforce a deepening partisan divide, something we clearly do not need right now.

Is this a distraction? Do we need to forget the more than 2,000 who have died in Suffolk County alone throughout this awful year? Which ones are numbers to be plotted in a spreadsheet and which ones should we apply real effort toward? Because keeping COVID numbers low means that hospitals can deal with the incoming patients. When hospitals become overloaded, more people die. It’s that simple. That is why we wear the masks and keep socially distanced. That is why we care for our neighbors and support those people on the front lines.

Those elected officials focusing on rewriting the outcome of the election need to look back to their folks at home and perhaps remind themselves which numbers are the ones that matter.

Snow blanketed the ground as a winter storm hit the North Shore Dec. 16 into 17. Photo by Kyle Barr

*Update: This version of the story includes the number of homes who are still without power as of 4 p.m.

The Nor’easter that hit the east coast cut out power to thousands of homes on Long Island. By 4 p.m. on Thursday, the number of homes without power declined to 348. Earlier in the day, 3,444 homes were without electricity. PSEG Long Island said it had restored power to more than 98% of the homes affected by the storm.

PSEG LI expected to restore power to all homes by the end of the day.

“We expect to restore power to all remaining customers today,” PSEG LI said in a statement.

PSEG added personnel, including tree and line crews, to repair damage and restore outages. The utility had more than 1,300 line workers, tree trimmers, surveyors and other personnel on site to restore power.

“This storm brought down trees and wires throughout our service area,” John O’Connell, Vice President, Transmission & Distribution, PSEG Long Island, said in a statement. “We know that being without power for any length of time is a hardship and we thank our customers for their patience as we work through the damage and difficult conditions to restore their power [as] safely and quickly as possible.”

In an update on the storm, County Executive Steve Bellone (D) described the number of power outages as “good news,” as outages were a “big concern here because of the nature of the storm.” Bellone spoke with reporters at the Department of Public Works in Commack.

“We did not see a significant number of power outages in this storm,” Bellone added.

Bellone suggested that outages may have been lower because some of the limbs and trees that could have come down had already fallen or been removed.

Suffolk County Police Department Chief Stuart Cameron, meanwhile, thanked the Department of Public Works and the police department for working through the night.

As of 8 a.m., Chief Cameron said the county had 171 accidents since 4 p.m. the night before. Police were working on two active crashes, which is lower than they would normally have.

Chief Cameron also wanted to thank many residents of Suffolk County for heeding the advisory and staying off the roads.

Some of the ramps for the Long Island Expressway still had plenty of snow and slush on them. Chief Cameron advised drivers to consider taking the next ramp, if their exit appeared challenging from the conditions.

Chief Cameron also urged residents to give themselves plenty of time to clear their car of snow and ice before they need to leave their homes.

“My car was heavily iced,” Chief Cameron said. “It took me a long time to clean” it off.

Looking at the forecast for Friday, Bellone said the colder temperatures could create conditions for black ice. He urged people to be “careful throughout [Thursday] and into tomorrow as well.”

A look at Port Jefferson Harbor from the Village Center during Winter Storm Grayson as blizzard-force winds and more than a foot of snow pound the coast in January, 2018. File photo

As the nor’easter bears down on the mid-Atlantic states, the forecast for Long Island continues to include considerable snow, although the forecast varies by area.

The estimated snowfall ranges from 6 inches to 13 inches.

“We know the storm will be hitting us harder on the west end of Suffolk County, rather than the east end, where we’ll see lower amounts,” County Executive Steve Bellone (D) said during a weather update at the Commack Department of Public Works.

The storm will also hit harder in the north, rather than the south shore.

“This is going to be a heavy, wet snow, which is, of course, something that creates its own set of challenges,” Bellone said.

Bellone urged residents to return to their homes as early as possible tonight. The storm is expected to increase in intensity this evening through the overnight hours. During that time, snow could accumulate at the rate of one to two inches per hour.

“You should be off the roads by the latest, at 9 p.m. tonight.

While the east end will get lower snow totals, the area will have higher winds, with gusts of up to 57 miles per hour.

The county is opening its emergency operations center today and expects to have it open through tomorrow at 4 p.m..

The Department of Public Works has 200 vehicles ready, with about 19 tons of salt at their disposal to help clear the snow and ice from the roads.

Bellone urged residents to try to work from home on Thursday, if they can.

“Tomorrow is a day, if you can, to stay home,” Bellone urged.

Suffolk County Police Department Chief Stuart Cameron said this type of heavy snow can clog the chute of a snow blower.

“You should never, ever stick your hand” in the chute, Cameron cautioned, even if the device is turned off, because a blade can rotate and severely injure someone’s hand.

Cameron also advised against bringing a barbecue or generator inside the house because they release carbon monoxide, which can be dangerous to homeowners.

At this point, Bellone said there were no changes to the bus schedule. He urged residents to check for any modifications, particularly tomorrow after the snowstorm passes.

To report and receive status updates on an outage Text OUT to PSEGLI (773454) or to report an outage online visit www.psegliny.com

To register, have your account number available and text REG to PSEGLI (773454)

Downed wires should always be considered “live.” Do not approach or drive over a downed line and do not touch anything contacting the wire. To report a downed wire, call PSEG Long Island’s 24-hour Electric Service number: 1-800-490-0075

A snowstorm that took place Nov. 15, 2018 blindsided drivers on their way from work. Suffolk workers are trying to avoid that same situation. File photo by Kyle Barr

With a snowstorm the Weather Channel has already named Gail bearing down on Long Island, packing 50 mph winds and predicted snowfalls of around a foot, Suffolk County officials urged residents to avoid the Wednesday evening and Thursday morning commutes, if possible.

Suffolk County Police Department Chief Stuart Cameron said people driving in the snow during either commute could create dangerous conditions.

“People haven’t driven in snow for some time,” Cameron said Tuesday at a press conference at the Department of Public Works Yard Salt Barn in Commack. “If you can work remotely tomorrow, I would advise that.”

Similarly, Chief Cameron said the Thursday morning commute could be “much more impacted” and suggested “if you can stay home, that would be great.”

Additionally, he said temperatures close to freezing might create the kind of conditions that favors heavy, wet snow.

“If you have health conditions, it might be wise to pay someone to clear your driveway,” Chief Cameron suggested.

County Executive Steve Bellone (D) said last year was a “light” year for snow, which means that the supply of salt for clearing snow-covered roadways is “plentiful right now.”

As of early on Tuesday, Bellone said the forecast called for snow to start around 2 p.m. and should worsen through the evening.

The combination of high winds, sleet and snow increases the possibility of power outages.

In a press release, PSEG indicated that the conditions could cause tree limbs to break and pull down wires.

PSEG is bringing in mutual aid crews to work with the company’s personnel on the island.

“Our workforce is performing system checks and logistics checks to ensure the availability of critical materials, fuel and other supplies,” John O’Connell, vice president of Transmission & Distribution at PSEG LI said in a statement.

During the storm, Long Island may create an enhancement to the outage communications process. With this enhancement, customers can contact the Call Center early in the storm to receive an “Assessing Conditions” message, rather than an estimated time of restoration.

This will give crews time to assess storm impact before setting power restoration expectations.

This procedural change comes after PSEG LI encountered numerous communication problems amid Tropical Storm Isaias earlier this year, during which customers couldn’t contact the utility and PSEG provided misleading estimated times to restore power.

PSEG said residents can report outages by texting OUT to PSEGLI. People can also report outages through the app, website at www.psegliny.com/outages or with their voice using Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant app on their smartphones.

Residents who would like to report an outage or downed wire can call the electric service number, at 800-490-0075.

Bellone said county officials would monitor the power restoration process.

“Through the emergency operation center, we will be working closely with PSEG, making sure they are doing everything they can to keep power on and to restore power if it does go out,” Bellone said.

The forecast conditions may mean that plowing could take longer, as drivers operate during white out conditions, Bellone said.

“It’s slow going in these kinds of conditions,” Bellone said.

Bellone said the crews are prepared and will work in overnight hours to make sure roadways are cleared.

Recognizing all the challenges 2020 has brought, Bellone said it is “not surprising as we get towards the end of this very strange year that we’ll have another first: our first pandemic snowstorm.”

Stock Photo

People aren’t just testing positive for COVID-19 during the second wave; they are also entering the hospital and, in some cases, dying.

Suffolk County has reported over 1,000 positive tests in recent days, as area hospitals have seen an increase in patients needing treatment for their COVID symptoms.

Hospitalizations are now at 394 people, with 67 residents in the intensive care unit. Gregson Pigott, Commissioner in the County Department of Health, said about 2/3 of the people admitted to the hospital were over 64.

The number of deaths has also been climbing over the last six weeks. During the entire month of November, 35 people died. In just the first week of December, COVID has contributed to the deaths of 34 people.

Those numbers are up from six in October, 15 in September and five in August.

“We are not even halfway through this month [and the number of deaths] are more than August, September and October combined,” County Executive Steve Bellone (D) said on a conference call with reporters. These figures are a “stark reminder of the danger this virus poses.”

Bellone urged residents to continue to wear masks and remain socially distanced.

