Contagious COVID variant found in Capital Region

State Health Department Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker gives a COVID-19 update in the state Capitol on Dec. 30. Courtesy of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Office

ALBANY — New York’s first official case of the more contagious variant of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 first discovered in the United Kingdom was found in the Capital Region on Monday, officials said, making New York the fourth state in the nation to verify the presence of the mutated disease on American soil.

A Saratoga Springs man in his 60s was the first New Yorker to officially test positive for the more aggressive strain, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced in a subsequent COVID-19 briefing Monday afternoon.

“He is on the mend and doing better,” Cuomo said. “He did not travel recently, so this suggests that it’s in the community — it’s community spread.”

The infected Saratoga man owns N. Fox Jewelers, at 404 Broadway, in the city of Saratoga Springs. Officials are encouraging any person who entered the store since Dec. 18 to get a COVID-19 test.

The store has been closed to customers since Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, for the holidays.

Three additional jewelry store staff have tested positive for COVID.

“We don’t know if they are the U.K. strain of COVID — we’re testing for them now,” Cuomo said. “From a public health point of view now, it’s about contact tracing. We want to make sure we’re doing everything we can do to do effective contact tracing on this case. We need the cooperation of the public.”

The state has tested more than 5,000 New Yorkers for the new, 70% more transmissible COVID-19 variant, since its initial discovery in mid-December. The mutated virus does not have different or more severe coronavirus symptoms, including the traditional cough, fever, shortness of breath, chest pain or loss of taste and smell.

“The severity of the illness is not any more significant than it would be with the other coroanvirus COVID-19 that we’ve seen, it’s just that it’s more transmissible,” State Health Department Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker said during Monday’s call with reporters.

The Saratoga County Public Health department is working with the Health Department to investigate the spread, according to a statement from the health department Monday.

Patrons who visited the store between Dec. 18 and Christmas Eve can receive a COVID-19 test at Saratoga State Park, 99 E. West Road, Saratoga Springs between 1 and 6 p.m. Tuesday and from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of this week.

N. Fox Jewelers employees were tested by the end of the day Monday. Each patient will also be tested for the U.K. variant.

New COVID-19 infections have spiked in the Capital Region over the last 10 days with more than 9% positive for the past week — up from an average of 6.9% on Dec. 21.

The region had 8.5% new coronavirus cases Dec. 28, surging to a seven-day average of 9.91% Monday.

“It’s likely this increase in the number of cases in New York, but also across the country is this variant is around and is causing a more transmissible variant of the disease,” Zucker said.

The U.K. COVID-19 strain was discovered by a test evaluated by medical personnel at the state Health Department’s Wadsworth Center in Albany. The man was initially tested in a Saratoga County hospital.

The strain has been identified in Colorado, California, Florida and more than 30 other countries across the globe.

Zucker speaks each day with World Health Organization officials and medical experts from across the globe who are monitoring their populations for the new strain and other variants of the novel coronavirus.

Officials predict community spread of the new variant is greater than what positive test rates show to date.

“I think it’s much more widespread than people know,” Cuomo said.

The variant is likely present in U.S. states across the nation, but was discovered in New York because of the state’s high COVID-19 testing rate.

“Because we test more and we test faster — I don’t believe any state has done as many tests as we have — ...if other states could test as much as we were testing for the U.K. strain as much as we have tested, they would be finding it,” Cuomo said. “We’ve done 5,000 in the state. We haven’t found it downstate yet.”

British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and Delta Airlines agreed to require U.K. travelers to test negative for COVID-19 before boarding flights to New York on Dec. 21. The state requested the restriction for travelers to prevent repeating history after the novel coronavirus infected the Eastern Seaboard late last winter with 3 million European travelers landing in New York and New Jersey airports through January and February 2020.

The federal government mandated the negative COVID-19 test for all U.K. travelers before flying to the United States on Christmas Day.

The state Department of Health contacted the state’s 194 hospitals and medical facilities Dec. 22 to conduct a more advanced diagnostic coronavirus test after scientists announced the highly contagious strain of COVID-19 spreading through the U.K.

Thousands of tests conducted in other countries suggest the mutated virus is responsive to Pfizer’s and Moderna’s approved COVID-19 vaccine.

“It apparently has no difference from the vaccine point of view and is no different in terms of mortality rates, but it is more transmittable, which means higher positivity rate, higher infection rate and possibly higher hospitalization rate,” Cuomo said. “The increased positivity and infection rate is a problem, but the increased hospitalization rate is a game changer. If a hospital capacity is threatened in a region, that region would have to close down.”

New York conducts more COVID-19 tests in 24 hours than any other U.S. state. The state conducted 134,360 virus diagnostic tests Sunday — a reduced number over the last 10 days with Christmas and New Year’s celebrations, from more than 200,000 per day through most of the fall.

To find a COVID-19 testing site and schedule a coronavirus test, visit coronavirus.health.ny.gov/covid-19-testing

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