As of Monday evening, three people in Suffolk County had died from the effects of COVID-19 infections, and 84 have been diagnosed with the virus — numbers widely believed to represent only a fraction of those who actually have the disease because of the limited availability of tests.
There are four confirmed cases currently on the South Fork, two in Southampton Town and two in East Hampton Town. All are believed to have picked up the virus within the community.
Despite efforts to increase the number of tests available for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, the tests are likely to be available locally only to those with severe symptoms and existing health conditions that put them at particular risk for at least another week, or more, as the companies that produce the testing kits and the laboratories that process them ramp up their ability to meet broader demand.
Federal control of the production of tests, which was lifted only late last week, and unavoidable logistics of getting production and processing up to full speed, mean that the large numbers of test kits that would be required to allow more widespread testing of the general population are not going to be available outside of a few hot spots for several more days.
With health experts now saying that COVID-19 could be 10 times more deadly than the flu, New York State is attempting to fast-track its ability to conduct more testing statewide by authorizing more labs to process tests and setting up more testing sites.
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, who is himself in home quarantine after coming in contact with people on his staff who may have been exposed, said on Monday that the county hopes to have a mobile testing unit ready to roll by the end of this week.
But with areas of the nation and the New York region already experiencing large outbreaks, limitations on the ability of labs to process tests are going to linger for some time, health officials acknowledge.
Tests, for those who meet the criteria for receiving one, are being administered at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital and its connected physician practices like Meeting House Lane Medical, and at Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead and physician practices and urgent care centers in the Northwell Health network.
Stony Brook Southampton Hospital is in the process of erecting a specialized testing area in Parrish Memorial Hall so that those who may have the new virus can be kept separated from people using the emergency room for other matters.
All local facilities are still limited in whom they can administer the tests to by state-mandated criteria intended to limit the number of tests given and ensure they are available for testing the most at-risk individuals.
Only those who are exhibiting symptoms and have underlying health concerns that put them at particular risk — like heart or lung disease — or those who have traveled to or come in contact with people who recently traveled to one of the international hot spots of the COVID-19 pandemic, such as China, Iran, Italy or South Korea, will be administered tests.
Health officials recommend that anyone else who is exhibiting the early symptoms of coughing and fever self-quarantine and remain in their homes.
“As other labs become available, we’ll be able to expand the criteria for testing,” said Terry Lynam, of Northwell Health. “The issue is, you have to ensure the accuracy of the testing process before you increase the numbers, so it has to be done incrementally.”
Northwell’s main laboratory was one of the first to start processing COVID-19 tests in the region more than a week ago, and is still working on a semi-automatic basis. On Friday, it was still processing tests manually, which meant it could handle only about 160 tests per day.
By Monday, the company had expected to be processing tests semi-automatically, Mr. Lynam said, and may be ready to fully automate its processing by the end of this week, which would boost the number of tests it can process per day from hundreds to into the thousands.
After the federal government released the state to authorize private labs to start processing tests, Gov. Cuomo said more than two dozen labs would soon be available to process tests this week. But each will have to go through its own gradual ramp-up process, and the state is still expected to be able to process only about 5,000 tests per day by the end of this week.
The current test kits available, which are produced commercially by private manufacturers, but are being regulated by the federal Food and Drug Administration and distributed by the state, rely on throat and nasal swabs that must be analyzed in a laboratory to detect signs of the new coronavirus.
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said that one of his deputy county executives, Peter Scully, has tested positive for the disease and that several of the county’s top administrators and staff have been put on mandatory quarantine — including the Department of Health Services Commissioner Dr. Gregson Pigott. Mr. Bellone said that he had not taken a COVID-19 test himself, as he is not showing any symptoms, but that several of his staff members have.
Health officials have said that the most effective way to slow the spread of the disease is for people to avoid interacting with others as much as possible, but that expanding testing, identifying more cases and keeping those individuals in isolation is a key component to ending the epidemic.
“Testing, testing, testing,” Gov. Cuomo said on Friday. “You want to find positive cases, because you want to be able to isolate those positive cases and then find out who that person may have been in touch with so you can get them the assistance they need.”
To reduce the threat of the virus spreading in medical facilities, the state has set up “drive-through” testing sites in New Rochelle, where the state’s largest cluster of positive tests has been located.
Mr. Bellone said that the county and state are working on a mobile testing unit that would be able to travel to potential hot spots in the county to conduct tests.
“Testing is one of our most powerful tools,” Mr. Bellone said.
At Stony Brook Southampton Hospital, workmen are assembling what will be known as the Respiratory Virus Evaluation Center in Parrish Memorial Hall. Until that isolation unit is ready, staff in the Emergency Department entrance are triaging visitors at the doors. Anyone with a cough or fever is being asked by security guards to don a face mask and sanitize their hands before entering the emergency room.
“We are asking that someone who is coming in sick call in advance and let us know they are coming,” hospital spokeswoman Barbara Jo Howard said. “Otherwise, a nurse will ask about their symptoms. Again, we are following the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] protocol for testing. If you do not meet the criteria set by the CDC, we cannot do the screening.”
Health experts and public officials have been quick to say that delays at the federal level in getting the ball rolling on the production of testing kits very early in the outbreak overseas is certain to make the breadth of the disease’s ultimate spread in this country wider, regardless of how well social distancing helps to flatten the curve.
“The lack of capacity,” State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. said, echoing the sentiments of Mr. Cuomo, “is something we are going to look back on someday and say, ‘That was a major mistake.’”