NY Finds More Cases of UK Strain; Vaccine Eligibility Opens to Age 65+ Amid Supply Fears

"The CDC says the reason they're moving up the population to 65+ is because they're afraid of the UK strain," Gov. Andrew Cuomo said. "If you don't have the vaccines to give them, I don't know what opening up the eligibility does"

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What to Know

  • Gov. Andrew Cuomo says New York has now detected 12 total cases of the UK variant; he fears the heightened transmissibility could overwhelm hospitals at a crucial point of vulnerability
  • Hospitalizations in New York are already on the verge of topping 9,000 for the first time since May 5; a strain circulating with a much higher rate of infection point could be the tipping point, Cuomo said
  • At the same time, states are ramping up vaccine programs and the U.S. wants to expand eligibility to those 65+; Cuomo says NY can't effectively serve 7 million people at its allocation rate (300K a week)

New York state has identified eight more cases of the more contagious coronavirus variant first identified in the UK, bringing its total to 12, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a conference call with reporters Tuesday.

He also announced on that call that people age 65 and up in New York are eligible for vaccination effective immediately in accordance with the latest federal guidelines. It adds a sizeable amount more people to the pool, which expanded by more than 3 million just a day ago, and raises serious concerns about supply.

The emergence of the UK variant locally is raising widespread concerns as well. Cuomo didn't immediately elaborate on where the eight new cases were detected. The first lab-confirmed case of the UK variant in New York was detected early last week in a Saratoga Springs man in his 60s with no history of recent travel.

That man was linked to a jewelry store; three other people tied to that store had been diagnosed with COVID. Two of them had the UK strain.

A fourth case was identified over the weekend in Long Island's Massapequa and appeared not to be connected to the other three, Cuomo said Saturday. At that point, he noted the U.S. had confirmed 55 cases of the UK variant nationwide.

Three days later, he says that U.S. count is up to 80 -- and the number of affected states rising. Connecticut and Pennsylvania have already detected the strain locally, and while New Jersey hasn't yet, its governor assumes it is there.

There is no evidence the UK strain is more deadly or causes more severe infections than earlier strains, but evidence shows it is at least 50 percent more transmissible, which created an alarming spread rate in Britain, to the point the country had to shut down again. Cuomo fears the rate of spread could become equally overwhelming in New York, which has posted a number of single-day pandemic records in terms of daily new cases over the last week alone.

"If that UK strain increases the infection rate the way they expect and the way they are seeing, we're going to overwhelm the hospitals," Cuomo said Tuesday.

Multiple countries are closing their borders to the U.K. after a new coronavirus strain was discovered that is believed to be much more infectious. Dr. Noc, a scientist who has been educating TikTok users on the virus, stopped by LX News to answer our questions about what exactly this means.

That, Cuomo says, is his ultimate concern. He has tied regional hospitalization rates to the potential for new economic restrictions because, as he says, an overwhelmed hospital system means "game over." Hospitals in New York are required to notify the state if they are within 21 days of hitting 85 percent capacity. If that happens, the economic shutdown mechanisms start to churn.

Thus far, no hospital in the state has notified health officials it is at risk of hitting that threshold. But hospitalization numbers in New York are continuing to rise. As of Tuesday, Cuomo reported a total of 8,926 New Yorkers currently in hospitals. The state hasn't topped 9,000 total admissions since May 5. Daily deaths have risen at a slower rate but will continue to increase after hospitalizations plateau.

Positivity rates across the board have dropped off following the holiday spike, Cuomo said -- a sign the latest levels of increase may be leveling off. The hope is that the flattening continues amid the newer threat from more contagious strains.

It's not just the UK strain officials are worried about either. A new, more transmissible strain has emerged in South Africa that has the UK mutation and several others, which has prompted some concerns it could prove more resistant to vaccines. Another strain has emerged in Nigeria. Over the weekend, Japan identified yet another mutation traced to four travelers from Brazil.

There is also a suspected new strain in the U.S., with the White House coronavirus task force warning in a report to states Jan. 3 that this evolution could be driving the current exorbitant rate of spread sweeping the nation.

Viruses mutate naturally over time as part of their regular course. The problem here is that some mutations are proving far more transmissible than earlier strains at a time when the U.S. is at its relative infancy in the vaccine process.

As Cuomo has described it, the new, highly contagious strains create a situation where New York is no longer in a footrace to reach critical mass vaccination before hospitals get overburdened. The UK strain, he says, is an "X factor" that is "panicking" state and federal officials because of its higher rate of infection.

Both Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio have called for weeks for enhanced federal airline protocol amid mounting concerns over new strains. That appears to be imminent, with CNBC reporting Tuesday that the U.S. will require inbound international travelers to provide proof of a negative COVID test before departure. The new requirement could take effect as early as Jan. 26.

