ALBANY — Medical experts have identified 59 total cases of the more contagious strain of the novel coronavirus first discovered in the United Kingdom, including one case in Jefferson County, officials said Friday.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced during a COVID-19 briefing in the state Capitol on Friday that 15 more cases of the U.K. COVID-19 variant have been identified in the state for a total of 59 statewide.
The strain is reportedly up to 70% more transmissible than other strains of the disease.
“That is a frightening thought, so we’re watching it closely,” the governor said, “the (Centers for Disease Control & Prevention) is watching it. Other countries are watching it.”
A map of the state was projected during the governor’s Friday briefing, which identified Jefferson County as one of 13 counties in the state that have identified the new strain.
The state Health Department and representatives from Cuomo’s office did not return a request for comment about the gender or age of the patient.
Scott A. Gray, Jefferson County Board of Legislators chairman, was not shocked by Jefferson County’s first case of the more contagious variant, he said Friday.
“They are testing for it,” he said. “When they take specimens, they’re testing for variants.”
The strain was identified in a traveler from overseas, Gray said. He declined to say where the patient had traveled.
“It’s exactly why we quarantine people who travel from out-of-state,” Gray said of the state’s 10-day mandate.
Gray did not know the age or gender of the person who contracted the variant.
The person tested positive this week. Gray was informed of the Jefferson County case Thursday.
“To the best of my knowledge, the person complied with the quarantine, so we hope there’s containment in terms of the spread,” he said Friday. “The fortunate thing is that it was a traveler and that they complied. It’s why we have those measures and it’s evidence of why we need them.
“That being said, we know the strain is around New York state, so we won’t be surprised if it shows up again,” he added.
A case of the strain was confirmed in an Essex County resident last week, according to the Adirondack Daily Enterprise. The governor’s Friday briefing slideshow also identified Essex County as one of the 13 counties with the U.K. strain.
No case of the U.K. strain has been discovered in Lewis or St. Lawrence counties.
“This is why people have to remain vigilant and continue observing health protocols, because we’re not sure of the efficacy of the vaccine on the various strains of the virus,” Gray said.
The state’s first case of the U.K. variant was tied to a jewelry store in Saratoga County in the northern Capital Region, with seven total cases to date.
The strain has also been discovered in Allegany, Niagara, Tompkins, Onondaga, Ulster, Westchester, Suffolk, Nassau and Warren counties, and 18 total cases confirmed in New York City as of Friday.
Officials remain concerned a new, mutated strain of COVID-19 could take hold and cause a true second wave of the disease as medical personnel scramble to vaccinate at least 70% of the population to achieve herd immunity.
A South African and Brazilian strain of COVID have not been discovered in the state to date.
“Those could all be game changers,” Cuomo said Friday. “We deal with the here and now, we deal with the facts we have now. We deal with the reality that we face now, but we’re aware of the new, possible threats in the future. If those new possible threats actualize, we will respond to them accordingly as we have all through this.”
The state has distributed 99.02% of the dosages of the COVID-19 vaccine allocated by the federal government over the seven weeks of distribution, with more than 2,237,687 injections administered to date.
The state reports 1,742,509 New Yorkers have received their first of two required doses of the vaccine, with 495,178 people having received their second dose.
“Who’s counting? We’re counting,” Cuomo said. “We now wait for the next week’s allocation, but this is where we want to be. We want to use everything we’ve received and get it into people’s arms as soon as possible.”
The state Coronavirus Task Force is ramping up vaccine education efforts as 39% of New Yorkers are hesitant to take the vaccine, according to a recent poll from independent nonprofit Association for a Better New York, or ABNY.
About 61% of Black New Yorkers are hesitant to take the vaccine, compared to 22% cynical Caucasian residents.
Roughly 46% of the state’s Hispanic and Asian communities also remain skeptical of receiving the coronavirus vaccine when they become eligible.
Greater distrust of state and the federal government and the health care system exist in minority and low-income communities, Cuomo said.
Black people die from COVID-19 complications twice as often — and Latino people 1.5 times as frequently — as white people exacerbated by disparities in education and health care.
“Hesitancy is a major obstacle in our path,” the governor said. “They’re skeptical, they’re cynical about the vaccine and they’re not willing to take it. You have a higher rate of hesitancy in Black and Latino communities.
“It’s differences of opinion in the effectiveness of the vaccine, there’s distrust of the health care system and distrust of government,” he added.
The state opened a mass vaccination site at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx on Friday to help vaccinate minority groups.
Cuomo reminded New Yorkers Pfizer and Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccines were separately approved for safety by the state’s Clinical Advisory Task Force and state Health Department in addition to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in December of last year.
Doctors statewide continue to study side effects from the COVID-19 vaccine.
“This is a real challenge, and I don’t believe in camouflaging a problem,” Cuomo said, adding vaccine access and hesitancy are the largest obstacles in inoculating communities of color.
“We have to address both, and we are. The hesitancy must be directly addressed with facts and validation,” he added.
The state is running an ad campaign on various platforms to dispel myths about the vaccine, and is working in community centers, public housing and churches to conduct education initiatives in minority and low-income neighborhoods most impacted by the novel coronavirus.
“There are bona fide reasons for distrust of the system, I get that, but it’s not true with this vaccine,” Cuomo said. “That is going to be a process of communication. We’re going to have to talk through it.”
New York’s seven-day average COVID-19 positivity declined to 4.67% on Friday — the lowest daily infection rate since Nov. 28. The average rate of new virus infections is down from 4.86% on Thursday, reflecting a decrease for 28 consecutive days.
Positivity decreased to 5.36% in the North Country, 3.92% in the Capital Region and 3.3% in the Finger Lakes on Friday.
Hospitalizations decreased to 7,937 from 8,082 on Wednesday, and is the lowest number since Jan. 1, Cuomo said. An average of 60 virus patients leave hospitals statewide each day.
Virus hospitalizations continue to decline across the state, including in the Finger Lakes region, which had one of the state’s highest hospitalization rates for over a month.
The state reported 483 Finger Lakes residents hospitalized with COVID complications, or 0.04% of the region’s population — a reduction down from a peak of 0.07% last month.
Officials are working to focus COVID-combatting efforts in the Hudson Valley, on Long Island and the Bronx in New York City, which have the state’s highest COVID-19 infections.