Q&A: How Has New York Tamed COVID-19? Medical Experts And Officials Weigh In

Stony Brook Southampton Hospital during the height of the COVID-19 crisis. COURTESY SOUTHAMPTON HOSPITAL

The good news continued this week in New York State, as far as the COVID-19 pandemic was concerned.

On Monday, Governor Andrew Cuomo reported new lows, since mid-March, in the number of patients hospitalized for treatment of the virus, 418, and in intensive care units, 109. There was only a single death in New York State on Sunday, a new low. For 24 straight days, the percentage of tests coming back positive was below 1 percent.

New cases are still being reported, but the numbers are not growing, despite worries that congregating crowds both in the city and elsewhere this summer — including in South Fork communities and at local beaches — might lead to spikes that have been seen in other states.

“New Yorkers have saved tens of thousands of lives,” the governor said on Monday. “If New Yorkers did not do what they did, tens of thousands of more people would have passed away. That is a fact from the projections — so God bless the people of New York, because they saved lives.”

But how? What did New York State do that has proven so successful compared to other states?

A single question was presented to a group of local medical professionals and elected officials this week:

Q: After being one of the hardest-hit states in the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, New York State has done a remarkable job of getting control — and keeping control — of the spread, and the East End has followed suit despite the influx of a seemingly typical group of summer visitors from elsewhere (and New York City residents relocating here). Infection rates are staying low, and fears that the virus could flare back up again at various times have not come to pass so far. What do you think New York State has done right that other states have not? What does it tell us about the virus, and what our response to it must be?

Here are the replies:

State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr:

First and foremost, I think the message in New York State to the public, from the governor to the local mayors, has been simple, direct and consistent: Wear a mask, socially distance, wash your hands. The public has responded.

In addition, the state response, while not perfect, has been based on science, not politics. The public has listened and has substantially complied.

Still, on the East End, there was widespread fear that the seasonal increase of the population would result in a spike of the virus. We are all aware that there have been gaps in compliance, but, still, the number of cases remains low. We are thrilled that has been the case.

There is no one single reason for the current low incidence of the virus. Rather, it has been a series of consistent actions from Niagara Falls to Montauk that collectively have bent the curve.

Most important, we must remember that this isn’t over. The coming of fall weather and the opening of schools will present new challenges. To quote Churchill, “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

Dr. Fredric I. Weinbaum, medical director, Stony Brook Southampton Hospital:

There is no “secret sauce” to reducing COVID-19 disease prevalence.

What we know from articles published in medical journals is that there have been documented “spreader” events. The common features involve an indoor setting where a group of unmasked people meet with infected individual(s) being present. Congregate living situations present a particular risk, as do bars.

Testing for infection and instructing all infected individuals to isolate, as well as quarantining known contacts, are accepted public health tenets. This has been promoted by government and health care leadership in our region. Routine use of masks when social distancing is not possible is an accepted way to reduce spread and has been readily adopted by our leadership and public.

The risk to our health care workers has been mitigated by the provision of appropriate PPE and education on its use, as well as compulsive hand washing and sanitizing. This has been essential to protecting that group and the patients that they serve. The rapid adoption of telemedicine has helped to provide services to patients who are sheltering at home.

Our policy leaders and communities have been remarkable for their understanding and willingness to control the spread of this disease. The sacrifice of our business community is not unnoticed or unappreciated by our health care professionals!

Under the direction of our political leadership, schools and business settings where indoor groups congregate were closed and strict guidelines for gradual reopening were instituted.

This is well-known to your readers. The visitation policies of hospitals and skilled nursing facilities was severely limited to control spread, and health care workers were (and continue to be) routinely screened for symptoms, and in skilled nursing facilities, workers were and are tested for asymptomatic infection. Protecting our most vulnerable helped our hospitals reduce the census of patients severely affected by COVID-19.

All these efforts have not been in vain. We now are enjoying a low prevalence of infection and are gradually resuming business and social activities. Nonetheless, our vigilance must be maintained. The disease is still in the community, regardless how low the prevalence, and will reignite if we do not remain on our guard.

Andrew Mitchell, president and CEO, Peconic Bay Medical Center:

1. For the most part, the East End has less dense housing, which has been shown to be important in reducing nosocomial transmission in the home.

2. Understanding that COVID-19 spreads through droplets, being outdoors reduces risk. We will need to be highly vigilant when people spend more time indoors, where air, except in hospitals, is largely recirculated.