The U.S. counted 214,764 COVID-19 cases and 2,105 reported deaths Sunday. The 2.4 million cases logged so far in January is more than any other month except November's 4.3 million and December's 6.4 million. In all, more than 22.4 million have been infected and 374,000-plus have died of the disease, according to NBC News' tally. At least 50 cases of the more contagious variant have been identified so far in the U.S.

Vaccine Eligibility Expands to 65+ -- But Not Without Some Confusion

Coronavirus vaccines are expected to work on the more transmissible strains as well as new ones that will emerge over time, officials have said. Concerns over the rate of spread from the new strains, though, have fueled an already heightened sense of urgency as it relates to the vaccine rollout.

According to Cuomo, that fear is the reason the Trump administration said Tuesday it was asking states to speed vaccine delivery to people 65 and older, as well as others at high risk, by no longer holding back the second dose of the two-dose shots, officials said. Health workers who have received their second dose say that is more likely to come with side effects, which may complicate matters.

That aside, Cuomo expressed concern about the consistent changing of federal guidelines as they relate to vaccines. He worries the top priority group, hospital workers and high-risk healthcare workers, could be sidelined or melt into a pool of millions of people competing for access to a limited supply of shots.

"We get 300,000 doses per week. How, at a rate of 300,000 per week do you effectively serve 7 million people, all of whom are now eligible, without any priority?" the governor said of the state's federal vaccine allocation. "The hospitals have to continue to prioritize hospital workers because our No. 1 risk is still collapse of the hospital system. We're seeing it in states all across the nation and we are balancing on the head of a pin our hospital capacity."

"The CDC says the reason they're moving up the population to 65+ is because they're afraid of the UK strain," he added. "Again, if you don't have the vaccines to give them, I don't know what opening up the eligibility does."

HHS Secretary Alex Azar announced on Tuesday that the White House coronavirus task force would be advising states to begin to vaccinate the next tier of priority recipients, including anyone over the age of 65 and anyone with a documented comorbidity.

As it is, New York state only first opened up eligibility to its second and most populous vaccination group, Phase 1B, on Monday. That group is made up of roughly 3.2 million people age 75 and older, education and public transit and safety workers and tens of thousands of NYPD personnel.

Mayor de Blasio said Tuesday that Phase 1B had been expanded to include people who live in work in shelters and public-facing grocery store workers, adding yet more eligible individuals to the growing vaccination line. He wants food delivery workers to get the green light next.

Still, one key question looms. Is there enough federal vaccine supply to inoculate them all?

Monday was the first day that people over 75 and essential workers — including police officers, firefighters and teachers — were allowed to receive the vaccines in New York. NBC New York's Gaby Acevedo reports.

Not in New York City, de Blasio said Tuesday, even as he pushes for continued expansion of eligibility. He warned the city would run out of vaccine doses in the next two weeks if the supply doesn't grow -- a warning eerily reminiscent of his comments on ventilators as the pandemic exploded in New York in the spring.

With a new coronavirus strain spreading in England, there are concerns that the COVID-19 vaccines won't be effective against it. Public health physician, professor, and health policy expert Dr. Vin Gupta joined LX News to discuss why confidence is high that the FDA approved vaccines will fight the new variant of the virus.

To date, the city has received less than 60 percent of the 885,325 doses reserved for it. Thus far, New York City has administered more than 212,000 first doses and nearly 20,000 second doses. Nearly 27,000 people got dosed on Monday alone, the first day the process opened up to that 1B category, the mayor said Tuesday.

That number is expected to ramp up considerably over the next two weeks to meet de Blasio's set goal of 1 million first doses by January's end. The city has established more than 160 vaccine access points to date, including 24/7 centers, and plans to hit 250 sites by the end of the month, de Blasio says.

The mayor said Tuesday a new 24/7 mega vaccination site would open Jan. 25 at Citi Field. This one would have the capacity to serve up to 7,000 people a day. Other new vaccination sites opening Wednesday include the Javits Center, Westchester County Center and New York State Fair Expo Center; the site at Jones Beach will open Thursday, and SUNY Albany's will open Friday.

Not sure how the process works? Check here for a list of vaccine sites in the tri-state area and details on how to register if you're eligible for shots

New York's vaccine rollout expanded to include the 1B group. That means another 3.2 million people can sign up to get their first dose. NBC New York's Andrew Siff reports.

Even before the eligibility age was lowered to 65, vaccines were in high demand. Two hundred doses made available in Orange County north of New York City were taken within 10 minutes of a link being provided by County Executive Steve Neuhaus on Monday.

“It’s selling out quicker than your favorite rock concert,” Neuhaus said, adding that some senior citizens are getting “the short end of the stick” under the online system because other groups act faster to snap up reservations.

Bernard Macias, AARP’s associate state director for Long Island, said the big issue is clear instructions about signing up for vaccinations. He said AARP is directing members to the state health department’s website and hotline, but many who go online encounter filled appointments into March, or even into the summer.

Statewide, Cuomo is shoring up a distribution network that will include nearly 4,000 points of access. The setup alone isn't enough to expedite the process, though. The concern, both Cuomo and de Blasio have said, is that the federal vaccine supply is insufficient to meet more extensive demand, which slows down the entire rollout at a crucial point of vulnerability for the city and state.