Even as the first night of Hannukah, during which some families gather together to celebrate the Festival of Lights, Bellone urged caution amid small gatherings.

The Suffolk County Health Department is monitoring 13 clusters from Thanksgiving or family gatherings, some of which were below the 10-person limit.

A small gathering in East Islip involved five people, who have all tested positive for COVID-19. Another get-together in Manorville resulted in six out of nine people contracting the virus, while another in Southampton triggered seven out of 10 with the virus.

“None of these gatherings violated the state’s limit,” Bellone said. “That doesn’t mean the virus won’t spread.”

Testing

Bellone said the county is continuing to expand its testing, which “remains one of our most valuable tools.”

After testing over 2,000 students in Hampton Bays, Riverhead and East Hampton, the county started testing in East Islip on Thursday.

The county is also launching a new testing initiative for first responders. Members of fire, rescue and emergency services and emergency medical service providers will have access to rapid testing at six sites throughout the county. That testing will occur on weekends and will start this Saturday.

The county will also make testing available to county law enforcement and partner agencies.

SCPD Limits

The Suffolk County Police Department has reinstated policies to limit contact for officers. While precincts remain open, the SCPD is encouraging residents to limit visits. The SCPD is also providing limited public access to the lobby at police headquarters in Yaphank.

Residents can file police reports online at www.suffolkpd.org or by phone at (631) 852-COPS.

Crimes residents can report online include harassing communications, lost property, crmiinal mischief, non-criminal property damage, minor motor vehicle crashes, identity theft and some larcenies.

The Pistol Licensing Section will be open for purchase orders and pistol license renewals only.

From left, Private First Class Alex Vroman of the New York Army National Guard and Josh Miller, MD, MPH, Assistant Dean for Clinical Integration and Medical Director of Diabetes Care for Stony Brook Medicine, at the coronavirus testing site on Stony Brook University’s campus, where more 48,000 people were tested from March through July. Photo from SBU

The Thanksgiving COVID-19 numbers are here and they are skyrocketing.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) was joined by health and emergency response officials in a media call Dec. 3 to brief the public on the increase in positive coronavirus tests since the holiday last week.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone. Photo by Julianne Mosher

“We are expecting to see more than 1,100 positive cases in Suffolk County, with a positivity rate of about 6%,” he said. “We have not seen a number of 1,000 cases a day since last April.”

To put it in perspective, Bellone said, Suffolk County was averaging below 200 new cases per day last month. The number has now jumped to nearly 500 positive cases on average per day.

The spike in hospitalizations is also drastic, jumping to 57%. Bellone said that 287 people have been hospitalized — an increase of 21 people. He said 50 of those people are in ICUs.

“That is the highest number since the end of May,” he said. “If we continue with this current pace by Christmas, we’ll have over 1,000 people in the hospitals with COVID-19.”

Bellone noted that at Suffolk County’s peak in the spring, when the region was the epicenter of the virus, there were 1,658 hospitalizations.

Kenneth Kaushansky, Dean of the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University, said the number of COVID patients or suspected COVID patients was up to 85.

“Every day for the last week or so, we’ve seen 10 more patients in our hospital,” Kaushansky said on a conference call about vaccinations on Thursday. “It’s coming back at us.”

Kaushansky urged residents to stay away from parties, wash their hands, and to continue wearing masks.

Marilin Dilone, an Emergency Department Nurse at Stony Brook, said the second wave is “slowly happening. We’re seeing it again.”

She anticipates a smooth transition if the numbers continue to rise.

“We know what to expect,” Dilone said.

Dr. Eric Morley, Associate Professor and Clinical Director of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Stony Brook, described the staff as “battle tested.”

The hospital planned to open the forward triage unit, which the hospital used to separate suspected COVID patients during the first wave of the virus, next week.

On Monday, Mather Hospital President Kenneth Roberts said the hospital was at 64 percent occupancy, so it is “nowhere near capacity.” The hospital also has surge plans in place so that it can accommodate many more than 248 patients.

Robert Collins, a nurse at Mather for the last seven years, said the staff has learned from the difficult experiences through the spring.

“The benefit this go-round is that we’ve done it once,” Collins said. “We’re more familiar with treating it.”

St. Catherine Hospital has 30 COVID positive patients, which is 15% of their inpatient volume, while St. Charles has 11 COVID patients, which is 6.5% of the inpatient volume. Mather is still at 64% occupancy, which is the figure from earlier this week.

“The second wave and the post-Thanksgiving surge we talked about, we warned about, is here,” he said. “Luckily, we’ve taken a proactive approach.”

But Bellone said that although maintaining social distancing and wearing a mask outside is essential to staying safe, small gatherings are becoming the new super spreader.

