Governor Andrew Cuomo Orders NY Hospitals to Test for UK Strain

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Despite all the talk about a new NY shutdown over the last few weeks, Gov. Andrew Cuomo continues to say harsh new restrictions aren’t inevitable; NYers just have to make it through one more stretch

These upcoming end-of-year holidays will be the longest socialization stretch, he says; if New York can avoid a significant spike related to travel or gatherings, it’s just a “sprint, us versus the vaccine”

Meanwhile, a new COVID variant identified in the U.K. has officials concerned; while there’s no evidence it’s more deadly, data shows it’s 50% more transmissible and may more easily infect children

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Tuesday, December 22, 2020, he has ordered hospitals across New York state to begin testing for the new U.K. viral variant, while Mayor Bill de Blasio called once again for a temporary European travel ban to the U.S. as he strives to protect New Yorkers from a mutation that “simply makes the job harder.”

Though the U.K. variant has not yet been detected locally or in the U.S. (it has been found in Denmark, the Netherlands, and Australia, WHO says), logic would argue that if it’s not here yet, it will be. Cuomo wants to know when that happens.

“If it’s here, we want to know it, we want to isolate it immediately,” the governor said. “This is about time and urgency. And this would be urgent.”

According to the CDC, the new strain could already be circulating in the U.S. undetected. Scientists have sequenced genetic coding from about 51,000 of U.S. cases (now above 18 million, NBC News says), so it could easily slip notice.

Cuomo said Wadsworth Laboratory has already assessed more than 3,700 virus sequences identified in New York and has not yet found the variant present in any samples. Wadsworth and the state Department of Health have forged agreements with six hospitals statewide to obtain additional samples and is working to establish similar partnerships with others, the governor said.

New York City’s chief medical adviser, Dr. Jay Varma, says there’s little anyone could do to keep the new strain out.

Asked about his level of concern over the mutation Tuesday, Varma said he has two key worries. First, the evidence from the U.K. is “reasonably strong” that it is more transmissible than other strains (up to 50 percent more, research says) so “our room for error is even less.” But it’s not just one single mutation to fear.

Varma said he’s also concerned about similar strains emerging in other parts of the world like South Africa.

“The only way we can revert to some version of normal is to reduce the level of infection,” Varma said. “This virus mutates when it gets inside humans. So we need to keep it out of humans. We’re looking carefully for this variant in the U.S. and the emergence of new strains, but we do have the tools to prevent this.”

One of the most critical tools is deployed by absentia. That means avoid travel this holiday season. Don’t expose oneself or others to heightened risk, officials say. De Blasio had two messages for New Yorkers on that front Tuesday.

First: If you have travel plans right now, postpone them, the mayor said. Second: If you do travel and you come back to New York, you better get tested under state guidelines or be prepared to follow the state’s quarantine requirements.

“We will enforce that quarantine,” de Blasio said. “We’re not doing this for fun. We’re doing this to save lives.”

This is already the deadliest year in U.S. history, with deaths expected to top 3 million for the first time — due mainly to the coronavirus pandemic. The country has recorded more than 319,000 deaths since the start of the pandemic and topped more than 18 million cases, according to NBC News.

Both tolls are likely much higher than reported. New York alone has confirmed nearly 30,000 COVID deaths since the start of the pandemic, more than 17,000 of those in the city, and likely has thousands more attributable to it in some way.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has reported more than 100 new daily COVID deaths in the state seven out of the last eight days. Hospitalizations hit 6,661 Tuesday, the highest total since May 13.

“The hospital capacity is a concern for New York,” the governor said on a Tuesday conference call. “We’re keeping a fine eye on our hospital capacity.”

Cuomo has tied regional hospitalization rates to the possibility of new restrictions. If a hospital is 21 days from hitting 85 percent capacity, it is required to notify the state. That would trigger the economic shutdown mechanisms. No hospital in any region has notified the state of that yet, the governor said.

He added that he does expect the numbers to go up after the holidays. But New Yorkers can mitigate the potential impact by exercising the appropriate behavior.

“Celebrate smart, stop shutdowns,” Cuomo said.

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