For months, the number of Covid-19 cases among East End residents held steady. Then, as the season turned and more people remained indoors, trouble began. The pandemic never really went away, it seemed, it just took a summer vacation.
In the past week there have been clear indications that the virus is spreading rapidly once again. A key measure, the ratio of positives per tests given each 24-hour period, is now over 3 percent in Suffolk County and the number of new daily cases has reached levels not seen since May. For months the daily case count in Suffolk was 50 or below; it has been above 250 new cases per day since Friday.
A warning sign comes from the hospitals in Suffolk, which have so far accommodated a sudden increase of Covid-19 patients. However, hospital capacity is finite, and at the moment only about a third of intensive care and ordinary ward beds are available. This is where problems could arise. Despite improvements in treating people with the virus, if hospitals become overwhelmed, the death rate could rapidly climb, as it did in the spring. For reference, at its worst during the first 10 days of April, the confirmed case rate in Suffolk County averaged about 1,200 a day.
On the South Fork, we have noticed a change in the distribution of cases. Areas that had held steady almost doubled overnight. And increases were not limited to one or two hot spots. Rather, they have seemed to come from all over, regardless of location. This should serve as an alarm and warning that the community spread of the virus is increasing and appears to be more geographically dispersed than in the spring.
True red zones remain, almost exclusively in areas with large numbers of people who live in different kinds of shared housing. These are the places where several families or generations of the Island’s labor force occupy a single house. Covid cases that pop up in schools so far appear to have been acquired from someone at home and then noticed by a school nurse or teacher. As classrooms are closed and students quarantined after a case is detected, some children get farther away from settings in which detection is likely. Also, in the absence of housing alternatives, people in multifamily dwellings can more readily infect others.
Based on the recent Covid-19 numbers from the state, our region is in the midst of an upswing. There may still be time to head it off, but that will require a return to the strict closures and practices that brought the virus under control the first time around in the spring. With Thanksgiving looming, families will have to rethink large indoor gatherings. Students returning from college or boarding schools may need to self-quarantine upon arrival.
There is hope that vaccines now under development may be successful. But even if approved, these would not be widely available for months. In the interim, the public must fight to contain the virus so as not to exceed medical system capacity. Many lives remain on the line.