What to Know
- The more contagious strain first detected in the U.K. has now been found in New York; the case is an upstate man in his 60s with no recent travel history and authorities are probing more potential cases
- Vaccines are expected to work on that more transmissible strain and others; the rollout process, though, has become a point of contention between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio
- Cuomo blamed hospital management Monday for allegedly not getting vaccines out fast enough and threatened fines over it; Mayor Bill de Blasio says the threats just "paralyze" people
A day after New York detected its first known case of the U.K. variant, a case traced to an upstate jewelry store, Gov. Andrew Cuomo called on New Yorkers to come forward if they could have possibly been exposed to the individual -- or to anyone who could have been exposed to him in passing.
Three other people linked to the store already have COVID, and state investigators are working to determine whether they also have the more contagious strain identified in the man in his 60s. That man did not travel recently, meaning community spread has likely already happened. It may have been for some time.
It takes about 44 hours to conduct the genetic sequencing of samples required to identify any potential variants, health officials said. More should be known on those cases in the next day or two. Aggressive contact tracing is ongoing.
"Anyone who was exposed or was exposed to someone who was exposed, please contact us. There's nothing to be ashamed of, this is a virus, it travels," Cuomo said Tuesday. "But we have to know. Containment is vitally important here."
He described the variant as "highly problematic" and warned it "could be a game-changer," first for the Capital Region, where it was found in Saratoga Springs, and then possibly elsewhere, given evidence it spreads more rapidly.
The jewelry store connected to that first case in Saratoga Springs has been voluntarily closed since just before Christmas and said in a statement it would extend the closure pending additional information from state and county officials.
The trio of cases currently under investigation appear not to be staffers of the store, the jeweler indicated in a statement. It's not clear if they were customers.
"NYS Department of Health has confirmed that all N. Fox Jewelers staff have subsequently tested negative and that no staff is contagious at the time of this release," the statement continued. "N Fox Jewelers takes the health and safety of our staff and patrons very seriously and we are working closely with state health Officials on contract tracing, as well as operating guidelines."
The UK strain is thought to be up to 50 percent more transmissible but no more deadly. Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a new national lockdown until at least mid-February to curb a level of spread he described as both "frustrating and alarming." New York became the fourth U.S. state to confirm its presence locally.
Cuomo described the numbers concerning Johnson as "frightening" on Tuesday.
"Even if the lethality doesn't go up, the fact that it is so much more transmittable is a very real problem," the governor said. "This UK strain changes the whole footrace because the UK strain, the rate of transmission goes way up. It's no longer the race we were running. Apparently, the UK strain can actually overtake the original COVID strain in a matter of weeks. That's how quickly it can transmit."
His marked urgency Tuesday was similar to the one expressed by New York City Bill de Blasio earlier in the day as he called the variant a "new foe" that "we all should be worried about this" given the evidence of heightened transmissibility.
He once again called on the feds to ban all travel between the U.K. and New York City, saying, "it's time to stop the half measures."
"Why, still, after all these challenges and problems is this madness still going on?" de Blasio asked. "This new variant is tremendously troubling. Let's have a travel ban right now. Buy us time to get the vaccinations done and protect people. The amount of inconvenience it causes to travelers pales in comparison this variant poses to all of us. Let's shut down that danger right now."
In an interview on MSNBC Tuesday evening, Cuomo said he wanted to take it a step further than that, proposing that the federal government "mandate testing of all international travelers who come into this country, period." Meanwhile, another more contagious strain detected in South Africa has not yet been found in the U.S. One U.K. official warned Monday that strain is more worrisome.
Officials expect more variations of the virus to emerge over time. Vaccines are expected to work on those as well as the more transmissible strains detected. In New Jersey, researchers in labs are looking into the U.K variant that has yet to be confirmed in the state, although experts agree that it is likely already there.
