Coronavirus infection rates have skyrocketed on the East End to levels far above anything seen since the start of the pandemic, driven by omicron, the most contagious variant of the virus yet.
But local doctors and hospital managers say that vaccinations and advancements in treatments have continued to keep serious illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths well below what was seen during the previous surges last winter and in the spring of 2020.
While other areas of the country with lower vaccination rates have seen hospital capacities tested by the new wave of infections, local hospitals say their numbers have stayed manageable and that new treatments and the expertise learned in past waves mean hospital stays are generally shorter, and the need for intensive care is less common.
Despite positivity rates that have soared above 20 percent since Christmas in Suffolk County and on the South Fork, Stony Brook Southampton Hospital reported substantially fewer hospitalizations this week than they were experiencing one year ago, when the holiday surge swept through a still largely unvaccinated population.
Stony Brook Southampton reported 24 patients in its COVID-19 isolation unit as of Tuesday afternoon — compared to 34 a year ago — while Peconic Bay Medical Center reported 48. Both hospitals said that a substantial number of those patients, however, were actually not suffering from severe symptoms of the virus but had come to the hospital with other ailments and tested positive when admitted, so they had to be placed in the coronavirus isolation units.
“Last year, almost all of our patients were in the hospital because of symptomatic pneumonia related to COVID-19,” Dr. Fredric Weinbaum, the chief medical officer at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital, said. “So we have fewer patients now, and a smaller percentage of them is actually people sick with COVID. We can ascribe that to the impact of vaccinations and boosters.”
He added, “We rarely see a symptomatic boosted patient at the hospital, even if we detect a COVID infection.”
Those who are hospitalized and suffering from acute symptoms are almost exclusively those who are unvaccinated, hospital administrators agree.
“We, on Long Island in particular, have become very adept at managing this type of surge,” said Amy Loeb, executive director of Peconic Bay Medical Center. “We are about where we were last year, but, fortunately, the patients we have now look a good bit different: They have less acute illness, and there are fewer in the ICU. Thank goodness for vaccinations.”
The overwhelming majority of the patients who have required intensive care because of acute COVID-19 symptoms have been unvaccinated, Loeb said.
PBMC opened a drive-through testing center at the former Mercy High School campus this week that is capable of administering up to 1,000 tests per day.
With the wildfire-like spread of the omicron variant, at-home tests have largely vanished from pharmacy shelves, and on-site testing lines have stretched into hours-long waits. Public officials have pleaded with the public to remain patient but continue to urge them to seek out vaccinations to help keep hospitalizations down, even if new variant seems to be inhibited less by the vaccinations themselves.
Suffolk County has led the state in new coronavirus infections over the last two weeks. The positivity rate from testing sites countywide on Monday was more than 27 percent and nearly 26 percent on average over the last seven days. More than 4,000 new cases were detected on Monday alone, continuing a trend of new record highs almost daily, driven by the highly contagious omicron variant.
While hospitalizations and acute illnesses are down from last winter across the board, there were 118 COVID-positive people in intensive care units in the county on Monday, 50 of those intubated to help them breathe. Eight county residents died of COVID-19-related illnesses on Monday, 99 statewide.
More than 61,000 people have died from COVID-19 infections in New York State since the pandemic began, the fourth-highest total in the nation, after California, Texas and Florida.
Countywide, about 75 percent of the 378 intensive care beds are occupied, well below levels that have been seen in other counties and regions of the country.
Weinbaum said that the Southampton hospital’s own testing site — which saw lines of cars stretch for blocks on some days during Christmas week — said that the positivity rates of those being tested just on the South Fork has continued to keep pace with the rest of the county, despite what are believed to be high vaccination rates in the South Fork towns.
With the long lines of cars waiting for tests at Parrish Memorial Hall on the hospital property, Stony Brook Southampton this week shifted its weekly vaccination clinics from the Parrish Memorial Hall on the hospital campus to the Dormition of the Virgin Mary Greek Orthodox Church of the Hamptons on St. Andrews Road in Shinnecock Hills. Moderna vaccination shots and boosters are offered for those 18 years old and older on Tuesdays, and Pfizer shots are available for those 12 years old and older on Thursdays. Appointments can be made through the hospital website, southampton.stonybrookmedicine.edu, or by calling 631-726-8388.
“The risk of dying from COVID-19 is very, very, very small if you’re fully vaccinated and boosted,” Weinbaum stressed, comparing the vaccine to military training for your immune system. “Vaccination is like basic training for your immune cells. People who are vaccinated are better armed to handle infection.”