Those With Booster Shots Have Little To Worry About, County Official Says, Even As Case Numbers Rise To Record Levels

Long lines of cars have formed at every testing site in the region and pharmacy shelves are empty of at-home rapid tests as a new surge in COVID-19 infections hits just before the Christmas holiday.

With testing sites overwhelmed, stores universally sold out of at-home testing kits, and COVID-19 cases soaring both locally and across Suffolk County — and the more-contagious omicron variant quickly becoming the main driver of the coronavirus spreading on Long Island and elsewhere in the United States — County Executive Steve Bellone announced Tuesday that a new testing site will open at the county-owned Francis S. Gabreski Airport in Westhampton.

The new county-sponsored site will open on Monday, December 27. Hours of operation have yet to be announced. Regular PCR tests will be offered for free.

The countywide COVID-19 positivity rate rose to nearly 14 percent on Monday, Bellone announced, higher than was seen at any point during the deadly holiday surge last winter.

“We had hoped, of course, that the surge that we saw last year at this time … might be the last big surge that we saw with COVID-19,” Bellone said during a press conference on Tuesday. “We knew that vaccines were coming, and we hoped that with that we’d be able to get the virus under control. That has not happened. We have made significant progress, but we are once again experiencing a surge in cases.”

Nonetheless, the county executive said that he does not see the current situation as a “crisis” and dodged questions about whether he would accept state funding for expanding enforcement of state mask mandates — something that many Republican politicians have objected to, even as cases have spiked.

The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Suffolk County — 326 as of Tuesday — is still well below what it was at this time last year, and Bellone said that the county’s high vaccination rates are translating to fewer severe and life-threatening cases.

He urged residents to get vaccinated and get booster shots if they are eligible and to follow simple practices of social distancing and mask wearing in public.

“We want people to be able to enjoy this time with their families and be safe,” he said. “We know the best way to protect us is to take the common sense measures that we have seen work in the past: social distancing, putting on a mask. Beyond that, the best that we know to protect ourselves is to get vaccinated, get boosted.”

The county’s health commissioner, Dr. Gregson Pigott, said that medical data is proving that people who have received a third booster shot of one of the approved vaccines are well protected from getting or spreading the virus and can gather together safely.

“If you are vaccinated and boosted, there really are no worries about having those holiday gatherings,” he said. “Knock yourself out.”

The county is also adding new testing sites in the western Suffolk hamlets of West Sayville and Sound Beach.

State Senator Anthony Palumbo and State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. called on Governor Kathy Hochul to direct state resources to setting up new testing sites on the East End, as it has done elsewhere.

“The state is putting testing sites throughout New York and in Nassau County, yet, to date, no state testing sites have been announced in eastern Suffolk,” Palumbo wrote in a letter to the governor. “The lack of testing sites for the area we represent is concerning with numbers continuing to increase and the region’s inability to keep up with testing demands.

“As we learned from previous surges, it is critically important to ensure that residents from Montauk and Orient to Brookhaven Town have access to testing a reasonable distance from their homes. For the health and safety of Suffolk County residents, I implore the governor to open rapid testing sites throughout eastern Suffolk County and especially on the East End, where we are in urgent need of tests and facilities to administer them.”

U.S. Representative Lee Zeldin, who is running for governor next year, has weighed in only with public objections to state mask-wearing mandates. He was to hold a press conference opposing the mandate on Wednesday morning outside a Smithtown grocery store.

On Friday the state recorded its highest number of new cases in a single day since the start of the pandemic.

Amid the surge in cases, Stony Brook Southampton Hospital has seen a slight uptick in new patients. The hospital reported having 13 patients in its COVID-19 ward as of Wednesday morning, two more than one week earlier, though five new patients have been admitted since Monday.

Hospitalizations statewide and across the county have been ticking upward, even though doctors say that the severity of the cases they are seeing tend to be somewhat muted and respond well to treatments that have been adopted over the past two years.

The vast majority of hospitalizations, they say, are among those who are unvaccinated.

“The vaccines are, in fact, helping,” said Dr. Sharon Nachman, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Stony Brook University. “It is still difficult to say how much the vaccines protect against [omicron], but the booster will help protect better and protect many more from ending up in the hospital.”

East Hampton Town relocated its testing site from the Town Hall campus on Pantigo Road to the former CDCH school building in Wainscott, where it ran vaccination clinics last spring, because long lines of cars waiting for tests were creating daily traffic jams to the town offices.

The town offers PCR tests at no cost, but rapid tests, which give results within an hour, will cost $109. The testing site is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, and from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday — though the testing site will be close on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day and New Years Even and New Years Day. No appointments are necessary.

East Hampton Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said that the run-up to the holiday season, with many people preparing to travel or see relatives, has driven the crush at testing sites.

Drive-through testing is also available at the Northwell Health urgent care facility in the Bridgehampton Commons, at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital, at Southampton Urgent Care in Southampton Village, and at East Hampton Family Medicine on Pantigo Road in East Hampton.

East Hampton Town suspended most of its senior services programs at the town Senior Center as well as in-home services. The town Human Resources Department will continue making lunches for seniors but will offer them only as “grab and go” takeout meals.

Southampton Town officials said that they have seen the number of new cases in the town jump from only a handful per day last month to more than 60 per day as of this week.

Ryan Murphy, the town’s emergency management administrator, said that the rise in cases in the town does seem to be slower than in other areas of the county but is still concerning.

“Although vaccines do not necessarily keep someone from getting COVID, they work exceptionally well at keeping people from ending up hospitalized or dying, and can certainly aid in reducing the spread capability of COVID,” Murphy said. “We all need to do our part and behave intelligently and safely for our own sake and to protect those around us.”