Jump In Hospitalizations Seen Locally, But New Treatments, More Vaccines Are Helping

COVID hospitalizations have surged locally, largely among those who have not been vaccinated. Doctors say that vaccinations and booster shots prevent severe symptoms even among those that experience breakthrough infections.

Coronavirus infections and hospitalizations have increased steadily across New York State and especially in Suffolk County since the week of the Thanksgiving holiday.

While some upstate hospitals have been overwhelmed, Stony Brook Southampton Hospital has seen the number of patients admitted for treatment of COVID-19 symptoms double since the Thanksgiving holiday and triple since early November. Still, admissions here are still well below spring 2020 levels.

No patients have yet been identified as infected with the new omicron variant of the virus — nearly all have been of the delta variant, which remains the dominant strain nationally.

As of Monday, none of the 11 patients in the hospital’s dedicated COVID-19 ward was in intensive care or on a ventilator, and hospital staff said that the treatments now seen as effective against the disease are helping most patients weather the ravages of the virus and recover.

The use of monoclonal antibodies, administered on an outpatient basis, for patients who are showing symptoms but are not yet in need of hospitalization has been keeping the number of admissions in check, medical staff said.

“The pattern we’ve seen in people that do require admission is a combination of relatively younger patients who are unvaccinated as well as some older patients who are vaccinated but have multiple co-morbidities,” said Dr. Fredric Weinbaum, chief medical officer at the hospital. “The good news is that our treatments have proven to be good for the overwhelming number of patients, keeping them out of the ICU and needing ventilators — even the elderly.”

He added, “We know that immunization and boosters seem to be effective at preventing the most severe effects of infection.”

Weinbaum said that jump in admissions at the hospital began before the Thanksgiving holiday and before the discovery of the omicron variant in the region.

There are currently eight confirmed cases of the variant in Suffolk County patients. There has been no evidence that infections with the variant are more severe than previous variants and some indications that they may actually be less severe.

Drug company Pfizer announced on Wednesday that the original two-dose immunization regimen of its vaccine has proven to have a much lower rate of efficacy against the omicron variant, but that the third-dose booster gives robust immunity against it.

In stark contrast to the “wavelet” that Stony Brook Southampton Hopsital has seen, as Weinbaum put it, Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead has seen its number of patients being treated for COVID symptoms decline since the holiday weekend: It stands at less than half the number Southampton has. That’s a 180-degree reversal of what the two hospitals had regularly seen during earlier surges in the pandemic. The Riverhead hospital had just six patients admitted for COVID-19 symptoms as of Monday.

Suffolk County’s positivity rate has been above 6 percent since the Thanksgiving holiday week and testing in the local towns has approximately followed that trend, though testing in East Hampton Town showed a small jump in the positivity rate, to just over 8 percent, during the week that included the holiday, possibly an effect of more nonsymptomatic people getting tested before traveling for the holiday. The positive rate last week was down to 5.6 percent in the week after the holiday.

“There has been, not surprisingly, an increase in positivity as we led into the Thanksgiving holiday, and we also saw a very large increase in volume,” East Hampton Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said on Tuesday. “Thankfully, that has gone down at a pretty sharp rate.”

The town operates two testing sites, at the Town Hall campus and the former CDCH building in Wainscott. The town is also holding regular vaccination clinics at Town Hall, offering free first, second and booster doses. Schedules are available on the town website, ehamptonny.gov or by calling Town Hall at 631-324-4140.

Long Island as a whole has seen its positivity rate increasing since cooler weather set in but is only the fourth-highest of the state’s 11 regions, and well bellow several upstate regions like the Finger Lakes and Western New York, where positivity has climbed above 10 percent, and hospitals have been nearing full capacity and medical staff have staged protests.

New York City’s positivity rate of just 2.26 percent was less than half the next-highest region.

More than 3,700 Suffolk County residents have died of COVID-19, including 25 since Thanksgiving Day.

Weinbaum said that the expected approval by the federal Food and Drug Administration of monoclonal antibodies in prescription pill form will likely be the next major step in tamping down severe cases of COVID-19 and hospitalizations.

“What we are looking forward to is when oral agents become widely available,” he said. “We are finding that monoclonal antibodies lesses the severity and reduces the possibility of hospitalization in those felt to be at high risk of progression. When those are widely available, we think we will see fewer severe cases.”

Currently, the hospital is administering monoclonal antibodies — which were still considered “experimental” when they were administered to former President Donald Trump after he began showing severe symptoms of COVID-19 — intravenously on an outpatient basis.

The hospital has maintained a dedicated COVID-19 unit cordoned off from the rest of the hospital, and Weinbaum said on Tuesday that the hospital can expand it as necessary should cases continue to climb. At the height of the initial spring 2020 surge, the hospital had more than 50 patients admitted with cases and as many as 20 in intensive care.

The veteran hospitalist said that the coming holidays and colder weather can be expected to push infection numbers up and may inch some hospitalizations upward, but that he does not expect there to ever be surges in hospitalizations like in the months before vaccinations were available.

“We’re hopeful that the vaccines will continue to protect against the most serious consequences of the disease, regardless of the strain,” he said “The main advice we continue to give is to get fully vaccinated, and for those who are eligible to get the boosters.”