“Now we know that small gatherings among families and friends have the highest transmission rate of all the events that we’ve seen,” he said. “So I cannot stress enough the concern about small indoor gatherings, where individuals and almost naturally let their guard down a little bit.”

Bellone said that Long Islanders must remain vigilant throughout the upcoming holiday season, while a vaccine is on the horizon.

“It is our actions over the next 30-plus days, that will be critical to our continued recovery,” he said. “That will be key to making sure that we keep our kids in school, keep our schools open, and keep our businesses open.”

He added that two new community-testing sites were launched in Huntington and Patchogue. So far, 349 people have been tested at the Huntington site.

Additional reporting from Daniel Dunaief

Suffolk County officials said we are certainly in the midst of the pandemic's second wave. Stock photo

Responding to numerous 911 calls on Monday, Nov. 30, just after midnight, the Suffolk County Police Department arrived at 51 Hawkins Lane in Brookhaven to find an estimated 300 to 400 people arriving for a party.

Police said it took about four hours to break up a gathering that was just getting started. The owner of the 5,000 square foot property, which is listed on Air BNB for $399 per night, was one of the people who called the police.

SCPD Chief Stuart Cameron said the people who rented the house who officials believe came from New Jersey would face civil fines of up to $15,000 and criminal charges that include criminal nuisance in the second degree and section 12-B of the public health law, which are the sections the police have been using for COVID-19-related enforcement.

The “prompt response” by the police and the “effective dispersion of the crowd” enabled the police to avert a “potential supers spreader event,” Cameron said on a call with the media run by County Executive Steve Bellone (D).

“We have gotten significant cooperation from the homeowner,” Bellone said on the conference call. “When they found that the home was being used for this purpose, they did report that. We will be holding accountable the people who did hold this party.”

Bellone cautioned anyone who might consider coming in to Suffolk County from out of town that they will not be allowed to skirt COVID-19 public health rules.

“Renting a home and thinking you will be able to get away with that … that’s not going to happen,” Bellone said. “We’ve worked too hard to allow selfish and reckless individuals to set back our efforts to continue to protect people’s health.”

Bellone thanked the SCPD for their efforts.

Bellone urged people to continue to follow public health guidelines, particularly as the holidays approach. He said there was hope on the horizon with a vaccine and that there is an “end in sight. We need to do the best we can to follow the guidance so we can contain this second wave.”

Across the county, Chief Cameron described the number of 911 calls over Thanksgiving as a “handful,” which was below his expectations. In the cases when the police did arrive at a home, they didn’t notice “any gross deviations,” which the police chief described as a “testament to the people of Suffolk County.”

A Tough Beginning

As for the number of positive tests, the trend continues to provide warning signs to area officials about the return of the spread of a virus the county had originally beat back earlier this year.

Positive tests for COVID-19 stood at 5.2% as of Dec. 1, with 609 new cases in the previous day. The county hasn’t had a rate above five percent since May 17.

Hospitalizations now stand at 248, which is the highest since June 3.

“Those numbers are alarming to say the least,” Bellone said. “There’s no doubt we are in that second wave we talked about for so long.”

The county and state will now incorporate hospital capacity into cluster zone designations in determining yellow, orange and red levels.

As of the beginning of this month, 28% of hospital beds were available, with 32% of intensive care unit beds available.

Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) has indicated that hospitals in the state need to prepare for surges by identifying doctors and nurses, preparing field hospitals and planning for “all the things we did in the spring,” Bellone said.

Bellone reinforced a message about schools he’s been sharing for several weeks, even as positive cases continue to increase. The county executive said Suffolk is not seeing the spread happening in schools in any significant level.

“Keeping our schools open is critical for students, families and for our continued economic recovery,” Bellone said.

Bellone reminded residents that the majority of new cases seem to be coming from small gatherings, where family and friends who feel safer with each other are congregating, often without masks and, at times, within six feet of each other.

“It is critically important that people limit those gatherings,” Bellone said.

The county continues to rely on contact tracing to try to limit the spread of the virus. On the first of November, the county had 30 people in place who were contact tracing, reflecting the smaller number of positive tests. Now, the county has over 200 contact tracers, who are reaching out to positive cases to connect with those who might have been exposed to the virus.

In the last two weeks, the county had 7,948 confirmed cases. Contact tracers reached 6,114 people, with 3,801 of those providing contacts, which represents less than half the total.

Dr. Shahida Iftikhar, deputy commissioner for the Department of Health, said the number of people who didn’t provide contacts included those who weren’t within six feet for 10 minutes or more of other people.

A sign of the times outside Smithtown Town Hall. Photo courtesy of Smithtown Library

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