Confusion Over ‘USA Variant’ of Virus as State Plans 2nd Rollout

This is a roundup of coronavirus news and announcements from New York State and Hudson Valley and Catskills counties for Thursday, January 7 and Friday, January 8. Published in collaboration with The River Newsroom

NEW YORK STATE

18,832 new cases yesterday
243,903 tests yesterday
Positive test rate: 7.72%
165 deaths yesterday
8,561 hospitalizations (1,475 in ICUs)
New York State coronavirus page
New York State vaccine page
New York State official pressroom
Hotline: (888) 364-3065

A federal report warned states this week that a new “USA variant” of COVID-19 that is more transmissible than the original virus may be the culprit behind the current rampant spread of COVID-19 in the US, CNN and CNBC reported on Friday afternoon. The report, which was sent privately to state governments by the White House Coronavirus Task Force, called on states for an aggressive, immediate rollout of vaccination to prevent more-contagious mutations of COVID-19 from overtaking the landscape of the pandemic.

Hours after it became public, the task force report was partially disavowed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “To date, neither researchers nor analysts at CDC have seen the emergence of a particular variant in the United States,” said CDC spokesman Jason McDonald. The New York Times reports that the Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the task force, inserted her own speculation about a “USA variant” into the report, and that other CDC officials unsuccessfully sought to have her statements removed. We’ll include more information in future roundups as details about a “USA variant” become clearer.

The report, which CNN and CNBC obtained a copy of, was dated January 3, which means state governments may have had the report since Monday. The task force’s regular reports to state governments, which collectively paint a much darker picture of the pandemic than the public statements made by task force members and the Trump administration, have not been made public—although the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit dedicated to investigative journalism, has an ongoing project to collect and publish them. The Center for Public Integrity reported in December that the task force has stopped sending the reports to state governments unless they request them.

Former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb told CNBC on Friday that B.1.1.7, the so-called “UK variant,” is not to blame for widespread US transmission in the fall and winter surge. “If it was, we’d recognize that, because we’re looking for it,” he said. The task force report warns states that “aggressive mitigation,” including “uniform implementation of effective face masking (two or three ply and well-fitting) and strict social distancing,” is required to keep more contagious variants from becoming the predominant form of the virus in the US.

Among the task force’s recommendations to states is an immediate, widespread rollout of vaccination to those most vulnerable: “Do not delay the rapid immunization of those over 65 and vulnerable to severe disease; recommend creation of high throughput vaccination sites with use of EMT personnel to monitor for potential anaphylaxis and fully utilize nursing students. No vaccines should be in freezers but should instead be put in arms now; active and aggressive immunization in the face of this surge would save lives.”

Meanwhile, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo has spent much of the past week threatening hospitals with massive fines and loss of license for vaccinating people out of turn. Multiple news reports have emerged this week of vaccines being thrown away because of a state ban on giving them to people outside of the state’s strict Phase 1A priority list, which is limited to healthcare workers and nursing home staff and residents. Doses were flushed at an Albany County nursing home, and a nurse for a small network of LGBTQ community health clinics in New York City went on foot around the neighborhood looking for eligible recipients for the last few doses in a vial before giving up.

In New Rochelle, the first place in New York State where community transmission was discovered in March, the Montefiore hospital is under investigation by New York State for vaccinating public employees who are not yet eligible under 1A, the Rockland/Westchester Journal News reports. About 330 doses of vaccine have been taken from the hospital by state health officials and given to the Westchester County Health Department. Some city and school workers have already been vaccinated by the hospital, the paper reports.

The Cuomo administration has come under increasing pressure from county and New York City officials to expand vaccine eligibility, or to offer vaccinators more flexibility in how doses are allocated, in order to speed up the state’s slow rollout. Counties have been pleading with the state for weeks to give them more of a role in the effort: The Times Union reported in December that the state has shelved decades’ worth of county pandemic planning in favor of a new hospital-based system that has been slow to deliver. So far, according to CDC data, New York State has received 1,208,900 doses of vaccine, and has administered 434,802 of them, about 36 percent.

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This week, amid mounting calls from local officials to open up the vaccine effort and urging from federal officials for states to expand eligibility, the Cuomo administration has begun to change its tune. On Friday, in a televised press briefing that left many reporters scratching their heads, Governor Cuomo apparently changed his strict stance on eligibility, saying that the state will begin allowing people in Phase 1B of eligibility to schedule vaccines starting on Monday, via a state website that does not yet exist—although he also said that vaccinators needed to put a higher priority on vaccinating 1A recipients.

