NJ Becomes 6th U.S. State to Detect Brazilian Variant; NYC Opens Key New Vaccine Site

The slower-than-desired national vaccine rollout got a major boost this week; the first Johnson & Johnson doses were shipped and Merck has signed on to help its rival manufacture more faster

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What to Know

  • The slower-than-desired national vaccine rollout got a major boost this week; the first Johnson & Johnson doses were shipped and Merck has signed on to help its rival manufacture more faster
  • Gov. Cuomo says domestic travelers to NY no longer have to quarantine or test-out 90 days post-full vaccination; event spaces can reopen at 33% capacity as of April 2; NYC movie theaters open Friday
  • In NJ, Gov. Murphy says wedding receptions can resume at 35% of a venue's indoor capacity up to 150 people (up to 150 max outside); sleepaway camps can also resume operations this summer

New Jersey became the sixth U.S. state Thursday to report a case of the Brazilian coronavirus variant, which is considered to be of equal scientific "interest" to the more widely reported upon U.K. and South African strains but has been detected to a much lesser degree in America so far.

The confirmation, which appeared on the state's daily coronavirus reporting dashboard, came the same day New Jersey marked one year since its first reported coronavirus case. As New Jerseyeans (and everyone else) have learned in the last 12 months, there likely were many undetected cases before that "first."

According to the CDC's latest variant report, New Jersey actually had two cases of the Brazilian variant found. Thursday's updated showed that the U.S. had detected only 13 cases of the Brazilian variant, known as P.1, in six other states: Maryland, Florida, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Oregon and Alaska. The only other states tow have multiple cases like New Jersey are Minnesota (2) and Florida (5).

No details were immediately known as it relates to New Jersey's cases other than both were found in Hudson County. Gov. Phil Murphy and his health team will likely address the matter at their next COVID briefing on Friday.

The science surrounding the Brazilian variant is at an earlier -- at least publicly earlier stage -- than that surrounding the U.K. (B.1.1.7) and the South African (B.1.351) variants so far. According to a report from The New York Times this week, limited research from Brazil, which has not been published in any scientific journal, showed it was not only highly contagious but that it had the ability to infect people who were previously thought to be immune from natural infection.

Those findings applied to one single city -- Manaus -- in one country, which raises questions about the applicability of the data on any larger scale. The U.K. and South African variants, the former particularly, remain most prevalent in the U.S., but that may just be a matter of detection. Genetic sequencing capacity has been scaled up at all levels of government in the last two months to better understand the variants and their potential threats -- or lack thereof -- to U.S. COVID progress.

With new, more contagious variants of the coronavirus circulating, health experts are adjusting their recommendations for face masks. NBC News medical correspondent Dr. John Torres joined LX News to explain why you should make sure your face mask is well-fitted and double up.

With that intensified laboratory scrutiny has come intensified concern from a public still navigating its way through the unfamiliar jargon -- and still developing risks -- associated with the pandemic. Ultimately, tri-state health officials seek to make clear two key points around the variants: First, not all variants are matters of public health concern. Most are just that -- variants. Some are of "interest."

Those variants of "interest" include only the Brazilian, U.K. and South African ones on a national tracking level. New York has reported more than 150 U.K. strain cases to date, mainly in the city, while New Jersey has detected 72 and Connecticut has found 42. Both New York and Connecticut have confirmed cases of the South African variant, two and one, respectively, as of the latest reports.

Second: Vaccines are expected to work on the variants that have emerged and those that will over time. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine raised some eyebrows among Americans eligible to be vaccinated when they saw that that single-dose shot was less effective overall in clinical trials. New York City experts say that's because those trials were conducted in some countries where "variants of interest" have become more prevalent, while other manufacturers' trials came too early to account for the developments in scientific analysis around variants.

Health officials in Minnesota say a resident who recently traveled to Brazil was infected with a COVID-19 variant associated with that country

While much remains unknown pending further study on a subject matter that didn't exist a year and a half ago, officials say they're confident that core mitigation efforts like masks, hand washing, socially distancing and staying home when sick prevent the spread of the variants the same way they proved to curb spread of the original U.S. strains. If anything, the emergence of the variants only make those efforts more important. On vaccines, they say don't wait.

Leaders across the tri-state area are drumming that last point home at every opportunity they receive -- and establishing sprawling distribution networks to meet or even exceed the demand once vaccine supply is sufficient to serve it. Of equal concern, though, is ensuring those who need access most have it early.

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.

