New York confirms state's first case of more contagious Covid strain

New York has found its first case of the more contagious variant strain of the coronavirus initially reported in the UK, Andrew Cuomo, the governor, said on Monday.

The discovery raises concerns about threats to hospital capacity should it spread rapidly in the state, especially while efforts to get the public inoculated are behind schedule in the US, leading some states to threaten to redistribute vaccines if hospitals don’t get shots into more arms quickly.

Cuomo reported that a man in his 60s living in a town north of the state capital of Albany had the new strain.

The man, who is recovering, had not traveled recently, suggesting community spread is taking place. The variant has so far been reported in Colorado, then California, then late last week in Florida.

New York state has carried out 5,000 tests for the new strain – and so far has only found the one case.

Cuomo warned it could be a “game changer” if the new strain increases hospitalizations and forces regions to impose fresh restrictions on businesses and social movement.

The variant virus is believed to have been in the US since October, though it was only very recently identified and details of its origins and match to a variant found in the UK are still being investigated.

Meanwhile Cuomo, a Democrat, and the governor of Florida, Republican Ron DeSantis, sought to accelerate the delayed administration of coronavirus vaccines – warning hospitals on Monday that they would reduce future allocations to those that fail to dispense shots quickly enough.

In New York, hospitals must administer vaccines within a week of receiving them or face a fine and loss of future supplies, Cuomo said.

“I don’t want the vaccine in a fridge or a freezer, I want it in somebody’s arm,” he said. “If you’re not performing this function, it does raise questions about the operating efficiency of the hospital.”

The federal government has distributed more than 15m vaccine doses to states and territories around the country, but only around 4.5m have been administered so far, according to data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released on Monday.

The Trump administration had pledged to have 20m doses distributed and administered by the end of the year, but fewer than 3 million Americans were inoculated by 1 January.

Public health experts said the result was disappointing and called for urgent funding for states and greater federal coordination, while warning that hundreds of thousands more deaths were being risked by the chaos surrounding the introduction of coronavirus vaccines in the US.

The US surgeon general, Dr Jerome Adams, told CBS News that there were 15m to 20 million doses of vaccine available.

“We should be hopeful about that while acknowledging we have got to do better and we are going to keep doing better,” Adams said. “And I promise you, you will see in these next two weeks numbers increase substantially.“

The United States had reported a total of 20.5m Covid-19 cases and more than 350m,000 deaths by Monday, by far the highest figures in the world.

US hospitalizations from Covid-19 were at a record high on Sunday, at 125,544, as hospitals struggled to cope and providers made plans to ration care.

Dr Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, and others are warning that an additional surge is likely because of holiday gatherings and cold weather keeping people indoors.

“It could and likely will get worse in the next couple of weeks, or at least maintain this very terribly high level of infections and deaths that we’re seeing,” Fauci told ABC on Sunday.

In Florida, officials have put senior citizens ahead of many essential workers for getting the vaccine, although this has led to many elderly people lining up outside for hours as information websites and phone lines are overwhelmed.

DeSantis on Monday announced a policy under which the state would allocate doses to hospitals that dispense them fastest.

“Hospitals that do not do a good job of getting the vaccine out will have their allocations transferred to hospitals that are doing a good job at getting the vaccine out,” DeSantis said at a briefing.

“We do not want vaccine to just be idle at some hospital system,” he added, though he did not say hospitals would face fines.

He said Florida would also deploy an additional 1,000 nurses to administer vaccines and would keep state-run vaccination sites open seven days a week.

New York has dispensed about 175,000 doses of the 896,000 it has received since mid-December, according to CDC data. Florida has dispensed 265,000 of the 1.14m doses it received.

Meanwhile, some Chicago public school teachers are staying home over coronavirus concerns ahead of an expected phased return to the classroom, beginning next week with pre-schoolers.