British Variant Found in NY as Counties Blame State for Slow Pace of Vaccinations

british variant found in NY

Army Spc. Angel Laureano holds a vial of the COVID-19 vaccine, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Bethesda, Md., Dec. 14, 2020. (DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando)

This is a roundup of coronavirus news and announcements from New York State and Hudson Valley and Catskills counties for Monday, January 4. Published in collaboration with The River Newsroom.

NEW YORK STATE

11,209 new cases yesterday
134,360 tests yesterday
Positive test rate: 8.34%
172 deaths yesterday
8,251 hospitalizations
1,357 ICU admissions
New York State coronavirus page
New York State official pressroom
Hotline: (888) 364-3065

An aggressive new variant of COVID-19 that is bringing all of Britain to a standstill has been found in a new place: Saratoga County. On Monday—the same day British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the closure of almost all schools, travel, and nonessential business in the UK—New York Governor Andrew Cuomo held a conference call with reporters to announce that the variant known as B.1.1.7 was found in a worker at a Saratoga Springs jewelry store. The patient, a man in his 60s, is recovering, but what worries state officials is that he has not traveled recently, indicating that he picked up the strain in the local area. Cuomo is urging anyone who visited N. Fox Jewelers at 404 Broadway in Saratoga Springs between December 18 and 24 to contact the New York State Department of Health and to get a COVID-19 test immediately.

So far, scientists don’t believe that B.1.1.7 is any more dangerous to those who are infected, and vaccines are likely to be effective against it. But because it appears to spread much faster than the most common form of COVID-19—as much as 70 percent more transmissible, epidemiologists believe—the so-called “UK variant” threatens to overwhelm hospitals faster and cause more fatalities than the dominant form of the virus, if it is allowed to spread. Before being found in upstate New York, B.1.1.7 was found in California, Colorado, and Florida, and it is likely to be more widespread: The in-depth genetic sequencing needed to determine whether a COVID-19 case is an ordinary one or a newer mutation is performed on just a tiny fraction of cases in the US, compared to the broader genetic surveillance done on coronavirus cases in the UK.

In Monday’s press briefing, Cuomo said that the state-run Wadsworth Lab, which detected the case as part of a recently ramped-up state surveillance program, can run a screening for the B.1.1.7 variant within 40 hours, compared to a two-week turnaround for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. New York State has screened about 5,000 COVID-19 cases statewide for the variant, Cuomo said; the Saratoga Springs case was the only one to be found so far in the state.

In other sobering news, the rollout of vaccination in New York State, which got underway in December, is off to a slow start. According to the latest CDC vaccination data, updated Monday, less than a third of the roughly 895,925 vaccine doses distributed to New York State have been given out so far. Most other states are facing similar issues: With no coordinated federal strategy, little support for state efforts, and no widespread plan for keeping the public informed on the urgency and complex logistics of vaccines, rollout has been slow nationwide. Once removed from cold storage, both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have a limited shelf life, making faster rollout a priority both for protecting front-line workers and for keeping precious doses from expiring.

Governor Cuomo is increasingly getting heat for the slow pace of the state’s vaccination effort, which so far has been in the hands of hospitals. In turn, the governor is upping the pressure on hospitals and local officials to speed things along. In a Monday briefing, Cuomo showed some partial data on how much progress different hospital systems have made on administering the vaccines they have been given by the state, showing a wide range of responses. At the high end, some hospitals, including New York Presbyterian, have already administered more than 90 percent of their doses. Several Hudson Valley hospital networks are not moving so quickly: Cuomo’s data showed Westchester Medical Center at 32 percent, and Nuvance Health at 24 percent. “I don’t mean to embarrass any hospital, but I want them to be held accountable,” Cuomo said. The state has not made vaccination progress data from individual hospitals public in any broadly accessible way, nor is that data available from the CDC.

