ALBANY — State hospitals will randomly sample patients tested for COVID-19 for the new, likely more contagious, variant of the disease recently discovered in the United Kingdom and South Africa, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Tuesday.
The state Department of Health will contact the 215 hospitals and medical facilities across New York to conduct a more advanced diagnostic coronavirus test as scientists announced a new, highly contagious strain of COVID-19 spreading through the U.K. that Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said is 70% more transmissible than earlier variants of the respiratory illness.
“If the variant is here, I want to know because that would be problematic,” Cuomo said Tuesday during a conference call with reporters. “The state is now contacting hospitals all across our state to test for the variant specifically.”
The new COVID strain was not detected in more than 3,700 New Yorkers tested in a random sample, Cuomo said.
The new strain has not been found in the United States to date.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the nation’s leading infectious disease experts, said he believes the strain is here, even without an official testing confirmation.
“Dr. Fauci said he thinks it’s here — if it’s here, where is it?” Cuomo asked. “Not that he has evidence of that, but I’m assuming he’s referring to the phenomenon of global spread. ...Within days it gets on a plane, and it’s now global and that’s where the U.K. variant is.”
Wadsworth Center, the Department of Health intensive research laboratory in Albany, has begun aggressive research of the highly contagious COVID-19 strain. Wadsworth and the Health Department forged agreements with Albany Medical Center, Saratoga Hospital, the University of Rochester, Northwell Long Island, Memorial Sloan Kettering in Westchester County and Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx to obtain additional samples.
The department is working with other hospitals and statewide medical facilities to continue research.
“We want to test for the variant,” Cuomo said. “If it’s here now, we want to isolate it immediately. Let’s learn from the spring.”
The novel coronavirus initially spread in states like California and New York from millions of European travelers who landed in major coastal airports late last winter into spring 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The virus has mutated hundreds of times since COVID-19 was first discovered in humans in Wuhan Province, China, last December, and traveled around the globe, Cuomo said.
“But one mutation can be deadly, and that’s what everyone is worried about,” Cuomo said, going on to recall the mutation that caused the second wave of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic last century.
“There is a chance that it mutates into something much more deadly,” he added.
A more complex diagnostic COVID-19 test is required to evaluate a patient for the new virus strain.
Cuomo did not provide more details about what the protocol would be upon discovering the new strain in the state, but said officials would contact trace from that point back and isolate the person immediately.
“The higher lab capacity hospitals in the state can perform it,” the governor said. “Any hospital that has the lab capacity to take the test, we will be providing them with the ability and the testing reagents.
“If we find the new variant, we want to know where it is immediately — immediately. And then we will take it from there,” Cuomo added. “We do know it has been moving globally. Chances are, if it’s been moving globally, it came here.”
British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and Delta airlines each separately agreed to require travelers to test negative for the novel coronavirus before boarding flights to New York state as thousands of airline passengers land in John F. Kennedy and LaGuardia international airports each day. Cuomo first made the request Sunday to the three airlines for U.K. pre-boarding COVID tests.
The governor encouraged U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials to place the United States on the list, and mandate a negative COVID-19 test for U.K. passengers arriving in the U.S. Cuomo made the same request for federal action Sunday and Monday.
Cuomo and Dr. Fauci each spoke out against banning flights from the U.K., but both support the negative testing requirement.
“The United States should do something,” Cuomo said. “The United States should say the same thing that New York said, that people need to test before they come to the U.S. ...Testing, but not a ban.”
New York state joins a list of more than 120 countries requiring a negative test for U.K. visitors or barring travel from the northern European region, as well as Canada, India, France, Germany, Italy, Ireland, Israel and Spain, among others.
Cuomo has spoken with federal officials in President Donald Trump and President-elect Joe Biden’s administrations, he said Tuesday.
“They are aware of it, there are various levels of concern,” the governor said. “They, frankly, have various levels of engagement. I think what New York did is a very simple model for them to replicate. Not to do it, I think , is gross negligence. There’s no reason not to do it, especially when you know it’s spreading and especially when you know, according to the U.K., it’s a dangerous virus.
“It’s so frustrating, to tell you the truth,” Cuomo continued. “It just violates common sense. I’m glad that New York acted, but New York can’t protect New York. ... Either you protect against the virus everywhere, or it’s fundamentally not effective.”
The additional testing for the new strain will not slow down COVID-19 test results for New Yorkers, Cuomo said.
More than 50,000 New Yorkers have received their first of two injections of the COVID-19 vaccine. The state has about 630,000 combined dosages of Pfizer’s and Moderna’s COVID-19 immunization and expects to receive another 300,000 doses through next week.
Residents and staff in the state’s 618 nursing homes started to receive their first coronavirus vaccine injections Monday. Nursing home and medical personnel will continue to administer the immunization through the Christmas holiday this week.
“I understand it’s been a long year and everyone needs time off, but we are in a foot race between the COVID virus versus the vaccination rate,” Cuomo said. “A vaccine is the best gift you can give a nursing home resident. The best gift you can give a frontline worker is a vaccine, so let’s give them that kind of gift.”
The first round of injections are expected to be completed within the next two weeks before CVS, Walgreens and other pharmacy workers administer the second required booster shot making a person effectively immune to the illness.
The number of new virus patients entering state hospitals has slowed, but patient discharges have also tapered, Cuomo said.
“Discharges are lower than they have been, so the net number is higher, but the admissions is not necessarily higher,” he said. “We’re keeping a fine eye on our hospital capacity.”
Hospitals are required to submit a legal attestation of the number of virus patients, Personal Protective Equipment and more to the state Health Department each night.
Hospitals must notify the Health Department when a facility sees a consistent increase in hospitalizations where they will reach 85% of bed capacity in three weeks. Hospitalizations have largely continued to rise through the fall and holiday season, with the most in the Finger Lakes region, but none of the state’s 215 medical facilities are close to becoming overwhelmed with patients.
“We do have Christmas coming, so expect the numbers to go up,” Cuomo said. “A motto ... the state is going to be promulgating, ‘Celebrate smart. Stop shutdowns.’”
The state’s average COVID-19 positivity rate remained steady at 5.4%.
Statewide COVID-19 infections remain the highest in the Mohawk Valley and Finger Lakes regions at 8.5% and 8.3%, respectively.
New infections remained flat Tuesday at 6.9% in the Capital Region, 6.4% in Western New York, 5.2% in the North Country and 6.25% in the Mid-Hudson region.
“New Yorkers should believe in New Yorkers because they did the impossible,” Cuomo said of the state’s reversal of COVID-19 numbers last spring. “I am confident. We have to celebrate smart, but if you celebrate smart, we won’t see an increase in the rate and we won’t have to shut down.”