New York State hospitals began screening samples from COVID-19 tests this week for signs that a new strain of the coronavirus that has been identified in the United Kingdom and South Africa and is believed to be vastly more contagious than earlier strains has already arrived here on international flights.
On Monday, Governor Andrew Cuomo asked the three airlines that offer direct flights from the UK to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport to screen all New York-bound passengers for coronavirus infections before departure — a demand that more than 120 countries, but not the United States, have made. The airlines agreed and Mr. Cuomo said on Tuesday the federal government should, frankly, be making the same demand of all passengers on all airlines flying to the U.S. from any country.
Locally, cases of confirmed infections, and hospitalizations of serious cases, continued to climb this week. Stony Brook Southampton Hospital reported having 28 people admitted to its COVID-19 isolation units on Tuesday, six of whom are in intensive care. Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead reported 43 admissions to its COVID unit, five of whom are in intensive care.
Local lawmakers expressed frustration at the source of the continued steep increases in cases locally, which state contact tracing continued to show is coming from “living room spread” among close acquaintances and family members in small gatherings. Governor Cuomo said that 75 percent of all cases identified in the state this week appear to have been contracted from small inter-household gatherings.
“I don’t know what else we can do, I already feel like a broken record asking people week after week not to gather with people from outside their household, to social distance to wear their masks — and are people just not listening, are they not getting the message somehow?” East Hampton Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc lamented this week. East Hampton has seen a 130-percent increase in cases since the start of December. “We talked about a robocall. The irony there is we did that back in the spring when we had the first cases and we got a call from a woman who went ballistic saying how dare we use the emergency communication system to warn about COVID. Then she ended up being one of the early cases and had a dinner party and spread it to some of her guests.”
Mr. Van Scoyoc said that the new strain identified in the UK is particularly concerning because of its suspected increased transmissibility, and the international connections locally, with the holiday season upon us.
Governor Cuomo has warned that while the state’s hospitals are currently handling the increase in cases well and maintaining sufficient open capacity that more drastic measures do not need to be taken to keep infections in check, the holiday season poses a grave threat. If cases in January jump significantly, as health experts around the country have said they expect, the state could face the sort of mandatory closures of businesses and public spaces that were used in the spring to flatten the curve.
To that end, the governor implored New Yorkers to heed the state’s latest motto: “Celebrate Safe, Stop Shutdowns.”
The governor said that New York State did not see the same “Thanksgiving surge” in cases overall that other states did, and that analysis of data from around the country showed that New Yorkers traveled far less on average over the Thanksgiving holiday than people in regions that have seen steep jumps in cases in the weeks following Thanksgiving. He hoped that pattern would carry over through the much longer Hanukkah-Christmas-New Years Eve stretch.
“Compared to the rest of the nation, New York is doing very well,” he said during a press conference on Tuesday. “But it’s not really about the rest of the nation. If a person dies in the state of New York, a person dies in the state of New York. It hurts our hearts.”
Long Island and New York City have actually been among the regions in the state with the lowest rate of spread, based on population and positivity rate of tests — while upstate regions like the Finger Lakes and Mohawk Valley have seen soaring positivity and hospitalizations.
Nonetheless, Suffolk County logged more than 1,000 new infections almost every day this past week, though the daily average has come down from the months when more than 2,000 new cases were reported in some days, but the positivity rate of those tested on Tuesday was more than 7 percent. There were also 25 deaths from the COVID-19 disease reported on Monday and Tuesday.
The governor on Monday also detailed how the COVID-19 vaccine is being distributed around the state, which is expected to receive more than 340,000 doses of the newly approved Moderna vaccine this week and an additional 120,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine already being administered.
Vaccinations at the more than 600 nursing homes in the state begin this week and the governor said that all staff and residents will receive their first doses by early next month.
Local nursing homes are being hit hard by infections again. The Hamptons Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation reported its first additional death from confirmed coronavirus infection since the spring this week. The South Fork’s two nursing homes have reported a total of 43 deaths among their residents since the start of the pandemic, though the total is likely higher since the state reporting does not include nursing home residents or long-term care patients who were transferred to a hospital for treatment of severe symptoms and died there.
The state has also created a vaccination task force that will be spearheading an effort to ensure the vaccine is distributed equitably to poor communities and is designing “community vaccination kits” that will contain everything a community would need to set up a 10,000-square-foot vaccination center — from tables and room dividers to computers and needles — when the vaccine is made available to the general public.
The vaccine will be free to all members of the public and health officials are hoping that the general public will be able to start getting vaccinations by spring. Currently, vaccinations through the end of January are going only to hospital staff and the staff and residents of nursing homes. The second round of vaccinations will be made available to other essential workers and those with pre-existing health conditions that make them especially vulnerable to the virus.
The governor said on Monday that he expects New York to be the model for the rest of the nation on how to distribute the vaccine to residents quickly.
“We’re going to get that vaccine out if I have to drive all over the state and get a license to administer the vaccination myself,” he said.