The South African COVID-19 variant has been found in a Nassau County resident, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Sunday, in the first confirmed case of the variant contracted by someone living in New York.
Sequencing performed on a sample from the individual done at a New York City lab and confirmed at the state’s Wadsworth Center lab showed it contained the South African variant, Cuomo said in a news release.
The individual lives in Glen Head, said Jordan Carmon, a spokesperson for Nassau County Executive Laura Curran.
Scientists and health officials believe the South African and U.K. variants of COVID-19 seem to spread more rapidly than the current dominant strain but more research is needed to determine whether they are more deadly or less responsive to the current vaccines.
There have been more than 28 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. since the pandemic started one year ago, according to the Johns Hopkins University of Medicine Coronavirus Resource Center.
The nation was on the verge of reaching the grim milestone of 500,000 deaths as of Sunday afternoon. But the announcement of the state's first case of the South African strain came as New York’s rate of positive COVID-19 cases dropped below 3% for the first time since Nov. 23.
The South African variant was first identified in the United States late last month in South Carolina. A Connecticut resident hospitalized in New York City was found to have the variant last week as well, Cuomo said.
As of Saturday, 136 cases of the U.K. variant of COVID-19 had been detected in the state, including 10 in Nassau County and 12 in Suffolk County.
It’s likely the Glen Head resident who tested positive for the South African variant is not the only Long Islander with that strain, experts said.
"We don’t really have tremendous clarity yet how many cases of these variants exist in our area," said Dr. David Hirschwerk, an infectious disease expert and interim chairman of medicine at the Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell in Hempstead. "As of now, a tiny proportion of positive tests are undergoing genetic sequencing. Those types of tests will steadily increase."
Complex genomic sequencing tests help researchers track COVID-19 variants. Last week, The Associated Press reported that White House officials said there were not enough laboratories across the nations processing samples for genomic sequencing of COVID-19 and pledged almost $200 million to expand it to about 25,000 samples a week. That is about three times the current level.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, scientists in the U.K. said that variant "may be associated with an increased risk of death compared with other variants" but that more studies are needed to confirm this finding.
The CDC said both the U.K. and South African variant seem to spread more easily and quickly than other variants. They still don’t know how widely they have spread and how they could impact vaccines, tests and COVID-19 therapies.
"(The South African strain) is probably a strain that spread more easily but exactly how much more and whether it’s more virulent — that information is really pending," Hirschwerk said.
Even though there is uncertainty around how effective the available COVID-19 vaccines are against variants, Hirschwerk urged people to get inoculated when they are eligible. Vaccinations would, at minimum, reduce the chance of getting a severe form of the disease even when infected with a variant, he said.
"There remains a tremendous benefit to getting the vaccines, not only because this [South African] strain is probably still a small portion of the strains we are seeing, but the vaccine has a strong benefit against the U.K. strain as well as the standard strain," he said.
The state recorded 6,610 new cases of COVID-19 on Saturday, including 546 in Nassau County and 513 in Suffolk County. Based on 221,157 test results, the daily positivity rate was 2.99%. It remained higher on Long Island at 4.2%, according to statistics released by the state.
The new figures showed a continued decline in the number of new cases after a spike following the holiday season. On Jan. 5, the state's daily positivity rate was 8.4%
"We continue to see a reduction in positivity and hospitalizations throughout the state, which is good news, and this progress is allowing us to reopen the valve on our economy even further," Cuomo said in a statement. "But with the discovery of a case of the South African variant in the state, it's more important than ever for New Yorkers to stay vigilant, wear masks, wash hands and stay socially distanced. We are in a race right now — between our ability to vaccinate and these variants which are actively trying to proliferate — and we will only win that race if we stay smart and disciplined."
The state recorded 75 additional deaths to COVID-19 on Saturday, including four in Nassau County and nine in Suffolk County.
In a statement, Curran said: "We don’t believe the South African variant is more deadly, but it may be more contagious. The best response is to continue the tried and true precautions: wearing masks, avoiding social gatherings, distancing, staying home and getting tested when sick."
Suffolk officials couldn't be reached for comment on the South African variant's presence in Nassau.
Efforts to vaccinate more than 10 million eligible New Yorkers against COVID-19 were impacted as the winter storms delayed federal shipments, according to the state. More than 2.2 million people in the state received their first dose of the vaccine and more than 1.1 million have received a second dose, state statistics showed.
A total of 416,577 first and second doses have been administered on Long Island to date.
With Jesse Coburn
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The South African variant
- Originally detected in October 2020.
- In January, South Carolina reported the first U.S. case.
- So far, 22 cases of this variant have been detected in the U.S. across 10 states
- The CDC does not know how widely this variant has spread.
- It is believed the variants from South Africa, the U.K. and Brazil spread more easily and quickly than other variants.
- It’s also not yet clear how this variant affects existing COVID-19 therapies, vaccines and tests.
- No current evidence that infections by the variant causes more severe disease.
Source: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention