Airlines Meet Cuomo's Ask to Test UK Flyers to NY Amid New Contagious COVID Strain Fears

A new variant of the coronavirus surging through the U.K. has local leaders worried of its spread through airplane travel; while Gov. Cuomo says he's taking steps to keep it out of NY, he believes it's already here

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What to Know

  • Gov. Andrew Cuomo said British Airways, Delta and Virgin Atlantic have agreed to require pre-departure COVID tests of U.K. passengers before they fly to NY; the new strain hasn't yet been detected locally, officials say
  • The variant strain is said to be up to 70 percent more contagious than the last one, according to the U.K.'s Boris Johnson; the latest surge led to him locking down his country once again
  • Travel into the U.S. from most European countries, including the UK, is still banned, per the Department of Homeland Security; at least one report said President Trump was planning to lift that ban this week

Three major airlines that fly people from the U.K. to New York daily have agreed to ensure travelers provide a negative COVID test before departing for the Empire State amid heightened concerns over a more infectious virus strain that recently emerged in the European country, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Monday.

Cuomo made the ask of British Airways, Delta and Virgin Atlantic, which transfer thousands of people between the U.K. and JFK Airport daily, he said. British Airways agreed first, pledging to launch the new testing requirement Tuesday, Cuomo said.

A short time later, the governor tweeted that Delta had also agreed to require pre-departure COVID tests before passengers leave the U.K. for New York. Virgin Atlantic signed on later in the evening, saying in a statement that the new testing procedure for New York-bound flights would begin on Christmas Eve. The airline said they would require all passengers to present a negative LAMP or PCR test taken up to 72 hours before departure. Tests taken on-site at the airport would also qualify.

"The point is bigger than just New York. We have been worried about a mutation of the virus, that's what everybody's been worried about. The 'second wave' was a mutated virus which was creating a second, more diabolical viral infection," Cuomo said in an interview on CNN Monday evening.

It was not immediately clear what kind of flight requirements would be made at Newark Liberty Airport, which also has flight to and from the U.K.

Cuomo's announcement Monday came a day after he eviscerated the federal government for inaction -- either via a testing mandate or travel ban -- that he fears will expose New York to a new strain of the virus that Britain's Boris Johnson says is up to 70 percent more transmissible than the previous strain of the virus.

To date, New York Health Commissioner Howard Zucker says the state has not yet identified that U.K. variant in any local cases; he said the state hasn't identified any mutant strains since April. Despite that, Cuomo believes it's already here.

"If it's been flying around the world, it will be here. This was how we had that New York ambush in the first place," the governor said, referring to the explosion of cases in the spring. "We're not going to go through it again. We have been victimized by federal incompetence and federal negligence. We're not going to be victimized again."

Dr. Jay Varma, the Chief Medical Adviser for New York City, agreed that it's likely already here, and there was little we could do about it.

"Restricting travel can be a very important way to slow the growth of new infections," Varma said. "I think it's unlikely we could ever stop this strain from entering the U.S."

Currently, there are six daily flights into New York from the U.K, Cuomo said. He said the Port Authority lacks jurisdiction to institute necessary restrictions and screenings and called on the federal government to require testing or altogether ban travelers coming in from England to keep that variant out. He also said federal action is needed because passengers from the U.K can still fly into other states and then come to New York.

"This whole notion that any one state can protect itself was foolish from the beginning," Cuomo said on CNN.

One-hundred-twenty other countries require a negative test for U.K. flyers; the latest strain has prompted Johnson to lock down his country once again, barely a week after he insisted that upcoming holidays would be celebrated communally.

"This is another disaster waiting to happen," Cuomo said Monday. "If the U.K. closed down, if 120 countries require testing, if Canada left a plane on the tarmac because it wouldn't allow it to deboard, if other European countries said they were banning travel, why are we doing nothing? Why did we do nothing in the spring?"

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.

The governor pointed to what he has consistently described as missteps in December and January when people from China and later Europe were continuing to fly to New York hubs as the virus spread rampantly worldwide. He has long refuted that the most recent viral upticks across the U.S. marked a second wave.

"This would be it. This would the second wave. This would be a mutated virus coming back," Cuomo said Monday. He said the federal government should halt travel between the countries until more is understood about this latest strain. At the very least, he says the feds should require U.K. travelers to have proof of a negative test result before arriving as 120 other countries have done.