3. Masks are critical.

4. New York has excelled in testing, which helps greatly in contact tracing and quarantine.

Deborah Maile, RN, director of infection prevention, Stony Brook Southampton Hospital:

I would like to start out that I am very proud to be part of Stony Brook Southampton Hospital. As part of Stony Brook Medicine, we remain perpetually vigilant at all our facilities. We here in Southampton have been blessed with the support of a community that acknowledges our work here at the hospital in the face of this pandemic.

As the hospital’s infection preventionist, I have witnessed our leadership and our departments working hard and in unison to monitor and educate our staff and community, and to be here for them. It is, in my opinion, those actions, in addition to New York State and Suffolk County departments of health, inpatient facilities, and local physicians’ offices that have collectively helped the state pass the first surge of COVID-19 infections.

We have disseminated updates on COVID information in our facility and through to the community via multiple media venues, including social media, emails, fliers, clinics. The communication from our state government down on a daily basis has kept the virus alive in everyone’s thoughts, not allowing our state or community to slack off in our vigilance to keep socially distant, to wear masks as required, to stay home when possible.

These are the basic rules to prevent the spread of COVID-19 — and they are working.
With this in mind, we are ready for a surge if it comes, but we also stay vigilant in our education and transparent in our notification of cases so everyone again stays aware that COVID-19 is still here.

Dr. Lawrence Walser, director of critical care, Peconic Bay Medical Center:

Having thought about this question many times in the last two months, I think the true answer is yet to be found and may be due to several different and unrelated reasons.

Yes, masks do work. In addition, for civilians not in health care, the news and the images in the news of widespread disease and high numbers of deaths in the five boroughs and on Long Island hit home, and people were isolating for weeks. Not so in other states.

In terms of the coronavirus, it may be that the sudden surge in cases in New York resulted in widespread exposure before the public became aware of the risk and isolated, and because of the incubation time of days to two weeks, perhaps those people who were susceptible fell ill and others had innate immunity, regardless of their antibody test results.

Certainly, in the sickest patients, we saw a significant risk if they were middle-aged or older men, African American or Hispanic, had increased body mass index (BMI) and a history of hypertension and diabetes. Perhaps this subgroup had the least natural immunity in the community.

Robert Chaloner, chief administrative officer, Stony Brook Southampton Hospital:

I am proud to be a New Yorker and East Ender during this time of crisis. I think our state, county and communities acted immediately and decisively when the virus emerged and quickly learned and adapted. Communication at local, county and state levels was frequent, factual and supportive.

Efforts to implement safety recommendations such as mask wearing and social distancing have been strong and deliberate. We have also not relaxed our guard and remain vigilant and prepared.

I am cautiously optimistic that current efforts will keep infection rates low, but I feel comforted knowing that if we see another surge, New Yorkers will respond immediately.

At every level, our state, county and communities have made and kept this a priority and acted as one to safeguard our people. I ultimately think that this united response is what has allowed us to emerge from the dark days of March and April and will, hopefully, keep the virus at bay.

Patty Mupo, director of infection prevention, Peconic Bay Medical Center.

Here at Peconic Bay Medical Center we are experts at the basics of hand hygiene, clean environment and appropriate use of PPE. These basic principles are what keep our building, staff and patients safe each and every day.

I think what New York did well was focus on the basics — hand hygiene, face coverings when you cannot maintain social distancing, and early on limiting social gatherings and interactions.

Maintaining these basic principles I do believe has greatly helped decrease spread of disease as well as increase awareness among our communities of the important role that hand hygiene plays in the spread of disease.

Steve Bellone, Suffolk County executive:

I would say there are several factors at play here.

The fact that our region was essentially the epicenter of the outbreak from the beginning, that we saw our hospital system strained nearly to the breaking point, the enormous death toll from the virus, gave us an understanding of how serious this was.

I think you had leadership that took this very seriously and was aggressive and proactive from the start. Governor Cuomo was messaging every day, and we were doing the same on the local level. He put a mask order in place relatively early and pushed people to follow the guidance. No one at the state or local level downplayed the seriousness of the virus.
We were on calls every day for months with every local leader at the town and village level, and there was incredible cooperation.

New York took a very deliberate, phased approach to reopening, while many states around the country reopened quickly with little or no restrictions. While there was some frustration at the slower pace of reopening, I think what we have seen around the country, the way the virus has surged, is a validation of that approach. Many states had to halt reopening and in many cases reverse their reopenings, something we have been able to avoid up to this point.

I have also always believed that we would do well over the summer, because it was pretty clear that the outdoor environment was much safer than indoors. This is why I pushed so hard for outdoor dining, because I really believed it could be done safely.

