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NY: 2nd case of virus variant found on Long Island, though positivity rate is falling

A registered nurse for Northwell Health administers a

A registered nurse for Northwell Health administers a vaccine shot earlier this month as part of efforts to inoculate against COVID-19 across New York. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

This story was reported by Rachelle Blidner, Robert Brodsky, Matthew Chayes, Lisa L. Colangelo, Bart Jones, David Reich-Hale and Nicholas Spangler. It was written by Jones.

A second case of the South African variant of COVID-19 has been confirmed in Nassau County, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Tuesday, though overall positivity levels in tests for the virus continued to decline statewide.

Health officials also confirmed 18 new cases of the U.K. variant statewide, bringing the total to 154, he said. The state reported Long Island's first case of the South African variant on Sunday, with Nassau County confirming that an individual living in Glen Head contracted it.

While some experts believe the new variants spread more rapidly than the dominant COVID-19 strain, more research is needed to determine whether they are more deadly or less responsive to the vaccines.

Dr. Bruce Polsky, chairman of Medicine at NYU Langone Hospital-Long Island and an infectious disease specialist, said he is "very worried" about the second confirmed case of the South African variant.

"We’re not surprised, obviously" that the variant was found here, he said, but it is concerning because it is considered more contagious. "There is a potential for a multiplier effect that could cause another wave of infection as we enter into the spring season."

Moreover, many cases probably are going undetected because most of the testing for COVID-19 does not lead to the more specialized test for the variants, he said.

The two confirmed cases "basically are the leading edge of this," Polsky said. "It is likely that there are many more cases."

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Still, he said Long Island may be able to get the variants under control if people adhere to preventive measures, including mask wearing, social distancing, and frequent hand washing.

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran confirmed the second case of the variant is also from that county and called on people to be mindful of the risk.

"The county is taking seriously the emergence of more contagious variants, but we know that taking the recommended precautions will keep you safe from all strains of the virus," Curran said. "Confirmation of another case of the South African variant here in Nassau underscores the importance of continuing to wear masks, distancing, and avoiding social gatherings."

The seven-day average for positivity in statewide test results from Monday was 3.46%, continuing a steady drop, while the daily positivity rate from 157,333 test results for the day was 4.23%. The seven-day positivity level on Long Island was 4.3%, while New York City registered 4.49%.

"The decline in our hospitalization and infection rates is all thanks to the dedication New Yorkers have time and again shown to defeating this invisible enemy," Cuomo said.

The number of new confirmed positives from test results Monday was 640 in Nassau County, 554 in Suffolk County, and 3,532 in New York City.

The latest figures come a day after the state made moves to facilitate reopening economic activity, including allowing the partial return of movie theaters in New York City, expanding the number of people who will be able to attend indoor weddings and catering halls, and relaxing criteria to allow visits at nursing homes under certain conditions.

"As our rates continue to decline, we are opening back up our economy and proving that vaccine distribution can be fair and equitable," Cuomo said.

State officials said New York has received about 80% of its scheduled allocation of vaccine for the week of Feb. 15-21, or the 10th week of distribution to the state.

Suffolk vaccinating more than 10,000 this week

Suffolk will be able to vaccinate 10,670 new people against COVID-19 as shots that went undelivered because of winter weather arrive this week, County Executive Steve Bellone said Tuesday.

The haul will allow the county to inoculate about 3,000 teachers and to open a third mass vaccination site in Selden that had been scheduled for last week, Bellone said. The county also will administer 2,700 second doses.

"Our goal is to get as many vaccines as possible in our residents' arms, as fast as possible. This week's vaccination allowance allotment will allow us to reach a new milestone: vaccinating more than 10,000 people in less than a week for the first time," Bellone said.

The seven-day average infection rate is 4.3% in Suffolk, down from 7.8% a month ago, Bellone said.

The county has had to prioritize vaccination efforts to focus on essential employees under a state order, Bellone said, but he anticipates improvements in vaccine availability.

A hurdle for nursing home visits

One day after the state released new visitation guidelines for nursing homes, executives for those residential facilities said the rules won't help them open their doors to visitors.

The sticking point: Nursing homes must be free of COVID-19 cases for 14 days to qualify for visits — and that's been a hurdle many Long Island facilities have struggled to clear.

Commack-based Gurwin Jewish Nursing & Rehabilitation Center said it has yet to reach the 14-day milestone. It tests its 800 employees twice a week, and its 350 residents weekly. It would take 1,950 negative tests without a positive result to be cleared for visits.

"From a simple math perspective, and we know how insidious this disease is, it's been a great challenge," said Stuart Almer, CEO of Gurwin Healthcare System, which operates the nursing home. "The new mandate just doesn't apply to us and many other nursing homes because the 14-day rule overshadows everything else."

Huntington Hills Center for Health and Rehabilitation in Melville also has fallen short in recent months of the 14-day goal, said Ken Knutsen, administrator at the skilled nursing facility.

