With COVID at highest level in over a year, Suffolk plans to...

With COVID at highest level in over a year, Suffolk plans to open new testing sites

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The Greek letter versions of the variants are beating up on Suffolk County, just as families prepare to gather during the holidays and New Year.

Suffolk County reported a 13.6% positive testing rate on Dec. 20, which is the highest rate in over a year, according to County Executive Steve Bellone (D).

“The omicron variant is, without question, powering a surge in cases here,” Bellone said on a conference call with reporters. “We are seeing that play out in long lines for testing as the holiday season continues and as Christmas and New Year’s approach.”

Indeed, Bellone announced that he is using his emergency powers to create three new testing sites on Long Island. The county will open a site at Gabreski Airport in Westhampton Beach on Dec. 27, in West Sayville on Dec. 27, and in the Sound Beach area on Jan. 4.

Bellone said he chose these sites near locations where the positivity rate is higher.

Bellone encourages residents to visit the county’s website, at suffolkcountyny.gov/covid19 to get details about signing up for tests at these new locations.

As for holiday preparations, Bellone and Dr. Gregson Pigott, commissioner of the Suffolk County Department of Health Services, suggested residents could continue with their holiday gathering plans as long as they take adequate precautions.

“It’s important to be vaccinated with Pfizer or Moderna,” Pigott said. “It’s more important to get that third shot, that booster shot, that’ll give you the maximum protection.”

Infectious disease experts urged residents to remain vigilant about the virus during the current surge and as people prepare to visit families.

“I would suggest making sure that everyone test for COVID and receive a negative test result” before family gatherings, Sean Clouston, associate professor in the Department of Family, Population and Preventive Medicine, explained in an email. “This is especially true for those in which there are individuals who are either unvaccinated, or those where attendees either are vaccinated but aged 60 and older.” Hospitals in the area have seen a dramatic increase in emergency room visits from residents who contracted COVID.

“The number of COVID hospitalizations has tripled in the last three weeks,” Dr. Adrian Popp, chair of Infection Control at Huntington Hospital/Northwell Health, wrote in an email.

Popp explained that patients who have been vaccinated have a milder form of COVID, while unvaccinated patients have suffered more severe symptoms. About two thirds of hospitalized patients are unvaccinated at Huntington Hospital, while several patients are in the intensive care unit.

With the increase in omicron cases, Popp explained that “we are all concerned that we may be overwhelmed if too many sick patients will show up all at once in the emergency room.”

To be sure, even with the increase in hospitalizations from the fall, the number of people batting the disease in the hospital remains well below peak levels. As of a year ago, 526 people battled COVID in the hospital. This week, that number stood at 326.

“The numbers are increasing, but they are still less than they were,” Bellone said.

Dr. Sunil Dhuper, chief medical officer at Port Jefferson’s St. Charles Hospital, suggested a three-pronged approach to defending against the next phase in the spread of COVID.

Getting vaccines and boosters is the first and most important step. Treating vulnerable residents with monoclonal antibodies is the second, and testing and wearing masks is the third step.

GlaxoSmithKline’s monoclonal treatment, called sotrovimab, works the best against omicron, Dhuper said.

At this point, the supply of that treatment, however, is limited. Dhuper hopes to get the supply issue resolved this Monday.

Until that is resolved, however, only people who are unvaccinated and who are vaccinated and immunocompromised or over 65 are eligible for this treatment, which is what the National Institutes of Health and Department of Health have recommended, Dhuper said.

The shortage of monoclonal antibodies is “an issue that needs to be addressed at the state and federal levels,” Bellone said. “I’m encouraged by what we’ve seen happening there. It’s an issue that we’ve heard from hospitals. With this surge, we’re seeing all of the capacity tested once again.”

Indeed, hospitals remain prepared to increase their staffing levels, particularly in January when people return from traveling and visiting family members.

“Everybody is aware that we may call upon any employee at any time, even if they are on vacation if we begin to see that the system is getting overwhelmed,” Dhuper said.