For hospitals that fall behind on vaccination, there will be consequences, Cuomo said Monday: Any hospital that fails to use their allocated doses by the end of the week will face a $100,000 fine, and future doses for that hospital may be reassigned to other hospitals in the state. The state’s new policy, dubbed “Use It Or Lose It,” was spelled out in a letter sent to hospitals by the New York State Department of Health on Sunday.

Cuomo has hospitals caught between a rock and a hard place: They face punishments for being too aggressive with vaccination as well as for going too slowly and carefully. The “Use It Or Lose It” penalties were announced on the heels of an even harsher punishment for anyone who performs vaccinations on people before they are eligible: a $1 million fine, and potentially the loss of the provider’s license. The steep fines for “vaccine fraud,” declared by executive order, were announced on December 28, shortly after it came to light that Kiryas Joel-based health center ParCare was distributing vaccines to the non-priority general public in Orange County as well as several downstate clinics. The state has launched an investigation into the ParCare issue, but the Times Herald-Record reports that it is unclear how the small health system got a hold of 2,300 doses of Moderna from the state in the first place—or what will happen to the 869 people who got their first dose of the vaccine from the clinic before their actions were discovered.

Why isn’t Cuomo involving local health departments in vaccine rollout? Leaders in county government on both sides of the aisle want to know—and so does the Times Union, which reported shortly before Christmas that the state’s hospital-based plan was doing an end run around longstanding county plans for mass vaccination that local health officials have been training on for years. State health officials recently sent an urgent request to counties, with a 24-hour response deadline, to ask how many vaccine doses local health officials can handle, a move that may have been taken in response to the Times Union’s story. But so far, the state has not moved to involve county health departments in the vaccine rollout. “I think the state has recognized hospitals can’t do this alone,” Broome County Executive Jason Garnar told The New York Times.

New York State is stepping in to “supplement and expedite” the efforts of the federal program that is in charge of vaccinating nursing home residents and staff statewide, Cuomo said Monday. That program is partnering with CVS and Walgreens to get nursing homes vaccinated, and is already underway, albeit more slowly than either state or local officials would like to see—so far, just under half of the nursing homes in the state have had a visit from the vaccinators. A state association that represents nursing homes is trying to convince federal regulators to allow staffers to get vaccinated before their facility’s scheduled date, when pharmacy staffers arrive to dose all residents at once, Hudson Valley 360 reports.

New York State’s pandemic policy continues to be a moving target. Microcluster rules have changed several times. This week, with positivity rates soaring statewide, Cuomo is raising the threshold for school shutdowns. Back in July, the governor laid out a “data-driven” plan to close schools across any region of the state where positivity rates rose above nine percent on a seven-day average. But now, with many schools meeting that metric, the state is adopting a new rule: As long as the positivity rate within the school itself stays lower than the rate for the surrounding community, the school can remain open, even if rates soar past nine percent. The decision will be up to the school district, Cuomo said. “We’re testing in the schools, so we know the positivity rate in the schools. We know the positivity rate in the community. If the schools are safer then my opinion—just an opinion, not a fact—my opinion is leave the schools open,” he said. (Fact check: Many schools in New York State are not testing students, although schools in designated microcluster focus zones are required to do so.)

Some other stuff that happened over the holiday:

The US is now requiring a negative test for all people flying into the country from the UK.
State death benefits have been extended an additional 30 days for frontline government workers who die of COVID-19.
Prison visitation has been shut down statewide.
-After some initial confusion on that matter, New York State adopted the CDC’s revised, shorter quarantine recommendations on December 29.
-New York’s stronger sick leave law went into effect on January 1. Workers can now take leave to care for a sick family member or a victim of domestic violence (as well as for illness, of course). The law also codifies that workers will accrue one hour of leave for every 30 hours they work, retroactive to September 30.
-Governor Cuomo signed a law that extends the residential eviction moratorium until May 1. The COVID-19 Emergency Eviction and Foreclosure Prevention Act of 2020 also prevents foreclosure proceedings, credit discrimination, and negative credit reporting related to the pandemic.
-Cuomo also signed an executive order withholding pay increases for state elected officials and commissioners due to budget shortfalls. “It’s no reflection on what these commissioners have done,” he said.
-A state pilot program to allow fans to attend the Buffalo Bills’ first playoff game in person, with testing and contact tracing, is moving forward.
-Another COVID-19 federal stimulus bill finally passed, but President Donald Trump delaying signing it for several days has cost about 12 million people a week’s worth of unemployment benefits.

LOWER HUDSON VALLEY

County coronavirus pages: Rockland, Westchester, Putnam

Active cases of COVID-19 in Westchester County have increased by more than 1,400 in the past week, County Executive George Latimer said in his Monday coronavirus briefing. The county added more than 1,000 cases on Sunday, and now counts 9,311 active infections, according to its coronavirus dashboard.

Deaths in the county have also spiked. Latimer said that 165 people died of COVID-related causes in the six weeks leading to New Year’s Day—the same number who died over a five-month period from late May to late October. In slightly better news, the rate of death seems to be slowing somewhat: The county lost 31 residents in the past week, after 41 the week before.

Latimer also addressed remarks made by Governor Cuomo during his press briefing in Albany. Discussing the slow pace of vaccinations thus far, the governor chastised public officials in counties with public hospitals, saying “I need them to take personal responsibility for their hospitals” and comparing the percentages of allocated vaccines that have been administered at public hospitals versus private ones. Cuomo called out Westchester County—home of Westchester Medical Center—specifically. The only problem there is that WMC hasn’t been a public hospital in two decades, a fact Latimer pointed out in a press release. “It is a private hospital (WMC was once part of County government over 20 years ago), with its own leadership team and structure,” he wrote. “However, if the State is giving us the task now, as of today, to work with the Medical Center to help get the best possible results, then I am confident our partnership will help. We have spoken with leadership at WMC and are prepared to move forward vigorously and make sure the supply of vaccines are administered.”

Putnam County updated its community dashboard with data for the week ending December 31. As of that date, there were 401 active cases in the county, and 20 people hospitalized at Putnam Hospital with COVID-19. One additional death was reported.

In Rockland County, 18 people have died of COVID-19 since Christmas Eve, according to the county dashboard. The county currently has 2,481 active cases.

Westchester County will hold a public conversation on COVID-19 on Facebook Live this Thursday from 6-7pm. County Executive Latimer, Health Commissioner Dr. Sherita Amler, and county infectious disease expert Dr. Dial Hewlett will take part in the discussion. Residents can submit questions to communications@westchestergov.com or post them in the comments during the livestream.

MID-HUDSON VALLEY

County coronavirus pages: Orange, Dutchess, Ulster, Columbia

Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro shot back at Governor Cuomo’s Monday assertion that vaccines were being distributed slowly in the state because of poor management at hospitals, especially public hospitals. Molinaro called the claim “disingenuous at best” on Twitter, writing that doses acquired by the state should begin to be distributed to public health departments and pharmacies so they could be more widely distributed. “Prioritize speed and coverage,” he continued. “This means expanding our priority groups and providing a degree of flexibility to ensure we are leaving none of our supply on the shelf. The greatest risk is being too careful and unnecessarily complex while more get sick—and tragically die.”

In Monday’s video briefing, Orange County Executive Steve Neuhaus urged residents to get vaccinated if they are eligible—and to show up to their vaccination appointments, or at least call to cancel them if they have a last-minute conflict. Neuhaus said hospitals in the region are having problems with people not showing up to get scheduled vaccines. “They’re having a ton of no-shows. That makes them have to rush to try to get somebody else to try to get that vaccination, or in some cases, it is wasting those doses, because they only have a very short shelf life when they’re taken out of the freezer,” Neuhaus said. The county health department has not yet received any vaccines from the state to distribute, he said.

Orange County announced 20 new deaths on its COVID-19 dashboard Monday, though it appears to include backlogged cases, as no new deaths have been reported on the dashboard since December 29. There are 168 people hospitalized in the county for confirmed or suspected COVID-19, a slight decrease from December 29, when there were 177 people hospitalized.

Active cases have more than doubled in Columbia County since Christmas Eve, rising from 129 to 271 on Monday, and the county lost its 50th and 51st residents to the virus. Thirty people remained hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Monday, and county Health Director Jack Mabb told ABC 10 the patients were community members, as opposed to nursing home residents, as had been the case in the spring.said they were all. On December 28, Mabb announced his department would stop providing weekly town-by-town active case numbers due to “the need to make the best possible use of staff time as we meet more pressing needs.” Mabb also announced the department might stop disclosing other information in the future; the number of new cases has only spottily appeared in the department’s daily updates since then. A one-day record of 77 new cases were announced Saturday.

Hudson Valley One talked to four essential workers, three of them in health care, who received the vaccine. Three of the four said their arms felt sore after the injection, but otherwise reported no side effects.

Columbia-Greene Community College has delayed the beginning of classes by one week, until January 25, so students can get tested after the holiday season, a requirement for returning to classes. Most classes will be held remotely. The school, which does not have on-campus housing, reported four cases over the fall semester, only one of whom attended in-person classes. The school said enrollment had not decreased from pre-pandemic levels.

The Columbia County Department of Health will hold a drive-through testing clinic at the Firefighter Training Center at 50 Grandinetti Drive in Ghent on Tuesday from 9-11am. Only county residents can be tested and registration is required by visiting the department of health’s website.

In his last COVID-19 briefing of the year, Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan said 37 residents had died of the virus in December. A total of 144 residents have died from COVID-19, including six deaths announced since the beginning of the new year.

At Ulster County Jail—the site of an outbreak in December—there are still 23 active cases, with seven corrections officers still out, according to a press release sent to reporters by the Ulster County Sheriff’s Office.

CATSKILLS

County coronavirus pages: Sullivan, Delaware, Greene, Schoharie

Active cases are on a dramatic rise across the Catskills, with an especially steep uptick in Greene County, where yet another prison outbreak is underway. Five people in the county died of COVID-19 over the weekend, local health officials said Monday; among the fatalities were two prisoners at Coxsackie Correctional Facility. Greene County recently began including the number of active cases in adult care facilities in its regular case updates; as of Monday, 83 of Greene County’s 349 current active cases are in adult care facilities, and another 40 are in correctional facilities.

Of Delaware County’s 15 COVID-19 fatalities so far during the pandemic, five have occurred since Christmas Day. The county has 119 active cases as of Monday, four of them hospitalized. The Roxbury Central School District, a rural school with an enrollment of less than 300, announced on December 28 that they had nine cases in the district, and would be going all-remote for two weeks after the holiday vacation.

Schoharie County health officials are seeing a steep rise in cases, after an apparent improvement that was more likely due to a snowstorm interrupting testing than to any real decrease. “Our cases are going up dramatically,” county health director Amy Gildemeister wrote. “Please protect your friends, family, and neighbors by STAYING HOME if you have ANY symptoms at all. YOU may end up with a mild case, but someone you care about may become much sicker.” As of Sunday, the county had 96 active cases.

River reporter Lissa Harris was given the Moderna vaccine recently as a volunteer with the Margaretville Fire Department, a rural department that is often first on the scene at medical calls, and assists EMS personnel at helicopter landing zones for patients being medically evacuated from the Margaretville Hospital. She reports that so far, she has had no side effects other than a sore arm and slight fatigue; if she grows an extra head, we will give it an internship.

OF INTEREST?

The Other Hudson Valley and The River and  are collaborating with WGXC to announce these updates over the air. To listen, tune in to 90.7 FM at midnight, 5am, 7am, or 9am, or visit the audio archive online.

La Voz, una revista de cultura y noticias del Valle de Hudson en español, está traduciendo estos resúmenes y co-publicandolos en su página web. Leyendo aqui. También puede escuchar actualizaciones diarias por audio en el show “La Voz con Mariel Fiori” en Radio Kingston.

To read more of our coronavirus coverage, visit our coronavirus page.

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