New Studies Says Millions Of New Yorkers May Have Had Coronavirus Infections, Most Without Knowing It

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The number of positive cases detected during testing has been falling steadily, a sign that the spread of the coronavirus is slowing. Graphic by Steve Abramson

An ongoing study conducted by New York State indicated that as many as 17 percent of the people living on Long Island, and perhaps as many as 20 percent of New York City residents, may have already contracted the coronavirus — many of them unknowingly.

The study, which relied on random testing of 3,000 people for the natural antibody to the coronavirus, revealed statistically that hundreds of thousands more people have probably contracted the coronavirus than has been borne out in the diagnostic testing that has been done by the state since the start of the epidemic.

The current number of confirmed cases in the state is about 292,000 but Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Friday that the antibody testing study, if its ratios prove accurate, would indicate the true number could be upwards of 2 million, with the vast majority never having known that they had it.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone highlighted on Monday that the state researchers have not broken out the statistical data for Suffolk County from the rest of Long Island yet, which indicated a 16.7-percent infection rate, so the county’s percentages could be skewed somewhat by the dense outbreaks in Nassau County.

But if the islandwide percentage were to hold true in Suffolk, where there have been 33,340 confirmed cases as of Tuesday evening, the number of those who contracted the virus might actually be more like 250,000 thus far.

“What that tells us, if that turns out to be the number, that tells us that there was a huge number of people who had the virus who did not know they had it or just assumed they had some other illness,” Mr. Bellone said this week. “The other thing that testing shows is just how contagious this virus is, how quickly this virus moves, how quickly our health care system was just swamped. It drives home how important it is that we continue what we are doing.”

On the South Fork, the same percentage of overall infection would mean upwards of 12,000 cases, rather than the 773 that have been confirmed in Southampton and East Hampton towns thus far, though the region’s per-capita rate of confirmed infections has been considerably lower than the rest of the island.

Both locally and throughout the downstate region, the signs of the virus’s spread continuing to slow extended into a third week this week, though statistics would seem to indicate that hundreds of people are still likely contracting the coronavirus each day.

Suffolk County saw just 132 new confirmed cases on Tuesday, the lowest number in weeks, and just 34 new cases admitted to hospitals.

The number of positive cases being discovered among the tests administered is also falling, meaning that fewer of the people falling ill now are ending up being found to have COVID-19.

Over the weekend, there was a small spike in new confirmed cases in the region, however, and Stony Brook Southampton Hospital officials say the number of new severe cases they are seeing come through their doors is remaining generally steady.

The governor said on Tuesday that many of new cases in the state now are coming from cross-infections within a household.

More than 1,100 Suffolk County residents have died from complications from COVID-19 as of Tuesday, and more than 50,000 have died nationwide.

The results of the antibody study in New York have been seen as both frightening, because of the speed with which the virus would appear to have spread, as well as somewhat encouraging, because it would mean the percentage of people who suffer its worst effects is actually much smaller than previously thought.

“It puts it in some perspective, if you are looking for a silver lining,” Governor Cuomo said. “The death rate is about 0.5, with the flu it’s about 0.1 or 0.2.”

Antibody testing, in general, has also been seen as a potentially important component to getting people back to work safely, if doctors can determine the extent to which people with the antibodies are immune to contracting or spreading the coronavirus again.

This week, the state is expanding its antibody testing to thousands of police officers, firefighters and medical workers. But with questions lingering about the antibody tests, officials are still looking to the diagnostic testing as the quickest path to reducing the spread to the point that governments can reopen. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have said that stay-at-home orders can be lifted if a particular region sees a decline in new confirmed cases for 14-straight days.

“The aggressive expansion of diagnostic testing, that’s what is needed,” Mr. Bellone said of the county’s goals. “We’re on a path to that.”

A new private drive-through testing location was set to open this week in Southampton Village, and Governor Cuomo this week also said he was authorizing private pharmacy stores to begin conducting the diagnostic tests.

The Department of Health has not yet laid out an implementation plan for doing so, and some pharmacists have said the logistics of it may be difficult for small shops to take on and be able to accommodate concerns about staff safety, customer safety and the proper training.

Antibody tests can be purchased currently at some pharmacies, but there are still substantial doubts about the efficacy of some of the tests available. Some tests might only be about 55-percent reliable, a Stony Brook doctor told participants in a Q&A with Long Island residents hosted by Newsday on Tuesday.

“Fifty-five percent is as good as a coin toss,” said Dr. Sharon Nachman, an infectious disease specialist at Stony Brook Hospital, during the live-streamed Q&A. “So it’s really important for us to understand how these tests are being run and how sensitive they are before we can tell whether they are a good test.”

Dr Adam Singer, who also participated in the Q&A, said that there are still a lot of unknowns about what having the antibodies in one’s system will even mean in terms of immunity, and whether the so-called “Covid Passport” that state officials have harked to issuing as a badge of safety is something that will be coming soon.

“What people are learning is that science is not perfect, medicine is not perfect,” Dr. Singer said. “Some tests are better than others.”

Mr. Bellone said that a broad expansion of the more common diagnostic testing is going to be the real key to helping people identify infections and isolate potential contacts as public life resumes.

Officials this week also nodded to another study by researchers that seemed to indicate the virus began spreading to possibly thousands of people weeks before the first case was confirmed in the state on February 28.

As many as 10,000 people in New York may have already contracted the coronavirus in the state in the month of February, including some who may have died from the disease.

“We understand now that testing came very late, everything was community spread by the time we started testing,” Mr. Bellone said. “It has been here a long time.”

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