What to Know
- Gov. Andrew Cuomo has lifted all micro-cluster zone restrictions in the state except for five yellow precautionary areas (four in NYC, one in Newburgh) as the state climbs down from its holiday surge
- The number of tri-state confirmed U.K. variant cases is up to 58 (42 in NY, 8 in NJ, 8 in CT); NJ's patients range in age from 10 to 65 and include one death, though that person had underlying conditions
- Vaccines are the answers but supply has been a tri-state-wide issue; help is coming, with the Biden administration pledging to give states 16% more in weekly supply over each of the next three weeks
More than a dozen vaccine hubs in New York City that were closed earlier this week because of supply issues reopen Thursday, while City Hall may now be eyeing an early February date to launch its 24/7 mega-site at Citi Field.
An anticipated boost in federal shipment starting next week will help fuel the process, which has seen demand increase to the point that Gov. Andrew Cuomo said people are willing to drive 100-plus miles to a site to chase the shots down.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has repeatedly and insistently expressed concerns about supply in the city, which has administered nearly 700,000 doses to date. With limitations on first dose supply extending the waits for many, de Blasio has called on the feds for weeks to issue a directive telling states to free up reserved second doses. The city has about 273,000 of those on hand right now -- and the mayor said Thursday that Cuomo had agreed to release 18,000 of them for first shots.
"We're going to make sure those doses are used in the communities hardest hit by the coronavirus," de Blasio said Thursday. "This is the crucial issue to make sure that we're prioritizing the places hardest hit ... our goal is to use every single dose and there's been clear contingency plans put in place to make sure that happens, and I know the health care professionals in these vaccination sites are adamant about wanting to use every dose."
The desperation to get shots wherever one can has sparked some controversy,. The state-run hub at Washington Heights' armory has come under fire for extensive lines that feature many who don't live in the area, though they may work there, as the neighborhood's predominantly lower-income residents get left out.
"What happened in Washington Heights is the exact opposite of what we need," said de Blasio.
In response to the concern, New York-Presbyterian said it would implement new guidelines limiting vaccines to New York City residents only, with 60 percent of appointments reserved for Upper Manhattan and South Bronx residents. Cuomo wants to see a similar neighborhood-centric approach when the Yankee Stadium mega-site opens in the coming weeks. He wants that to be Bronx residents only.
That borough has been particularly hard-hit at various points over the course of the pandemic and now has high enough positivity rates compared with the other boroughs and state regions that it has retained Cuomo's sharp focus. The governor left two precautionary yellow zones in place there Wednesday as he lifted cluster zone designations from nearly two dozen other spots statewide.
Yellow zone restrictions also remain in place for parts of Washington Heights in Manhattan, Kew Gardens/Forest Hills in Queens and Orange County's Newburgh.
The governor cited "dramatic" improvement across the board in hospitalization and positivity rates since the holiday spike in his decision to relax restrictions. Eliminating the orange zone areas that remained allow restaurants in those areas to bring back indoor dining, albeit at half capacity.
New York City hasn't been allowed even that half capacity dine-in option since before the pandemic. When Cuomo allowed it to return in late September, capacity was limited to 25 percent. Even that ended in mid-December, when the governor reimplemented a total indoor dining ban in the city before the holidays.
Cuomo's move to lift most cluster zone rules doesn't change ongoing statewide restrictions that remain in effect, like the 10 p.m. curfew for restaurants and bars and other capacity limitations on mass gatherings and houses of worship.
Restaurant owners on Long Island gathered on Thursday to denounce the curfew, saying all it does is send "people away from our restaurants to house parties where social distancing cant be enforced." The governor cited data showing indoor household gatherings account for 74 percent of COVID spread, while only 1.4 percent of cases are traced to restaurants and bars. But Cuomo remained adamant in the curfew.
"With restaurants, we're trying to keep it to just actual eating as opposed to the restaurant turning into a bar. So at this time, no, we are not changing the curfew," he said.
Lifting Staten Island's orange zone status doesn't allow for the return of indoor dining there either because of the superseding citywide ban. But the status of indoor dining for that borough -- and the other four -- could very well change in just days.
The governor vowed Wednesday to provide a plan by the end of the week for potentially reopening indoor dining at New York City restaurants. His administration is considering whether to again allow dine-in at 25 percent capacity, which is still lower than the 50 percent capacity permissible for the rest of the state.
It would nonetheless be a boon for struggling restaurants that have taken to the most creative measures possible to survive through the winter, although some say that small amount is still not enough to open their doors.
"Twenty-five percent isn't enough for me to even be able to make ends meet. I will wait for it to be 50 percent," said Peter O'Connell, who owns Molly's Pub in Gramercy Park. "We just hope we get this PPP loan to be able to bring back workers and open our doors when this ends."
