COVID-19

Variants Account for 51% of NYC Cases; Indoor Dining Goes Up Next Week on Huge Reopening Day

In New Jersey, indoor and outdoor gathering limits will double March 19, while restaurants, recreation facilities, gyms and personal care services can raise indoor capacity to 50%; NYC indoor dining goes to 50% that same day, while New York restaurants outside of the city will see capacity jump to 75%

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What to Know

  • New York vaccine eligibility expanded to people 60+ starting Wednesday, as pharmacies gained the right to administer doses to that group and teachers
  • The accelerated rollout combined with sustained declines in virus rates have fueled reopenings; indoor capacity for NJ businesses goes up to 50% on Friday, March 19, Gov. Phil Murphy said
  • NYC indoor dining capacity goes to 50% that same day, while restaurants outside of the city will see capacity jump to 75%

Two coronavirus variants, the U.K. and New York City strains, are continuing to spread throughout the five boroughs and account for 51 percent of all current cases citywide, top health officials said Wednesday.

More aggressive research has been undertaken in the last week or so to provide the public a better understanding of the variants and any related causes for concern (or lack thereof) around the three prime strains "of interest" -- the U.K., South African and Brazilian ones -- as well as the so-called New York City variant that originated in Washington Heights late last year and spread to other boroughs.

That latter variant, known as B.1.526, has substantially solidified its footing in the city. It was present in 39 percent of positive samples studied in the most recent week with full data, up from 31 percent the week prior, health officials said. That's nearly two out of every five cases stemming from the same variant.

"Our preliminary analysis is that it is probably more infectious than older strains of the virus. It may be similar in infectiousness to the U.K. strain," Dr. Jay Varma, senior public health adviser to the mayor, said. "Our preliminary analysis does not show that this new strain causes more severe illness or reduces the effectiveness of vaccine. It is important to emphasize that this is preliminary."

The mayor's office urged the city to stay calm regarding a possible new variant found in the city, telling people to continue doing what they are already doing to stop the spread of the virus. That comes as the city says it has enough vaccine dosages to start adding appointments. NBC New York's Andrew Siff reports.

Those variables -- whether a strain causes more severe illness from COVID or is more adept at evading vaccine protection -- are key in assessing whether a variant poses any extra public health threat and shape the level of concern, officials say.

"Viruses are wily. They adapt and change, which affects what circulates in our communities," Dr. Dave Chokshi, the city's health commissioner, said. He noted the U.K. variant, B.1.1.7, was becoming more common in the city, too, appearing in 12 percent of recent samples studied, up from 8 percent in the last batch.

What does it mean for New Yorkers? Chokshi said no one needs a special test to see if they have a variant, but he urged people to continue getting tested anyway.

As more COVID variants are identified across the globe, health experts are suggesting upgrading masks with better filtration, or, if surgical masks are the only options, to "double mask" when out and about.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said variants are part of the reality around viruses. The most important thing is to understand what they mean and don't mean, he said.

"So far, thank God, what we're finding is the variants are not posing the worst kind of problems that we might fear. For example, a variant that is more deadly – we're not seeing that. A variant that's vaccine-resistant – we're not seeing that," de Blasio said. "What we are seeing is variants that are more infectious and therefore spread the disease more, and that's a real issue. But the good news is we have the strategies to fight back – all those basic things all of you have been doing, what New Yorkers had done so well, the social distancing, the face coverings, it works. It works against the variants, too. And what works the most? Vaccination."

The U.K. strain remains the most prevalent "variant of interest" in the United States; the CDC had confirmed more than 3,280 such cases across 49 states as of its latest report Tuesday night. New York accounts for at least 154 of those, mostly in the city, while New Jersey has reported 142 and Connecticut has 81.

The CDC only updates its variant data three times weekly, and its reporting often lags individual state reporting, as became the case with COVID cases. That leads to a discrepancy at times in federally reported variant numbers versus state ones.

New York, New Jersey and Connecticut have all detected the less common South African variant -- two cases in Nassau County, two in New York City, one in Hudson County and at least one in a Fairfield County resident. The CDC confirmed a second South African variant case in Connecticut in its latest report but it wasn't clear where that person lived. New Jersey only reported its first case Wednesday. Nationally, just 91 South African variant cases have been found in 21 states.

