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Shelter Island sees COVID cases spiking

Efforts to reconcile the number of Islanders testing positive for COVID-19 between local and Suffolk County statistics is proving to be a challenge. But there’s one thing on which everyone can agree: Cases are spiking here, just as they are in the state and around the nation

“We’ve been very, very fortunate, but things have been changing,” Supervisor Gerry Siller said at Tuesday’s Town Board work session about increases in the number of Island COVID cases. “We got a little lax,” he said, encouraging residents to adhere to the guidelines about mask wearing, social distancing and getting tested when appropriate.

The town is leading the way, canceling the annual in-person Christmas tree lighting and Hannukah menorah lighting ceremonies.

In May, Suffolk County reported eight cases on Shelter Island and now reports a total of 17. But Police Chief Jim Read said there have been 17 new cases on the Island alone, in the past seven weeks from Oct. 9 to Tuesday, Dec. 1. Only eight of those are recorded on the Suffolk County map; nine are not.

Of those 17 cases in the past seven weeks, some were self-reported. That’s something Mr. Siller hopes people will continue to do with the assurance their reports will be kept confidential, while enabling town officials to respond to needs appropriately. He suggested that those who test positive report their results to him, Deputy Supervisor Amber Brach-Williams or Chief Read.

Reporting is skewed between local and county numbers because some known to be living on the Island who became ill reported themselves to town officials.

But the county depends on addresses from drivers’ licenses of infected people who may be living elsewhere. They often fail to track more than 3,000 people, some of whom, no doubt are Islanders now.

Efforts are underway to rectify the situation, Chief Read said. But that’s more easily said than done. He said he’s not disparaging the county in its efforts, and is working with county officials to correct the differences in reported cases.

A full team of town officials were on hand at Tuesday’s meeting, including Medical Center physician Dr. Josh Potter, who urged residents to maintain a “healthy degree of care.” Failure to do so can result in overloading small area hospitals with COVID patients, he said.

“I can’t emphasize enough what the government is saying,” the doctor said, adding that people must limit their exposure and avoid seasonal celebrations with those outside their own households.

Dr. Potter tests patients at the Medical Center by appointment only on Wednesday afternoons and estimates he can test between 30 to 40 patients per week. In addition to his own testing, other doctors and urgent care centers are testing, he said.

Anyone who feels ill, has been in close contact with a person sickened by the virus, or has traveled outside the state, should be tested. If travel is necessary, a person must isolate for three days and then get tested on the fourth day, he said.

Dr. Potter emphasized that the testing he does is not the rapid swab tests that are appropriate for the school to use if there is concern about an outbreak in that building.

Instead he uses the long swabs that cause only momentary discomfort. But results from those tests are taking five to seven days before results are known. Still, they are more reliable than the rapid tests.

Ms. Brach-Williams, who revealed Tuesday that she is currently under quarantine because she was exposed to someone who tested positive, explained the New York State Department of Health distinctions between those who are considered to have “close” contact versus those with “proximate” contact with someone who has tested positive.

The infected patient starts the chain, and anyone who has been in contact with that patient closer than a six feet radius without a mask or plexiglass separating them for as little as 10 minutes in a 24-hour period, is considered to be a close contact.

That reflects her status and requires a 14-day quarantine, she said. Proximate contact is the result of being outside of that six-foot area, but in a closed space, and a precautionary quarantine is recommended.

Ms. Brach-Williams said the reason — despite its spike in cases — the Island hasn’t been put into a state-designated “yellow zone” is because it has maintained a persistent rate of positive results of tests at or above 3% for 10 consecutive days. (In Riverhead, the rate has been 4.6% and that town could see tighter restrictions imposed if such numbers persist, according to Governor  Andrew Cuomo.)

Under a yellow-zone status, restaurants are limited to four customers per table; houses of worship to 50% capacity; mass gatherings to 25 people; and mandatory school testing will be conducted on 20% of the school population. Hampton Bays, with a 5.3% positivity rate, has been declared a yellow zone.

While Shelter Island may have hit that 3% mark, it didn’t sustain it for 10 consecutive days, Ms. Brach-Williams said. At the same time, she said the rolling seven day average likely saw 3% between Sept. 4 and 10 and again between Nov. 4 and 18.

“We don’t want anyone to get sick,” she said, reminding people to mask up and maintain social distancing. And, if someone is diagnosed as positive, it’s essential that they inform those who have been in close or proximate distances so they can take necessary steps to quarantine.