The voluntary agreement he says he established with the three airliners adds New York to the list, but Cuomo says he has no legal grounds to ensure cooperation from airlines. He did, however, say he thought he had the legal authority to ask in the absence of federal action.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio also said Monday the federal government should implement an all-out European travel ban given heightened concerns.

"We can't handle another spike, so we need to, for all of us, be careful," the mayor said as he issued his latest plea against Christmas travel. He said the new strain identified in the U.K. only makes him more concerned about upticks.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, whose state is also home to a major international travel hub, said he shares the concern. He flat out told people not to travel, "period," a dogma he has recited multiple times over the last month and a half.

"We can't put it more plainly. This is not the year for Christmas as usual or New Year's as usual," Murphy said Monday as he extended New Jersey's public health emergency another 30 days to prevent its expiration. "We cannot take the risk."

Pressed on the U.K. variant during his question-and-answer session Monday, Murphy said that "the science around that still has to be determined," while his team was working with the Port Authority "and our other partners in the region as we speak." In the meantime, state epidemiologist Dr. Christina Tan said the emergence of that variant had no impact on pandemic management.

Deputies squashed another late-night illegal party with more than 150 people in attendance, ignoring gathering laws and public safety protocols, the NYC sheriff said Sunday.

Foreign nationals who have visited the U.K. in the past 14 days are already banned from entering the U.S., according to the Department of Homeland Security's website, but The Telegraph reported President Donald Trump was expected to lift the travel ban on the U.K. and a number of other European countries on Tuesday, citing senior sources in the travel industry.

The World Health Organization says the new variant has so far been identified in Denmark, the Netherlands and Australia. The Netherlands, Ireland, Italy, Germany, France and 35 other countries have barred flights from the U.K. Other countries, including India, Canada and Israel, have imposed new measures barring flights from Britain. Austria and Sweden are reportedly preparing to do the same, CNBC said.

"I think the United States should do what other countries have done, which is halt the travel," Cuomo said, adding that too much was still unknown about whether the mutated virus would pose more of a threat. "I was on the phone with top experts all weekend. We don’t know if it’s more deadly. We don’t know how much more easily it’s transmitted."

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said that while preliminary analysis suggests the new variant is “significantly more transmissible,” there is no indication that infections are more severe. Scientists in the U.K have said that the new strain is 50 percent more contagious, and there are signs that it more easily may infect children, although it is still very early on in the observation process. Experts have stressed that even if the new strain is not more lethal, it is inevitable that more infections will lead to more hospitalizations and deaths.

WHO also said Monday the coronavirus is mutating "at a much slower rate" than seasonal influenza, which mutates so frequently that scientists regularly have to develop new vaccines to effectively inoculate people each year.

According to at least one doctor, COVID vaccines are expected to protect against new strains of COVID-19. Existing vaccines will be able to fight infection from new variants because emerging strains are likely to be genetically similar to prior ones, Vin Gupta of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation told CNBC.

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 latest warnings on travel come as states continue to ramp up its vaccine distribution efforts and public education campaigns. Thousands of healthcare workers in the state and in New York City received their first doses of the Pfizer vaccine last week. Cuomo said the first allocations from Moderna, with 630,000 doses, will arrive this week, but also said the state still doesn't have enough for every frontline health care workers.

"We have tranches of the people who need the vaccine most. We start with the high-risk essential health care staff then go to nursing homes, then go to congregate care facilities, then high-risk essential workers," Cuomo said on CNN. "We'll get to high-risk essential workers probably in February. But we have to see how many doses we get from the federal government and on what schedule."

De Blasio said that New York City has thus far administered 42.2 percent of its available doses, more than double the national rate. More than 18,000 doses have been administered in total as of Sunday, he said. Statewide, New York has administered a nation-high 38,000 vaccine doses as of Monday, Cuomo said.

Hundreds of nursing homes across the state began the first distribution of COVID-19 vaccines on Monday, the next step in inoculating Americans most at risk of dying from the virus. A 78-year-old nursing home resident in the Bronx, Kelley Dixon, became one of the first patients from that priority group to receive the Pfizer vaccine on Monday. She encourages others to embrace the opportunity.

Millions more doses of a coronavirus vaccine shipped out to states on Sunday as new concerns of a mutation in Europe lead to travel bans ahead of the Christmas holiday. NBC New York's Ida Siegal and Anjali Hemphill report.

“If you’re hesitant about taking the vaccine…take the vaccine. It can’t do anything but help you. That’s what I think. And that’s what I’m gonna do," Dixon said.

