As the delta variant spreads in the U.S. infections are rising, including in Suffolk County. Photo: Adobe Stock

With most restrictions lifted and the new delta variant circulating throughout the state, the number of confirmed COVID infections is climbing.

The testing percent-positive rate in Suffolk edged above 2% yesterday for the first time since early May, with 2.2% of the 3,923 people tested in Suffolk showing positive results. The percent-positive number in the Long Island region was 2.3%. The seven-day rolling average in Suffolk was 1.4%. In contrast the county’s seven-day average was 0.4% when the governor lifted all restrictions on June 15.

According to Suffolk County Health Commissioner Dr. Gregson Piggot, the delta variant is mostly responsible for the uptick in infections in the state, representing around 20% of the cases statewide. He did not have data on delta variant infections in Suffolk County.

“Last time I looked in June, we were around 3% with the delta variant,” Piggot said. “Now around 20% or so statewide is the delta variant. So it’s going up fast.”

Piggot said the people being infected are primarily non-vaccinated individuals, although some vaccinated individuals may be contracting the virus but remain asymptomatic.

Statewide, the rate was 1.2% yesterday and 1.3% on a seven-day average. The statewide COVID hospitalization average over the past seven days was around 350 people daily.

According to the CDC, evidence suggests the delta variant is more transmissible, especially in indoor settings. Vaccines still protect against infection with the delta variant, though they may not be as effective. There isn’t evidence to suggest delta variant infections are more severe.

Piggot also said increased activity during the summer could have been the cause of the small spike in infection rates, but there have been no “super spreader” events.

“A lot of people are celebrating like COVID is over, that we won the battle, that we don’t have to deal with this again,” Piggot said. “But we’re finding that that’s not the case. That there’s still COVID circulating. That every time that virus finds a mutation that is more adaptable, more transmissible, we are susceptible to that.”

It is harder to get infected in an outdoor environment than indoors, Piggot said, because the virus cannot concentrate in one place. When asked about crowded outdoor events, Piggot recommends that people still avoid large crowds. He also recommends unvaccinated people wear masks and practice physical distancing.

The county recommends people get vaccinated. New York state has started closing down many mass vaccination sites, as the rate of vaccinated individuals has plateaued in recent weeks. Instead, the state is pushing vaccinations through primary care providers, who are more trusted amongst people who may be hesitant to take the vaccine and can give more personal recommendations.

The vaccines have been proven safe and effective against infection and hospitalization against coronavirus, with immediate side effects being muscle aches and headaches. There have been some reports of short-term heart inflammation with the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines and a rare blood clot with the Johnson and Johnson vaccine, although these symptoms are extremely rare.

The rare Guillain Barré Syndrome has also been identified as a potential side effect of Johnson and Johnson’s vaccine, according to the latest FDA fact sheet. After 100 cases out of the over 13 million recipients of the vaccine developed severe cases of the condition. There currently isn’t enough data to prove the vaccine causes the syndrome, the FDA said. The Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines have not been connected with Guillain Barré Syndrome.

“These are very rare side effects, and the overall benefit of the vaccine is tremendous in that you will not get sick from COVID and you will not die from COVID if you’re fully vaccinated. We can pretty much assure that,” Piggot said.

According to the state health department, 57.1% of residents in Riverhead (11901 zip code) and 54.2% of residents in Calverton (11933) have at least one dose of the vaccine. The number is below the 70% vaccination milestone that state and national health leaders are using as a benchmark for herd immunity. The other zip codes in Riverhead Town are all reported as having vaccination rates of over 99%, according to the state health department website.

When resident John McAuliff at last week’s town board meeting asked if the town is doing anything to increase the vaccination rate in areas of Riverhead that lag behind, Supervisor Yvette Aguiar said the town is not responsible for that.

“I understand what you’re saying, but here in Riverhead Town we’re not going to be identifying neighborhoods and trying to go into them, it’s not something that we do. I believe that people can choose to be vaccinated on their own will,” Aguiar said.

“Of course, but that’s not the issue,” McAuliff interrupted. “The issue is why they’re not getting vaccinated — and [the town]taking some responsibility to address it.“ McAuliff has brought this up at past meetings. The supervisor has said it’s a matter of personal choice and the role of other levels of government, such as the CDC, the state and the county, to do education and outreach on the issue.

In Riverhead, the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations has dropped dramatically and so far remained low.

“Since April, it’s been a steady, steady, steady decline to zero to two patients,” Peconic Bay Medical Center executive director Amy Loeb said.

PBMC is encouraging vaccination, Loeb said. PBMC physicians are talking about the importance of vaccinations and offering them to their patients. The hospital is also offering vaccines every Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday on their West Second Street campus in Riverhead.

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Alek Lewis is a lifelong Riverhead resident and a 2021 graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism. Previously, he served as news editor of Stony Brook’s student newspaper, The Statesman, and was a member of the campus’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.