More East Hampton Town residents have been diagnosed with COVID-19 infections in November and the first two weeks of December than were found to have the disease in all of the first seven-and-a-half months of the coronavirus pandemic.
The town only recorded its 300th confirmed infection on November 3. On Tuesday, Suffolk County Department of Health Services reported that there have now been 620 confirmed cases in the easternmost town.
The town passed the ignominious milestone the same week that the first deliveries of the novel coronavirus vaccine began being administered to medical staff and nursing home residents — a step that public officials and medical centers celebrated as a watershed moment, but still many months from when most of the general public can expect to have the vaccine available to them.
East Hampton’s overall total is still the second lowest total number of cases of Suffolk County’s 10 towns and is less than a third as many as the 2,231 total cases Southampton Town has reported since March — 866 of which have been diagnosed since November 1.
“This is obviously very concerning,” East Hampton Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said on Tuesday, noting that the town saw 70 new cases in the past week. We ask everyone to please, please, please take all necessary and appropriate actions to prevent the spread of COVID within our community. Our businesses, our livelihoods and in many cases our own health is really at risk from the spread of this disease and until the vaccine is widely available the best we can do is be very careful, wear your masks in public and don’t gather … We can get through this but it’s not going to be an easy haul at this point.”
On Monday morning, Sandra Lindsay, a critical care nurse at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens, became the first New Yorker to receive an FDA-approved COVID-19 vaccine.
The event was broadcast live, with Governor Andrew Cuomo joining remotely via video.
“It didn’t feel any different from taking any other vaccine,” Ms. Lindsay told the governor.
“I feel hopeful today, relieved,” Ms. Lindsay said. “I feel like healing is coming. I hope this marks the beginning to the end of a very painful time in our history … There’s light at the end of the tunnel, but we still need to continue to wear our masks, to social distance.”
The next day, Dr. Nicholas Palimidessi, an emergency room doctor at Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead, was the first of 50 staff members at that hospital to receive the initial delivery of vaccine doses to the East End. Doses will continue to flow into the region — Governor Andrew Cuomo said the state’s distribution plan calls for 26,500 of the 170,000 doses the state has received thus far to be headed to Long Island hospital networks and nursing homes.
The Westhampton Care Center, which has experienced a recent outbreak among its residents and staff, said it will be getting its first doses on January 7. Staff at Peconic Landing in Greenport will get their first shots on December 28. A spokesperson for the Hamptons Center for Rehabilitation & Nursing did not respond to an inquiry about the facility’s vaccination schedule.
The Food and Drug Administration found in its review of the vaccine developed by Pfizer, the first of seven vaccines under development to receive approval, that the those who receive the first dose develop a very strong immunity to the coronavirus, but the Pfizer protocol still calls for a second dose to be administered three weeks later, which the company says trials showed provides 95 percent immunity from infections.
A second vaccine developed by the drug company Moderna is expected to get emergency approval from the FDA as early as this week and others are not far behind, meaning that tens of millions of doses will soon be available.
But public officials warned that the priority protocols will mean most Americans likely won’t have an opportunity to get the vaccine until late spring at the earliest.
The first “cohort” of the vaccine will go to those seen as being at greatest risk of exposure or death or of spreading infection to those most at risk: medical personnel and patients and staff at nursing homes. Nationwide, those top priority recipients total more than 21 million people, requiring 42 million doses in all.
The second category of people to be prioritized for receiving the vaccine are essential workers and those with pre-existing medical conditions that put them at particularly high risk — a cohort of more than 87 million people, according to the CDC, requiring more than 170 million doses — that will take several months to vaccinate even with several vaccines expected to be available.
Finally, all Americans over the age of 65 will be given priority access to the vaccines, about 35 million people, before the vaccine will be made widely available to the general public.
In the meantime, the current surge in new infections is pushing the death toll upward quickly — topping 300,000 this week — and has health officials warning that the coming holiday season seems certain to spark a new explosion of cases.
Compared to spring, hospitalized patients are faring better this time around, Governor Cuomo said, thanks to improved understanding of effective care for those infected. ICU rates are down 30 percent, and 50 percent fewer patients are intubated. The median length of stay has dropped from 11 days to five days, and the death rate has dropped from 23 percent to 8 percent.
Nonetheless, local hospitals reported this week that their numbers of patients admitted with more severe cases of COVID-19 is climbing. Stony Brook Southampton Hospital reported on Tuesday that it has 24 patients in its COVID-19 isolation unit. Six of those patients are in intensive care, but just one has been put on ventilator to help them with severe respiratory distress.
On Monday, Mr. Cuomo warned the state can expect to see hospitalizations continue to increase and then spiking death tolls as the nation reaches the three to four week window since the Thanksgiving holiday, after which infections spiked and deaths can be expected to follow as illnesses worsen.
“You tell me the positivity rate, I’ll tell you what the death rate is going to be,” Governor Cuomo said on Monday. “It’s linear. The only difference is time.”
Even though the blame for the spread of infections is on the shoulders of ordinary citizens who are not following the recommendations of health experts, the governor said that public officials have few options for trying to once again “flatten the curve” other shutting down non-essential businesses where some smaller but still significant amounts of spread are taking place.
The governor on Monday said that new metrics will be applied to regions that are seeing spikes, whereby if the hospitals in a given area are seen as being withing 21 days of reaching 90 percent capacity, according to forecasts based on new infections, non-essential businesses will be ordered to close.
New York State still has one of the lowest positivity rates in the nation, though that should not be too comforting to New Yorkers, the governor said, considering the soaring infection rates in many parts of the country — the vast majority of which health officials say is being driven by people continuing to gather in small groups of friends and family in private homes or in bars and taverns and not wearing face masks or maintaining the advised 6 feet of distance from others.
While the wearing of face masks has become a bizarre point of political and ideological division, the governor said that the importance of vaccines does not appear to be. Both President Donald Trump and President-elect Joe Biden have said people should get the vaccine when it is available and have pledged to get their own shots on television to spread assurance.
“So, hopefully,” Mr. Cuomo said “we’re getting to the point in this country where the politics will stop being the enemy of public health.”