Contagious COVID variant found in Capital Region

State Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker gives a COVID-19 update in the state Capitol on Dec. 30. Courtesy of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office

ALBANY — New York’s first official case of the more contagious variant of the novel coronavirus first discovered in the United Kingdom was found in the Capital Region on Monday, officials said, making New York the fourth state in the nation to verify the presence of the mutated disease on American soil.

A Saratoga Springs man in his 60s was the first New Yorker to officially test positive for the more aggressive strain, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced during a second COVID-19 briefing Monday afternoon.

“He is on the mend and doing better,” Cuomo said. “He did not travel recently, so this suggests that it’s in the community — it’s community spread.”

The infected Saratoga man owns N. Fox Jewelers, at 404 Broadway, in the city of Saratoga Springs. Officials are encouraging any person who entered the store since Dec. 18 to get a COVID-19 test.

The store has been closed to customers since Christmas Eve for the holidays.

Three additional jewelry store staff have tested positive for COVID.

“We don’t know if they are the U.K. strain of COVID — we’re testing for them now,” Cuomo said. “From a public health point of view now, it’s about contact tracing. We want to make sure we’re doing everything we can do to do effective contact tracing on this case. We need the cooperation of the public.”

The state has tested more than 5,000 New Yorkers for the new, 70% more transmissible COVID-19 variant, since its initial discovery in mid-December. The mutated virus does not have different or more severe coronavirus symptoms, including the traditional cough, fever, shortness of breath, chest pain or loss of taste and smell.

“The severity of the illness is not any more significant than it would be with the other coroanvirus COVID-19 that we’ve seen, it’s just that it’s more transmissible,” state Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker said during Monday’s call with reporters.

The Saratoga County Public Health department is working with DOH to investigate the spread, according to a DOH statement Monday.

Patrons who visited the store between Dec. 18 and Christmas Eve can receive a COVID-19 test at Saratoga State Park, 99 E. West Road, Saratoga Springs, between 1 and 6 p.m. Tuesday, and from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of this week.

N. Fox Jewelers employees were tested by the end of the day Monday. Each patient will also be tested for the U.K. variant.

The U.K. COVID-19 strain was discovered by a test evaluated by medical personnel at the DOH’s Wadsworth Center in Albany. The man was initially tested in a Saratoga County hospital.

The strain has been identified in Colorado, California, Florida and more than 30 other countries across the globe.

Zucker speaks each day with World Health Organization officials and medical experts from across the globe who are monitoring their populations for the new strain and other variants of the novel coronavirus.

Officials predict community spread of the new variant is greater than what positive test rates show to date.

“I think it’s much more widespread than people know,” Cuomo said.

The variant is likely present in U.S. states across the nation, but was discovered in New York because of the state’s high COVID-19 testing rate.

“Because we test more and we test faster — I don’t believe any state has done as many tests as we have. ... If other states could test as much as we were testing for the U.K. strain as much as we have tested, they would be finding it,” Cuomo said.

British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and Delta Airlines agreed to require U.K. travelers to test negative for COVID-19 before boarding flights to New York on Dec. 21. The state requested the restriction for travelers to prevent repeating history after the novel coronavirus infected the Eastern Seaboard late last winter with 3 million European travelers landing in New York and New Jersey airports through January and February 2020.

The federal government mandated the negative COVID-19 test for all U.K. travelers before flying to the United States on Christmas Day.

The DOH contacted the state’s 194 hospitals and medical facilities Dec. 22 to conduct a more advanced diagnostic coronavirus test after scientists announced the highly contagious strain of COVID-19 spreading through the U.K.

Thousands of tests conducted in other countries suggest the mutated virus is responsive to Pfizer’s and Moderna’s approved COVID-19 vaccine.

“It apparently has no difference from the vaccine point of view and is no different in terms of mortality rates, but it is more transmittable, which means higher positivity rate, higher infection rate and possibly higher hospitalization rate,” Cuomo said. “The increased positivity and infection rate is a problem, but the increased hospitalization rate is a game changer. If a hospital capacity is threatened in a region, that region would have to close down.”

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