Cuomo calls for federal action on variant strain of COVID-19

— Official portrait from the UK National Archives

Prime Minister Boris Johnson locked down London on Sunday because of a variant strain of COVID-19. Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Sunday that six flights a day from London are landing at JFK and the federal government should take action to prevent spread of the variant strain.

ALBANY COUNTY — Governor Andrew Cuomo sounded the alarm Sunday on a new variant of COVID-19 that has emerged in England as Albany County announced another death from COVID-19 and another broken record — 114 residents are now hospitalized.

“There is a disturbing story coming out of the UK with this new variant of the virus which, according to Boris Johnson, is 70 percent more transmissible,” Cuomo told reporters in an afternoon conference call. “The World Health Organization is aware of the new variant. They say the death rate isn't higher, but it’s 70 percent more transmittable according to Mr. Johnson,” Cuomo said of the United Kingdom’s prime minister.

“When the virus changes its method of attack, we must change our method of defense,” The New York Times quoted Johnson saying at a press conference on Saturday. “We have to act on information as we have it, because this is now spreading very fast.”

London and most of England’s South East went on lockdown Sunday.

Cuomo said that the Netherlands has consequently banned travelers from the UK and that Belgium, Italy, Ireland, France, and Germany are considering a ban.

He also said that 120 countries are  requiring “a test be taken on the UK side before a person gets on the flight to come to their country.”

Cuomo criticized the federal government for not taking similar steps and likened it to the situation last spring when the federal government’s focus was still on China rather than Europe. The United States didn’t enact a European travel ban until March 16 after COVID-19 had already spread to the Northeast.

“Right now, this variant in the UK is getting on a plane and flying to JFK …. How many times in life do you have to make the same mistake before you learn?” asked Cuomo.

He went on, “Where is HHS? Where is the CDC? Where is the NIH? This is the same mistake and literally six flights a day, and all it takes is one person. All it takes is one. The Port Authority has no authority to ban passengers, health monitor passengers; it’s federal.”

The New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group, which advises the UK government on the threat posed by new and emerging respiratory viruses, released a summary on Sunday that states the “emergence and subsequent dominance” of the new strain of COVID-19 in a period of relatively high prevalence suggests it does have “a selective advantage over other variants.”

The summary also said the variant strain “has demonstrated exponential growth during a period when national lockdown measures were in place.”

The group of experts, known as NERVTAG, notes it has “moderate confidence” that the variant strain “demonstrates a substantial increase in transmissibility compared to other variants.”

The summary notes there are currently not enough data to draw conclusions on matters like age distribution of cases or disease severity although it notes four deaths in around 1,000 cases have been identified.

The summary also says that four probable reinfections have been identified among 915 subjects with this variant but further work is needed to compare this reinfection rate with comparable data sets.

On the extent of geographic spread, the NERVTAG summary says that, within the UK, the variant is concentrated in London, South East and East of England but has also been detected in various other parts of the UK. Few cases have been reported internationally, it says, but one confirmed export from the UK to Australia has been reported.

The variant shows changes in the virus’s spike protein, which is the part of the virus that the new vaccines are meant to develop antibodies against, so there is some concern that the vaccines may not be effective with the variant strain.


Newest numbers

The latest Albany County resident to succumb to COVID-19 was a woman in her fifties, according to a release from Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy’s Office. 

This brings Albany County’s death toll to 192.

As of Sunday morning, Albany County has had  9,067 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with 161 new cases reported on Sunday morning.

Of the new cases, 25 had close contact with someone infected with the disease, 125 did not have a clear source of infection identified at this time, and 11 are health-care workers or residents of congregate settings.

The five-day average for new daily positives decreased to 197.2 from 200.6. There are now 1,604 active cases in the county, down from 1,619 on Saturday.

The number of county residents under mandatory quarantine increased to 3,119 from 3,063. So far, 31,117 residents have completed quarantine. Of those, 7,463 had tested positive and recovered.

There were 13 new hospitalizations reported overnight, and there are 114 county residents hospitalized from the virus as of Sunday morning, with 21 of them under intensive care.

Statewide, the positivity rate, based on Saturday’s test results, was 5.05 percent, Cuomo announced on Sunday. The Capital Region, of which Albany County is a part, had a positivity rate of 6.89 percent.

Of the state’s 10 regions, the Mohawk Valley has the highest infection rate at 8.18 percent while the Southern Tier has the lowest rate at 2.49 percent.

The state’s focus on defining micro-clusters, for the winter plan, has shifted from solely considering infection rates to also looking at hospital and ICU capacity.

The Capital Region currently has 340 patients hospitalized with COVID-19, which is 0.03 percent of the region’s population and leaves 25 percent of the region’s hospital beds available.

Statewide, 0.03 percent of New Yorkers are hospitalized with the disease and 29 percent of the state’s hospital beds are available.

The Capital Region has 223 ICU beds of which 180 are currently occupied, leaving 30 percent of the region’s ICU beds available. Statewide, 32 percent of New York’s ICU beds are currently available.

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