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Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo raises concern over UK COVID-19 variant

Transportation Security Administration personnel and travelers observe COVID-19

Transportation Security Administration personnel and travelers observe COVID-19 prevention protocols at John F. Kennedy International Airport on Oct. 20. Credit: AP/John Minchillo

A new variant of COVID-19 could be making its way to New York from the United Kingdom, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo warned Sunday as nursing homes statewide geared up to administer their first doses of the vaccine to staff and patients Monday.

Cuomo pointed to statements from U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who said the new strain of COVID-19 is more easily transmissible.

But while the U.K. has instituted an economic shutdown and taken other precautions, the governor said, the United States has not prepared to track this new variant or tried to prevent it from entering the country.

"Right now, this variant in the U.K. is getting on a plane and flying to JFK … right now, today," Cuomo said during a conference call with reporters.

While more than 100 countries require travelers to test negative for COVID-19 before getting on a plane in the U.K., the U.S. does not, Cuomo said, comparing it with the failure to stop COVID-19 from entering the U.S. from Europe earlier this year.

"How many times in life do you have to make the same mistake before you learn?" he asked, calling on federal health authorities to take action.

New York State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tests for new strains of COVID-19 on a regular basis.

"Certain DOH labs and the CDC routinely monitor viruses for mutations and new strains emerging," said Dr. Dwayne Breining, executive director of Northwell Health Labs. "This is done by full genetic (DNA or RNA) sequencing and is commonly used to track patterns of spread."

Breining said if a strain emerges that could be resistant to drugs or have other treatment implications, genotyping tests would be developed to identify it.

Dr. Bettina Fries, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Stony Brook Medicine, said the mutation found in the U.K. — which is still being studied — could allow the virus to bind better to receptors and into cells, making it more infectious.

"This virus mutates all the time," Fries said. "Tough travel restrictions might buy you some time, but eventually this kind of variant could also emerge here on its own."

She pointed out that these kind of tests are not done in standard laboratories.

"This will be done by somebody like the CDC or by academic laboratories to really determine which of the mutations matter (and) how dominant they are," Fries said. "You would have to test several viruses and check whether this is a mutation that you find in all of them."

The state recorded 9,957 new cases of COVID-19 on Saturday, for a total of 848,042 since the pandemic started. That daily figure included 1,145 new cases in Suffolk County and 901 new cases in Nassau County. The statewide positivity rate — the number of new cases factored with the number of people tested — is 5.05%

The death toll from COVID-19 in New York is now 28,598, with the addition of 123 fatalities on Saturday. Seven of those deaths were in Nassau County and nine were in Suffolk County.

In addition, 6,185 people were hospitalized in New York on Saturday with COVID-19,

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran said the fact the number of people hospitalized in the county was down from last week provides a "a glimmer of hope."

"I remind residents that while the vaccine offers a light at the end of the tunnel, now is not the time to abandon the practices that have sustained us so far: wearing masks and proper social distancing can save lives and protect our hospitals’ capacity," Curran said in a statement.

While the federal government admitted recently there was a delay in shipping some of the vaccine doses to states, both Cuomo and Zucker said New York has not been impacted.

Last Monday, the first doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine were administered in New York hospitals, with priority given to doctors, nurses and other staffers most likely to come in contact with infected patients.

Officials said the state has enough of the Pfizer vaccine for 170,000 people — roughly half for nursing homes and half for hospitals. The Moderna vaccine could arrive on Long Island as early as Monday, with 346,000 doses available statewide.

Vaccinations of nursing home staffers and residents starts Monday. These facilities, which house some of the state’s most medically vulnerable residents, were hit hard during the pandemic.

"The COVID-19 virus is the greatest public health threat our country has faced in most of our lifetimes and our nursing home and assisted living residents and dedicated health care workers are on the front line of this pandemic," Stephen Hanse, president and CEO of the New York State Health Facilities Association and the New York State Center for Assisted Living, which represents over 425 long-term care facilities, said in a statement. "These vaccinations are critical to safeguard our residents, staff and communities throughout New York."