Knutsen said Huntington Hills administers about 800 tests weekly between residents and staff.

"We are sympathetic to the families, because it's been such a long time," he said.

Getting the vaccine in Valley Stream

A state-run pop-up vaccination site at the Gateway World Christian Center in Valley Stream gave the shots to about 250 residents Tuesday. Lines stretched out the door throughout the morning with residents, including members of the local NAACP, anxious to receive their first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

"I hope this encourages people of my community to go out and get the vaccination," Doris Hicks, president of the NAACP Lakeview branch, said shortly after receiving her first dose. "Lakeview is a small community and I hope when they see this, they’ll say, ‘Let me do the same thing.’"

Assemb. Michaelle Solages (D-Valley Stream) said the virus has devastated Elmont, Valley Stream and the surrounding neighborhoods. "We know that disproportionately communities of color and low-income communities were greatly impacted," she said.

Karim Camara, executive director and deputy commissioner of the state Office of Faith-Based Community Development Services, said vaccinations are happening "based on need. Not based on ZIP code or political connections. Not based on wealth, but the individuals whose health is most compromised are in line to get the vaccination first."

Northport VA offering vaccines for veterans

The Northport Veterans Affairs Medical Center will hold its second walk-in vaccine clinic Saturday from 7:30 a.m. until supplies run out, said Chad Cooper, a spokesman for the Medical Center.

The clinic is open to veterans over 65 who have received treatment at Northport or one of its operating clinics within the last two years. No appointments are needed, and staff will schedule a second dose at the time of the visit.

Northport receives its vaccine from a central Veterans Affairs office and schedules the clinics when supplies allow, Cooper said. At the first walk-in clinic, held Feb. 13, staffers dispensed 700 shots, he said.

Northport staffers have reached more than 6,000 veterans to offer vaccine appointments, Cooper said, and 65% of veterans have accepted. More than 77% of Northport staffers have been vaccinated, he said. The Medical Center is at 79 Middleville Rd. in Northport.

NYC planning for next vaccine

Meanwhile, Dr. Dave Chokshi, the New York City health commissioner, said the city is making plans, with visiting nurses and traveling clinicians, to distribute the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to those who can’t travel in person to seek the shots. Chokshi said it is aiming to begin doing so next month, even though the vaccine has not yet been authorized for emergency use.

"We will be ready to very rapidly do the door-to-door, or in-home, vaccination for homebound seniors," he said. The city is awaiting submissions to federal regulators by the company, he said.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is not expected to require the same cold storage as the two currently approved ones, by Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech.

So far, 1.547 million vaccine doses have been administered in New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Tuesday. His goal is 5 million New Yorkers vaccinated — not just 5 million doses — by June.

GETTING COVID-19 VACCINES

Who qualifies for COVID-19 shots?

New York State expanded the list of qualifying residents to encompass people 65 years of age and older as well as others with underlying conditions that put them at higher risk. The state had previously expanded its vaccination program to include essential workers and people 75 years of age and older in addition to health care workers and nursing home residents and staff, among others. The supply of vaccines is limited even as more groups are added. Hospitals will continue to prioritize unvaccinated members of the first phase, focusing largely on health care workers. The following are the qualifying categories, as revised on Feb. 9.

Group in Phase 1A

The state said about 2.1 million state residents belong in this group, including:

  • Health care workers at hospitals who interact with patients.
  • Residents and staff at nursing homes and assisted living facilities.
  • Dentists, psychologists and others deemed health care workers with direct contact with patients.
  • Employees of Federally Qualified Health Centers.
  • EMT volunteers and staff.
  • Coroners, medical examiners, some funeral workers.
  • Staff and residents of state facilities for people with developmental disabilities, mental health care and addiction services.
  • Employees at urgent care centers.
  • Individuals administering COVID-19 vaccines, including local health department staff.
  • Staff at ambulatory centers.
  • Home care and hospice workers.
  • Residents and staff at other congregate care facilities.

Group in Phase 1B

The state estimated about 3.2 million residents belong in this group, including:

  • People 75 years of age and older.
  • Teachers and education workers, including in-person college instructors, substitute teachers, student teachers, school administrators, paraprofessional staff, support staff, contractors in schools and bus drivers.
  • First responders, including police; firefighters; state police; sheriff’s offices; county, town and village police departments, and other law enforcement offices.
  • Public safety workers, including dispatchers and technicians.
  • Public transit workers, including airport, railroad, subway, bus, ferry and Port Authority employees.
  • Corrections officers.
  • Other sworn and civilian personnel, such as court and peace officers.
  • Grocery store workers dealing with the public.
  • Individuals living in homeless shelters.

Following federal recommendations:

Added at the discretion of local governments:

  • Taxi drivers.
  • Restaurant workers.
  • Residents of facilities for developmentally disabled people.

SOURCE: New York State, Northwell Health.

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