Phase 1B includes essential workers and first responders, as well as about 1.3 million New Yorkers who are 75 and older. Cuomo warned that anyone in Phase 1B seeking to be vaccinated on Monday may have to wait: “To the extent you can make a reservation and somebody says you can come in and get it on Monday, fine,” he said. “The hospitals still have to prioritize the healthcare workers, and they have a long way to go.”

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio reacted swiftly to Cuomo’s announcement on Twitter. “New York City has heard enough,” he wrote. “We will begin administering shots to City Workers and the elderly in 1B starting on Monday.”

Statewide, the number of vaccination sites is increasing. On Monday, Cuomo said, pharmacies, community health centers, sites run by county health departments, and other sites will join hospitals in the vaccination effort. More information on where to go for vaccines in New York State will be available on the state’s vaccine appointment website when it launches.

Reporters are asking: Where is New York State’s vaccine data? While Cuomo has showed a few PowerPoint slides calling out some hospitals that have been slow to vaccinate and praising others that have moved swiftly, there is currently no New York State dashboard showing how many doses the state has received, where they have gone, and how many have been administered in different parts of the state or by different providers. State official Gareth Rhodes said in a briefing earlier this week that the state is working on a dashboard.

Speculation about a “USA variant,” other emerging mutations in COVID-19 around the globe, and the recent discovery of the B.1.1.7 “UK variant” in New York State are putting a spotlight on the importance of genetic surveillance of the novel coronavirus as it changes. The River recently reached out to the New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH) for more information on the state’s surveillance program. Spokesman Jonah Bruno said that the Wadsworth Center, a laboratory run by NYSDOH, is currently sequencing about 90 cases a day—most selected at random, except for the contacts of the Saratoga Springs man who was recently found to have acquired the B.1.1.7 variant, which are all being sequenced. “The Wadsworth Center and other laboratories around the state have sequenced nearly 5,000 New York State COVID-19 specimens since March, including more than 1,600 done at Wadsworth since March,” Bruno said in a statement. “As part of an expanded effort to determine to what extent the variant from the UK is present in New York State, hospitals and clinical laboratories from across the state are submitting COVID-19 specimens to the Wadsworth Center, and Wadsworth has dramatically increased the number of samples it is sequencing, including more than 870 since December 23.”

Transition officials for President-elect Joe Biden said Friday that he would release all available vaccine doses when his administration takes over, rather than holding half in reserve for the second dose. It’s a move with a certain amount of risk, since it relies on the ability of manufacturers Pfizer and Moderna to deliver the second dose in the correct window of time, but it may ensure that more Americans will be vaccinated quickly. In Cuomo’s Friday briefing, the governor urged federal officials to release all available vaccine now. “I need more,” he said. “We are rationing a scarce commodity that we don’t control.”

Vaccine providers that are slow to get needles in arms will risk being left out of future vaccine distributions, Cuomo said Friday. It’s a somewhat softer stance than the governor has taken up till now: In other recent briefings, Cuomo has threatened to take existing doses from hospitals where rollout has been slow and give them to other providers. “At this point, we’re not going to go take back the allocation,” he said in response to a reporter’s question. “But the slow performers just are not going to get additional allocations.”

The state is also going to mandate “social equity distribution” by local health departments in underserved communities, Cuomo said Friday, although it is unclear what mechanism officials will use to regulate the equal availability of vaccines across areas with different rates of vaccine acceptance in the community.

In other state pandemic news, Cuomo said Friday that he is pushing for legislation that will extend the moratorium on commercial evictions and ban penalties for late or missed rent payments through May 1.

Pandemic job loss has a huge gender gap: CNN reports that while the US economy as a whole lost 140,000 jobs in December, US men gained 16,000 jobs, while women lost 156,000.

LOWER HUDSON VALLEY

County coronavirus pages: Rockland, Westchester, Putnam

Westchester County Executive George Latimer said in his Thursday coronavirus briefing that the county had booked appointments for frontline healthcare workers that would use up all 500 vials of the Moderna vaccine the county received for the first phase of vaccinations.

Latimer also provided updated case numbers, which have since been updated again on the county’s coronavirus dashboard. As of Thursday, there are 10,290 active cases in Westchester County, with 1,095 cases added on Thursday. Port Chester remains an orange zone hotspot.

