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The Mast-Head: False Sense of Security

Wed, 08/26/2020 - 18:43

Nearly every morning since the middle of March, I get up, make coffee, feed the dogs, and look up the previous day’s coronavirus numbers. This came about early on after a reader suggested that The Star should put out a daily email newsletter letting the community know what was going on as the pandemic began its spread across the country. She was correct that there would be interest — about half of the recipients on any given day open our email notice.

I worry, though, that the local statistics might give an over-optimistic impression. For example, the Village of Sag Harbor has had only 19 confirmed Covid cases for weeks. It is the same thing with Montauk, where the total has hung in at 18 since June. And Amagansett, where I live, has had three cases for months. It has to do with the way virus test results are sorted by the New York State Health Department.

It took me some time to get confirmation that the state’s daily and cumulative case counts reflect where patients live permanently, not where they vacation or choose to endure the lockdown. The health officials I have asked about this have agreed with my characterization that, for the purposes of the case counts in terms of location, it was correct to think of them as where the medical bills would be sent, not where the virus was picked up.

It seems like a false sense of security, especially for a resort and second-home region like ours. A cursory look at East Hampton or Southampton Town tax rolls shows a surprising number of homeowners whose primary addresses are in Manhattan, Connecticut, or northern New Jersey.

The Village of Westhampton Dunes has stood out since almost the beginning of the pandemic for its single confirmed Covid-19 case. This is, I like to joke, because there is only one person with a year-round address there. Of course, this is unfair; I am sure there are more, but it is illustrative of the problem.

Contact tracers, who try to unravel the threads among virus cases, have a fuller picture, but are barred from talking about what they know. Theirs seems an impossible task. Few people are going to answer an unknown caller, especially young people, among whom the virus has had a recent uptick.

My point is that there could be dangerous overconfidence that we have beat back the virus, when, because of the way the numbers are presented, we really cannot know.

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