SUFFOLK COUNTY, NY — As Suffolk County continues to see a surge in new positive coronavirus cases, two areas on the East End are the focus of targeted testing in schools — and Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said the goal is to stop community spread so that Gov. Andrew Cuomo's micro-cluster restrictions will not need to be implemented.
"The second wave we have long talked about seems to be here," Bellone said. Suffolk County's positivity rate is currently 3.5 percent. But in two areas, Riverhead and Hampton Bays, those numbers are markedly higher.
In Hampton Bays, over the past five days, the positivity rate has stood at 6.5 percent, Bellone said. And in Riverhead, that five day average is 5.6 percent — those two districts have the highest numbers in Suffolk County, he said.
The surge in cases countywide has been seen over the past 10 days, Bellone said.
On Thurday, Bellone announced a new measure to try and stop community spread: Targeted testing began at the Hampton Bays Union Free School District, and will commence at the Riverhead Central School District on Friday. It is the first targeted school-based testing on Long Island, he said. The tests are paid for by New York State and results are available onsite in 15 minutes and uploaded into the state's database in real time, he said.
A total of 400 free tests will be administered in Hamptons Bays; parents were notified and the first day of voluntary testing of students and staff went smoothly, Bellone said. Four Suffolk County Department of Health staffers were onhand to help and the school district provided assistance with paperwork and the administration of the program, he said.
When asked if the higher numbers in Riverhead and Hampton Bays could trigger a micro-cluster designation by New York State, Bellone said the surge in cases is "broad-based community spread across Suffolk County. Even with this broad-based spread, we know we may see numbers spike in communities. Whether it's a reflection of higher number or a statistical anomaly, or both, we are not going to wait to find out. We are going to be proactive. That's what this testing is about. It's part of a larger effort to get our arms around numbers and stop the surge in the county."
He added: "Our focus here isn't on clusters, it is on community spread. Our effort here is to get community spread under control."
In addition to the testing at the two school districts, Stony Brook Southampton Hospital will also be doing community-based testing at Red Creek Park in Hamptons Bays for two weeks, with a second location to follow in Riverhead, Bellone said.
When asked again about micro-cluster zones, Bellone said if the numbers continue to surge "and we see an increase beyond where we are now eventually we could be heading to a place where we could be seeing restrictions put in place. But our focus now is not on clusters. Our focus is on bringing down community spread."
According to Cuomo representative Jack Sterne: "As temperatures cool, cases are rising — just like the experts predicted — and we are monitoring increases across the state. We are working with Suffolk and Nassau County to monitor and address troubling spikes in some communities on Long Island and increase testing and enforcement. The New York State Department of Health will designate cluster zones if the metrics are reached. We need all NYers to shake off COVID fatigue and wear masks, socially distance, get tested, and wash their hands."
Micro-cluster designations are based on a geographic area's seven-day average positivity rate being above a threshold for 10 days straight; for example, a sustained increase where contact tracing data points to community spread rather than isolated outbreaks, Cuomo has said.
Also, according to Cuomo's metrics, the state considers the rate of cases per 100,000 residents; hospitalizations; any links to congregate facilities, and other epidemiological factors. Zones are created based on case prevalence data and in consultation with the local health department, Cuomo has said.
On Thursday, Cuomo warned against the continuing surge: "From here to January is very dangerous. A vaccine is on the way — not in any timeframe that is going to make a difference to the immediate future."
With Thanksgiving coming, the biggest concern is that the numbers will surge higher, Bellone said.
The goal is to protect public health, ensure that the region's economic recovery continues moving forward and keep children in school for in-person learning, Bellone said.
To that end, a comprehensive approach to tackling the uptick has been adopted, including ramped up contact tracing and case investigation, with the number of contract tracers going from 30 to 150 in just over a week, Bellone said.
In addition, enforcement efforts have escalated, fire marshals and consumer affairs teams are going to be out on Thanksgiving Eve to ensure Gov. Andrew Cuomo's new restrictions are enforced — including at home gatherings of no more than 10 people and bars and restaurants closing by 10 p.m. The county has also teamed up with Partners in Prevention to spread the message about Suffolk's Social Host Law and Cuomo's new restrictions on social media.
Lars Clemensen, superintendent of the Hampton Bays Union Free School District, sent a letter to parents: "Beginning Thursday, the district will begin a voluntary COVID-19 rapid testing program for staff, students and faculty. We will conduct 400 rapid tests — 20 percent of our population — before Thanksgiving, resulting in a more robust picture of COVID-19 prevalence in the Hampton Bays community. While our school positivity rate remains low , 1 percent, and school spread is not occurring, positivity rates in the Hampton Bays community are elevated."
"COVID-19 prevalence in Hampton Bays tops Suffolk County"
He added: "Our schools continue to be a healthy and safe place for kids, faculty and staff to be. However, positivity rates in the community continue to be a concern as COVID-19 prevalence in Hampton Bays tops Suffolk County. We know that what happens outside has the ability to impact us inside and we will do all we can to stay open safely for in-person learning. Our voluntary testing program is intended to bring attention to the need to practice safe behavior and also create a larger testing pool to more accurately depict and respond to COVID-19 in the community."
