The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday elevated both Nassau and Suffolk counties’ “community level” risk of COVID-19 transmission to high, with public health officials now urging Long Islanders to wear a mask indoors in all public locations.
The change, which puts Long Island in the most high-risk designation, comes amid a steady increase in coronavirus cases in recent months — a spike health officials contend has been fueled by both the spread of the omicron subvariants and by the end of mask mandates in schools and other crowded indoor buildings.
The CDC’s recommendation is not enforceable, and masks are now mandatory in only a handful of locations across the state, including hospitals, nursing homes, state-run public transportation hubs and local airports.
The CDC determines the weekly community level update for a county based on three metrics: new COVID-19 hospital admissions per 100,000 people over seven days; the percentage of staffed inpatient hospital beds used by COVID-19 patients over a seven-day average; and the total number of new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people over the course of seven days.
Recommendations for those living in counties with high levels of COVID-19 transmission include masking indoors in all public places for all people, regardless of vaccination status.
People who are at higher risk for a severe case of COVID-19 should take further precautions, including considering avoiding optional indoor activities and developing a plan for rapid tests, according to the CDC.
On Wednesday, 1,150 Nassau residents tested positive for COVID-19, bringing the county’s seven-day average up to 11.1%, according to State Department of Health data. Figures in Suffolk trail only slightly behind, with a seven-day positivity rate of 9.8% and 980 new cases on Wednesday, the data shows. Long Island’s seven-day positivity rate as a whole is 10.5%.
Comparatively, COVID-19 rates on Long Island one year ago hovered just around 1% before soaring to nearly 27% in January amid the rapid spread of the original omicron variant, state figures show.
Dr. Steven Carsons, director of the Vaccine Center at NYU Langone Hospital-Long Island, said the Island’s true positivity rate is even higher, because many individuals testing positive on home kits do not report that information to their doctors or state health officials.
“We still have to protect ourselves using masking when it’s appropriate with vaccination,” Carsons said. “If people are really not feeling well, they should test. So many people assume it’s the flu or a cold. So they can infect others. And while they may do relatively well for multiple reasons such as age, access to medication and prior vaccination , they can transmit it to someone who is very vulnerable.”
New York City’s five boroughs remain in the medium or low categories. But much of the rest of the state is similarly designated as having a high rate of COVID-19 spread, among 137 counties total nationwide.
While cases have spiked again on Long Island, hospitalization rates and fatalities linked to the virus have remained low, in part because of the region’s high vaccination rates and the large number of people who have temporary natural immunity after contracting the virus months earlier, health officials said.
Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman, a Republican who campaigned against mask mandates, said in a statement that the “county is not in crisis.”
“Nassau is normal again, and we will continue to focus our efforts on helping residents recover from the social and financial burdens brought on by the pandemic,” he added.
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, a Democrat, said in a statement that “COVID-19 is still here and we encourage all residents to take the necessary precautions.”
Sign up to get text alerts about COVID-19 and other topics at newsday.com/text.