New York City opened another hub Thursday in Co-op City, a Bronx community disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, to address ongoing disparities in inoculation rates along racial/ethnic and socioeconomic lines.

One in 13 residents in Co-op City and nearby areas have been infected with the virus, which is a bit lower than the citywide rate (both numbers are likely underreported) but has seen a community vaccine rollout lackluster compared with the average vaccination rates across the city and state, according to Rep. Jamaal Bowman. He, along with fellow Democrat Sen. Chuck Schumer, sent a letter to President Joe Biden asking him to address the disparity.

One in 13 residents in Co-op City, where the new vaccine hub will open Thursday, and nearby areas have been infected with the virus but vaccine distribution in the area has been lackluster compared to city and statewide data. NBC New York's Gaby Acevedo reports.

The new vaccine site will be open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Thursdays and Tuesdays at 177 Dreiser Loop. Co-op City had not has its own vaccine hub until now, which made it more difficult for residents to access other sites by public transit.

Bowman says 22 percent of residents lack Internet access, which makes vaccine appointment registration more difficult to access. The Bronx has a lower vaccination rate than the citywide and statewide averages, despite continuing to have the highest positivity rate in the five boroughs.

As COVID-19 vaccine distribution expands across the country, there are growing calls to ensure it's being done equitably and that shots are going into the arms that need them most. Available data shows Black and Latino Americans account for smaller shares of vaccinations compared with cases and deaths in those communities.

"Let's face it, the Bronx has been very hard hit by the COVID crisis. Hospitals in the Bronx were amongst the hardest hit in the entire city. Communities felt deep, deep losses from the coronavirus in the Bronx," Mayor Bill de Blasio said earlier this week. "The Bronx is too often overlooked. We can't let that happen."

The Co-op City vaccine site will be distributing the Johnson & Johnson single-dose vaccine after the state received about 165,000 doses, about 70,000 of which are allocated to the city. The next J&J shipment comes in about 10 days. Another Johnson & Johnson site -- at 500 Brightwater Court in Brighton Beach -- is expected to launch in Brooklyn on Friday, the mayor said Thursday.

Lower-than-average vaccination rates in the Bronx are emblematic of city, state and U.S. struggles to combat inequities in both vaccine access and acceptance. New appointments opened up Wednesday at the jointly city- and state-run Yankee Stadium mass vaccination site, which is dedicated to Bronx residents only.

More opened up Thursday at the state-run Javits Center site in Manhattan, while the governor added a handful of new hubs to the Johnson & Johnson pilot starting Friday (Marist College in Poughkeepsie, SUNY Genesee in Batavia and Jamestown Community College in Olean, Cattaraugus County).

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

New FEMA-run mass vaccination sites, the state's largest yet, opened last week in Brooklyn and Queens, which are among the nation's most deadly COVID counties. And four more sites under that federal partnership, which includes specially allocated first dose supply to ensure continuity, opened Wednesday in Yonkers, ALbany, Rochester and Buffalo. Learn more about vaccine appointments here.

Another dozen pop-up sites targeting high-priority communities launch this week. Half of them are in the city. See details in the image below and learn more here.

ny pop up vaccine sites
ny pop ups 2

As of Thursday, New York City had administered more than 2 million total doses, including at least one first dose to 1.2 million people, about 14.4 percent of its population. More than 7 percent of its population has now been fully vaccinated.

Statewide, about 16.2 percent of the population has had at least one dose, while nearly 9 percent of New Yorkers have completed their vaccination series. Updated demographic data shows whites have higher vaccination rates than their eligible population in every single one of the state's 10 regions.

Black and Latino people account for 17.3 percent and 18 percent of the eligible vaccine population in the state, but just 8.7 percent and 10 percent, respectively, of New Yorkers who have received at least one vaccine dose, the data shows.

More than 10 million New Yorkers are currently eligible for the vaccine, and that number could expand should de Blasio seize on Gov. Andrew Cuomo's looming loss of pandemic emergency powers and change distribution rules in the city.

The mayor has long professed his displeasure with the state's control over the vaccination rollout and has repeatedly demanded the "freedom to vaccinate." It wasn't immediately clear which group he'd like to see be eligible next -- or if his concept of "freedom to vaccinate" involved widening the whole approach.

Right now, the city's website lists the upcoming groups expected to earn eligibility this month and next as "other at-risk groups" and "other essential workers." Both include a parenthetical caveat (to be determined by New York State). The city expects to be able to open up vaccination to "all other people" in the summer.

