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Delta Variant Spurs a Rethink on Masks

Wed, 07/28/2021 - 15:41
Businesses can choose whether to require masks for employees and customers, and some are promoting the fact that all their employees are vaccinated.
Durell Godfrey

As the Delta variant of Covid-19 continues to spread in the United States, the Centers for Disease Control on Tuesday officially recommended that even people already vaccinated against Covid-19 once again wear masks in indoor public settings if they are in a region with "substantial" or "high" levels of community transmission.

On its website, as of Tuesday night, the C.D.C. had classified Suffolk County as having a "substantial" level of community transmission. 

Suffolk data released Tuesday, based on Monday's testing and vaccination activity, showed that 2.7 percent of Covid tests were positive and that the seven-day average positivity rate was 2.3 percent — both on the rise since the C.D.C. said in May that vaccinated people could go mask-free in indoor settings. There were 130 new Covid cases reported Tuesday in Suffolk, though that was not the highest number in recent days; the county reported 164 cases on Saturday, based on Friday's numbers, and 159 cases on Sunday, based on Saturday's numbers. Those represent higher numbers and a higher percentage of positive tests than last year at this time, when social distancing and mask mandates were in effect.

"In recent days, I have seen new scientific data from recent outbreak investigations showing that that Delta variant behaves uniquely differently from past strains of the virus that cause Covid-19," Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the C.D.C., told reporters in a press conference Tuesday.

A Stony Brook Southampton Hospital spokesperson said Wednesday that "the hospital adheres to C.D.C. guidelines," and said there was just one patient currently hospitalized there with Covid-19. Due to medical privacy rules, the hospital could not say whether it has seen any "breakthrough" cases among vaccinated people. Even as mask mandates were loosened or dropped in many settings, they remained in effect at hospitals, physicians' offices, and other health care facilities.

In a press conference yesterday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced that New York State will require all health care employees in state facilities who work directly with patients to be vaccinated. He also said all other state employees will need to be vaccinated by Labor Day or undergo regular Covid testing. "I encourage all local governments to do the same. It's smart, it's fair, it's in everyone's interest," he said.

East Hampton Town said in a statement Wednesday that the town "will continue to follow both C.D.C. and New York State guidance regarding mask-wearing and other Covid safetyÊrequirements."

"Possible changes to the current policy, which requires unvaccinated employees and visitors to town offices to wear masks and allows vaccinated individuals to be maskless, will be discussed" in light of the announcements fromÊthe C.D.C. and Governor Cuomo, the town said.

Governor Cuomo said yesterday that in New York State, 18 percent of ZIP codes with the highest virus transmission rates are on Long Island, the closest of those in Riverhead and Calverton. 

He suggested that private businesses should consider admitting only vaccinated people through their doors. "I can argue that it is a smart business practice because I want to go to a safe restaurant. I want to go to a safe theater. I want to go to a safe bar," he said. "I think it's good business for the private sector. I also think it provides a real incentive for people to get the vaccine."

On the subject of masking up once again, Steve Haweeli, a board member of the East Hampton Chamber of Commerce, said yesterday morning that "maybe this is a way to prevent another lockdown."

"We should all try to follow the direction of the C.D.C., noting that we've got some pretty low infection rates out here," Mr. Haweeli said. "Businesses should do what they feel comfortable doing. We need to have a discussion about this today."

Some indoor facilities, such as doctor's offices, hospitals, and schools, never dropped their indoor mask-wearing requirements; police officers and first responders continued to wear masks; and businesses have been free since mid-June to recommend or require masks of their customers.

Gavin Menu, who is president of the Sag Harbor Chamber of Commerce and the co-publisher of the Express News Group, suggested Wednesday that "any return to widespread mask requirements in stores and restaurants will be slow moving, especially in our community where vaccination rates are high and transmission is low at the moment."

"But it's certainly something to keep an eye on over the next couple weeks as we wait for more guidance from the state and local governments," he said.

Vaccination rates are higher on the East End than in other regions of Suffolk County. Whereas state data broken down by ZIP code show that 66 percent of people 12 and over are fully vaccinated across Suffolk, in East Hampton that number stands at 75 percent. In Montauk, it is 79.7 percent, in Southampton 74.5 percent, and in Sag Harbor 71.8 percent. In Bridgehampton, Amagansett, Sagaponack, and Wainscott, the state reports about 99 percent of people ages 12 and up have been fully vaccinated. 

A Pfizer vaccine clinic was planned in Springs on Wednesday evening through a partnership between Organizacion Latino-Americana of Eastern Long Island, the Springs Food Pantry, and Northwell Health. The clinic is supported by a grant of close to $100,000 from the Centers for Disease Control Foundation awarded to OLA -- one of only 71 organizations in the nation to receive such a grant -- through April of 2022. The campaign will focus on reaching people of color, OLA said. And with the recent closing of multiple state-run vaccine sites, including the one on the Stony Brook Southampton college campus as of Monday, Minerva Perez, OLA's executive director, said in a statement that smaller pop-up clinics in specific communities will be extremely important.

"Our ultimate goal is to make sure that as many people as possible have access to the vaccine and understand the benefits of being fully vaccinated, both for their families and for this community we all share," Ms. Perez said.

Governor Cuomo urged schools to take "more aggressive" action in September so that they do not become "super-spreaders." Only one of the vaccines has been deemed safe for emergency use in children over 12 years old, meaning there will be a significant number of unvaccinated children when schools reopen in the fall.

Local school officials, who had hoped the 2021-22 school year might began on a significantly different note, are taking a cautious approach to masking. East Hampton is "still waiting for guidance from New York State," said Adam Fine, the district superintendent.

The night before the C.D.C. issued its updated guidance, Jeff Nichols, the Sag Harbor School District superintendent, recommended to the school board that all students wear masks in September because the vaccines have not yet been approved for emergency use in children under 12, and because Pierson Middle and High School will have a number of sixth and seventh graders -- approximately 60 children -- who are not yet eligible for the vaccines.

"One month or six weeks from now could be entirely different from today," Mr. Nichols said Monday.

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