ALBANY — Gov. Andrew Cuomo eliminated all upstate microcluster zones with heightened COVID-19 restrictions Wednesday as officials test New Yorkers for mutated variants of the novel coronavirus that remain unclear to global health experts.
The state Coronavirus Task Force eliminated yellow microcluster zones — 3- or 4-mile areas that had recently spiking COVID-19 infections and hospitalization rates — in the city of Batavia in Genesee County, and multiple orange and yellow zones in Monroe, Erie, Oneida, Tioga, Chemung, Onondaga, Westchester, Rockland, Nassau, Suffolk and Niagara counties as new virus cases continue to decline and hospitalizations flatten.
“So you see a drop in both the orange and the yellow zones... turn the valve,” Cuomo said Wednesday during a COVID-19 briefing in the state Capitol. “Given the progress they’ve made, the restrictions are lifted in those zones.”
Batavia’s positivity is 4.76% down from a peak positivity of 11.95%.
Monroe County’s COVID-19 positivity is down to 5.26% Wednesday, after peaking at 10.26%. Chemung County’s positivity dipped to 4.30% after a peak of 7.90%. COVID cases in Onondaga County decreased to 4.47% from 8.89%, according to the governor’s office.
Four yellow precautionary zones with heightened restrictions remain in effect in the Bronx, Washington Heights and Queens in New York City and in the city of Newburgh in Orange County.
Stricter coronavirus rules are implemented in yellow precautionary, orange and red microcluster zones, including bars and restaurants, capacity limits in houses of worship, restricting mass gatherings to 25 people and a mandated COVID-19 testing threshold for students and school staff who attend in-person classroom instruction.
Zones helped curb COVID-19 community spread after virus hot spots appeared in areas across the state. The additional regulations also helped prevent overwhelming any region’s hospital system, Cuomo said.
“There was a dramatic holiday spike, but we did not overwhelm the hospitals,” he said, adding the state mandated a 50% increased number of beds and the 200 New York hospitals successfully worked together sharing personal protective equipment, staff and other resources.
“...So we grew our hospital system. We saw states and we saw countries where the hospital system became overwhelmed,” Cuomo said. “So that did not happen.”
Officials continue to hold their breath as the state tests for cases of mutated strains of the novel coronavirus, including a 70% more transmissible variant discovered in the United Kingdom last month, and other emerging mutations in South Africa, Brazil and California.
The state has discovered 42 cases of the U.K. strain to date across nine counties and New York City. Scientists at the Health Department’s Wadsworth research laboratory in Albany have tested more than 2,800 New Yorkers for other variants since Dec. 23.
“We have looked to close to 3,000 samples, and we identify the entire genome whether it’s the South African variant or from Brazil,” state Health Department Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker said Wednesday.
No virus cases of the variant from South Africa or Brazil have been discovered in the state to date.
Reports from health experts about how contagious or lethal the new virus strains are continue to change. Officials continue to test Pfizer and Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccines for efficacy against the other variants.
The state will alter its strategy to combat the coronavirus and emerging mutations as the facts change and as necessary, Cuomo said.
“We make decisions based on the facts,” he said. “You make a decision based on the facts today. The facts may change. They may not change. The variant may wind up being a problem. ...What does that mean if [the U.K. variant] is a dominant strain? ...How problematic will that be?”
The governor shrugged in response to his own questions.
“They don’t know,” he added. “If the facts change, I have no problem looking the people in this state in the eye and saying the facts changed, we have to change.”
The state will adapt as the virus continues to adapt, Cuomo said.
“We’ve shown when the facts change, we can change and that we can overcome,” he said. “We have and we will.”
More than 96% of the state’s COVID-19 supply has been administered, Cuomo said of the first six weeks of allocations, which began Dec. 14.
A federal program and partnership with private pharmacies has vaccinated 72% of state nursing home residents. All New York nursing home residents have been offered the vaccine to date, Cuomo said.
About 44% of staff have been vaccinated as of Wednesday. All staff will be offered the vaccine by Feb. 7.
The North Country leads the state in vaccinating residents in long-term care facilities at 84%. About 82% of adult-care residents in the Capital Region have received the vaccine to date, with 80% in the Finger Lakes and 76% in Western New York.
The state will receive 16% more vaccine doses for the next three weeks, or up 40,000 to about 290,000 from about 250,000 the last two weeks, after President Joe Biden announced Tuesday the federal government will increase vaccine supply.
The increase is good news, but still insufficient to vaccinate all New Yorkers.
“The 16% increase does not solve the fundamental anxiety that has been created here, which was due to the prior administration making so many people eligible with so little supply,” Cuomo said.
The 16% dosage increase is only for the next three weeks, the governor reiterated.
“Don’t schedule [vaccination appointments] beyond the 16% increase,” he added as a warning to localities and area health departments.
The federal government ordered roughly 400 million doses of the coronavirus vaccine, Cuomo said Biden told governors Tuesday during a National Governor’s Association conference call with White House staff.
Biden ordered the additional 200 million doses, which will come in within about six months, Cuomo said. About 600 million doses are required to vaccinate every person in the United States at two injections each.
“President Biden announced they’re going to actually order 600 million, which is what you need,” Cuomo said. “...That’s what the governors are concerned about. Just really, give us the supply.”
Localities must ask the state for assistance if they need help distributing the vaccine fairly and equally across all demographics, including in minority and low-income communities.
The state will deploy National Guard members to set up vaccination sites and temporary hospitals as necessary.
The expected COVID-19 surge from the holiday season and heightened social gatherings is over, Cuomo declared Wednesday, after New York’s infection rate spiked from 2.93% at Thanksgiving up to a peak of 12.46% Jan. 2 — a growth rate of 20%.
New COVID infections continue to decline across New York to 5.64% Tuesday, down from 7.94% Jan. 4.
Hospitalizations increased from 3,103 virus patients to 8,888 people statewide over the 37-day period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day.
Hospitalizations continue to slow and flatten, with an average of 72 virus patients leaving state hospitals each day, down from an increase of an average of 49 patients daily last week.
Virus hospitalization rates peaked at 158 new patients each day between Dec. 9 and 15.
“Hospital capacity today, we are in a good place all across the state,” Cuomo said.
The Capital Region continues to have the state’s lowest hospital capacity across New York’s 10 regions at 24%, with 474 virus patients Wednesday at 0.04% of the area’s population.
The highest number of virus patients are hospitalized in the Finger Lakes at 0.05% of the population, or 662 people. The region had 33% hospital capacity Wednesday.
COVID hospitalizations have gradually flattened in the region over the last two weeks after a peak of 0.07% of residents were in area hospitals following New Year’s.
The North Country has the state’s highest hospital capacity of 51% with 99 patients Wednesday, or 0.02% of the region’s population.
The state’s COVID-19 positivity rate continued to decline to 5.44% Wednesday from 5.85% Monday.
Virus hospitalizations flattened 60 patients fewer Wednesday to 8,771 people. COVID hospitalizations
The state reported 170 New Yorkers died from coronavirus complications Tuesday — a daily rate that has remained flat for several weeks.