It’s the holiday season… So a-hoop dee doo and dickery dock and don’t forget to hang up your sock…
I’ve had that old Irving Berlin song in my head the past week or so. Like everyone else, I’m longing for Christmas as it was in the before times. Last year, I really missed our family Christmas traditions — which revolve around seeing extended family and, of course, eating too much.
Like everyone else, I was hopeful things would be back to normal by now. All the numbers I track in a spreadsheet every day were trending in the right direction: down. Then the delta variant arrived. And that changed everything. Cases, hospitalizations and deaths all climbed again. And today we are pretty much right back where were were a year ago, at the start of the winter surge.
Make no mistake, last winter was a rough period in our region. Over 1,300 Suffolk residents died. There were more deaths — about 1,900 — in the early months of the pandemic last year. But more than half of those deaths were people in nursing homes. Last winter’s toll was not among people living in congregate settings.
A significant portion of the population remains unvaccinated and are more likely to get infected and experience severe illness, hospitalization and death. And then there are the “breakthrough” cases — infections among the fully vaccinated — which led to the availability of booster shots.
Now there’s this new variant, omicron, about which we know next to nothing — and will likely not know much about for at least a few more weeks.
So how do we celebrate this holiday season?
With caution. That means avoiding large parties and crowded, poorly ventilated places. Take a rapid test before gathering with family and friends. Keep some windows open to allow fresh air into homes where people are getting together. Maintain social distance. Don’t go around kissing everyone. (That’s really difficult for huggy-kissy people like me.)
I know a lot of people just don’t want to hear it. But infections and hospitalizations are on the rise again in Suffolk, following the Thanksgiving holiday — topping 200 in-patients countywide this week for the first time in months. We’ve had 134 confirmed new cases in Riverhead Town residents alone since Thanksgiving Eve. One of them is a friend, currently in the hospital fighting for his life.
A lot of people seem to be deep into a COVID-free fantasy. Sure, I can relate. I want it to all be over as much as anyone else.
But COVID isn’t done with us yet, and try as we might, we can’t just wish it away.
I’ve recently heard town officials talk about COVID in the past tense. There are signs posted about masks being required in Town Hall, but few people actually wear them. The seats in the meeting room are marked so that people can maintain social distance. The markings are ignored.
People also aren’t wearing masks in other indoor public places, such as supermarkets and other retail stores. And these same unmasked people have no concept of distance, ignoring signs and floor markings about keeping six (or even three) feet away.
According to the State Department of Health, masks are mandatory for the unvaccinated in indoor public places but not for those who are vaccinated. That means everyone thinks masking is optional. That’s a mistake.
If you are infected, you will spread the infection to others much more readily if you are unmasked. And if you are unvaccinated you are much more likely than a vaccinated person to contract the virus.
The current NY rule doesn’t work. We need a rule that requires everyone to mask up. But no one in authority has the gumption to fix that mistake at this point. Public health decisions made for political reasons have deadly consequences.
The community transmission rate in Suffolk County is high, according to the CDC, which says everyone in Suffolk should wear a mask in pubic, indoor settings, regardless of vaccination status.
The CDC recommends wearing a mask in crowded outdoor settings, too, in areas of high transmission — like Suffolk.
So, just do it. Do it for your family members, your neighbors, your coworkers and even for the strangers in the supermarket. You don’t really know if you’re infected at this moment, so take precautions. Wearing a mask won’t kill you. Not wearing one can kill someone else. Seriously, what’s the big freaking deal?
Anything we can do to slow this down means we’re that much closer to actually making COVID a thing of the past. And maybe, just maybe, this year’s winter surge won’t have the same consequences as last year’s, when more than 1,300 Suffolk residents didn’t live to celebrate another holiday season with their families.
And maybe, too, by this time next year, COVID will be just a ghost of Christmas past.
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