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New York State: More cases of UK variant of COVID-19 identified on Long Island

Nassau officials say there is a countywide shortage of the COVID-19 vaccine because the supply chain from the federal government on down is nowhere near the quantities needed. Steve Langford has the story, as Long Islanders attempt to set up their vaccine appointments. Credit: Howard Schnapp

This story was reported by Rachelle Blidner, Matthew Chayes, Jesse Coburn, Candice Ferrette and Bart Jones. It was written by Jones.

More cases of a variant of COVID-19 linked to the United Kingdom and believed far more contagious than the regular strain have been found on Long Island, with a cluster spanning Nassau and Suffolk counties, the state said Wednesday.

The development came as thousands of people in the region struggled to sign up for a limited number of vaccination spots after the groups of qualifying residents were expanded despite a shortage of dosages.

State officials reported that the U.K. coronavirus variant known as B.1.1.7 has spread to Suffolk with two confirmed cases. Nassau — where a case of the variant was previously confirmed in Massapequa — now has two cases. The statewide total for variant cases rose to 15, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 vaccine appointments at two county sites in Nassau are being booked so quickly that officials said they are only releasing time slots "one day out." And dosages at a major county hospital are almost gone, officials said.

On Tuesday, the county sites in Westbury and Garden City distributed 973 doses, while more than 700 vaccinations were scheduled for Wednesday.

"It’s a rolling process," Nassau County Health Commissioner Larry Eisenstein said.

"When we know that we have vaccines, we schedule out [the appointments] as far as we can," he added. "The appointments go very quickly."

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The dearth of vaccines in Nassau came as Long Island residents reported problems finding open spots through the state system for signing up for vaccinations at locations, including a site at Jones Beach. State officials did not respond to a request for comment.

A new mass vaccination site opened Wednesday at the Javits Center in Manhattan, while the site at Jones Beach was to start administering vaccines on Thursday, the state said.

More than 50,000 people had been vaccinated against COVID-19 in Nassau as of Wednesday "and that number will continue to grow," but supply does not currently meet demand, Nassau County Executive Laura Curran said Wednesday.

Curran said 4,200 people have been vaccinated at the two county distribution sites, Nassau Community College and the Yes, We Can Community Center in Westbury.

"We know that getting the vaccine in people’s arms will bring our businesses back and keep our kids in school," Curran said in a briefing outside Nassau University Medical Center in East Meadow, the county’s public hospital, which has vaccinated 4,500 staff members.

Vaccines used as soon as they arrive

Eisenstein said vaccines received in the morning are moved out by the afternoon. "As soon as we have vaccine we get it to people," he said.

The health commissioner pleaded with the public for patience. He said there are hundreds of thousands of people eligible to receive the vaccine in Nassau alone, but fewer than 1,000 doses arrive each day. "We are controlling what we can on our end," he said.

He urged people who received the first dose of the two-shot vaccines to return to the same site to eliminate confusion. He guaranteed people who need the second shot in three weeks will be able to make the appointments for the Moderna shot given at county sites.

Hospitals in Suffolk had administered 39,274 vaccinations as of Monday, county officials said. A total of 3,450 nursing home residents and 2,477 nursing home staff had received at least their first shot, officials said.

The county administered 2,510 doses to eligible people in Phase 1a, a group largely made up of health care workers and nursing home staff and residents.

The county's vaccination site at Suffolk County Community College in Brentwood was not administering shots on Wednesday because it was out of dosages, officials said.

Statewide, 732,066 people had been vaccinated as of 3 p.m. Wednesday, Cuomo said in a tweet. That was an increase of 67,000 over the previous 24 hours.

Most were given at distribution sites — 624,280. The remaining 107,786 were administered at long-term care facilities.

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 deemed to be immunocompromised. The state had recently 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 Jan. 12.

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.

Added to follow federal recommendations:

  • People 65 years of age and older.
  • People who are deemed to be immunocompromised. The state will issue specific guidance on who qualifies.

SOURCE: New York State

In Nassau, Eisenstein also said the county’s Office of the Aging is assisting seniors having trouble with the state’s online vaccine registration form.

Curran said that at sites like NUMC, thousands of appointments scheduled through the state system are unable to be fulfilled because of a lack of dosages.

"The hospital will run out of vaccine [Thursday]," said Curran, as she pledged to fight for additional doses. "Pharmacies and doctors’ offices soon will be able to administer the vaccine — we just need the doses."

State officials have confirmed four cases of the UK variant in Saratoga County, where its first state instance was detected earlier this month, linked to a jewelry store visitor who recently had traveled to the UK, Cuomo said.

Two cases have been confirmed in upstate Warren County, along with one case in Queens and another in Manhattan. The Queens case is considered part of the Nassau and Suffolk cluster, the state said.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said that two cases of the variant were found in tn New York City, one linked to a person who had traveled. "Someone who was in the U.K. has brought the variant back here," he said.

A total of 165 people died Tuesday statewide from COVID-19-related causes, including eight in Nassau and 15 in Suffolk. The positivity level in test results Tuesday was 7.4% statewide, with levels of 8.9% on Long Island and 5.9% in New York City.

The number of new confirmed cases was 1,457 in Nassau, 1,673 in Suffolk and 5,822 in New York City.

On Long Island, several districts moved to virtual classes to reduce risk of spread.

Sixth- through 12th-graders in the Patchogue-Medford School District are learning remotely this week amid a spike in COVID-19 cases and a shortage of staffers.

In the Port Jefferson school district, sixth- through 12th-graders also shifted to remote learning Tuesday.

Connetquot High School in Bohemia will remain closed through Friday, school officials said. The school went fully virtual earlier in the week.

The Farmingdale school district is closing all buildings on Thursday and Friday, and plans to return to live classes on Jan. 19.

In Suffolk, County Executive Steve Bellone said he is expanding a free rapid COVID-19 testing program to local veterans. The first responder rapid-testing program launched last month and has provided hundreds of tests to local law enforcement, fire service and emergency medical services members, officials said.

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