The Putnam County Department of Health vaccinated 251 healthcare workers against COVID-19 on Thursday during its first vaccination drive, according to a press release issued by the county. The county’s next vaccination clinic is this Monday, January 11, and will be limited to those eligible in the state’s Phase 1A priority group, although Phase 1B eligibility technically begins that day.

Rockland County’s active caseload climbed slightly in the latest county dashboard update. An estimated 2,449 are currently infected with COVID-19. The county has reported no deaths from the virus over the past three days.

Montefiore hospital in New Rochelle is under investigation by the state for vaccinating public employees, who are not yet eligible under 1A, the Rockland/Westchester Journal News reports, including city and school workers. State health officials took about 330 doses from the hospital and gave them to the Westchester County Health Department.

MID-HUDSON VALLEY

County coronavirus pages: Orange, Dutchess, Ulster, Columbia
County vaccine pages: Dutchess, Ulster

Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro called on Governor Cuomo to expand vaccine eligibility to emergency services personnel in a letter dated January 6. “Although prioritization is important based on the limited availability of the COVID-19 vaccine at this time, it is critical that law enforcement officers, corrections officers, firefighters, ambulance personnel, and other first responders not covered by the current New York State Department of Health guidance be added to the list immediately,” Molinaro wrote. He later described the current guidelines as Cuomo’s “own draconian policies,” blaming the governor for restricting the flexibility of vaccine providers to carry out a comprehensive vaccination effort for essential workers.

Orange County Executive Steve Neuhaus said he was happy about who was included in Phase 1B, calling it “a big catchment area.” He suggested the only vaccine hub will be at the county building on Hatfield Lane in Goshen, where vaccines were administered last Wednesday.

Fifteen deaths were recorded on the Ulster County COVID-19 dashboard since Wednesday, but the number of active cases has been falling from New Year’s Eve, from 2,419 to 1,862.

Dutchess County Health Commissioner Dr. Anil Vaidian received the COVID-19 vaccine earlier this week, and reported during his Friday briefing that his side effects were “purely local” and consisted of soreness at the injection site. He said there may be reluctance to get the vaccine as it becomes available to more people, and warned the side effects were more common than those experienced with the flu shot. He encouraged people eligible in Phase 1A to get vaccinated if they have not already done so by calling (845) 486-3555.

Roughly 100 staff members and 173 residents at Golden Hill Nursing and Rehabilitation Center have received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and will receive their second on January 11 or 12, according to the Daily Freeman, though the nursing home would not reveal how many cases there are in the facility to the newspaper. There have been nine deaths at the Hudson Valley Extended Care Center in Highland since December 24 and two deaths at the New Paltz Center for Rehabilitation and Nursing since December 21.

Scholarships for 217 Ulster County youth to attend winter programs at the Center for Creative Education, the Boys and Girls Club, and the YMCA were awarded through Project Resilience, Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan announced in a Friday press release. Totaling more than $70,000, the scholarships will provide a safe place for youth to go while the parents are at work and role models to guide them through virtual learning.

The coronavirus claimed its 52nd victim in Columbia County, the county health department announced Friday. Sixty-two new cases of COVID-19 were announced by the department, and the active caseload rose to 393.

Five more deaths from COVID-19 were announced by Dutchess County on Friday, according to the Poughkeepsie Journal.

The Taco Bell on Fairview Avenue in Greenport closed Thursday after two employees tested positive for COVID-19, according to the Register-Star. Only the drive-through portion of the restaurant was open when the employees were working.

CATSKILLS

County coronavirus pages: Sullivan, Delaware, Greene, Schoharie
County vaccine pages: Sullivan, Greene

Schoharie County Public Health announced that local Bassett clinics will offer COVID-19 testing for those without symptoms next week. Appointments will be available on Tuesday, January 12, Wednesday, January 13, and Friday, January 15. Across much of the rural Catskills, COVID-19 testing is only available for those who have symptoms or known positive contacts, because of testing shortages. “There are not a lot of slots and there is a high demand. Please schedule a test only if you really need to,” health officials wrote.

Several town and village offices in Schoharie County are limiting hours and access because of rising cases in the region, and so are local libraries. The Times-Journal has more details on local closings.

The Sullivan County DMV has reopened after a two-week closure caused by an employee testing positive. The Sullivan County Democrat reports that the beleaguered office has struggled heroically to keep up with a massive work backlog, and has managed to cut the wait time for a new drivers’ license from three months to two weeks.

A 16th person has died in Delaware County of COVID-19, county health officials said Thursday. The county currently has 153 known active cases.

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The River and The Other Hudson Valley 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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