"If you don't have the vaccines to give them, I don't know what opening up eligibility does," said Cuomo. “Now we have seven million people eligible, and we still have a drip, drip, drip from the faucet of federal dosage availability at 300,000.”

Despite supply concerns, de Blasio had pushed to expand eligibility to that group, particularly NYPD personnel and people age 75 and older. Recent data shows the latter group has accounted for a vastly disproportionate share of hospitalizations and deaths over the last month, so much so that the city issued a new and urgent warning last week that they avoid all nonessential activities outside the home.

Accelerating the vaccine process has become a mission of ever-increasing urgency for both Cuomo and de Blasio, as the feared holiday COVID surge and the threat of more contagious variants propel virus numbers to their highest rates since May. New York state has also set a number of new single-day pandemic case highs in the last week, a sign the battle against COVID remains far from won.

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

That is also the mission in neighboring New Jersey, which opened its second of two vaccination mega-sites Monday. Each is expected to be able to inoculate more than 2,000 people; those sites are part of the state's expansive distribution network, which officials say will serve more and more over time as supply allows.

Gov. Phil Murphy told News 4 Tuesday the state would approve vaccinations for all people age 65 and older "within days;" he also said he supports the latest federal guidance that second doses should not be withheld.

"We were never comfortable with the 75 number, when you look at the fatalities and the fold who've been infected with this virus, there's a whole lot of people between 65 and 75," Murphy said. "My guess strongly is that we'll lean toward 65 sooner than later, and that'll be the first step of many more to come."

So far in the state, about 233,000 people have been vaccinated, out of about 400,000 doses New Jersey has received. Murphy wants to have nearly 5 million adults inoculated by June. He said he's more confident about the federal supply as the Biden administration nears, and is hopeful that the tide will have turned by the start of the summer.

"If we get the proper supply of vaccine doses from the feds, we continue to expand the population that has access to it, which we will do almost immediately, and folks continue to do the right thing," Murphy said, "By the time the spring — look to May, look to Memorial Day, by the time that comes around, we'll have this thing to the ground and we'll have significant economic spikes after that."

He offered a similarly hopeful tone for part of his state of the state address Tuesday.

“We will begin to see the light on the horizon get a little brighter,” he said as part of the address. “Be assured, we will get back to being able to gather and celebrate with our families and friends. We will be able to see all our children back in the schools they love. We will see our economy recover and flourish.”

Unlike New York, New Jersey has not reimposed restrictions on indoor dining or other sectors amid the recent COVID spikes. It has, however, kept strict capacity limits in place -- and businesses continue their struggle to survive. Murphy has reserved the right to impose new rules if the situation warrants.

Brian Thompson sits down with Gov. Phil Murphy to talk about the state's COVID-19 vaccination efforts.

Hospital capacity is the critical factor for him, as it is for Cuomo. Murphy does have a threshold; he told News 4 Tuesday new restrictions could come if state hospitalizations reach the 5,000s. As of Tuesday, they're just above 3,700. That compares with a spring peak when 8,270 were hospitalized in New Jersey.

Meanwhile, New Jersey's virus death toll topped 20,000, including probable fatalities, Tuesday, the same day Murphy delivered his State of the State address.

The ongoing battles in New York and New Jersey are deeply reflective of a national crisis that continues to worsen practically unabated in a number of states. California's hospitals are stretched beyond the max. In Los Angeles, the most populous county in California and in America, coronavirus is killing someone roughly every 15 minutes, forcing hospitals to make hard decisions.

The U.S. counted 214,764 COVID-19 cases and 2,105 reported deaths Sunday. The 2.4 million cases logged so far in January is more than any other month except November's 4.3 million and December's 6.4 million. In all, more than 22.4 million have been infected and 374,000-plus have died of the disease, according to NBC News' tally. At least 50 cases of the more contagious variant have been identified so far in the U.S.

Nationally, the immediate outlook remains grim, even as President-elect Joe Biden vows to ramp up a federal vaccination program that has been widely criticized from the start.

The United States set yet another new single-day COVID case record over the weekend, with more than 287,000 positives reported, according to NBC News. It also set a single-day death record last week, topping 4,000 daily fatalities for the first time. Nearly 3,000 people in America are dying every day on average of COVID-19 as top health officials warn the worst is still yet to come.

To date, more than 375,000 U.S. lives have been lost to a virus that was just beginning to make consistent headlines in the country this time last year.

New York, New Jersey and Connecticut alone account for roughly 15 percent of that total, though officials in all three states acknowledge their reported death tolls are likely severe undercounts. The three states are nearing 2 million cases as well, a number the trio of governors believes is also actually likely much higher.

Even as the three states look to reopen safely, Cuomo says all must bear in mind the painful lessons learned over the course of this current crisis. As the governor said Monday, "As we all now realize, there will be a next time."

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