Pictured Above: Target in Riverhead enforces the state directive to wear a face covering in public.
The beautiful weather of the past few days has sent many Long Islanders roaming from their homes, to beaches, parks and the few stores that are currently open, stocking up on spring plants and swimwear in the hopes of a return to normal after the region spent the past two months as the epicenter of the global coronavirus pandemic.
But Long Island is the least ready to reopen of all regions in New York State, which will begin to exit the business shutdown known as “New York Pause,” designed to stop the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, on May 15.
And Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said May 5 that an uptick in hospitalizations in the county over the past couple days could prove troubling.
Suffolk County began to see a steady decline in total Covid-19 hospitalizations on April 20, and was near to meeting one of the state’s metrics for reopening — a 14-day decline in hospitalizations (over a three day rolling average) — going into this past weekend.
But on Sunday, total hospitalizations ticked up by four, and then on Monday, the number jumped again by 18, with 835 people currently hospitalized with Covid-19 in the county as of the end of the day Monday.
“Increasing hospitalizations are definitely something I’m concerned about,” said Mr. Bellone in his Tuesday press briefing. “It’s not the direction we want to be moving in.”
As of Tuesday, 1,296 Suffolk County residents had died in less than two months of a disease that has killed a total of 19,645 New Yorkers in the same rapid time frame, infecting more than 321,000 residents of this state.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on Monday laid out the seven metrics that must be hit for reopening the state, region-by-region. Long Island, which includes both Nassau and Suffolk counties, met just two of the seven criteria, while New York City met three of the seven.
Several upstate regions met six out of seven criteria.
Mr. Bellone said Monday that he wasn’t surprised that Long Island has lagged behind New York City in being ready to reopen, since the virus reached the city before it reached here.
“I said all along that Suffolk County, by the data, looks like we’re behind New York City by 10 to 14 days. We’re about a week behind Nassau,” he said. “It only makes sense that upstate would be ahead of us. We may see that there are differences even within downstate itself.”
The two metrics Mr. Cuomo said Monday that Long Island has been on target to reach are the 15-day hospitalization metric, despite Suffolk’s increase over the past two days, and the requirement to be able to perform 30 Covid-19 diagnostic tests per 1,000 residents per month.
Suffolk is currently hovering around the percentage of available hospital beds necessary to reopen the economy — the state is looking to each region to have 30 percent of total hospital beds, and 30 percent of ICU beds available for a potential surge in patients if the economy reopens.
Mr. Bellone said Tuesday that Suffolk currently has 28 percent of overall hospital beds and 29 percent of ICU beds available. This number has remained fairly consistent over the past week.
“You have to consider that elective surgeries have not yet been added back in,” Mr. Bellone cautioned of those hospital capacity numbers.
New York State figures from Monday show that, when Nassau and Suffolk are taken together, 28 percent of total hospital beds and 26 percent of ICU beds are available.
Long Island as a whole is also lagging behind the rest of the state on new hospitalizations, which must be under two per 100,000 residents on a three-day rolling average. The island as a whole was averaging 5.76 new hospitalizations per thousand residents as of Monday, while New York City was averaging 5.41.
Mr. Bellone said Suffolk, which has 1.48 million residents, would need to see less than 30 new hospitalizations per day to meet that metric, but is currently seeing about 50 new hospitalizations per day.
The final state metric is the hiring of an “army of contact tracers” to isolate the contacts of people who test positive for Covid-19. The state is looking to ensure that each region has 30 contact tracers per 100,000 residents. Under those guidelines, Suffolk needs 444 contact tracers and Nassau needs 408.
Suffolk County is seeking to hire contact tracers to work with the County Health Department and a regional consortium of health professionals, including the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, to inform and help isolate people who have been exposed to Covid-19.
The job requirements are a high school diploma for entry level positions, or some college for higher level positions, says Mr. Bellone. For more details, call Suffolk’s 311 hotline (631.853.6311 if your phone won’t put you through directly).
“We’re working every day to get the contact tracing program stood up,” said Mr. Bellone.
Once these health care capacity and testing metrics are met, regions throughout the state can begin to open their economies in four phases, with the state monitoring the Covid-19 infection rate for two weeks in between each phase, and dialing back the reopening if necessary.
In Phase 1, construction, manufacturing and wholesale supply chain businesses and select retail can reopen (with curbside pickup).
Phase 2 includes professional, financial and administrative services, real estate and retail. Phase 3 includes restaurants, food service and hotels, followed by arts, entertainment, recreation and education in Phase 4.
Before reopening, businesses must put in place precautions to make work spaces safer, by requiring the wearing of face coverings, encouraging social distancing, implementing strict cleaning policies, conducting health screenings of workers and limiting non-essential travel.
As of this week, Suffolk County’s infection rate stood at .75, said Mr. Bellone on Monday, meaning that, on average, one person who now has Covid-19 infects .75 other people. If the infection rate climes back up to 1.1, the outbreak will again increase exponentially.
While there is still much researchers don’t know about this highly contagious virus, its unchecked infection rate is a good deal higher than the 1.1 threshold at which the disease curve could again spike.
“Our actions determine the trail ahead,” said Mr. Cuomo in his Tuesday morning briefing. “You tell me what you do today and tomorrow, and I’ll tell you the infection rate in the next two to three days.”