My concern has always been what would happen in the fall, when the temperature cools, the windows shut and people are all indoors once again.

We have done a great job flattening the curve and containing the virus, but the battle is far from over. We need to maintain our vigilance until we have effective treatments or a vaccine that works and is widely available.

Peter Van Scoyoc, East Hampton Town supervisor:

New Yorkers took the advice of scientists and medical professionals and for the most part did not politicize the pandemic.

Between early actions that the Town of East Hampton took and the cooperation that residents and evacuees displayed, it allowed us to have the second-lowest rate of infection on Long Island, second only to Shelter Island.

This disease spreads readily indoors, where people congregate in large numbers. By not having such gatherings, we have effectively starved the disease, reducing the numbers significantly.

I think that, for the foreseeable future, we must continue to follow protocols and procedures like wearing masks, distancing and disinfecting commonly used surfaces in order to prevent a second wave.

Lars Clemensen, superintendent, Hampton Bays School District:

We took the virus seriously from the start. I sat in a colleague superintendent’s office on Sunday, March 15, as we collectively closed schools in Suffolk County. It was a silent and sobering moment. Within a few days, the entire state’s school systems closed.

We took the virus seriously as New Yorkers. It was painful and it was difficult for many people — essential workers on the front line and those who found themselves out of work or food insecure. Taking it seriously meant that people dug deep, and we should not forget that; there was tremendous sacrifice and humility through the community.

I like to think — I have to think — that the sacrifices made then have set us up for today: ready to open schools, ready to continue cautiously in putting one foot in front of the other, and committed still to keeping each other safe and healthy.

What does it tell us about moving forward? That the sacrifices folks made and the care they took of one another since March was worth it.

In Hampton Bays, we say #HBStrong — not “I’m strong” or “Me.” It’s been a community effort to stay healthy, and it will continue to be so as we enter the fall and try to put this time behind us.

U.S. Representative Lee Zeldin

From a governmental perspective, New Yorkers have done a really good job of working together at every level of government — from the local board of education to our county executive, up to Albany and down to D.C.

New Yorkers learned the hard way that this virus isn’t partisan, which is why we’ve taken such a nonpartisan approach to combating it. This shared goal and commitment has been one of the keys to defeating this pandemic.

Jay Schneiderman, Southampton Town supervisor:

New York was the first state to see a significant incidence of COVID-19. The East End had an early case out in the Greenport area, and then a spike on the North Fork. As New York City saw a rapid increase, we on the East End got increasingly concerned about travel into our area. We called for restrictions on non-essential travel from the city.

Soon, both forks were seeing rapid increases in COVID-19. The state swung into action statewide, shutting down nonessential businesses and gatherings. Soon thereafter, social distancing requirements and mask wearing guidelines were put in place.

The governor held daily briefings and established a phased approach to reopening based on geographic regions and incident rates. The county executive held daily phone briefings with local government officials. The East End Supervisors and Mayors Association, on which I serve as chairman, began online “Zoom” meetings every two weeks with East End officials, joined by state, county and federal representatives and our local hospital representatives.

During the pandemic, everything had to be reinvented in terms of government services. An extraordinary amount of time went into finding ways to keep people safe while continuing governmental operations.

Since March, our population has surged. Seasonal residents, for the most part, have become full-time residents. This has placed an enormous strain on all aspects of government including police and other emergency services. We are used to having a high concentration of visitors on summer weekends, but this year it has been every day through the spring and summer.

Our current COVID-19 numbers are encouraging. Southampton’s infection rate is half of the rate countywide. That is particularly encouraging considering that we are more transient than most other areas of the county. We continue to aggressively enforce state laws regarding social gatherings and business operations related to the pandemic. Our businesses and citizenry have, for the most part, been diligent in following the health protocols.

Many feared that summer activities in The Hamptons would lead to significant spikes in COVID-19. No spikes were evidenced after special events or protest rallies.

That being said, this virus remains extremely dangerous and easily transmitted. This is not the time to let down our guard but rather to redouble our efforts. We need to continue to be diligent in following the protocols that have led to our low incident rates, such as mask wearing and social distancing. With schools and other activities resuming, we must be ever cognizant that some individuals can spread this virus without ever knowing they had it. We need to continually monitor ourselves for symptoms and continue to practice social distancing and mask wearing for ourselves and the health of others.

We must remain thankful to our health care workers and others who have risked their own safety for others and remember that this pandemic is not over. There has been a tremendous human toll.

Southampton remains under a federal, state and local emergency declaration.