Andrew M. Cuomo has expressed worries that the new United...

Andrew M. Cuomo has expressed worries that the new United Kingdom COVID-19 variant might arrive in New York without further restrictions on air travel into Kennedy Airport, above in October. Credit: AP/John Minchillo

Not only haven’t we beaten the coronavirus, we may be waging war on new battlegrounds.

The news that a different strain of the COVID-19 virus — one that’s potentially more contagious — seems to be spreading through the United Kingdom should worry health officials around the world, including in the United States.

The new strain comes as hope has begun to take root — in the form of vaccines — as President-elect Joe Biden was inoculated Monday and, closer to home, as nursing home residents and staff become the latest Long Islanders to receive the vaccine.

But the virus mutation shows there isn’t yet a clear path out of the pandemic, and with hope may come new fears.

There’s a lot we don’t know about the new variant. We don’t know whether the vaccines will work as well against it — though health officials seem to think they will. We don’t know whether it’s more lethal — though health officials seem to think it isn’t. And we don’t know whether it is indeed more contagious — though there’s reason to think it is. It will be a while before researchers can fully understand it and how to deal with it.

What we do know is that traveling from the United Kingdom to the United States right now can only make a bad situation worse. So, it’s not time to play guessing or waiting games in our response to what could be a frightening virus mutation.

The federal government should shut down travel between the United Kingdom and the United States. Other European nations, like Germany and Italy, have done so, as has Canada. While Dr. Anthony Fauci said he wouldn’t suspend flights to avoid overreacting, it’s better to err on the side of caution.

We also must learn from mistakes made at the start of the pandemic, when, in most cases, it took the United States too long to ban travel. More immediate action is required now, especially during the holiday season, when many are flying despite the warnings.

Is the new strain already here? Probably. But we don’t need more people coming; that could throw gas on the flames.

In the meantime, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is right to try an alternative, albeit imperfect, solution, asking airlines that fly between the United Kingdom and New York to require that all passengers traveling to New York airports receive a negative COVID-19 test before boarding. British Airways and Delta Air Lines agreed. Virgin Atlantic must follow suit. But too often, test results don’t tell us enough, in a timely fashion.

That’s why federal officials must do a better job of protecting us. Beyond a ban, we need clear guidance regarding the new strain.

The COVID-19 vaccines remain our best hope, and the efforts to prioritize inoculating health care and other essential workers remain vital. But we can’t take our eyes off the battle to slow the virus from spreading further, even as we look toward the days when it’s behind us.

— The editorial board

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