File photo: Denise Civiletti

One year ago today, Supervisor Yvette Aguiar declared a state of emergency in the Town of Riverhead, closing all town facilities to the public except the police and justice court building, canceling all meetings and nearly all town programs.

Aguiar’s order went into effect on Friday, March 13. It remains in effect, with some modifications. Some town facilities and buildings have been reopened to the public, some on a limited basis.

A temporary wall erected last year at the main entrance to Riverhead Town Hall to restrict public access to the building remains in place. A police officer is now on duty at the reception desk to sign in visitors and check their temperature.

Town meetings are still closed to the public. Some meetings — town board, planning board and zoning board of appeals — are live-streamed on the town’s website and allow for public participation via Zoom.

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The supervisor’s executive order last year capped a week of high anxiety in New York, as health officials tracked the early spread of the novel coronavirus that had just been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo had declared a state of emergency on March 7, 2020, as the number of confirmed cases in the state climbed to 70, with an outbreak clustered in New Rochelle. The following day, the statewide total climbed to 105 and the first case was confirmed in Suffolk. Four days later, on March 12, there were 20 confirmed cases in Suffolk County. The county executive declared a state of emergency.

A year ago, much remained unknown about how the novel coronavirus spread and how to best protect oneself from infection. Riverhead schools closed for a few days as a precautionary measure for a weekend deep-cleaning. They would not reopen for the remainder of the school year.

File photo: Denise Civiletti

Bracing for a spike in cases, Peconic Bay Medical Center prepared “surge capacity” and imposed strict limits on visitors.

On March 14, New York reported its first coronavirus death.

The following day, Cuomo rang the alarm about the expected impact on the state’s hospital system and the urgent need for more hospital beds and ventilators to keep alive COVID patients who could no longer breathe on their own.

To slow the spread of the virus, the governor by executive order began shutting down businesses and imposing restrictions on commerce and social activities. Some of those restrictions remain in place. Others have been lifted or are being eased. All remain a source of controversy to this day.

Over the past year, 39,311 New Yorkers have died of COVID-19. Three thousand, one hundred and seventy-nine Suffolk County residents have died. There have been more than 1.7 million confirmed infections in N.Y. State and 168,764 in Suffolk. According to epidemiologists, the actual number of infections is four times that, because not everyone who is infected gets tested. Most people who get the virus are asymptomatic or have mild symptoms and don’t seek medical attention.

There are now three vaccines approved for emergency use in the United States. Since vaccine distribution began in the U.S. on Dec. 14, nearly 96 million doses have been administered, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The U.S. is currently administering more than 2.1 million shots each day.

A vial containing the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine at Peconic Bay Medical Center on Dec. 15.

In Suffolk, as of March 10, 292,242 people — 19.7% of the total population — have received at least one vaccine dose, according to data released by the county health department.

With ramped up vaccine production, President Biden says the U.S. will have enough doses to vaccinate every American adult by May and yesterday he directed states to open eligibility for vaccines to all adults by May 1.

As the vaccination effort continues, health officials are keeping a wary eye on variants of the virus circulating in the U.S. and around the world. The most prevalent variant, B.1.1.7, was first identified in the United Kingdom. It has now been confirmed in all 50 states, with Florida leading the nation in the number of known cases, at 690. There were 136 cases confirmed so far in New York as of March 9, according to the CDC.

Actual incidence of the U.K. or other variants is difficult to gauge because genome sequencing of positive samples is still very small, at about 7,000 per week nationwide. The American Rescue Plan legislation signed into law by the president yesterday includes $1.75 billion to increase sequencing to 25,000 per week.

The U.K. variant is more contagious, but health officials are not yet sure whether it causes more severe disease, according to the CDC. The vaccines approved for use in the U.S. are believed to be effective against the U.K. variant.

The president and health officials urge residents to continue to follow all protocols against viral spread, including wearing masks, washing hands and maintaining social distance.

In a nationally televised prime-time address last night, President Biden called for Americans to “mark our independence from this virus” by the Fourth of July.

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.