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UK variant of COVID-19 found in New York as state ramps up vaccinations

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Monday that COVID-19 vaccinations will now be made available to all health care workers in the state. Cuomo also said there is a push to increase vaccinations in nursing homes and punish hospitals that are too slow in administering the shots they have received. Credit: NY Governor's Office

This story was reported by Robert Brodsky, Matt Chayes, Bart Jones and David Reich-Hale. It was written by Jones.

Health officials have found a potentially more contagious variant of COVID-19 associated with the United Kingdom in upstate New York, confirming that a man who tested positive had it, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Monday afternoon.

The man "is affiliated with a jewelry store" in Saratoga Springs, N. Fox Jewelers, where three others tested positive for COVID-19, but it is not yet known if they also had the UK mutated virus, Cuomo said.

The person found to have the variant is his 60s and is "on the mend," but the governor said he had not traveled recently, "so this suggests this was in the community." The state is asking people who visited the store between Dec. 19 and Dec. 24 to get tested and notify health authorities. The store had since been closed.

The B117 variant has been found in Colorado, California and Florida, and so far in 33 countries. It is believed to be more transmissible than the predominant version of the virus. Cuomo noted that it is not thought to be resistant to the vaccines or any more deadly.

The presence of the variant could complicate the state's effort to bring COVID-19 under control, if it sends cases and hospitalizations even higher. Cuomo said increased numbers of COVID-19 patients in hospitals would be a "game changer."

As the governor reported the arrival of the UK variant, Suffolk officials reported the virus killed 100 more people in the county in December than the previous six months combined.

The variant surfaced as Cuomo announced plans to ramp up vaccination efforts through a series of measures affecting hospitals, nursing homes and expanding outreach.

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He said earlier that the state may fine hospitals up to $100,000 if they do not administer their supply of allotted COVID-19 vaccinations by the end of this week.

Cuomo announced the state will bolster nursing home vaccinations because a federally run effort is going too slowly. The federal government has contracted national pharmacy chains to carry out the vaccinations, but it has left half the residents still without shots, he said.

Of the 611 nursing homes in the state, only 288 have finished administering the vaccines to their patients, he said. A total of 47% of nursing home residents have been vaccinated.

"That has not been going as quickly as we would have liked," Cuomo said.

The state will send in its own workers to speed up the process.

Another 234 facilities should complete vaccinating their residents by the end of this week, Cuomo said. That would mean about 85% of residents would have gotten the first of two doses. The remaining 15% would be administered over the next two weeks, he said.

The state also expanded vaccinations this week to include all health care workers among those who qualify, while announcing it is setting up "pop up" sites to expedite efforts in poor communities with limited access to health care providers.

The state is recruiting retired doctors, nurses, pharmacists and others to staff the new sites, he said.

"We want those vaccines in people's arms," Cuomo said.

The state's Department of Health sent a letter to the state's 194 hospitals, including 24 public and 170 private, informing them of the new regulations.

In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio also lamented the slow pace of vaccinations in the city, and on Monday declared it is time to "sprint" and speed up the process.

He called for starting nonstop, 24/7 coronavirus vaccinations, if possible.

"I understand that the first weeks had to be very careful, because our health care professionals were dealing with something they had never dealt with before, and they had to get it right. But from this point on, look: that’s all behind us now — it’s now time to sprint."

Long Island above 9% positives

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said the new year's start follows "one of the most difficult months since the start of the pandemic" due to the virus's toll.

"In 31 days we saw the highest number of new cases since the beginning of this crisis and suffered 100 more deaths than we experienced in the prior six months combined," he said.

Suffolk registered 20 virus-related deaths on Sunday alone, according to state data.

Bellone called on residents to limit gatherings, wear masks and socially distance.

The state reported another day of high positivity, with 8.3% of 134,360 people tested found to have the virus in results gathered Sunday.

Hospitals had 8,251 patients with COVID-19, with 925 of those newly admitted for a net increase of 288 from the previous day. Of those patients, 1,357 were in intensive care units, with 843 intubated.

The state tallied 170 deaths on Sunday related to the coronavirus, which Cuomo said "is a terrible way to start the new year." They included eight deaths in Nassau.

Long Island continued to surpass the 9% threshold of positivity that Cuomo had previously said would be a red flag to consider school closures, with 9.31% positives on a seven-day average and 9.9% positives on Sunday. New York City measured at 6.7% on daily positivity.

However, Cuomo said that it will be up to individual school districts whether they conclude, after local testing to compare school and county rates, that it is safe to stay open.

The number of new confirmed cases from test results Sunday was 1,071 in Nassau, 1,232 in Suffolk, and 3,726 in New York City.

Long Island hospitals have reported a cumulative 1,506 coronavirus patients and New York City has 2,884, the latest state figures show.

In other hospital news, Northwell Health on Monday said the number of COVID-19 patients at its hospitals continues to creep up, although not close to the pace it jumped last spring.

The Northwell Health system had 1,246 COVID-19 patients at its hospitals, up from 1,137 the week prior. Over the last two weeks, the number of COVID-19 patients rose by 240.

"It could be a lot worse, which is why we have cautious optimism," said Dr. David Battinelli, chief medical officer at New Hyde Park-based Northwell Health.

At the pandemic's peak in early April, Northwell had more than 3,400 hospitalized COVID-19 patients and was reporting daily increases of 300.

"We hope we can keep this number stable," Battinelli said. "We are banking on slow escalations through mid-February or so, at which point we hope to peak. But it all depends on behaviors. If people continue to follow guidelines like wearing a mask, it will make all the difference."

Nassau opening vaccination center

Nassau County will open its first vaccination distribution center on Tuesday at Nassau Community College’s CCB Building in Garden City. The vaccination point of distribution, or pod, will operate seven days a week and be open nearly round-the clock to vaccinate those county residents who are eligible, officials said Monday.

"We know that vaccines are key to recovery," said County Executive Laura Curran. "It’s the key to getting us back to normal; keeping our kids in school; keeping businesses going."

Additional pods could open as the vaccine is more widely distributed, Curran said.

The centers will be staffed by Northwell Health, which is coordinating Long Island’s vaccine distribution, along with County Department of Health staff and Nassau’s volunteer-based medical reserve corps. Vaccinations are free but by appointment only.

Northwell Chief Executive Michael Dowling said the pods will distribute both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines as soon as the doses are ready. He expects "hundreds and hundreds" of residents to be vaccinated daily at the NCC location, but he urged patience as vaccines are prioritized for the most vulnerable and at-risk populations.

"Everyone wants to be vaccinated now," Dowling said. "Everybody wants to jump the line and be first. But we need to have a very coherent, organized process so we do this effectively and productively."

Northwell has vaccinated about 25,000 of its employees, starting with Sandra Lindsay, an intensive care nurse at Long Island Jewish Medical Center. Lindsay received her second dose of the Pfizer vaccine Monday — 21 days after the first dose, Dowling said.

In a sign that vaccines are making it to other medical practices, the New Hyde Park-based PM Pediatrics started Monday vaccinating front-line staff, said Dr. Sheryl Cohen, clinical operations vice president at the pediatric urgent care group.

Cohen said the state shipped doses of the Moderna vaccine to the practice last Wednesday.

"We plan to vaccinate about 100 people this week," she said

The Moderna vaccine is to be administered in two doses, about 28 days apart.

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