Gov. Cuomo: New COVID-19 strain found in United Kingdom is ‘very concerning’

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ALBANY, N.Y. (WROC) — Gov. Andrew Cuomo gave an update regarding the state’s ongoing coronavirus response efforts, discussing new travel restrictions for incoming flights from the United Kingdom, vaccination rollout phases, and more during a Monday briefing.

On day 296 of the pandemic in New York state, the governor announced the following data:

  • 156,510 COVID-19 tests statewide Sunday
  • 5.75% positivity rate overall statewide
  • 7.16% positivity rate inside micro-cluster hotspots
  • 5.28% positivity rate outside micro-cluster hotspots
  • 109 New Yorkers died Sunday from COVID-19
  • 6,331 hospitalized
  • 1,095 in ICU
  • 613 intubated

The governor said the Rochester and Finger Lakes region remains the most problematic area in the state in terms of hospitalization rate per population, and positivity rate.

“They [Finger Lakes] have done a reversal with Western New York,” Gov. Cuomo said. “Finger Lakes is a problem because they are part of Western New York. There is a lot of travel between Buffalo, Erie County, Rochester, Monroe County, etc. The Finger Lakes are a problem in and of themselves, they’re also a problem for Western New York.”

The governor expressed caution about a new strain of COVID-19 found in the United Kingdom.

“This is very concerning, this new strain that they have found in the UK,” Gov. Cuomo said. “The strain, according to Boris Johnson, is 70% more transmissible than the old strain. They don’t know if there is any higher rate of death, they don’t know if the vaccine is effective with the new strain.

“The strain is so serious that the UK has closed down again,” Gov. Cuomo said. “We are on notice about it. Why don’t we act intelligently for a change? Why don’t we mandate testing before people get on the flight, or hold the flights from the UK now? Many other countries have done this, this is not a case of first impression. You have many countries that have just restricted flight from the UK, many European countries have done it. Why haven’t we done anything?”

The governor said that that he believes the new strain is in the United States already, although there’s been no documented cases of which at this time.

“When you do not require UK flights to be tested, you are allowing thousands of UK passengers to arrive here every day,” Gov. Cuomo said. “I believe, intuitively, it’s already here, because if it is flying around the world, it’s already here. I lived this and you lived this. This was the spring.”

The governor said British Airways has agreed to not send flights to New York state without the testing requirement. He said he asked Delta and Virgin Airlines to do the same.

“I am asking those airlines to add New York state to the list of the 120 countries that require tests before the flights leave the UK for New York,” Gov. Cuomo said. “If they [Delta and Virgin], and I’ve requested for them to voluntarily agree, if they do not agree, then New York state will pursue other options, but I would not be doing my job as the governor of New York if I sat here and let the federal incompetence create another disaster.”

The governor said some 38,000 New Yorkers have received the first dose of the vaccine so far.

“This is entirely done by medical professionals,” Gov. Cuomo said. “We get the vaccine, we distribute the vaccine to a regional hub hospital. That hospital does the vaccinations for that region. We define the categories of people who are eligible; phase 1a, phase 1b, etc. and we follow federal advice on that.”

The governor announced that vaccination started in nursing homes Monday morning and 101-year-old Freda Bernhardt of Rochester was among the first nursing home residents in the state to receive the vaccine.

The governor said vaccination will expand to priority populations this week, including federally-qualified health center workers, EMTs, coroners, medical examiners, funeral home workers, and other congregate care workers and residents.

The governor also announced the formation of a new COVID-19 Vaccine Equality Taskforce, and four co-chairs.

“They’re job is to come up with an operational logistic plan,” Gov. Cuomo said. “How do we get it into black churches? Housing authorities? How do we get an education campaign to the black community, Latino community, poor communities, saying ‘this is safe.'”

The governor said that the vaccine means the end of the pandemic is in sight, but that New Yorkers must remain diligent throughout the holiday season to avoid a more severe COVID-19 surge.

“If we stay under control in the holiday season and, we don’t have a big spike, then it’s just a foot race: Us vs. the vaccine,” Gov. Cuomo said. “And we’re going to get the vaccine out, we’re going to get that vaccine out if I have to drive it.”

The governor said the $900 billion federal relief package included no funding for state and local governments, and he said that “would hurt people.”

“What they did provided no funding for New York state, New York City, Buffalo, Rochester, the counties,” Gov. Cuomo said. “We have a $15 billion deficit caused by COVID, cause by federal government, caused by their negligence, and the COVID spring ambush. I can’t make up a $15 billion deficit and that means we will lay off people.

“We should be fair to everyone,” Gov. Cuomo said. “When you don’t fund states and cities that means cities layoff police officers, firefighters, teachers: You hurt people when you don’t help the state. That means we can’t fund rent relief, mortgage relief. You hurt people, you hurt the schools. It was an impossible choice. An unfair, un-American choice.”

While other public officials, like Vice President Mike Pence and President-elect Joe Biden, have received the COVID-19 vaccine, the governor says he is in the general population portion and doesn’t want to take supply from essential workers.

“I’m in no special group,” Gov. Cuomo said. “I don’t have any underlying illnesses, so I am in no special group. I would be the general population group. We were thinking about getting people to take the vaccination as a way to build confidence in the vaccination and I think that’s why the vice president took it and Joe Biden took it.

“I have a lot of people who just say to me when I walk around ‘well if its so safe why didn’t you take it?’ which is such a good New York attitude,” Gov. Cuomo said. “I had said I would take it as soon as the panel authorizes it and I’m willing to take it. On the flip side it I don’t want to take it and make anybody say, ‘you took it when it could have gone to an essential worker.’ You can’t make anybody happy these days.”

In closing, the governor announced that the New York State Department of Health authorized a request for Santa Claus to be exempt from the 14-day quarantine requirement, adding that Santa would wear a mask, and that it’s not practical to require quarantine for Mr. Claus.

In his briefings last week, the governor said the new mantra of the state will be “slow the spread, stop the shutdown,” as we head into the holiday season.

The governor said he believes the hospitals are equipped to handle the predicted holiday surge and the state can avoid a shutdown.

MORE | What Gov. Cuomo’s ‘surge and flex’ hospital plan means for COVID-19 red zone designations

Check back with News 8 WROC as we continue to update this developing story.

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