Nationwide, the vaccine rollout has been stymied by logistical hurdles, confusion over who can get a shot and a slowdown in inoculations over the winter holidays. As of Tuesday, CDC data shows about 4.5 million people have received their first dose in the U.S., well short of President Trump's 20 million goal for December.
Amid the rollout frustration nationally, vaccine distribution and administration has become a local point of contention -- and the first subject in some time on which Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio are at outright odds.
Monday's war of words, during which a de Blasio spokeswoman accused Cuomo of "tough guy antics" and the mayor himself called him arrogant, followed the governor's threat earlier in the day to fine hospitals up to $100,000 if they fail to use their current vaccine inventories by the end of the week. He also said hospitals would have to use their inventories within seven days of receipt going forward, and said they could be disqualified from the program if they don't.
Cuomo said 46 percent of hospitals statewide haven't used their full allocations and blamed that on poor hospital management. De Blasio took particular offense at the shots to the city's public health system, Health + Hospitals, calling on the governor to "respect and trust our health care professionals."
The mayor doubled down on the backlash in his COVID briefing Tuesday, which he began with a lengthy ode to "our healthcare heroes," one that lauded a litany of unprecedented acts of bravery since March and blasted the governor's threats.
"This is a moment for trust. This is a moment for partnership. What we need is the freedom to vaccinate," de Blasio said. "We need to listen to our healthcare leaders and our healthcare workers who are saying, 'Give us the flexibility to vaccinate more and more people. Let us have the ability to do our jobs the right way.' Give them the freedom to vaccinate and they will vaccinate."
"What they don't need is to be shamed, what they don't need is more bureaucracy, what they don't need is the threat of fines," he added. "If the state of New York says, 'Well, you get $1 million fine if you move too quickly and you get a $100,000 fine if you move too slowly,' that doesn't get anyone anywhere. That just paralyzes people."
The mayor continued to blame the hospital backlog on the state's rule that blocks police and others in the next batch (known as 1-B) from getting the vaccine until all health care workers get a chance.
"Are you really making the case the sole reason city hospitals are not using allocation is you don't have the flexibility to go outside the 1-A category?" de Blasio asked hypothetically.
Cuomo, who held a briefing Tuesday despite it being his usual on-cam off day, didn't immediately respond to de Blasio's comments, but did say vaccinations are lagging because some hospitals are just better managed than others. “If you’re doing your job, then what are you worried about?” Cuomo said.
He reiterated his "use it or lose it" pledge as far as hospitals and the vaccines and said, "If a hospital is not competent and can't do this, we'll use another hospital." He also pinned some of the blame on what he called a "supply issue."
"We have about, so far 900,000 vaccines have been received. We have two million health care workers, they are the first tranche," Cuomo said on MSNBC. "So the vaccine will be getting out, our distribution will be ahead of the supply."
The governor responded to the head of NYC's 11 public hospitals saying too many workers were reluctant to get the vaccine.
"We have to de better than vaccinating half our health care workers," Cuomo said. "If a hospital says only half the employees will take the vaccine, we have a problem."
Separately, the governor announced Tuesday the state would be stepping in to expedite nursing home vaccinations, saying the process was moving too slowly. Cuomo's goal is to give all residents and staff in those facilities their initial shots over the next two weeks, adding, "that would be a very big deal."
That was among a series of plans in an updated, expedited vaccine rollout plan he shared Tuesday, including telling agencies like the NYPD, MTA and more to get ready to set up their own vaccine hubs. Get more details on the governor's plan here.
Tracking Coronavirus in Tri-State
Meanwhile, de Blasio is pushing forward with his "big deal" goal set on the last day of 2020, a mission to dose 1 million New Yorkers with first shots in January. The plan includes doubling citywide vaccine access points to 250 by month's end.
It calls for establishing sites in school gymnasiums and pop-up clinics, among other places. Meanwhile, the first of a series of new vaccine hubs, which will be designed to better reach hard-hit communities, will open on Sunday.
