Long Island at a Crossroads as Latest Covid-19 Wave Crests, 2nd Anniversary Looms

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A woman takes a coronavirus test at a pop-up testing site in New York on Jan. 12, 2022. (REUTERS/Brendan McDermid)

Call it a tale of two counties.

Democratic Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone touted the fact that the wave of Omicron variant Covid-19 cases has crested on Long Island, with the number of new diagnoses decreasing in the wake of the holiday surge largely fueled by family gatherings. But he also cautioned that double-digit daily death counts remain a lagging indicator that the region isn’t out of the woods yet. But on the other side of the county line, Republican  Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman, whose first days in office in January featured massive lines of residents lining up for free at-home test kits, said Nassau is back to normal and has declared war on New York State’s mask mandates that are intended to curb the spread of the virus.

“To put it in perspective how quickly the Omicron wave swept over us, on Christmas Eve we had 416 people in our hospitals in Suffolk County. That number rose to 737 just one week later on New Year’s Day,” Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone told the Long Island Association (LIA)’s State of the Region Hybrid Breakfast audience on Jan. 21. “I’ve never seen the numbers move that quickly.”

Feb. 7 marks two years since Stony Brook University Hospital recorded its first suspected case of coronavirus in a patient who visited the emergency room — a month before Long Island’s first confirmed case of Covid-19. Since then, residents have seen pandemic restrictions come and go, but the return of mask mandates sparked the latest flashpoint between progressive and conservatives. 

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Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman and Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone. (Photo by Ed Shin)

Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul called the mask mandates the “common-sense, right thing to do” and “not permanent.” But Blakeman, who spoke after Bellone and Hochul at the same LIA event, days earlier had signed an executive order that he said allows school districts’ boards of education to vote whether or not to enforce mask wearing. 

“Yes, we have seen the ravages of Covid-19, but we cannot be afraid,” Blakeman said. “We cannot hide under the bed. We have to learn to live with the pandemic.”

He touted the county giving out 250,000 free at-home Covid-19 tests and more than 100,000 N-95 masks to local educators.

“We wanna keep our schools open,” he said. “We have to take into account when we think about things that we are doing to protect people, the social consequences of what we do … such as how do these regulations and restrictions that government imposes, how do they affect the emotional well-being and anxiety of the people that we govern?”

Blakeman’s measure led to the Massapequa Board of Education’s vote against enforcement after the mandate expires.

After a public war of words between Hochul and Blakeman over the mask mandate — and Hochul chastising several local school districts for following through on Blakeman’s invitation to lift the mask mandates — a Nassau Supreme Court judge struck down Hochul’s rule on Jan. 24, one week before it was due to expire. The next day, an appeals court judge granted a stay in an appeal over mask mandates, keeping the rule in effect during the legal process, said New York Attorney General Letitia James, whose office had filed the motion to stay the ruling. Justice Robert Miller of the state appeals court temporarily blocked the lower-court ruling, siding with the state.

The requirements include wearing masks in schools, on public transit and in other public indoor spaces. Disagreements and court action over mask mandates in a number of states have become a flashpoint of the pandemic response nationwide, often dividing Democrats and Republicans. Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked President Joe Biden’s vaccination-or-testing mandate for large businesses. 

Nassau Judge Thomas Rademaker ruled that the governor overstepped her authority in imposing a rule that needed to have been passed by the state Legislature. Multiple local school districts said masks were optional on Jan. 25 until the stay was put in effect, causing widespread confusion.

“We strongly disagree with this ruling, and we are pursuing every option to reverse this immediately,” Hochul said. She had declared a state of emergency almost immediately after the World Health Organization named Omicron as a variant of concern on Nov. 26, 2021. The school order was issued on her first day in office in August.

When Hochul imposed the rule on Dec. 31, she called it temporary. She later extended the original expiration date of Jan. 15 to Feb. 1.

Long Island had a 9% seven-day average percentage of positive Covid-19 test results reported over the three-day period ending on Jan. 26, the most recent date for which state health data was available as of press time. That was down from a high of more than 26% in the first week of January.

Suffolk reported more than 5,000 Covid-19 cases in a single day in early January, but that figure dropped to less than 1,000 by the end of the month. Bellone said the demand for testing at community-based sites has decreased as a result.

“That has now started to come down as we have seen the numbers come back down,” he said. “We have peaked, which is a very good thing.”

But even as Covid-19 cases drop and hospitalizations show signs of plateauing in hard-hit pockets of the United States, the still-rising death toll from the Omicron variant highlights the trail of loss that follows every virus surge.

Coronavirus deaths hit an 11-month high on Jan. 23 nationwide, climbing 11% in the past week when compared to the prior week, according to a Reuters analysis.

Covid-19 fatalities are a lagging indicator, meaning their numbers usually rise a few weeks after new cases and hospitalizations.

The Omicron death toll has now surpassed the height of deaths caused by the more severe Delta variant when the seven-day average peaked at 2,078 on Sept. 23 last year. An average of 2,200 people a day, mostly unvaccinated, are now dying due to Omicron.

That is still below the peak of 3,300 lives lost a day during the surge in January 2021 as vaccines were just being rolled out.

“It will be a while until we see (a) decrease in death as very sick people with Covid remain hospitalized for a long time,” said Wafaa El-Sadr, a professor of epidemiology and medicine at Columbia University in New York City.

“It’s certainly reached its peak in certain regions of the country,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease official, said in an interview with MSNBC on Monday. “I believe that in the next few weeks we will see – as a country – that it is all turning around.”

On Jan. 24, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) warned that it was dangerous to assume Omicron would herald the end of Covid-19’s most acute phase, and exhorted nations to stay focused to beat the pandemic.

“I want to thank New Yorkers for doing the right thing to get where we are in fighting this winter surge,” Hochul said. “However, this isn’t the time to take our foot off the gas. Let’s keep using the tools – the vaccine, the booster and masking up – to further bring the numbers down and keep our vulnerable loved ones safe from this virus.”

-With Briana Bonfiglio and Reuters

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