The nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, told New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on Monday that the month of January could be a very “dark time” for the state, and country as a whole, if the current trends of spreading COVID-19 infections continue through the December holidays.
There is light on the horizon, however, Dr. Fauci said. The introduction of vaccines this month should quickly have the country on the path out of the woods. By late next summer or fall, he said at the prompting of Mr. Cuomo during a press conference in Albany, “we should be in good shape.”
In the meantime, however, the deadly second wave of the virus has continued to surge across the state and, especially, Long Island.
Suffolk County on Tuesday reported more than 2,000 new cases of coronavirus infection and six deaths from COVID-19. There have been 33 deaths from the disease since the start of December, which is alredy more than there were in the whole month of November.
Hospitalizations continued to climb as well and Governor Cuomo ordered all hospitals on Monday to immediately expand their capacities by 25 percent — a contingency that Stony Brook Southampton Hospital and Peconic Bay Medical Center have both said they had been prepared for since the dialing back of preparedness as the initial surge waned in spring and early summer.
“Since the spring surge, we have been prepared to double our bed capacity in a matter of a few days,” Stony Brook Southampton spokeswoman Barbara Jo Howard said on Monday.
“We are ready with PPE, medicines and applied experience. However, we are asking our community to continue to do their part and wear masks, social distance, wash hands and to make the sacrifice this year of celebrating the holidays only with those that reside with your household.”
Small gatherings of family and friends in private residences continued this week to be the primary source of spreading the infections, according to contact tracing conducted by health officials. The current spike in cases has been attributed to a “Thanksgiving surge” Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said last week, and the approaching Christmas and Hannukah holidays pose an even more dire threat of spread if there are not changes in behavior made.
“I cannot stress enough the concern about small gatherings,” the governor said on Thursday. “People are following the guidelines out in public — wearing face coverings, social distancing in stores — but in those small gatherings, they let their guard down.”
Mr. Bellone echoed the point.
“While many of us cherish, I know, our holiday gatherings,” he said, “we know that right now, in the middle of the second wave, this poses a real risk.”
County contact tracers this week confirmed that nine out of 10 people who attended a gathering at a home this past week have been found to have contracted a coronavirus infection.
Additionally, Mr. Bellone said, a small solar company has been forced to close because all of its employees tested positive and have been ordered to quarantine. The county executive did not identify the company or where it is based, but said that clearly the company was not following health guidelines for the workplace.
With hospitalization numbers typically lagging about two weeks behind the first reporting of infections, the county executive warned that extrapolating the current trend in new cases points to a hospitalization surge that will push above 1,000 hospitalized people by Christmas. At the height of the spring surge — when the bulk of the more than 2,000 fatalities from the disease occurred —Suffolk County had 1,058 COVID-19 patients in hospitals.
“These numbers are alarming,” Mr. Bellone said on a Zoom conference on Thursday afternoon.
The county executive pleaded with federal lawmakers to “put the politics aside” and pass a new federal relief bill to help businesses, families and small local governments deal with the new surge.
Mr. Cuomo endorsed a bipartisan $908 billion COVID relief bill. He said the National Governors Association would welcome the compromise bill, even if it falls far short of the amount that is needed.
“I agree, as governor of New York, that we need help desperately and something is better than nothing,” he said. “And as a first down payment, I urge them to get something done before they leave for Christmas.”
As public officials have been doing for weeks — with apparently limited success — Mr. Cuomo and Mr. Bellone on Thursday renewed pleas for people to cancel social gatherings and renew the vigilance about mask wearing and social distancing that helped “flatten the curve” of infections in the spring for the sake of saving lives and protecting healthcare workers from an onslaught of infections.
“We know what our healthcare workers have gone through, we don’t want to come close to that again,” he said. “The vaccines are here. The prospect of defeating this virus is before us. We have to hunker down and do what we did before.”
Schools continued to be one of the few bright spots in the trends of infection this month.
Nearly all schools in the county, where mask wearing and social distancing guidelines are enforced better than in the general public, infection rates continued to be only fractions of what they were in their broader community — often below the 1 percent threshold that medical experts say shows there is not person-to-person spread happening.
Suffolk County and the East Hampton School District this wee began a voluntary testing program of students and faculty at the district’s three schools. Of the more than 200 tests administered on Friday and Monday, none came back positive for coronavirus infection.
“We are very pleased with the way our safety protocols have worked,” district Superintendent Richard Burns said, crediting the district’s nursing team and maintenance crews with organizing the protocols and cleaning of facilities that have prevented spread in the buildings. “This is a very safe place.”
Dr. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said that schools should continue to see low infection rates because of smart protocols and should remain open. But he expressed concerns about the public gathering spots were people are in close contact and are not wearing masks, like bars and restaurants. But, he noted, those businesses will need financial support if they are going to bear the economic brunt of keeping their surrounding communities safe.
“Close the bars, keep the schools open, as long as you subsidize and help restaurteurs and bar owners, so they don’t go down because of the economic strain,” he told the governor on Monday.
Dr. Fauci, who has become something of a national celebrity during the pandemic, joined Monday’s press briefing remotely, and Mr. Cuomo walked him through what the state is doing to address the spread of the virus and hospital capacity concerns.
Mr. Cuomo called it the “Surge & Flex” approach to public health system management, which increases hospital capacity as necessary and moves patients from an overwhelmed hospital to another hospital.
Other ways to increase hospital capacity, which were used earlier in the pandemic before the state began a phased reopening, include banning elective surgeries and erecting field hospitals.
Dr. Fauci acknowledged that despite the new resurgence, New York is still faring far better from a metric standpoint than other states, which he credited to the careful controls the state has kept in place throughout the summer.
“You got hit with a sucker punch very early when cases came in from Europe and the Northeast corridor got hit really badly,” Dr. Fauci, a Brooklyn native, told the governor. “You rebounded from that and you did things that were appropriate to avoid resurging.”
Roughly 35,000 hospital beds are currently occupied, the governor said, and the state estimates that by canceling elective surgeries about half of them would become freed up. If there are no elective surgeries and if hospital capacity is increased by 50 percent, 58,000 beds would become available for COVID patients, he said.
The last resource to tap would be to add 5,000 field hospital beds, he added.
To address staffing issues, the state is asking retired doctors and nurses to sign up to return to service. They will be able to re-register without cost, Mr. Cuomo said, estimating that 20,000 doctors and nurses will join the fight against COVID this way.
Meanwhile, the governor said, 75 percent to 80 percent of the population needs to be vaccinated in order to end community spread of the coronavirus.
“When you have 75, 80 percent of the people vaccinated, you have an umbrella of protection over the community and the level of community spread will be very low,” Dr. Fauci said. “When most of the people are protected, the virus has a hard time latching on to someone. If only 50 percent of people get vaccinated, we won’t have that umbrella.”
The full blunt of the spread from Thanksgiving travel and gatherings will be experienced in hospitals about a week or week and a half out from now, he said.
“It’s usually two and a half weeks from the time of the event,” he said. After the Christmas holidays, he said, the middle of January could be the worst of the second wave.
“You have a surge upon a surge, and then before you can handle that, more people are going to travel over Christmas. They’re going to have more of those family and friend gatherings,” he added. “Things could get really bad in the middle of January. [That] could be a really dark time for us.”