A second wave of the coronavirus pandemic continued to explode across Long Island this past week, much like it did last spring, as government and health officials scrambled to find ways to tamp down the wildfire as well as prepare to defend against its onslaught.
Local hospitals have seen new patients streaming in with severe symptoms of COVID-19 infections, some requiring intensive care and the support of ventilators to help them survive the respiratory distress.
Health officials said that contact tracing has continued to show that the spread of infections is mostly tied to small social gatherings of people from different households at which attendees do not wear face coverings or adhere to social distancing recommendations. The recent Thanksgiving holiday, officials say, seems certain to exacerbate that trend in the mushrooming spread.
East Hampton Town this week continued to see the steepest rise in new cases it has seen since the start of the pandemic. Between November 25 and December 2 there were 58 new cases confirmed in the town, an increase of 13 percent. There have now been 489 total infections confirmed among town residents since March.
Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said that the town is “teetering” on the edge of being classified as a microcluster under the state Department of Health’s zone classification system. If the town were to reach the threshold for the first tier of microcluster designation, known as the Yellow Zone, there would have to be new testing protocols for schools, further restrictions on the size of public gatherings and how restaurants can operate.
“Despite our constant urgings, the disease seems to be spreading within the community,” he said, nodding to the pleadings in recent weeks of elected officials and public health experts for people to avoid social gatherings at which social distancing precautions are not being followed. “This is concerning.”
In Southampton Town, there were 131 new infections confirmed since November 25, a 7-percent increase in the total number, which now stands at 1,853.
There were 609 new cases confirmed on Tuesday, a 5.2 percent positivity rate among all those tested in the previous 24 hour period. The county’s seven-day positivity rate is 4.2 percent.
As health officials said they have been expecting, the rising number of cases earlier this month is now staring to reflect in rising numbers of hospitalizations.
Both Stony Brook Southampton Hospital and Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead reported steep increases to the number of COVID-19 cases they are treating in the past week.
As of Wednesday morning, PBMC had 31 admitted patients, even after two patients were discharged on Tuesday. There were just seven COVID-19 admissions on November 17.
Stony Brook Southampton Hospital has seen the number of patients it is treating nearly double in the past seven days, from eight on November 24 to 14 as of Wednesday morning. Four of those patients are in the hospital’s intensive care unit, and two of those have had to be put on ventilators to help them breathe because of severe respiratory distress.
The hospital last week again halted all visitation by friends and family of admitted patients because of concern about spreading infection.
At the height of the first surge in the spring, the hospital had as many as 51 patients admitted for treatment of COVID-19 symptoms, and 20 in its intensive care units.
There are now more than 260 people hospitalized across Suffolk County, 48 of them in intensive care. Three people died on Tuesday from complications due to COVID-19 infections.
On Monday, Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered that all hospital networks begin planning for “load balancing” — distributing patients among their various hospitals so that certain hospitals are not overwhelmed while others are mostly empty.
“We are not going to live through the nightmare of overwhelmed hospitals again,” he said.
He also ordered hospitals to begin organizing retired doctors and nurses as reserves to their current staffing to be prepared for a sustained surge in the number of COVID-19 patients being treated.
The governor said that the patterns of the new spread means there will not be an opportunity for one region of the state where infections are low to lend assistance to another region where they are higher, like in the spring, when the vast majority of infections and hospitalizations were in downstate regions.
Mr. Cuomo also hinted that if the state again approaches a hospitalization crisis, it could be forced to return to the “NY Pause” restrictions on non-essential businesses that were imposed, and largely paid dividends, in the spring.
Perhaps the lone bright spot in the renewed surge has been that it has not manifested itself in schools. On Tuesday, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said that the lack of spread in schools has been remarkable and is a testament to how well the infection’s spread can be controlled when the recommended protocols are adhered to. He said it also should mean that the region will not be closing schools — a key fear of parents and childhoold education experts alike.
“As long as students and faculty are kept safe, schools should be kept open,” Mr. Bellone said.
Where the sort of protocols that are protecting students from spreading the virus have not been followed — namely small gatherings — infections have “exploded,” the governor said.
“This is all a function of human behavior,” he said. “If you wanted to get the rate to near zero, you could do it if you agree to certain behavior patterns.”
Because that has not proven to be the case of late, the state expects the growth in cases to continue through the middle of January, Mr. Cuomo said, before plateauing, at a much higher level of infections than has been seen since the first surge waned in May.
“So we have to settle in,” he said on Monday. “The good news is, New York is doing better than almost any other state. New York is better prepared than any other state. We did this before … and we’ll do it again.”