A new variant of the coronavirus surging through the U.K. has local leaders worried of its spread through airplane travel; while Gov. Cuomo says he’s taking steps to keep it out of NY, he believes it’s already here
What to Know
- Gov. Andrew Cuomo said British Airways agreed to secure proof of negative tests before flying UK passengers to NY; while officials say the new strain hasn’t been detected yet here, Cuomo believes it’s here
- The new strain is said to be up to 70 percent more contagious than the last one, according to the UK’s Boris Johnson; the latest surge led to him locking down his country once again
- Travel into the US from most European countries, including the UK, is still banned, per the Department of Homeland Security; at least one report said President Trump was planning to lift that ban this week
One of three airlines that fly people from the U.K. to New York daily has voluntarily agreed to confirm travelers have a negative COVID test before departing to the Empire State amid heightened concerns over a more infectious virus strain that recently emerged in the European country, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Monday.
Cuomo made the ask of British Airways, Delta and Virgin Atlantic, which transfer thousands of people between the U.K. and JFK Airport daily, he said. Only the first agreed and will launch the new testing requirement Tuesday, Cuomo said. The governor vowed to pursue other options if the other two don’t follow suit.
His announcement Monday came a day after he eviscerated the federal government for inaction — either via a testing mandate or travel ban — that he fears will expose New York to a new strain of the virus that Britain’s Boris Johnson says is up to 70 percent more transmissible than the previous strain of the virus.
To date, New York Health Commissioner Howard Zucker says the state has not yet identified that U.K. variant in any local cases; he said the state hasn’t identified any mutant strains since April. Despite that, Cuomo believes it’s already here.
“If it’s been flying around the world, it will be here. This was how we had that New York ambush in the first place,” the governor said. “We’re not going to go through it again. We have been victimized by federal incompetence and federal negligence. We’re not going to be victimized again.”
Currently, there are six daily flights into New York from the U.K, Cuomo said. He said the Port Authority lacks jurisdiction to institute necessary restrictions and screenings and called on the federal government to require testing or altogether ban travelers coming in from England to keep that variant out.
One-hundred-twenty other countries require a negative test for U.K. flyers; the latest strain has prompted Johnson to lock down his country once again, barely a week after he insisted that upcoming holidays would be celebrated communally.
“This is another disaster waiting to happen,” Cuomo said Monday. “If the U.K. closed down, if 120 countries require testing, if Canada left a plane on the tarmac because it wouldn’t allow it to deboard, if other European countries said they were banning travel, why are we doing nothing? Why did we do nothing in the spring?”
The governor pointed to what he has consistently described as missteps in December and January when people from China and later Europe were continuing to fly to New York hubs as the virus spread rampantly worldwide. He has long refuted that the most recent viral upticks across the U.S. marked a second wave.
“This would be it. This would the second wave. This would be a mutated virus coming back,” Cuomo said Monday. He said the federal government should halt travel between the countries until more is understood about this latest strain. At the very least, he says the feds should require U.K. travelers to have proof of a negative test result before arriving as 120 other countries have done.
The voluntary agreement he says he established with British Airways adds New York to the list, but Cuomo says he has no legal grounds to ensure cooperation from airlines. He did, however, say he thought he had the legal authority to ask.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio also said Monday the federal government should implement an all-out European travel ban given heightened concerns.
“We can’t handle another spike, so we need to, for all of us, be careful,” the mayor said as he issued his latest plea against Christmas travel. He said the new strain identified in the U.K. only makes him more concerned about upticks.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, whose state is also home to a major international travel hub, said he shares the concern. He flat out told people not to travel, “period,” a dogma he has recited multiple times over the last month and a half.
“We can’t put it more plainly. This is not the year for Christmas as usual or New Year’s as usual,” Murphy said Monday as he extended New Jersey’s public health emergency another 30 days to prevent its expiration. “We cannot take the risk.”
Pressed on the U.K. variant during his question-and-answer session Monday, Murphy said his team was working with the Port Authority “and our other partners in the region as we speak.” In the meantime, state epidemiologist Dr. Christina Tan said the emergence of that variant had no impact on pandemic management.
Foreign nationals who have visited the U.K. in the past 14 days are already banned from entering the U.S., according to the Department of Homeland Security’s website, but The Telegraph reported President Donald Trump was expected to lift the travel ban on the U.K. and a number of other European countries on Tuesday, citing senior sources in the travel industry.
The World Health Organization says the new variant has so far been identified in Denmark, the Netherlands and Australia. The Netherlands, Ireland, Italy, Germany and France have all barred flights from the U.K. Other countries, including India, Canada and Israel, have imposed new measures barring flights from Britain. Austria and Sweden are reportedly preparing to do the same, CNBC said.
