What to Know
- A new COVID strain that first became prevalent in southeast England in November accounts for up to 60 percent of recent infections in London, the CDC says; it has not yet been detected in the U.S.
- Little is known about the variant, but early evidence indicates it is up to 50 percent more transmissible and may more easily infect children
- Meanwhile, the tri-state is facing its steepest viral increases in months; New York hospitalizations are now on the cusp of 7,000, and Gov. Cuomo has reported 100+ daily deaths nine of the last 10 days
New Jersey became the latest state to impose COVID testing mandates for flights originating in the U.K., Gov. Phil Murphy announced Thursday, as holiday travel compounds concerns that a more virulent strain will make its way to the tri-state.
But just hours later, the CDC took what had been a regional requirement and made it national -- all air travelers from the United Kingdom to the United States will now have to have a negative COVID test less than 72 hours before boarding their flight, starting Monday.
"As we continue to experience a second wave of COVID-19 cases, it’s critical that we take any and all precautions to mitigate the potential for further transmission," Murphy said in a statement.
The concerns come amid the emergence of a more virulent COVID-19 strain identified in the U.K. that tri-state officials fear will make its way to the region -- and a holiday travel season that compounds the risk of a more imminent arrival.
Earlier this week, Gov. Andrew Cuomo got three major airlines that fly passengers between the U.K. and New York daily -- Virgin Atlantic, British Airways and Delta -- to agree to require negative COVID-19 tests before departure as well.
On Wednesday, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced new measures to protect New York City from the new COVID strain, which has not yet been detected in the U.S. Effective immediately, U.K. travelers to New York City will be personally served a Department of Health commissioner quarantine order by the sheriff's office.
"This will be a personal and direct order to every single one of them telling them they must quarantine," the mayor said. "People are going to be held responsible."
The travel unit will knock on hotel or home doors to ensure compliance. Beyond U.K. travelers, all people coming into the city will receive a commissioner quarantine order via certified mail. Each day a person is found in violation of the quarantine order incurs a $1,000 fine.
"We cannot take chances with anyone who travels, particularly folks traveling in from the U.K.,” de Blasio said. “We don’t want to penalize people. Everyone’s been through hell this year. We don’t want to, but if you don’t follow quarantine you’re endangering everyone else in the city, right as we’re fighting the second wave.”
The developments come as New York City tries to fight back its steepest viral increases in months. The numbers are up across the board statewide as well.
On Friday, statewide hospitalizations hit 6,950, the highest total since May 12 as Cuomo reported 12,446 new cases, the third-highest number in a single day (that record was set less than a week ago, the same day a record number of daily tests were reported). Also on Friday, the governor reported more than 100 daily deaths (122) for the tenth time in 11 days, yet another reason to fear the potential introduction of a viral mutation that could spread more easily than the last strain.
Little is known about the strain at this point, though early evidence suggests it is up to 50 percent more transmissible and may more easily infect children. There is no evidence yet that the new strain is more lethal or causes more severe infections, but if it spreads more easily, it will by default lead to more cases, which will lead to more hospitalizations and some level of increase in deaths as well.
According to the CDC, the new strain, dubbed SARS-CoV-2 VUI 202012/01, became prevalent in southeast England in November and accounts for up to 60 percent of recent infections in London. Viruses mutate all the time, the agency notes, so this one could have emerged by chance. Or it "may be emerging because it is better fit to spread in humans," the CDC said.
The U.K. variant has not yet been detected in the U.S. Ireland, Germany and Israel became the latest to confirm it this week, adding to a list that includes Denmark, the Netherlands and Australia, the World Health Organization says. While it hasn't yet been found in the U.S., the CDC says it may already be circulating here undetected. The agency has sequenced genetic coding from less than 0.3 percent of U.S. cases, it says, so the mutation may have slipped by undetected.
Cuomo believes the new strain is already in New York -- if something spreads globally, it ends up here. But he wants to know when it's confirmed, and where it's been detected. The governor has ordered hospitals across the state to test for the mutation. The Wadsworth Center, a state lab, has sequenced genetic coding from 3,700 New York samples thus far and has not detected the mutation, 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
The lab and the Department of Health forged agreements with six hospitals to obtain additional samples and are working with others to acquire more test data. Hospitals can send positive COVID samples to be tested for the new strain, the governor said Wednesday. Email COVIDstrain@health.ny.gov for more details.
"If it's here, we want to know it, we want to isolate it immediately," Cuomo said. "If it is more easily transmissible, we want to catch it in the crib. We want to find patient zero on that variant."
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. That's what happened with the Spanish flu, he says.
Until more information is learned about the new strain, he has called on the federal government to halt travel between the United Kingdom and the United States. More than three dozen countries have barred flights from Britain since the variant prompted a new lockdown there; a number of others imposed restrictions.
That it developed so rapidly from a rare strain in the U.K. to a common one is a concern, the CDC has said. In a CNN interview Wednesday, CDC Director-designate Rochelle Walensky said travel bans, quarantines and testing-upon-arrival are all viable strategies as far as containing the mutant strain.
"We’ve been saying to the American people we need to limit our mobility period, that’s the best way to control the mutant strain so it doesn’t explode in other places," Walensky noted. "We need to promote vaccine distribution and vaccination, we need to get more vaccines into people and promote more testing."
Experts and doctors believe existing vaccines should be able to fight infection from new variants because emerging strains are likely to be genetically similar to prior ones. The CEO of BioNTech, which is behind Pfizer's drug, said Tuesday it is "highly likely that the immune response by this vaccine also can deal with the new virus variant." Additional testing to confirm that is underway, though data from those experiments likely won't be available for a number of weeks.
In the meantime, officials across the tri-state area continue to urge people to avoid travel if at all possible this season and to celebrate smart.
"We are rapidly distributing the vaccine to the most vulnerable New Yorkers and frontline heroes, but COVID continues to spread at high rates throughout the nation and we cannot let our guard down even for a moment," Cuomo said in a statement Thursday. "The holiday season is normally a time for celebration, but this year is different -- we must celebrate smart, and not allow COVID to be the grinch that results in increased viral spread as a result of the holidays."
Despite the warnings, more Americans traveled by plane on Dec. 23 than on any single day since March. Officials fear that could exacerbate the country's already world-high COVID death and case totals. To date, the U.S. has reported more than 327,000 deaths and well more than 18 million cases, NBC News data shows.
As of Thursday, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut had confirmed more than 50,000 virus deaths and more than 1.5 million cases, though tri-state officials acknowledge both tolls are likely significantly higher than reported.