People waiting to be tested outside an urgent care center in Riverhead. Photo: Peter Blasl

The post-Thanksgiving surge has arrived in Suffolk County.

Since Thanksgiving, Suffolk’s seven-day-average test positivity rate has grown from 3.7% on Nov. 26 to 5.8% on Dec. 5, a comparative increase of 57%. It’s a dramatic acceleration compared to the same period of time before Thanksgiving, during which the average positivity rate only grew from 3.39% on Nov. 16 to 3.55% on Nov. 25 — a comparative increase of less than 5%.

The increase is a grim predictor of coming weeks as the Christmas holiday season approaches. State officials now say the vast majority of new infections are traced to small residential gatherings, or “living room spread,” and they fear that the coming holidays will only worsen Suffolk’s growing outbreak.

For the fourth day in a row, Suffolk’s test positivity rate was over 6% on Dec. 5, the most recent day for which data has been reported. On Thanksgiving, the test positivity rate was 3.86%; at the beginning of November, the test positivity rate was only regularly beginning to rise above 1%.

The average number of daily new cases has also increased sharply since the holiday. On Thanksgiving, the seven-day average of new daily cases was 563. On Dec. 5, the seven-day average was 957 — an increase of 70%. That’s more than double the rate of growth compared to the same period of time leading up to holiday, when average daily new cases increased by 34%.

Suffolk County is now hurtling toward the spring outbreak’s peak of 1,400 daily cases, with no signs of slowing down. More than 1,000 new daily cases were reported in Suffolk on Saturday for the fourth day in a row.

Daily hospital admissions of COVID-19 patients in Suffolk hospitals have more than doubled since mid-November, increasing from 10 new patients on Nov. 16 to 41 on Saturday.

As of Saturday, 352 patients were hospitalized with COVID-19 in Suffolk County hospitals. That’s still well below the April’s peak of hospitalizations, when more than 1,600 patients were hospitalized. 

But hospitalizations and deaths both lag several weeks behind spikes in new infections, and health officials fear that the rapid pace of the post-Thanksgiving surge may lead to a similar crisis in hospital capacity that New York experienced in the spring.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said last week that the state will focus on hospitalizations more than infection rates to gauge the severity of virus spread in each region.

Last week, the state announced a number of emergency measures to maintain hospital capacity as daily infections increase statewide. Among them, health systems must develop plans to increase bed capacity, manage patient load between hospitals and identify retired doctors and nurses in the event of healthcare staff shortages. Hospitals may also be required to cancel elective surgeries, as they were in the spring, and Buffalo hospitals have already been ordered to do so.

In the two weeks since parts of Riverhead were designated a COVID-19 micro-cluster, the yellow zone restrictions do not appear to have had much effect on the cluster’s test positivity rate. The seven-day average positivity rate was 3.49% when the governor announced the micro-cluster designation. It has since risen over 5%.

It is not clear when or if the state considers upgrading an area’s micro-cluster status and tightening its restrictions. Riverhead’s micro-cluster has reported positivity rates above the 4% benchmark for a “red zone” for at least two weeks now, but the state’s published guidance includes several other factors which cannot be determined without data that the state does not publish.

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Katie Morosky
Katie, winner of the 2016 James Murphy Cub Reporter of the Year award from the L.I. Press Club, is a co-publisher of RiverheadLOCAL. A Riverhead native, she is a 2014 graduate of Stony Brook University. Email Katie