Cases of COVID-19 in Suffolk County, and locally, have been on a steady uptick in the last two weeks, and spiked over the last three days to levels not seen since May, in what Suffolk County health officials say they suspect reflects the spread of coronavirus at Halloween parties.
Leaders implored residents not to let “fatigue” with mask wearing and social distancing guidelines cause them to lose vigilance about protecting against spreading infections for the sake of their own health and that of their loved ones — and for the local economy.
“We’ve seen countless places around the country that have had to roll back their economic recoveries,” Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said on Tuesday. “That is where we are headed. We do not want to have that happen. We have to turn this around as quickly as possible so we can see the economic recovery continue.”
The county saw infection rates this week nearly quadruple as hundreds of new cases were identified. The county has seen 1,300 new cases since Friday, including 324 on Monday alone, the highest level of new cases since mid May 21.
The infection rate — the number of people who tested positive out of all those who took COVID-19 test — leapt to 3.8 percent on Monday and remained at 3.5 percent on Tuesday, after months of hovering around the 1 percent target that health officials say indicates there is not “community spread” taking place.
The county has traced many of the new cases this week to small gatherings over the Halloween weekend when people gathered at indoor parties without — ironically, considering the occasion — wearing face masks that would protect against spread.
Social gatherings have been at the root of many of the gradually increasing cases, even before the Halloween spike. Mr. Bellone said that the county has now traced 36 infections to a single birthday party attended by only 50 people — which met the state mandated limit for a gathering — in Bellport that demonstrates how quickly infections can spread at an indoor event if attendees are not wearing masks.
A party in East Hampton was blamed for 15 cases among East Hampton High School students, the largest single source of what has been a sizeable jump in cases on the South Fork this month.
Since November 1, Southampton Town has seen 103 new confirmed cases of COVID-19, a 7 percent increase in total cases, and East Hampton Town has seen 56 new cases reported — 16 since Sunday — an 18 percent increase in total cases since the start of the pandemic.
Local government officials began rolling back some of the easing of restrictions that had been taken in recent weeks and months.
East Hampton Village Mayor Jerry Larsen ordered Village Hall closed to the public again and returned the Village Board’s bi-monthly meetings to online videoconferencing only.
“The numbers are going up in the county and I just want to be safe,” the mayor said on Monday morning. “We want to make sure everyone is able to enjoy their holidays without an issue.”
On Tuesday, East Hampton Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said that he had ordered fall sporting leagues to end early and warned that more “walking back” of eased restrictions could be coming.
“We have to be prepared, unfortunately, to be taking steps backwards,” he said on Tuesday. “It’s been painful getting to the point to be as open as we are. To go back to shut down is just hard to imagine.”
Beyond the East Hampton party, there have been few accounts of high numbers of infections from single gatherings.
The early polling place at Stony Brook University’s Southampton campus has been blamed for a dozen cases of the virus being spread among poll workers, though no cases of voters having been infected have been identified, Suffolk County Health Commissioner Dr. Gregson Pigott said. The first case was linked to a poll worker who, while working at the voting site on Wednesday, October 28, began to feel ill and left to get tested for COVID-19, Dr. Pigott said.
“People who passed through, just went about their business of signing up, getting their little slip, finding out where their actual election district is, and then getting a ballot and then feeding it through — those interactions are very quick,” Dr. Pigott said. “Those people are not in the room long enough to have been exposed to COVID.”
While hospitalizations countywide have been on the rise, thus far, local hospital officials say they have not seen an uptick in severe cases that required admission. Stony Brook Southampton Hospital had just four patients admitted to its COVID-19 unit, none of them in intensive care.
Suffolk County reported 71 people were hospitalized at all county hospitals with severe cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, an increase of 11 from the previous day, and 13 people in ICUs
Hospitals have been reporting fewer very severe cases than during the spring surge, with fewer patients needing intensive care and hospital stays trending much shorter.
“Mostly people are being admitted, treated for two or three days, get better and can go home,” Dr. Pigott said on Tuesday afternoon.
Some of that can be attributed to a better understanding of what treatments are most effective, the county executive acknowledged this week, but health officials are still warning the healthcare system does not want to see another test of its abilities like in the spring.
“We are in a different place than we were in March, we know how to treat this better,” Mr. Bellone said. “But we don’t want to get to a place where we are essentially an experiment in how well doctors can react.”
Helping the outcomes also, Dr. Pigott said, is the fact that more of the infections now are being seen among a younger segment of the population, below the age of 65, whose bodies tend to fight off the infections better. Those trends, however, are tenuous and with holidays approaching the threat of infections being spread to older relatives looms large in experts fears.
“Right now, the numbers that we’re seeing … are younger populations getting it,” Mr. Bellone said. “But if levels continue to rise, then how long will it be before it gets into that more vulnerable population again — particularly with Thanksgiving coming up.”
Mr. Bellone said that the county is quickly ramping up its contact tracing teams to connect confirmed cases to places or gatherings that may have lead to spread. He said the county will have more than 100 contact tracers working to track down others that infected people have been in contact with working by the end of the week.
Word of a new vaccine test that has been showing very good results buoyed hopes — and stock markets — that an end to the pandemic may be in sight. But even that optimism could spur more relaxed attitudes about social distancing, some officials worry.
“We’re encouraged by the news about a vaccine — there will be an end to this,” Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said. “But, in the interim, we need to be vigilant about avoiding indoor gatherings, mask wearing and social distancing and monitoring for symptoms.”
Along with protecting against spread by wearing masks and social distancing, county health officials have implored residents who feel ill in any way or have been in contact with someone who has tested positive to get tested immediately, since identifying a COVID infection and self-quarantining is a critical step in preventing spread.
But getting tests has not gotten much easier during the months of low infection rates. Several sites are offering drive-up testing, including Stony Brook Southampton Hospital, which is doing drive-up testing six days a week at the hospital and on Tuesdays and Thursday at East Hampton High School. The tests cost $171.
GoHealth walk-in clinic in Bridgehampton and Hampton Bays are also offering non-prescription tests by appointment.
Rite Aid and CVS pharmacies are offering testing at some of their stores, though none on the South Fork.
A full list of coronavirus testing sites in Suffolk County can be found at the Suffolk County website, www.suffolkcountyny.gov.
The coming weeks will tell the story of whether the county and the South Fork continue to outpace other parts of the country in keeping the infection in check, officials said.
“We bucked the trends for an extended period of time and maybe we thought we were beating the odds,” Mr. Bellone said. “We can no longer say that is the case. We are no longer beating those odds.”