Cuomo Orders NY Hospitals to Test for UK Strain; NYC Warns ‘Our Room for Error Is Even Less'

According to the CDC, the new strain could already be circulating in the U.S. undetected; scientists have sequenced genetic coding from less than 0.3% of U.S. cases, so it could easily have slipped through unnoticed

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What to Know

  • Despite all the talk about a new NY shutdown over the last few weeks, Gov. Andrew Cuomo continues to say harsh new restrictions aren't inevitable; NYers just have to make it through one more stretch
  • These upcoming end-of-year holidays will be the longest socialization stretch, he says; if New York can avoid a significant spike related to travel or gatherings, it's just a "sprint, us versus the vaccine"
  • Meanwhile, a new COVID variant identified in the U.K. has officials concerned; while there's no evidence it's more deadly, data shows it's 50% more transmissible and may more easily infect children

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Tuesday he has ordered hospitals across New York state to begin testing for the new U.K. viral variant, while Mayor Bill de Blasio called once again for a temporary European travel ban to the U.S. as he strives to protect New Yorkers from a mutation that "simply makes the job harder."

Though the U.K. variant has not yet been detected locally or in the U.S. (it has been found in Denmark, the Netherlands and Australia, WHO says), logic would argue that if it's not here yet, it will be. Cuomo wants to know when that happens.

"If it's here, we want to know it, we want to isolate it immediately," the governor said. "This is about time and urgency. And this would be urgent."

Brian Thompson and Andrew Siff report on the coronavirus pandemic.

According to the CDC, the new strain could already be circulating in the U.S. undetected. Scientists have sequenced genetic coding from about 51,000 of U.S. cases (now above 18 million, NBC News says), so it could easily slip notice.

Cuomo said Wadsworth Laboratory has already assessed more than 3,700 virus sequences identified in New York and has not yet found the variant present in any samples. Wadsworth and the state Department of Health have forged agreements with six hospitals statewide to obtain additional samples and is working to establish similar partnerships with others, the governor said.

New York City's chief medical adviser, Dr. Jay Varma, says there's little anyone could do to keep the new strain out.

Asked about his level of concern over the mutation Tuesday, Varma said he has two key worries. First, the evidence from the U.K. is "reasonably strong" that it is more transmissible than other strains (up to 50 percent more, research says) so "our room for error is even less." But it's not just one single mutation to fear.

At least 40 countries have banned all trade and travel from Britain after a mutated coronavirus strain was discovered in southeast England.

Varma said he's also concerned about similar strains emerging in other parts of the world like South Africa.

"The only way we can revert to some version of normal is reduce the level of infection," Varma said. "This virus mutates when it gets inside humans. So we need to keep it out of humans. We're looking carefully for this variant in the U.S. and the emergence of new strains, but we do have the tools to prevent this."

One of the most critical tools is deployed by absentia. That means avoid travel this holiday season. Don't expose oneself or others to heightened risk, officials say. De Blasio had two messages for New Yorkers on that front Tuesday.

First: If you have travel plans right now, postpone them, the mayor said. Second: If you do travel and you come back to New York, you better get tested under state guidelines or be prepared to follow the state's quarantine requirements.

"We will enforce that quarantine," de Blasio said. "We're not doing this for fun. We're doing this to save lives .... We are looking at a new strain that makes our job harder, just when we are turning the corner."

Three major airlines have agreed to test travelers from the U.K. before boarding daily flights to New York. NBC New York's Andrew Siff reports.

This is already the deadliest year in U.S. history, with deaths expected to top 3 million for the first time — due mainly to the coronavirus pandemic. Tuesday was the deadliest day since the start of the outbreak, with 3,350 COVID-related deaths reported in the U.S., with deaths occurring at a faster rate over the past week than at any other time during the pandemic. The country has recorded more than 319,000 deaths since the start of the pandemic and topped more than 18 million cases, according to NBC News.

Both tolls are likely much higher than reported. New York alone has confirmed nearly 30,000 COVID deaths since the start of the pandemic, more than 17,000 of those in the city, and likely has thousands more attributable to it in some way.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has reported more than 100 new daily COVID deaths in the state seven out of the last eight days. Hospitalizations hit 6,661 Tuesday, the highest total since May 13.

"The hospital capacity is a concern for New York," the governor said on a Tuesday conference call. "We're keeping a fine eye on our hospital capacity."

Cuomo has tied regional hospitalization rates to the possibility of new restrictions. If a hospital is 21 days from hitting 85 percent capacity, it is required to notify the state. That would trigger the economic shutdown mechanisms. No hospital in any region has notified the state of that yet, the governor said.

He added that he does expect the numbers to go up after the holidays. But New Yorkers can mitigate the potential impact by exercising the appropriate behavior.

"Celebrate smart, stop shutdowns," Cuomo said.

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


Meanwhile, much of his attention has turned to the U.K. variant, which he reiterated Tuesday "is a real problem."

The strain, which the CDC is calling "SARS-CoV-2 VUI 202012/01," became prevalent across southeast England in November and accounts for up to 60 percent of recent infections in London, the agency said. CDC said it doesn't know why the new strain of the virus emerged, but it could have been "by chance alone."

"Alternatively, it may be emerging because it is better fit to spread in humans," CDC said. "This rapid change from being a rare strain to becoming a common strain has concerned scientists in the UK, who are urgently evaluating the characteristics of the variant strain and of the illness that it causes.

Cuomo is concerned that the new strain, should it continue to spread, could bring about the second wave of coronavirus that many have feared for so long.

"We have been worried about a mutation of the virus, that's what everybody's been worried about," Cuomo said Monday on CNN. "The 'second wave' was a mutated virus which was creating a second, more diabolical viral infection."

Over in New Jersey, which reported its first daily COVID death toll above 100 in months on Tuesday, Gov. Phil Murphy has said he is in talks with the Port Authority and other partners about a potential response to the U.K. variant at its air hub. It's not clear if he will make requests of airlines as Cuomo has done.

The New York governor Monday got three major airlines that transport travelers from the U.K. to New York each day to voluntarily agree to require passengers provide proof of a negative test before they depart for the Empire State.

That's a first step in curbing new viral spread, Cuomo says. The second step -- and on this he and Murphy agree -- is to get residents to do their part in lowering any potential increases associated with this upcoming holiday stretch, which is longer than Thanksgiving. If people can make it through this last stretch of heightened risk, it'll just be a "footrace" to large-scale vaccine distribution, Cuomo said.

New York state has administered 50,000 vaccine doses to date, Cuomo said Tuesday, and New York City is vaccinating at twice the national rate. Now the focus is on driving home the point about the benefits and dispelling any myths.

"What we're going to do every single day is educate New Yorkers about the importance of the vaccine," de Blasio said.

He announced a new public information campaign Tuesday -- NYC Vaccine for All -- to drive home the point that the shots are free, safe and "for everyone."

"Safe, free, easy. These are the messages we have to get out," he added.

Statewide, New York has received 630,000 vaccine doses thus far and expects to get another 300,000 next week, Cuomo said Tuesday. The governor called on hospitals, nursing homes and medical personnel to continue providing vaccinations through the holidays to ensure nursing home patients and frontline healthcare workers are protected as quickly as possible.

“A vaccine is the best gift you could give a nursing home resident," Cuomo said.

The Moderna vaccine is being given for the first time at a Hoboken hospital. Katherine Creag reports.

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