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Cuomo: Asking New York hospitals and labs to test for UK variant of COVID-19

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo provides a coronavirus update

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo provides a coronavirus update from the Red Room at the State Capitol in Albany on Dec. 14. Credit: Office of the Governor / Don Pollard

This story was reported by Rachelle Blidner, Matthew Chayes, Lisa L. Colangelo and David Reich-Hale. It was written by Colangelo.

Hospitals across New York will test for the quick-spreading COVID-19 variant found in the United Kingdom in an effort to locate and contain it, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Tuesday.

Concerns over the mutated virus have led to a widespread lockdown in the U.K. and for Cuomo to call on airlines to screen passengers before they board planes for the United States.

Cuomo told reporters during a conference call that there is no evidence the variant is in the state, but that doesn't mean it isn't here. So far, the state health department's Wadsworth Lab has examined more than 3,700 virus sequences identified in New York.

"We do know it has been moving globally," he said. "Chances are if it has been moving globally it came here. If it is here, I want to know exactly where it is and contact-trace immediately from that point back and then isolate it immediately."

The novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 has mutated several times since it was discovered in China one year ago. Researchers in the U.K. are studying the new variant. So far, it appears to spread more quickly but may not be a more severe form of the disease.

While detecting the new variant would involve "a complex test," the governor told reporters that labs in New York — including those of Northwell Health on Long Island — are up to the challenge. The state will provide them testing reagents needed to look for the variant.

"This is about time and urgency," he said.

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Cuomo said Monday that several airlines agreed to require all travelers from the United Kingdom to New York to present a negative COVID-19 test before boarding their flights.

Experts have said there is no reason to believe the recently approved COVID-19 vaccines by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna are less effective against this variant. Cuomo said 50,000 doses of vaccine had been administered throughout the state.

Monitoring hospitalization levels

Figures showed 9,716 new positive results statewide on Monday of 164,868 people tested for COVID-19. Suffolk County accounted for 1,034 of those new cases, and Nassau County had 880. The positivity rate was 5.9% overall for the state, 6.5% on Long Island and 4.3% in New York City.

The toll of New Yorkers who died from COVID-19 grew by 139 on Monday for a total of 28,850. Among those deaths were six people in Nassau and 12 people in Suffolk.

Cuomo said 6,661 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 in the state. Hospitalizations is one of the key metrics officials are watching to gauge their response.

"If a hospital is 21 days from 85% of capacity, then they have to tell us they are on high alert," Cuomo said. "No hospital in the state has told us they are at that point."

He said it's likely those numbers will rise as the holiday season continues.

Northwell Health on Tuesday said it had 1,029 COVID-19 patients at its hospitals in New York, up from 892 during the same period last week.

Its Staten Island hospital has the most COVID-19 patients, at 185. Staten Island has been the health system's busiest with COVID-19 patients for weeks.

Northwell, based in New Hyde Park, said it had 125 COVID-19 admissions over the last 24 hours, 73 of which were on Long Island.

"We can handle where we are right now, but my concern is where hospitals are if we don't flatten this over the next month," said Dr. David Battinelli, chief medical officer at Northwell Health. "We need to flatten this while we vaccinate people. We need to put a lid on this."

Suffolk aims to inoculate 850,000

Suffolk County is seeking to inoculate 850,000 residents with the COVID-19 vaccine, since the county has had more than 1,000 new coronavirus cases all but five days this month, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said.

"To put that in perspective, we only had 1,000 positive cases 12 times during the height of the pandemic in the spring," said Bellone, while acknowledging fewer tests were done then.

After health care workers and nursing home residents and staff are inoculated, other first responders, including police and firefighters, will get the vaccine. Then it will become available to "the most vulnerable" and, finally, the general population, Bellone said.

Suffolk plans to work with faith organizations, school districts and health care providers "to reach targeted communities, especially including communities of color who’ve been particularly hard hit by the pandemic," Bellone said.

NAACP Long Island regional director Tracey Edwards joined him in calling residents from those communities to get vaccinated.

"I understand the skepticism. I understand the history," Edwards said. "But all of us collectively have been through a lot with this virus, and the only way that we will be able to rid ourselves of this virus is by taking the vaccine."

"People of color have been disproportionately affected by this virus. That’s a fact," she added. "But it is also a fact that there are health disparities, and we need to do what we can to protect ourselves, our family and our community."

Officials also said Suffolk County Community College campuses in Brentwood and Selden will become distribution centers for entities administering the COVID-19 vaccines, such as CVS and Walgreens pharmacies.

'A sizable share' of aid to LI

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Tuesday said about $775 million of the $900 billion coronavirus relief bill is being earmarked to the state to distribute vaccines, test, trace and support other health initiatives.

"A sizable share, significantly over $100 million, will go toward Long Island," Schumer said, adding that the distribution of money will be made based on population.

Schumer said $127 million would support statewide vaccine distribution. "There is enough money for New York that every New Yorker can get a free vaccine," he said. "The trick is to get it from bottles to people’s arms."

Northwell Health will receive funds to set up vaccine centers in the region, Schumer said.

Dr. Dwayne Breining, executive director of Northwell Labs, said it was too early to tell when the vaccination centers would be set up or how much funding Northwell would receive. He said locations could include churches or auditoriums. Medical personnel would staff those locations to observe people after being vaccinated.

"We can set up almost anywhere and deploy pretty sophisticated health care," Breining said.

De Blasio 'anxious' to reopen schools

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said middle schools could open in January, depending on the progression of the virus.

Middle schools have been closed since late November. Elementary schools reopened earlier this month.

"I am very anxious to get our middle schoolers back," he said, adding, "I can't give you a date yet," but it would be "as soon as humanly possible."

Asked whether the state is waiting too long to lock down again as in the spring, de Blasio said he discusses the matter "every day" and has "numerous conversations" about it with the governor.

De Blasio said Tuesday that 2,889 additional city residents have been diagnosed with COVID-19.

"The case numbers are astoundingly high. I don't like what I see one bit. I'm really worried, and we are seeing an impact on our hospitals. At the same time, we are seeing our hospitals handle these cases much, much better than in the spring, and with much better outcomes," de Blasio said. But if the infection rate continues to rise, he said, "Those bigger restrictions are the only tool that we have," until the vaccines are widely distributed.

De Blasio also raised the specter of municipal layoffs absent a bailout from the federal government. He’s already asked city agencies to propose 3% cuts from their budgets.

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