Far more rare is the Brazilian variant. Only 15 cases of that strain have been reported in positive U.S. samples in nine states. New Jersey is one of them, reporting two Brazilian variant cases in Hudson County but no other details.

Ultimately, tri-state health officials seek to make clear two key points around the variants: First, not all variants are of public health concern. Most are just that -- variants. Some are of "interest," like the U.K., South African and Brazilian ones.

With new COVID-19 variants from the U.K., South Africa and Brazil now spreading, doctors are rushing to vaccinate as many Americans as possible before more mutations arise. Dr. Natasha Bhuyan, a regional director of One Medical, joined LX News to talk about why vaccines are so important right now and how she encourages her patients to overcome their skepticism about it.

Second: Vaccines are expected to work on the variants that have emerged and those that will over time. The more people who are vaccinated, the less the virus can spread and the less opportunity it has to mutate into a potentially more transmissible or otherwise dangerous form, health experts say.

With only about 8 percent of the city's population fully vaccinated as of Wednesday, health officials urge New Yorkers to continue using the same core COVID precautions that stemmed the spread of earlier strains: Wear a mask (two are better), socially distance, wash your hands and stay home when you're sick.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo shared a similar message Wednesday.

"We're working hard every day to get New York's infection rate down while increasing the vaccination rate, and the state is making significant progress in that ongoing footrace," Cuomo said. "But even as we gain more supply of the vaccine, grow our distribution network and get more shots in arms, New Yorkers need to stay vigilant, so that we don't lose an inch of that progress."

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

Source: ny.gov

The mission has grown increasingly urgent, as COVID-19 cases and positivity rates in New York and the nation overall appear to have leveled off following a rapid descent from post-holiday highs earlier this year. Local officials have expressed some wariness over the height of the plateau, as the head of the CDC recently shared similar worry on her part as it applies to the national level.

National infectious disease expert and White House Chief Medical Adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci drove home the same point Tuesday in an interview with the Center for Strategic and International studies. The decline in cases seen since early January now appears to be "going down a little more slowly," Fauci said, "which means we might plateau again at an unacceptably high level."

Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Rochelle Walensky says she is concerned about the leveling off in recent declines of COVID-19 cases across the country.

More than 12 million New Yorkers are already eligible for vaccination, including the latest group (anyone 60 and older) made eligible Wednesday. Next week, more people -- social service and child service caseworkers, sanitation and DMV workers, county clerks, building service and election workers and public works employees and government inspectors join the ever-widening pool.

The looming expansion and the one that just took effect will likely add millions more to the millions still in line. To give people more flexibility as far as where they can get shots, Cuomo will allow all of the state's non-pharmacy providers -- more than 5,000 -- to administer doses to any eligible New Yorker in exactly a week. As of Wednesday, pharmacies can now administer vaccines to people age 60 and older as well as teachers, another procedural boon.


Not sure how the process works? Check out our handy tri-state vaccine site finder and FAQs here


New York City and New Jersey Vaccine Providers

Click on each provider to find more information on scheduling appointments for the COVID-19 Vaccine.

Data: City of New York, State of New Jersey • Nina Lin / NBC

As of Wednesday, more than 3.9 million people in New York have gotten at least one dose, less than a third of the eligible vaccine population and 19.9 percent of the state's total population. Nearly 10 percent of New York state's population has been fully vaccinated, a boost in the last few weeks alone but one still well short of Cuomo's stated 75 percent "low" threshold to achieve herd immunity.

In the city, about 17.4 percent of the population has gotten one dose so far, while 8.2 percent has had both, according to the state's latest data. The city remains on pace to hit or exceed Mayor de Blasio's 5 million-person vaccination goal by June.

Across the river, New Jersey has doubled-dosed nearly 900,000 people, about 10 percent of its population. It took the state roughly 55 days to hit the first million total doses, but just three weeks to move from that benchmark to the 2 million- milestone, Murphy said this week. Nearly a quarter of Connecticut's population has received at least one dose so far; about 10 percent is fully vaccinated.

Both New Jersey and Connecticut have recently expanded their vaccine pools as well, with the first starting to vaccinate teachers and childcare workers Saturday, a week earlier than planned at the behest of President Joe Biden. In the city, de Blasio has repeated his "freedom to vaccinate" mantra at nearly every opportunity, saying the city has the distribution network to vaccinate a half-million or more people a week. Supply thus far has been the single biggest limiting factor.

That has changed in recent weeks, though. The rollout continues to accelerate at an ever-increasing pace, boosted by the introduction of a third vaccine and increased weekly allocation to states from the federal government. The number of completed vaccinations across the tri-state area topped 3 million Sunday, a significant feat for a region particularly devastated in the early days of the pandemic and incalculably wounded by persisting economic and human losses.

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

Source: ny.gov

The three tri-state governors have taken less aggressive reopening steps than others across the U.S. Of the three, Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont is poised to take the biggest step so far, lifting capacity restrictions completely on most businesses in the state, including restaurants on March 19. The same day, restaurants in New York outside the five boroughs go to 75 percent capacity, while Cuomo said Wednesday restaurants within the city can go to 50 percent capacity.

“In New York state, our decisions are based on science and data, and we are encouraged by the continued decline in infection and hospitalization rates,” Cuomo said in a news release.

NYC Hospitality Alliance Executive Director Andrew Rigie said that even though they won't get to open quite as much as businesses in the rest of the state, "it is still welcome news to the battered restaurant industry." He said the reopening "gives our industry some optimism among all the doom and gloom of this past year."

New Jersey will take some steps as well on March 19. Gov. Phil Murphy said Wednesday that indoor gathering limits will rise to 25 from the current 10 on that date, while outdoor gatherings can also double in size to 50. On the same day, restaurants, recreation facilities, gyms and personal care businesses across the state can raise indoor capacity from 35 percent to 50 percent, Murphy said.

Mask-wearing and other core COVID protocols will be required. And sitting or standing at bars will still be prohibited.

The National Federation of Independent business in New Jersey said the change is welcome, but questioned why owners have to wait until that time. Murphy has said he would have opened up more earlier in New Jersey but expressed concern about the variant unknowns. The risk was too high, he said.

"Unlike some states where governors are prioritizing politics over public health – Texas and Mississippi come immediately to mind – our mask mandate remains in effect and will continue to be enforced," Murphy said Wednesday.

The governor said he felt confident announcing the change given the state's data over the last five weeks. On Feb. 5, when statewide restaurant capacity last changed, nearly 2,900 COVID patients were in hospitals. The number has declined by 1,000 and stayed consistent, indicating no major spread linked to the change.

"While the numbers of new cases we report daily can fluctuate, and some days can be high, we believe that, when all factors are weighed, we can make this expansion without leading to undue further stress on our health care system," Murphy said.

The governor was asked earlier this week about tweaking nursing home visitation rules to accommodate the latest CDC guidelines for fully vaccinated people, which New Jersey health officials say doesn't apply to healthcare facilities. That said, Murphy said compassionate care, essential caregiver, outdoor and end-of-life visitation by appointment should be permitted if indoor visitation is prohibited.

"All long-term care facilities must take visitation allowances as seriously as they are taking virus control," Murphy said. "No one should be prevented from visiting a loved one without a reasonable cause for health and safety, and no facility should place all residents on lockdown in their rooms without taking a full accounting for individual resident needs, staff, PPE capacity and building characteristics."

Wednesday marks exactly one year since New Jersey reported its first coronavirus death. New York's first such report came four days later. The two states were the hardest hit in America in the early days of the pandemic.

Combined, New Jersey and New York have lost nearly 63,000 people to a virus no one knew existed 18 months ago. They total more than 2.5 million cases, though experts agree both case and death numbers around COVID in the states -- and across the U.S. -- are likely far underreported. The true toll may never be known.

Nationally, the U.S. leads the world on both metrics by a wide margin. To date, America has confirmed nearly 528,000 COVID deaths, nearly doubling those in Brazil, which has the second-most in the world, according to Johns Hopkins data. The U.S. has reported more than 29 million cases, almost triple India's second-highest total of 11.2 million, university researchers say.

Copyright NBC New York
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