Governor Cuomo says NY hospitals, labs to test for UK variant

Coronavirus Update for New York
NEW YORK (WABC) -- New York officials are concerned about the UK variant of the coronavirus and say more testing is key to stopping the spread.

Governor Andrew Cuomo said Tuesday that he's working with several hospitals and labs in the state to begin testing for the variant. "If it's here, we want to know it, we want to isolate it immediately," he said.

Wadsworth Laboratory has begun aggressive research of the new, highly contagious COVID-19 strain. Already, Wadsworth has looked at more than 3,700 virus sequences identified in New York, but has yet to find the U.K. variant present in any of the samples.

Additionally, Wadsworth and the Department of Health have forged agreements with six hospitals from across the State to obtain additional samples and is continuing to make arrangements with other hospitals to do the same.

Those hospitals with agreements already in place include: Montefiore, Memorial Sloan Kettering, Northwell Long Island, University of Rochester, Albany Medical Center, and Saratoga Hospital.

"All it takes is something that allows the virus to float in the air a second or two longer, or attach to mucous membranes a little more readily than another virus, and it will emerge as a more contagious virus," said Dr. Dwayne Breining of Northwell Health.

Cuomo says the state is taking an aggressive approach to curbing the spread of the COVID variant.

"Let's learn from the spring. Dr. Fauci says he thinks it's here. If it's here, where? Where is it?" Cuomo said. "Upon learning of this new variant, we immediately worked with airlines to ensure that anyone getting on a plane from the U.K. bound for New York tests negative, but we need federal action and we need it now."

Virgin Atlantic, British Airways and Delta Air Lines have all agreed to test passengers coming to New York City from the United Kingdom.

Governor Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio began questioning why six flights were arriving at JFK Airport daily from the United Kingdom, despite the new variant of the coronavirus spreading there.

The TSA on Tuesday said they screened 954,782 people at airport checkpoints nationwide Monday, December 21. It was the first time checkpoint volume dipped slightly below 1 million since Friday, December 18.

"This is very concerning, this new strain they have found in the U.K.," Cuomo said. "The strain, according to Boris Johnson, is 70% more transmittable. They don't know if there is any higher rate of death. They don't know if the vaccine is as effective with the new strain. 'A working assumption' is that the vaccine works."

Cuomo announced British Airways will test all passengers coming from U.K. to New York City starting today, adding New York to the list of 120 countries identified by the governor that is already mandating pre-flight testing.

"My request is simple: Please add New York to the list of 120 countries," Cuomo said. "As governor of New York state, I have asked them to do that."

Delta Air Lines has also agreed to require a negative coronavirus test before allowing passengers to fly from the U.K. to Kennedy Airport.

"Delta, along with our partner Virgin Atlantic, will be requiring new pre-departure COVID-19 testing for all our customers traveling from the U.K to the United States effective Thursday December, 24," the airline said in a statement. "Customers will be required to take a LAMP or PCR test up to 72 hours prior to departure adding another layer of safety when they travel. We will be contacting customers due to travel on our London Heathrow to Atlanta and New York-JFK services in the coming days to provide further information regarding recommended suppliers and testing requirements. We also recommend customers who are scheduled to depart from the U.K. to the United States to monitor delta.com in the coming days for full details of what will be needed before they fly. Delta will be working closely with Governor Cuomo's office on the implementation of our plans as they specifically relate to our flights from London Heathrow to New York-JFK. The health and safety of customers and employees remains Delta's No. 1 priority. Customers onboard Delta's COVID-tested flights will additionally benefit from the more than 100 safety and cleanliness initiatives the airline has implemented across its operation."

The new mutation of COVID-19 is blamed for the rapid spread in Southern England.

"As prime minister, it is my duty to make difficult decisions to do what is right to protect the people of this country," UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said.

In an emergency address, Johnson delivered grim news for Christmas. A large part of the country, including London, is back on lockdown with restrictions on gatherings limited to household only.

RELATED | Fears of UK's rapid-spreading COVID-19 strain prompt flight bans in several EU nations

Approximately 21 million people are affected, and only essential businesses can remain open.

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Cuomo said Port Authority has no authority to ban passengers or monitor the health of passengers, rather that responsibility falls on the federal government.

"Where is HHS? Where is CDC? Where is NIH?" he said. "This is the same mistake and literally six flights a day, and all it takes is one person."

Experts say viruses mutate regularly, but many of these changes have no effect on how easily the virus spreads. In addition, one of the pharmaceutical companies that helped in developing the Pfizer vaccine says it is effective against this variant of the virus.

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