Just over 110,000 people have been vaccinated in the city since inoculations started, but de Blasio predicted immunizations will speed up in the weeks ahead. He called on the federal government to keep the supply chain steady and efficient, and blamed the governor for not expanding the option to more groups earlier.
The FDNY has started getting its shots for example (with 3,400 members vaccinated out of 17,000 in the department), but the NYPD is set for the next phase of distribution. Once that begins, de Blasio says shots will be administered overnight as well as during the day to expedite the process.
When Could I Get the Vaccine?
Answer the questions to calculate your risk profile and see where you fall in your county's and state's vaccine lineup. This estimate is based on a combination of vaccine rollout recommendations from the CDC and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
For a more detailed breakdown of who is included in each priority group, see this methodology.
Source: the Vaccine Allocation Planner for COVID-19 by Ariadne Labs and the Surgo Foundation
Interactive by Amy O’Kruk/NBC
New York City achieved its first full inoculation on Monday. The Queens nurse who became the first healthcare worker in America to receive a dose three weeks ago received her second shot. She said it felt like she had closed the loop. New Jersey, meanwhile, also administered its first second doses on Monday.
About 2.1 million New Yorkers are now eligible for vaccination under the state’s priority list, which expanded this week to include all health care staff — including receptionists — who come into contact with the public. It expands further Jan. 11.
The worry over vaccine distributions comes amid an anticipated post-holiday surge of COVID-19 cases, one that officials say is already beginning to set in.
Core COVID metrics have been on the rise for weeks in New York City, where de Blasio moved a number of elementary school buildings all-remote Monday amid a rise in neighborhood positivity rates. He had said he wasn't planning additional closures, deferring to the state. But Cuomo punted the ball back locally Monday.
The governor said schools could remain open in regions where the positivity rate hits 9 percent if in-school testing shows a positivity rate below the community average. It marked a reversal from his mandate back in August that mandated in-person closure when rolling positivity rates reached 9 percent, but is likely reflective of greater evidence that the virus spreads less in class than outside it.
It's unclear if de Blasio plans to take additional action at this time on schools. City and state data varies on core COVID numbers, including positivity rates. While city data shows a 9.03 percent rolling positivity rate as of Tuesday, state data puts it at 6.4 percent, which would be well below any potential closure threshold.
Unlike his move in November to shutter schools over a citywide 3 percent rolling positivity rate, by city data, de Blasio said he plans to use state rates this time around. The city's largest teacher's union says if the positivity rate hits 9 percent on a rolling basis by Cuomo's metrics, schools should close for safety reasons. The union was also frustrated by the wait to get teachers vaccinated.
"This makes no sense to anyone. You knew this was coming," said United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew. "It's like having people over for dinner at 7, and at 7:15 you start cooking. It doesn't work that way."
Daily Percentage of Positive Tests by New York Region
Gov. Andrew Cuomo breaks the state into 10 regions for testing purposes and tracks positivity rates to identify potential hotspots. Here's the latest tracking data by region and for the five boroughs. For the latest county-level results statewide, click here
Hospitalizations in New York have more than doubled since early December to 8,590, Cuomo said Tuesday. That's the highest total since May 6. Deaths are on the rise as well. The governor added 149 new daily deaths to the toll Tuesday after reporting 170 a day earlier, which was the highest single-day number since May 16, COVID Tracking Project data shows.
Experts fear the dreaded holiday surge upon surge could make January a more deadly month than December, which was the deadliest month of the pandemic thus for the U.S. It also marked the highest overall weekly hospitalization rate for the country since the beginning of the pandemic. That rate remains elevated.
To date, more than 350,000 coronavirus-related deaths have been reported America, along with more than 21 million cases, according to a tally by NBC News. The head of the CDC warned last month that a total of 450,000 people could die by February if aggressive measures weren't taken to control the spread. That'd add another 100,000 U.S. lives in less than four weeks.