NYC Issues ‘Urgent' Warning for People 75+; NY Halts Plan to Expand NYPD Eligibility

Officials fear the heightened transmissibility of new COVID strains could overwhelm hospitals before vaccination reaches critical mass; meanwhile, Cuomo denied NYC's attempt to expand vaccine eligibility to NYPD personnel

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What to Know

  • NYC health officials are issuing a new warning to people 75 and up, citing concerning case growth rates and more disturbing numbers on hospitalizations and deaths in the last 30 days
  • Merely an hour after Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a plan to start providing vaccines to most officers, fellow Democrat and frequent foe Gov. Andrew Cuomo shot that idea down
  • 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

New York City health officials issued a new and heightened warning Wednesday to people age 75 and up, citing concerning case growth rates and more disturbing numbers on hospitalizations and deaths in the last 30 days.

That age group has accounted for 6 percent of new citywide cases over the last 30 days but 30 percent of hospitalizations and 58 percent of deaths in the same time, health commissioner Dr. Dave Chokshi said. The positivity rate for that demographic is higher than the rolling citywide one (about 12 percent versus 9.3 percent). More than half of the new cases are thought to be community spread, while 38 percent are likely cases of household transmission, he added.

"This message is as urgent as it's ever been," Chokshi said. "Avoid activities outside of the home except for essential purposes, including medical care and other necessities. Remain vigilant. Don't let the numbers make you numb."

That's also been the consistent message from New York state, where health officials are expected to learn this week whether three individuals tied to the upstate jewelry store traced to the state's first case of the more contagious U.K. strain also have the variant.

The trio has been diagnosed with the virus and work on the samples has been underway since the first case was detected Monday, officials said. Dr. Howard Zucker, New York state's health commissioner, says the genetic code sequencing required to identify variants in individual cases takes about 44 hours for the state.

NBC New York's Ida Siegal reports.

The jewelry store in Saratoga Springs where the first case was identified -- a man in his 60s -- has been closed since just before Christmas, it said. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has asked anyone who may possibly have been in contact with that man or even in contact with someone exposed to him to come forward.

The man had not traveled recently, just like the man in the first identified U.S. case in Colorado, which suggests community spread has already happened. The CDC says the strain had been circulating in the U.K. since September, meaning it likely had been in the U.S. via travel for some time before it was detected in Colorado.

Cuomo said Wednesday evidence appears to show the confirmed upstate case was connected to UK travel, despite no recent travel on behalf of the man. He called once again on the feds to mandate testing for all international travelers.

Hospitals have become increasingly taxed over the last six weeks, a direct consequence of more infections from people's behavior, Cuomo has said. New York state hospitalizations are at 8,665, the same total admitted on May 6. Single-day death tolls are at mid-May levels. And weekly case averages are up 37 percent in New York over the past 14 days, according to New York Times data.

On Wednesday, Cuomo reported more than 16,600 new daily cases for the second time ever. The first, which came New Year's Eve, was a single-day pandemic high.

"It's the holiday COVID hangover. Celebrate smart, you reduce the infection rate. If you don't celebrate smart, you have a hangover," Cuomo said Wednesday. "COVID hangover is increasing infection rate, increasing positivity rate and increasing hospitalization rate. That's what we're seeing all across the country."

NBC New York's Katherine Creag reports.

On Wednesday, Cuomo declared vaccinations in hospitals had tripled since his Monday warning, an essential declaration that his threats, which drew Mayor de Blasio's ire, were "heard."

De Blasio had pointed the finger back at Cuomo earlier this week, blaming his alleged restrictive eligibility groups for a slower than ideal rollout. The mayor offered positive news at his daily briefing when he said the state had given the OK to expand eligibility to the full slate of people in Phase 1A of the distribution plan.

That includes home care workers, some NYPD, correctional and other city workers in emergency response or medical roles, de Blasio said. Included in the NYPD pool would be about 25,000 personnel, with at least 10,000 eligible by Sunday, the mayor said.

Merely an hour after de Blasio's announcement, Cuomo shot that idea down, saying the limited supply of shots should still be reserved, for now, mostly for health care workers and patients in nursing homes. Cuomo said that despite de Blasio’s pronouncement, most NYPD officers still don’t qualify for vaccinations under the state’s guidelines.

“Police who are not health care workers are not yet eligible,” Cuomo said. “We need to get the health care population done first because they are the front line, as I mentioned before.”

Revised guidelines released by the state Tuesday did not explicitly say that police officers could be vaccinated, but a de Blasio spokesperson said city officials were told they could include police and correction officers working in the city’s jails as front-line workers eligible for the shots.

