A new and more contagious strain of the coronavirus that was first discovered in the United Kingdom could force New York into another economic shutdown if it spreads unchecked and weakens the state's hospitals, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said on Thursday.
So far, New York has reported only one Covid-19 case with the new variant, known as B.1.1.7, but there are likely more cases that just haven't been detected, Cuomo said. While the variant is thought to be more transmissible than previous versions of the virus, it doesn't appear to make patients more sick or increase their risk of death, health officials have said.
But a more transmissible strain is still worrisome because it will infect more people, Cuomo said during a call with reporters. That will drive more hospitalizations at a time when every New York facility is facing a shortage of health-care workers, especially nurses, the Democratic governor said.
Protecting New York's health-care systems has been a priority for the governor, who warned that another economic shutdown could be on the horizon if the state's hospitalization rate worsens. There are currently more than 8,600 people hospitalized with Covid-19 in New York, the most since early May of last year, according to data from the COVID Tracking Project, which is run by journalists at The Atlantic.
"In the U.K., it overtook everything in three weeks," Cuomo said. "If the U.K. spread catches on in New York, hospitalization rate goes up, the hospital staff is sick, then we have a real problem and we're at shutdown again."
Three states — Texas, Connecticut and Pennsylvania — all announced earlier Thursday that they identified their first Covid-19 cases with the B.1.1.7 variant, joining New York, California, Florida, Georgia and Colorado in confirming the arrival of the new strain.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said there are at least 52 cases with the mutated virus confirmed in the U.S. as of Thursday. However, the CDC warns that their numbers "do not represent the total number of B.1.1.7 lineage cases that may be circulating in the United States" and may not match the figures reported by local officials.
U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson outlined a series of new restrictions across England on Monday to prevent overwhelming the nation's health-care system. Johnson said medical experts believe the mutated strain is 50% to 70% more contagious.
Viruses constantly mutate and are expected to evolve over time as the spikes on their surfaces change, the CDC says. The U.K. variant has "emerged with an unusually large number of mutations," which has allowed it to spread more easily and quickly.
The good news: The changes don't appear to make the existing Covid-19 vaccines any less effective, the agency says. That, in part, is why Cuomo has pushed hospitals to inoculate their health-care workers faster, he said.
Cuomo warned Monday that hospitals could be fined up to $100,000 if they don't administer their allotments of Covid-19 vaccines by the end of this week. While some hospitals have shown improvement, others are still lagging behind, he said Thursday.
The state has roughly 2 million health-care workers and, so far, has only received around 900,000 doses of Covid-19 vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna, Cuomo said. Over the past few weeks, New York has seen an acceleration in the number of shots it's able to administer, growing to more than 50,000 a day, Cuomo said.
The state is aggressively trying to get its first priority group of health-care workers vaccinated before moving on to other essential workers and vulnerable people, such as teachers, police officers and people over the age of 75.
"Vaccinate the health-care workers, because if they get sick and they don't show up, and staff shortages are already the limiting factor on hospital capacity, you're going to hit the hospital capacity like they did in California, like they did in the U.K., like they did in Italy," Cuomo said. "And then you're going to have to close down."