Top city and state health officials tout the vaccine as the light at the end of the long tunnel, the last big battle in the war against coronavirus. While the numbers have improved substantially since the holiday surge, daily COVID case and hospitalization rates appear to have leveled off in the last few weeks.

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 ability to sustain those lower rates is critical until the vaccine becomes more widely available. President Joe Biden has said he expects the U.S. to have enough vaccine for all adults by May, two months earlier than anticipated. New York state and city continue to take significant yet calculated reopening steps in the meantime, though these efforts are far less dramatic than those being taken by states like Texas and Mississippi, which are ending mask mandates altogether.

In Connecticut, Gov. Ned Lamont announced Thursday that capacity limits for a slew of businesses — including restaurants — will be lifted on March 19. In addition to eateries, limits for museums, aquariums, zoos, libraries, gyms/fitness centers, retail stores, offices, personal services and houses of worship will no longer be in effect. Restaurants will still have an 11 p.m. curfew and an eight-person table limit; bars that do not serve food will remain closed as well.

Summer camps and festivals were advised they can plan to be open this summer, while changes will also be made to recommendations for social and recreational gatherings: 25 people will be allowed to gather indoors at private residences, 100 outdoors. The state's travel advisory will also change from a mandate to a recommendation.

With the state's COVID numbers plunging below two percent, and with nearly a quarter of the state having received at least an initial COVID vaccine dosage, Gov. Ned Lamont announced that many capacity restrictions would be lifted on March 19. NBC New York's Marc Santia reports.

A significant difference between what Connecticut is doing and what states like Texas and Mississippi have planned: Connecticut is maintaining all facemask and social distancing guidelines.

Lamont said the combination of masks, social distancing and the vaccine is working in the state's favor. Connecticut's COVID numbers help explain the decision to roll back restrictions, with the statewide positivity rate now under two percent. Additionally, almost a quarter of all state residents have received at least the first vaccine dose.

A spokesperson for New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said he was unaware that Connecticut would be lifting capacity restrictions. Gov. Cuomo did not return a request for comment.

Murphy made some reopening news himself on Wednesday, announcing that wedding receptions can resume at 35 percent of a venue's indoor capacity up to 150 people. A 150-person cap applies outdoors. Murphy also said sleepaway camps will be able to safely resume operations this summer. Cuomo has said overnight camps in New York should plan for the same.

Thursday marks exactly one year since New Jersey reported its first confirmed coronavirus case. The state has reported another 800,000-plus since then and lost almost 25,000 people to the virus. In reflecting on the anniversary a day earlier at his Wednesday briefing, Murphy said of March 4, 2020: "I’ll not easily forget this date. I had recently come out of anesthesia following surgery earlier that day to remove a cancerous growth on my kidney when I heard the news."

Cuomo set more key reopening dates for New York Wednesday, announcing the state will raise its residential gathering limit from 10 people in any space to 25 people outdoors on March 22 (the indoor limit remains). Outside-the-home gatherings can climb to 100 people indoors and 200 outdoors at the same time.

The governor also lifted travel restrictions for domestic travelers. They would no longer be required to quarantine or test-out within 90 days of full vaccination. International travelers must continue to follow CDC quarantine guidance.

Also new on the reopening front: Cuomo said event, arts and entertainment venues with less than 10,000-person capacity can reopen at 33 percent capacity (maximum 100 people indoors, 200 outdoors) on April 2. That cap increases if COVID testing is required -- to 150 people indoors and 500 people outdoors.

Those under 10,000-people venues were not part of the "large venue" limited public opening Cuomo approved last month. He is now piloting a COVID passport of sorts to fast-track large-scale reopenings and that could have a larger role in the state's and city's recovery process fairly soon if the program is successful.

More reopening steps are on tap for New York later this month, with movie theaters headlining the show in New York City on Friday. Limited wedding receptions and catering events return with COVID protocol in 11 days.

NBC New York's Ray Villeda reports.

Much progress -- and unprecedented learning -- has been accomplished along the way, as the tri-state and the rest of America sought to fight through the tragic horror of the pandemic by tapping the collective will of their people to beat back the relentless spread of disease. The true cost of the COVID crisis may forever remain incalculable -- and an indelible blight on United States history.

America has lost more people than any nation in the world to the virus, doubling the losses in the second-deadliest country (Brazil) with a toll of nearly 518,500 as of Thursday, according to Johns Hopkins. It also has reported the most cases -- 28.8 million, more than two and a half times India's 11.2, which is No. 2.

Copyright NBC New York
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