Holiday Parties Drove Spike In COVID-19 Cases, County Warns School Reopenings In Jeopardy

Outdoor mask wearing will no longer be required in Sag Harbor Schools, but they must still be worn indoors.

Suffolk County saw its biggest jump in new COVID-19 cases since May early this week, with more than 100 new cases confirmed countywide — many linked to social gatherings over the Fourth of July weekend.

Wearing a black face mask for the start of a Zoom press conference, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone offered a dire appeal to residents — people under the age of 30, in particular — to not shirk the guidance from health officials on protecting against the spread of the coronavirus by avoiding close social contact with others and wearing face coverings whenever possible.

“This should be a wakeup call today,” Mr. Bellone said. “This is not over.”

Mr. Bellone joined the growing group of public officials desperately trying to appeal to Americans in their teens and 20s who have returned to large social gatherings at bars and private parties to understand that they are driving the bulk of the new infections. While they are less likely to become severely ill from COVID-19, they can still spread the virus to older family members who may be more vulnerable and making it less likely that businesses will be able to return to normal operations soon.

“We specifically want to speak to younger people who may feel invulnerable, who feel like this virus doesn’t impact them,” Mr. Bellone pleaded on Monday. “Since June … 42 percent of the positive cases are coming from [the under 30] age group. This virus impacts all of us. It may not impact young people as bad, physically, but … it impacts our economy and we know that impacts them.”

He nodded to states like Florida, Texas and California, where spiking numbers of cases have forced renewed restrictions on business that have hobbled the creeping economic recovery from the springtime closures.

The 102 new confirmed cases returned in Suffolk on Tuesday came from among about 4,800 tests, county officials said, pushing the “infection rate” above 2 percent for the first time in several weeks. Mr. Bellone warned that if that infection rate continues to rise to 5 percent, the county would not be able to reopen schools come the fall.

“Our economic recovery is at stake,” the county executive said. “Wear a mask. This is how we are going to beat this virus. If all of us put on a face covering for the next four to six weeks, we would drive this epidemic into the ground.”

Mr. Bellone said that social gatherings primarily at private homes have been shown to be connected to many of the new cases that were identified this week, including the infections of 10 Suffolk County lifeguards who Mr. Bellone said are believed to have contracted the coronavirus not during their on-duty hours, but at afterhours gatherings with other lifeguards.

Governor Andrew Cuomo said that several people were found to have contracted the virus at some parties.

“It’s clear based on contact tracing that many of the new cases in New York are a result of a lack of compliance during the July Fourth weekend and illustrate how quickly the virus spreads, with one party, for example, infecting more than a third of attendees,” Mr. Cuomo said of a party that Mr. Bellone confirmed was somewhere in western Suffolk. “I cannot be more clear — look at what’s happening in the rest of the country — if we are not smart, if we don’t wear masks and socially distance, cases will spike. No one wants to go back to the hell we experienced three months ago.”

The high number of new cases has not yet shown any impact on the number of people hospitalized with severe symptoms of COVID-19 infections, which increased by only 1 on Tuesday. No deaths from the disease were reported for the third day in a row. But with the most severe health effects usually following infections by one to three weeks, the new infections present a worrisome sign.

The increases in new cases remain tiny compared to the levels seen here in the spring and elsewhere in the country lately, but both the number of people testing positive each day and the infection rate have ticked up steadily over the past week.

Before the weekend of July 4-5, Suffolk County as a whole had been seeing a fairly steady rate of about 40-45 new cases confirmed each day, and about 1 percent or less of the approximately 4,000 tests being administered each day turning up positive. Those numbers, health officials had said, were good signs of the outbreak being largely contained.

But since about July 8, the number of cases identified each day in the county inched upward into the 60s and 70s last week, and then to 84 on Monday and 102 on Tuesday. And if the holiday did seed an increase in new cases, the bulk of the impacts may still be yet to come.

Because of the huge surge in infections in other parts of the country, laboratories that process the tests are again becoming bogged down , county officials said this week. Results for the most common tests are lagging five to seven days behind the actual testing. With a typical two- to five-day lag from the time of infection to the onset symptoms manifesting themselves, and the delays in testing results, the full picture of how the holiday weekend affected the virus’s spread may not be clear until late this week.

The county has asked that anyone who has attended gatherings at which they may now realize social distancing guidelines were not being adhered to be extra aware of how the are feeling and get tested for COVID-19 at any sign of illness, no matter how slight. Mr. Bellone also implored anyone who is feeling ill or has been tested, to strictly self-quarantine until they get their test results.

Locally, the county’s department of health statistics show just over a dozen new cases in both Southampton and East Hampton in the past week — but no new cases in East Hampton since Monday and just two in Southampton. East Hampton’s official case count since the start of the epidemic is just 227 as of Wednesday morning, compared to 1,079 in Southampton.

County officials acknowledged that those numbers may not paint the full picture of infections in either town, since cases are logged according to where the person being tested reports their residence to be and it is possible that secondhome owners or vacationers who are living locally may have given their primary address elsewhere. But with local hospitalizations on the South Fork low, and not diverging from the infection rate, widespread under-counting seems unlikely, Health Commissioner Dr. Gregson Pigott has said.

Contract tracing conducted by the state with all those who test positive has not directly linked any of the new cases since the holiday to large crowds at some Montauk bars, which drew the ire of town authorities who have struggled to keep up with the burdens of enforcing state-mandated social distancing requirements.

Mr. Bellone said there has been no discussion of plans to instruct hospitals to halt non-emergency medical procedures, even though the county’s available capacity is exactly 70 percent, as of Monday — the minimum level the CDC and state DoH have said hospitals in a region must be at in order to allow non-emergency procedures, so as to preserve ample bed space should a spike in COVID-19 cases occur.