“New York City is asking for the freedom to vaccinate more high-risk workers who are out there saving the lives of New Yorkers,” said De Blasio spokesperson Bill Neidhardt. “It’s simple. We have the doses, let’s put it in their arms and help them save lives.”

The NYPD has about 35,000 uniformed members, but only about 25,000 have public-facing jobs. About 400 officers are medics in the emergency service unit and are considered vaccine-eligible front-line workers under Cuomo’s rules.

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 Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio are at outright odds.Tracie Strahan and Katherine Creag report.

Given the latest concerning numbers around the city's senior population, the mayor is pushing to expand access to Phase 1B, which includes that group. (It also includes Cuomo's own mother, as the governor pointed out Wednesday.) 1B involves nearly 6 million people; Cuomo says the supply isn't there to allow it yet.

"I can't say to my mother or to any New Yorker right now how long until we know what the supply actually is going to be. As soon as we have a more definitive answer, I will tell you," the governor said, noting some predict March or April.

He pledged the state's distribution system would be ready when the time comes.

Meanwhile, de Blasio continues to shore up new access points across the city. The first 24/7 mass vaccination sites open Sunday -- at Brooklyn's Army Terminal Annex Building and the Bronx's Bathgate Industrial Park. Also opening Sunday: the first vaccine hubs -- in Brooklyn (Bushwick Educational Campus), Queens (Hillcrest High School) and the Bronx (South Bronx Educational Campus).

Those will be open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. and require advance appointment scheduling on the city's Department of Health website.

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In New York City, the average case growth percentage is even higher than the statewide average; Staten Island has the highest positivity rate, one that is nearly double Manhattan's. Hospitalizations are also rising; the mayor reported nearly 300 new admissions Wednesday, the highest single-day number in some time.

With the vaccination rollout still in its relative infancy, reducing the rate of spread is critically important, perhaps more than ever. Mayor Bill de Blasio has once again called on the feds to impose a travel ban between the UK and New York City, demanding they abandon "half-measures" at this especially vulnerable time.

As the variant is detected in more and more U.S. states (Georgia just became the fifth to find it), Cuomo has stressed with unparalleled urgency the need to contain further spread associated with this strain. No evidence indicates it is deadlier or causes worse infection, but it appears to be at least 50 percent more contagious.

Data shows one in 50 people in the U.K. has recently been infected with COVID, the Times says; most cases are thought to be the new strain.

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


Cuomo said the variant could "apparently overtake" the earlier strain in a matter of weeks. The rapid spread alone could overburden hospitals.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson emphasized those concerns as he implemented yet another new national lockdown this week to combat what he described as a "frustrating and alarming" rate of spread. The country's hospital system would risk being overwhelmed within 21 days without one, he said.

That's the "red line" for Cuomo.

"Once you say the infection rate can go up double or triple or quadruple, we lose the race," he said Wednesday. "If you dramatically increase the infection rate, the next step would be overwhelming the hospitals.

"You overwhelm the hospitals, you have to close down the economy again. There is no other choice. It's game over," he added. "More people will die because the hospital system is overwhelmed. I lived through these nightmares. So did every New Yorker. And we're seeing it happen around the globe."

Researchers continue to search for the UK strain in New Jersey, though both they and the state's health leaders believe it's already there.

In a sealed, level 3 bio lab at Hackensack Meridian’s Center for Discovery and Innovation in Nutley, experts have been searching for the worrisome variant for about a month. It's normal for a virus to mutate over time; there are hundreds, if not thousands, of the novel coronavirus variants, officials say.

But only a handful are causing heightened concerns worldwide. A separate variant found in South Africa, for example, is also said to be more highly contagious. That one has yet to be detected in the United States. According to a CNBC report, it has two additional mutations not presented in the U.K. strain, which has prompted some concerns about how vaccines might work against it.

Overall, experts believe vaccines will prove effective on more transmissible strains as well as the previous one -- and others that will emerge in time. But with widescale vaccination months away, at best, some officials, including Cuomo and de Blasio, fear a more transmissible version could outrun that process by a lot.

They consider the U.K. strain a wrench thrown into a national vaccine rollout that has been stymied by logistical hurdles, confusion over who can get a shot and a slowdown in inoculations over the winter holidays. The rollout has also been a point of contention locally, with de Blasio and Cuomo sparring over the governor's latest demands that hospitals use their inventories within a week or cede doses to hospitals that can administer shots to more people at a faster clip.

Nationally, about 4.8 million people in the U.S. have gotten their first vaccine doses to date, CDC data shows, just 28 percent of the more than 17 million doses distributed thus far and well short of President Trump's goal to inoculate 20 million in December. It was the deadliest month of the pandemic for the U.S. yet.

To date, more than 355,000 coronavirus-related deaths have been reported in 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.

Copyright NBC New York/Associated Press
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