Pressed for the second time in a week Thursday on the matter, Mayor de Blasio deferred the indoor dining discussion in its entirety to the state. He said he did speak with Cuomo about it ahead of the governor's announcement a day earlier and said he trusted the state to make the right data-driven, scientific decision.
It's not clear what sort of additional precautions or oversight might be required if Cuomo does reopen indoor dining in the city. It's also not clear how long the reopening could last; the governor said any changes may not be permanent.
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
But he's also said that New York's vibrant restaurant scene, as well as its culture and arts scenes, can't stay shut down forever -- or even just a few more months.
“We're talking about livelihoods and the economy and billions of dollars," the governor said. “The holiday surge came. The holiday surge is over. We're not back to where we were but nobody’s back to where we were."
Even as statewide hospitalizations remain around May highs, the rate of increase has steadily slowed over the last four weeks. The average daily increase in admissions the week 12/9-12/15, which ended with the reimplementation of New York City's indoor dining ban, was 158, Cuomo said. Last week, it was down 72.
Positivity rates have ebbed virtually across the board as well -- and New York's rate of transmission has stayed below 1.0 this week. Anything higher would be considered an active outbreak, the governor says.
According to New York City data, total cases across the five boroughs are down 5.6 percent over the last seven days compared with the weekly average for the month prior, while hospitalization and death rates have stabilized.
Statewide, new case averages over the last week are down 22 percent over the period two weeks prior, New York Times data shows. Hospitalizations and deaths are up 2 percent and 1 percent respectively, the Times says -- a much lower increase from recent weeks and a slight decline over just the previous day.
After topping 9,000 total hospitalizations earlier this month and lingering in that area for weeks, statewide admissions fell further Thursday, to 8,520, Cuomo said.
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
But there is reason to be cautious -- and overly so.
During the past seven days, the state has averaged around 12,800 new infections per day, a rate it last recorded in late December. The state had the sixth-highest rate of new COVID-19 cases per capita among the 50 states in the past week. And New York has recorded nearly 5,000 COVID-19 deaths in hospitals and nursing homes over the past 30 days — the highest monthly toll since May 31.
That could be a severe undercount. A bombshell new report from the state attorney general's office out Thursday finds publicly reported nursing home virus deaths in New York may have been undercounted by up to 50 percent. Cuomo has been under fire for months over his nursing home policies and the death numbers.
He has consistently deflected any blame in that regard. Lately, the governor's attention has been laser focused on the emergence of the U.K. variant, of which there are now 42 confirmed cases in nine New York counties, and other, more transmissible strains not yet identified locally, like the South African and Brazilian variants. Cuomo says those strains have only compounded the risk of spread for a city as magnetic and dense as New York -- and, really, for the entire state.
With the holiday surge behind us, the governor feels a more virulent strain is the only thing that could now overwhelm the hospital system, especially as those variant cases continue to spread with herd immunity via vaccination months off.
New Jersey and Connecticut have each detected eight cases of the U.K. variant to date, with the Garden State adding six more to its count Wednesday. Those patients range in age from 10 to 65 and include one fatality, though health officials say that person had underlying conditions. Only one of New Jersey's U.K. variant cases had international travel history. Community spread may be the rest.
Connecticut's Department of Health has warned schools to be prepared for the possibility they may have to move fully remote come March if a highly contagious strain becomes more prevalent, according to a letter from one superintendent. Some schools in New Jersey, meanwhile, announced they won't be returning to any sort of in-person or hybrid learning until teachers are eligible for the vaccine. Gov. Phil Murphy said he couldn't give a time frame for when that might happen, but hoped "sooner rather than later, they're on deck."
Nationally, the number of children infected by COVID-19 is increasing -- and experts are concerned more contagious strains like the U.K. one may be to blame.
Dr. Anthony Fauci says there’s reason to be concerned about the impact of some coronavirus mutations on vaccines, but scientists have plenty of options for adjustments to maintain the effectiveness of vaccines and treatments.
Tracking Coronavirus in Tri-State
Of the multitude of variants that have emerged, he says he is most concerned about the South African one because lab tests have shown it can diminish the efficacy of the vaccines approved to date. The first U.S. cases of that variant were detected in South Carolina, the CDC said in a statement Thursday.
The two cases don't appear to be connected, nor do the people have a history of recent travel.
Overall, the new strains do not appear to be more lethal, though there has been some changing evidence around that as far as the U.K. strain is concerned. They are definitively more transmissible, officials and public health experts say.
More transmissibility means more cases, which will lead to some increase in hospitalizations by default and ultimately, more coronavirus deaths -- for a country that already leads the world in them. As of Wednesday, the U.S. had reported more than 425,000 virus-related deaths and 25.4 million cases.
January has now overtaken December as the deadliest month of the pandemic for the U.S. so far. The new head of the CDC said Wednesday the U.S. could hit a total of 514,00 deaths by Feb. 20. Globally, the number of COVID-19 cases has topped 100 million, while worldwide deaths have crossed the 2.1 million mark.