Riverhead approaching micro-cluster status
With coronavirus cases spiking across Suffolk County, the town of Riverhead has been identified as a potential micro-cluster, Supervisor Yvette Aguiar said Wednesday.
According to Suffolk County data, Riverhead currently has 1,038 coronavirus cases. As of Tuesday, Riverhead had an average positive test rate of 4 percent for 10 days and if the town remains above 4 percent for two consecutive weeks or reaches a 5 percent positivity rate, it will be designated a micro-cluster, or red zone, Aguiar said.
A representative for Bellone said neither Riverhead nor any area in Suffolk County has yet been designated a micro-cluster. He added the supervisor was being proactive in her outreach to raise awareness and urge residents to get tested for the virus. The county, he said, "is fully in support of her efforts" and said the goal was to do everything possible to bring the positivity rate down.
Under a red zone micro-cluster designation, houses of worship can operate at 25 percent capacity or have 10 people maximum; only essential businesses can open; only takeout can be offered at eateries; schools must close and follow the remote learning model; and mass gatherings are prohibited, according to state guidelines.
The governor has laid out the metrics for the different levels of micro-cluster zones and explained what thresholds need to be met before a region receives that designation.
Aguiar said she was notified by Suffolk County that Riverhead was approaching micro-cluster status and urged all Riverhead residents to remain vigilant.
"With colder weather upon us, residents are spending more time indoors, within confined spaces," Aguiar said. "Suffolk County officials are working with us to identify and monitor clusters, and will be providing rapid testing in an effort to slow the uptick of positive cases in our area. It is crucial not to become complacent, as COVID-19 positivity rates are increasing dramatically across the United States."
Aguiar added that targeted rapid testing would soon be available in areas where numerous cases have been reported and said robocalls have been going out to spread the word.
"Rapid testing is critical to controlling the spread," Aguiar said. "This is a great and proactive approach."
Also, she said, she has been reaching out to Spanish-speaking communities to raise awareness, as well.
She said the key to preventing the spread of the virus is testing and urged Riverhead residents to get tested at a number of available locations townwide. An outdoor testing site is expected soon, she said.
The goal, Aguiar said, is to test residents, find out who is positive, and allow them to quarantine so that Riverhead does not become a red micro-cluster zone.
On Tuesday, Bellone announced a coronavirus cluster linked to six employees of a Friendly's in Riverhead.
Also, the Riverhead Central School District announced this week that due to a rise in coronavirus cases, full-time, in-person instruction for kindergarten through sixth grade will not begin until Jan. 11.
Bellone warned recently that without immediate action, business reopenings could be rolled back.
"COVID cases are surging in Suffolk County," Bellone said. "We think the current spike is related to Halloween parties that were happening seven to eight days ago."
His comments came as the coronavirus rate across Long Island almost tripled in recent weeks.
"We've seen cases surge around the country and the world for some time now and despite the spike, we were able to keep these numbers down on Long Island and across New York," Bellone said. "We bucked the odds for an extended period of time and maybe we thought we could avoid the fate of communities that are putting restrictions back in place. We can no longer say that. We are no longer beating those odds."
If the numbers keep escalating at their current pace, Suffolk County could be poised to become a red zone, which would mean more restrictions, he said.
"We have seen countless places have to roll back their economic reopenings," Bellone said. "That is where we are headed — toward one of those cluster zones."
A positivity rate of 3 percent hasn't been seen in Suffolk County since May 25, Bellone said. The rate has remained at 2 percent or lower from June through November.
"What's happening here? Why are we seeing this pretty abrupt surge?" Bellone asked.
The answer, he said, is not only superspreader events such as a wedding at the North Fork Country Club, but small gatherings during Halloween.
So far, county officials are investigating at least one Halloween party and there may be others, he said.
Those small gatherings may not be in violation of the state limit of 50 people or fewer, Bellone said.
A Bellport birthday party fell within the state guidelines of 50 individuals but 36 of those who attended tested positive for the coronavirus, the county executive said.
"This is an example of what can happen at these small gatherings," Bellone said. "It's critical that we get this under control."
On Tuesday, Bellone warned against not just Thankgiving gatherings but also Thanksgiving Eve parties. He said Suffolk County's social host kaw, as well as the governor's 10-person limit on gatherings in homes, will be enforced.
Where to be tested in Riverhead
CityMD Urgent Care
999 Old Country Road,
Riverhead, NY 11901
Suffolk County Riverhead Center
300 Center Drive
Riverhead, NY 11901
ProHEALTH Urgent Care1149 Old Country Road
Riverhead, NY 11901
6221 Route 25AWading River NY 11792(631) 929-6040
GoHealth Urgent Care Center
1842 Old Country Rd,
Riverhead NY 11901