Shots were also administered to residents in Rochester and Queens Monday as part of a federal program to vaccinate nursing home residents and staff in New York, Cuomo said. It is expected to inoculate 85,000 residents at 618 facilities statewide; CVS and Walgreens will manage the vast majority of vaccinations via the program, which is expected to take about six weeks to complete and includes 130,000 nursing home staffers, the governor added.

Next up in the vaccine line -- people 75 and older and frontline essential workers, the CDC advisory committee recommended Sunday, two days after the FDA made the U.S. the first nation to greenlight Moderna's drug for emergency use. That vaccine doesn't require a special freezer for storage, which helps rural access.

Cuomo said the state will add EMTs, coroners, medical examiners, funeral home workers and other group home workers to its priority list. Stephen Hanse, President & CEO of the New York State Health Facilities Association and the New York State Center for Assisted Living, said that assisted living residents and staff are next on New York vaccination priority list and will begin receiving COVID-19 vaccinations in early 2021.

New York's top officials confirmed on Sunday's call that the state received its full order of the Moderna vaccine so far, a concern of several states like New Jersey that last week learned of a shortfall due to a counting error by the feds.

Murphy said Monday New Jersey was dealing with the supply issue. He said the state still hoped to vaccinate half a million people or more in the coming month.

Pharmacist shows us the process of preparing the first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. News 4's Pei-Sze Cheng reports.

The latest developments come days before yet another major holiday in the U.S. threatens travel- and gathering-related viral spread anew. Officials once again are warning against travel -- a plea that went ignored by many for Thanksgiving.

With a growing number of restaurants and bars closed for indoor service, Cuomo says his worries center around additional spikes stemming from increased socialization in homes. That's overwhelmingly the key driver of spread these days, he has said contact tracing data shows. But is that so-called "living room spread" driven simply by increased socialization or holiday travel-related socialization?

"The socialization pattern is what determines the spread of the virus," Cuomo said Monday. He also said New York didn't have the same Thanksgiving spike most other U.S. states experienced during that holiday. He said there was more air travel elsewhere, and that caused a greater spike in those other places.

If that continues through Christmas and New Year's, Cuomo said, it's just a footrace to get to large-scale vaccine distribution. "But we have to get through the holiday season," he added.

U.S. air travel certainly has seen a holiday uptick in recent weeks. TSA data shows the agency screened more than a million flyers each on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. That's the first time since March with three straight days of million-plus screenings. More than a million people were screened three times in the week leading up to Thanksgiving, but not on consecutive days, TSA data shows.

The increase in Thanksgiving travel did cause a spike in cases in New York City, de Blasio said Monday. Right now, the five boroughs are facing their highest hospitalization and positivity rates in months. Daily COVID case totals are more than five times the 550-threshold the mayor wants to keep them below.

Amid the latest increases, de Blasio has said repeatedly and in no uncertain terms that he feels another round of restrictions -- a PAUSE-like shutdown -- is necessary to curb the spread. He's worried about hospitals being stretched to capacity.

Cuomo, who would be the one to make that call, believes New Yorkers and hospitals can pull through this holiday period better than they did over Thanksgiving. He thinks people witnessed the surge and learned the lesson.

Time will tell as to whether they did, but the governor has expressed confidence New Yorkers and hospitals can manage the situation without another shutdown. Late last week, he went far as to theoretically bet $100 that would be avoided.

As of Monday, no New York region had notified the state it was on pace to hit 85 percent hospital capacity within 21 days, which would trigger the shutdown mechanisms. Statewide, overall capacity was 30 percent, a boost from last week.

Meanwhile, the total number of New Yorkers hospitalized with coronavirus is at its highest level since May 14 on Monday: 6,331. Cuomo also reported more than 100 new deaths for the sixth time in seven days.

However, the number of new virus infections has begun to flatten in New York over the past week, according to the latest state Department of Health data. The state averaged 10,400 new infections each day over the past seven days, up about 3 percent from a week ago and up 12 percent from two weeks ago.

Lately, the Finger Lakes and Mohawk Valley have been most problematic of the state's 10 regions in terms of hospitalization and positivity rates. Cuomo said Monday the state is focusing acutely on those areas right now but didn't immediately announce any new targeted enforcement or mitigation strategies.

Nationally, the U.S. has eclipsed 18 million coronavirus cases, according to NBC News. The country crossed the 17 million case mark just four days ago, on Dec. 17.

Copyright NBC New York/Associated Press
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