Pandemic Resurgence: East End Braces for COVID-19 Holiday Surge, Omicron Variant

A shopper puts on a protective face mask as she enters a store, in accordance with the New York State indoor masking mandates that went into effect amid the spread of COVID-19
A shopper puts on a protective face mask as she enters a store, in accordance with the New York State indoor masking mandates that went into effect amid the spread of COVID-19
REUTERS/Mike Segar

East End communities are seeing an increase in the coronavirus positivity rate as the pandemic appears to be surging across the region amid holiday gatherings and dropping temperatures that fuel the virus.

While the average number of people testing positive daily for COVID-19 tripled from about eight to around 29 since October in the Town of Southampton, for example, Twin Forks area officials are clarifying local rules stemming from the recently restored mandate requiring masks in indoor public places. All of which comes as health experts warn that the highly mutating Omicron variant of the virus may complicate efforts to get past the pandemic.

“We see an increased spread,” said Ryan Murphy, the public safety and COVID-19 coordinator for Southampton Town, describing it as a “sizable increase” to the town board during its December 14 meeting. “It’s not where we were necessarily at the height of the pandemic, but it’s not going in the direction that we want to be going. We’re not as high as a lot of other places. I wouldn’t say we’re the hotbed of spread in Suffolk County … but this is not a positive trend. It’s not where we want to be going. We want to see those numbers going down.”

Positivity rates for the other four East End towns were not immediately available. Suffolk County had a nearly 8% positivity rate as of December 12, when 918 cases were diagnosed the same day, according to the latest New York State Department of Health data available as of press time. Long Island as a region had a 6.7% positivity rate — more than double the rate in New York City — as a seven-day average, according to the state, which saw cases per 100,000 people rise 58% since last week and had a 70% increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations since Thanksgiving. Suffolk’s cases per 100,000 people rose by 73% in a week, the state added.

The trend prompted Gov. Kathy Hochul to reinstate the executive order requiring people to wear masks indoors in public.

“The COVID-19 winter surge has significantly limited hospital bed capacity in many parts of the state, which is why it is more important than ever that we utilize the tools we have at our disposal to keep ourselves and our families safe and healthy this season,” the governor said. “The vaccine is effective at reducing the risk of hospitalization from COVID-19, and I encourage every New Yorker to get theirs, or their booster, as soon as possible. Wear a mask, wash your hands and remember we are not powerless. Do everything you can to protect your community.”

Critics balked. In neighboring Nassau County, Republican Bruce Blakeman, who takes over as county executive on New Year’s Day, said he won’t enforce the mask mandate, although Suffolk officials have indicated that they will. And U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), the GOP’s gubernatorial frontrunner to challenge Hochul next year, characterized the mask mandate as authoritarian overreach eroding New Yorkers’ freedoms.

“Access to vaccines and therapeutics is important, and so is medical freedom,” he said. “We need leaders who value the freedoms of their constituents, not ‘government always knows best’ bureaucrats who view constituents as their apostles.”

Riverhead Town Supervisor Yvette Aguiar, also a Republican, is following the mandate.

“Due to the rise in the number of COVID cases on Long Island, Riverhead … has announced a new mask policy in all Riverhead indoor public facilities,” she said in a statement. “All visitors will be required to wear masks while at Town Hall and all Town of Riverhead buildings, regardless of their vaccination status. All employees, while not at their work stations, are required to social distance and wear masks.”

The hamlet of Riverhead has the most cases on the East End with 2,350, or 167 per 1,000 people, according to the county health department. Second most is Hampton Bays with 2,173, or 152 per 1,000 people.

Reported COVID-19 cases in Suffolk County
Reported COVID-19 cases in Suffolk CountySource: Suffolk County Department of Health

Murphy said Southampton Town is still trying to get clarity from the state on the specifics of the mask mandate, which the state will revisit on January 15. He said it did away with the ability to “mix and match” policies. That is, either everyone must be masked, or everyone must be vaccinated, but there is no longer the flexibility for the vaccinated to go maskless.

“We are certainly seeing some challenges,” Murphy said, using as an example that 911 operators have proven difficult to hear over the phone now that they have to wear masks at their desks, resulting in their voices being muffled.

“It’s been a really tough period with people concerned about Delta surging and people concerned about Omicron,” added Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman.

As of press time, the state had confirmed four cases of the Omicron variant in the county, seven on Long Island and 38 statewide. The state health department continued to decline repeated requests to name the town in which variants are confirmed, citing patient privacy, despite the fact that health officials have released for years the town in which patients with diseases of public concern live. So it remains unclear if an East End patient is among the Omicron cases found in Suffolk.

The Omicron coronavirus variant has been detected in 77 countries since it was first identified three weeks ago, fueling concerns that its large number of mutations will help it spread faster and evade protection provided by COVID-19 vaccines or prior infection. The fast-spreading Delta variant remains dominant worldwide, and it is unclear whether Omicron is inherently more contagious than its predecessor, the World Health Organization (WHO) said. Early data suggests that the new variant is spreading faster than previous versions of the virus.

Scientists say it is still too early to know whether Omicron causes more or less severe COVID-19 than previous versions of the virus. Omicron’s mutations are expected to reduce the effectiveness of certain manufactured antibody treatments, including some sold by Regeneron Pharmaceuticals and Eli Lilly & Co.

It should not be dismissed as “mild,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters on December 14.

“Omicron is spreading at a rate we have not seen with any previous variant,” Tedros told an online briefing. “Even if Omicron does cause less severe disease, the sheer number of cases could once again overwhelm unprepared health systems.”

-With Reuters

LATEST COVID STATS

Town of Southampton: 7,988
Town of Riverhead: 4,785
Town of East Hampton: 2,372
Town of Southold: 2,113
Town of Shelter Island: 100
Suffolk County: 268,570
Long Island: 505,182
New York State: 2.8 million
U.S.: 50.1 million
Worldwide: 271 million
Source: Suffolk County, New York State DOH, CDC, WHO

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