This story was reported by Lisa L. Colangelo, Antonio Planas and Yancey Roy. It was written by Colangelo.
The new variant of the COVID-19 virus that has been spreading rapidly in the United Kingdom has not been found in New York after more than 4,300 specimens were sequenced from tests in the state, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Wednesday.
Meanwhile, the number of new cases on Long Island continues to grow with the daily positivity rate at double digits for both counties.
Cuomo said more than 350 specimens were examined over the last week in a complex test that analyzes the genomic sequence to find the variant. Despite having several samples suspected of being the U.K. strain, Cuomo said tests determined they were not.
The update comes after a Colorado National Guardsman tested positive for the mutated virus, with officials saying there may be a second case affecting another Guard in that state. Another case was reported Wednesday in California. The new variant has raised concerns that it could be more contagious than the strains of the virus commonly found around the world.
Cuomo announced Wednesday that the state will go ahead with a pilot allowing the Buffalo Bills to open their stadium for a playoff game, and permitting about 6,700 people to attend with testing, mask-wearing, social distancing and contact-tracing requirements in place.
Every fan will be tested before the game and will have to show a negative result to attend, state officials said. The New York State Department of Health will then monitor after the game to identify potential spread from the event.
The governor touted the pilot as a model to allow for a return of gatherings and reopen the economy while vaccination efforts continue.
"If it works there, can you do Madison Square Garden?" Cuomo said. "Could you do a theater on Broadway? … That is the road we are looking at."
'Shocking' numbers on Long Island
The latest figures released Wednesday show 13,422 additional COVID-19 cases in the state, reported from 154,949 test results. The statewide positivity rate was 8.66%.
The daily positivity rate was higher on Long Island, with Nassau County showing 1,273 new cases and a rate of 10.5%. Suffolk County had 1,650 new cases for a positivity rate of 12.8%.
Cuomo said it's not clear if the higher rates are related to a reduced number of test results in recent days.
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone called the new COVID-19 numbers "shocking." Bellone and Nassau County Executive Laura Curran reiterated pleas to residents to observe restrictions and limit gatherings to celebrate New Year's.
"Not only is this the highest number of new cases reported since the onset of the pandemic, but the double-digit positivity rate puts us right back to where we were in early May," Bellone said in a statement.
The county went from a positivity rate of about 4% on Dec. 1 to Tuesday's high, he said. "In less than a month, the rate has tripled," Bellone said.
Curran said daily spikes in hospitalizations and positivity rates are "double" what they were one month ago.
"Our numbers continue to move in the wrong direction, and the last thing we want is to have our businesses and schools close when we are so close to having large-scale vaccine distribution," Curran said in a statement.
About 203,000 New Yorkers have received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
Cuomo and State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker said they didn't have statistics on how many people who were eligible to receive the vaccine have declined to receive it.
In a briefing with reporters on Wednesday, Moncef Slaoui, chief scientific adviser of Operation Warp Speed, said 14 million doses of the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines have been distributed. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said about 2.5 million people in the United States have received the first of two doses. Slaoui admitted those numbers are "lower than we had hoped for" but said they are "working hard to make it better."
Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi said the administration is getting out vaccines as fast as it can, but there have been some "roadblocks" to getting people vaccinated — such as December’s snowstorm, the holidays and the lack of subzero freezers at some hospitals.
"Our goal is to make sure no single dose is sitting on the shelf," Azzopardi said. "We are in constant touch with the hospitals and our other partners, and we are continuing to ramp up. And we’re in better position than most states."
Suffolk looking into consulate event
The Suffolk County Health Department is looking into potential spread of COVID-19 cases stemming from a multiday event at the Salvadoran Consulate in Brentwood.
On Dec. 14, the consulate informed people via a Facebook post that it would be open Monday through Saturday from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. to help people "settle their consular affairs." It said people who needed to get passports could show up without appointments.
Witnesses described a crowded scene where people wore masks but did not observe social distancing.
Erica Mendez, of Westbury, said it was so crowded outside the consulate, she had to park several blocks away after dropping off her boyfriend, Adalberto Rivas.
Once inside, Rivas said two floors were packed with people almost shoulder to shoulder.
"I began to panic," Rivas recounted. "It was crazy. I wanted to grab my identification and immediately leave."
Since Rivas made an appointment, he was able to leave the consulate in about 30 minutes. Others told him they had been there several hours waiting for paperwork to be processed.
County health officials would not say if any people who attended the event have since tested positive for COVID-19.
"An investigation is ongoing into any potential COVID-19 cases connected to the Salvadoran Consulate," a spokeswoman for Suffolk County said in a statement.
Consul Henry Salgado declined to comment when reached by phone late Tuesday afternoon.
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