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said that while preliminary analysis suggests the new variant is “significantly more transmissible,” there is no indication that infections are more severe. Experts, however, have stressed that even if the new strain is not more lethal, it is inevitable that more infections will lead to more hospitalizations and deaths.
According to at least one doctor, COVID vaccines are expected to protect against new strains of the virus. Existing vaccines will be able to fight infection from new COVID variants because emerging strains are likely to be genetically similar to prior ones, Vin Gupta of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation told CNBC.
Daily Percentage of Positive Tests by New York Region
Gov. Andrew Cuomo breaks the state into 10 regions for testing purposes and tracks positivity rates to identify potential hotspots. Here’s the latest tracking data by region and for the five boroughs. For the latest county-level results statewide, click here
The latest warnings on travel come as states continue to ramp up its vaccine distribution efforts and public education campaigns. Thousands of healthcare workers in the state and in New York City received their first doses of the Pfizer vaccine last week. The first allocations from Moderna will arrive this week.
De Blasio said that New York City has thus far administered 42.2 percent of its available doses, more than double the national rate. More than 18,000 doses have been administered in total as of Sunday, he said. New Jersey officials said hospitals had administered more than 8,000 initial doses to healthcare workers.
Hundreds of nursing homes across New York began the first distribution of COVID-19 vaccines on Monday, the next step in inoculating Americans most at risk of dying from the virus. A 78-year-old nursing home resident in the Bronx, Kelley Dixon, became one of the first patients from that priority group to receive the Pfizer vaccine on Monday. She encourages others to embrace the opportunity.
“If you’re hesitant about taking the vaccine…take the vaccine. It can’t do anything but help you. That’s what I think. And that’s what I’m gonna do,” Dixon said.
Shots were also administered to residents in Rochester and Queens Monday, Cuomo said.
Next up in the vaccine line — people 75 and older and frontline essential workers, the CDC advisory committee recommended Sunday, two days after the FDA made the U.S. the first nation to greenlight Moderna’s drug for emergency use. That vaccine doesn’t require a special freezer for storage, which helps rural access.
New York’s top officials confirmed on Sunday’s call that the state received its full order of the Moderna vaccine so far, a concern of several states like New Jersey that last week learned of a shortfall due to a counting error by the feds.
Murphy said Monday New Jersey was dealing with the supply issue. He said the state still hoped to vaccinate half a million people or more in the coming month.
The latest developments come days before yet another major holiday in the U.S. threatens travel- and gathering-related viral spread anew. Officials once again are warning against travel — a plea that went ignored by many for Thanksgiving.
With a growing number of restaurants and bars closed for indoor service, Cuomo says his worries center around additional spikes stemming from increased socialization in homes. That’s overwhelmingly the key driver of spread these days, he has said contact tracing data shows. But is that so-called “living room spread” driven simply by increased socialization or holiday travel-related socialization?
“The socialization pattern is what determines the spread of the virus,” Cuomo said Monday. He also said New York didn’t have the same Thanksgiving spike most other U.S. states experienced during that holiday. He said there was more air travel elsewhere, and that caused a greater spike in those other places.
If that continues through Christmas and New Year’s, Cuomo said, it’s just a footrace to get to large-scale vaccine distribution. “But we have to get through the holiday season,” he added.
U.S. air travel certainly has seen a holiday uptick in recent weeks. TSA data shows the agency screened more than a million flyers each on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. That’s the first time since March with three straight days of million-plus screenings. More than a million people were screened three times in the week leading up to Thanksgiving, but not on consecutive days, TSA data shows.
The increase in Thanksgiving travel did cause a spike in cases in New York City, de Blasio said Monday. Right now, the five boroughs are facing their highest hospitalization and positivity rates in months. Daily COVID case totals are more than five times the 550-threshold the mayor wants to keep them below.
Amid the latest increases, de Blasio has said repeatedly and in no uncertain terms that he feels another round of restrictions — a PAUSE-like shutdown — is necessary to curb the spread. He’s worried about hospitals being stretched to capacity.
Cuomo, who would be the one to make that call, believes New Yorkers and hospitals can pull through this holiday period better than they did over Thanksgiving. He thinks people witnessed the surge and learned the lesson.
Time will tell as to whether they did, but the governor has expressed confidence New Yorkers and hospitals can manage the situation without another shutdown. Late last week, he went far as to theoretically bet $100 that would be avoided.
Meanwhile, the total number of New Yorkers hospitalized with coronavirus rose to its highest level since May 14 on Monday: 6,331. Cuomo also reported more than 100 new deaths for the sixth time in seven days.
Lately, the Finger Lakes and Mohawk Valley regions have been most problematic of the state’s 10 regions in terms of hospitalization and positivity rates. Cuomo said Monday the state is focusing acutely on those areas right now but didn’t immediately announce any new targeted enforcement or mitigation strategies.