New coronavirus variant identified in New York: researchers

By Deena Beasley

(Reuters) – A new coronavirus variant that shares some similarities with a more transmissible and intractable variant discovered in South Africa is on the rise in New York City, researchers said on Wednesday.

The new variant, known as B.1.526, was first identified in samples collected in New York in November, and by mid-February represented about 12% of cases, researchers at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, said on Wednesday.

The variant was also described in research originally published online February 15 by California Institute of Technology scientists. Neither study has been reviewed by outside experts.

The Columbia researchers said an analysis of publicly available databases did not show a high prevalence of coronavirus variants recently identified in South Africa and Brazil in case samples from New York City and surrounding areas.

“Instead we found high numbers of this home-grown lineage,” Dr. Anne-Catrin Uhlemann, assistant professor in the division of infectious diseases at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, said in a statement.

The Columbia study was designed to search genomes from patient samples for mutations associated with worrisome British, South African and Brazilian virus variants. One mutation, E484K, in a genome region encoding the virus receptor binding domain, has been shown to be an escape mutation that greatly reduces the effectiveness of monoclonal and vaccine-induced antibodies.

Of the 65 virus samples containing the E484K mutation Ho’s team identified, a handful represented cases involving the known concerning variants, but 49 of the 65 belonged to the new New York B.1.526 lineage.

Studies have shown that recently launched coronavirus vaccines are still likely to neutralize the virus and protect against severe illness, even for infections with new variants. Vaccine makers are also working to develop booster shots to combat mutated versions of the virus.

New York City restaurants to resume limited indoor dining on Feb. 14: governor

NEW YORK (Reuters) – New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, citing an improvement in the state’s coronavirus metrics, on Friday allowed New York City’s restaurants to resume limited indoor dining, reflecting a restriction-easing trend taking hold in the country.

The thousands of New York City restaurants that have been surviving on takeout business and makeshift outdoor pavilions since mid-December may reopen their indoor dining areas at 25% of capacity on Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14, Cuomo said.

Despite the resumption of indoor dining, which comes on what is traditionally one of the industry’s busiest days, Cuomo sounded a note of caution, saying that he is ready to reverse the move if the trajectory of COVID-19 indicators worsens.

“There are possible scenarios that could develop that are problematic,” he said at a briefing.

The state’s hospitalization rate and percentage of residents testing positive for the virus have both abated since earlier this month when the post-holiday surge of infections hit its peak, he said.

Earlier this week, California eased its strict stay-at-home orders, allowing restaurants to reopen for outdoor dining and greater social mixing, as public health authorities there also reported slower rates of infections and hospitalizations.

(Reporting by Peter Szekely; Editing by Kirsten Donovan)

New York City to enforce quarantine order for U.K. travelers with home visits -mayor

(Reuters) – New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio on Wednesday said members of the city Sheriff’s office would start paying home visits to enforce a quarantine order for travelers from the United Kingdom in an effort to stop the spread of a new COVID-19 variant found in that country.

De Blasio said that all international travelers to New York City would start receiving a Department of Health Commissioner’s order to quarantine, delivered via certified mail, and travelers could face a $1000 fine per day for violating the rules.

The city Sheriff’s office will check on travelers from the U.K. at their homes or hotels to ensure compliance, de Blasio said, taking extra precaution out of concern that those travelers could bring a new, highly transmissible variant of the virus to New York.

“We’re going to provide them with that commissioner’s order, but then there’s going to be a follow up, direct home visit or hotel visit from the sheriff’s deputy to confirm that they are following the quarantine,” de Blasio said.

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

New York City changes admissions at many schools to ease racial segregation

By Jonathan Allen

NEW YORK (Reuters) – New York City is overhauling how it admits students to some of its most competitive public schools to make them less segregated by race and wealth, Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Friday.

Some selective Manhattan high schools, particularly in wealthy neighborhoods, are allowed to give children who live nearby priority in admissions, which has tended to put children living in poorer neighborhoods at a disadvantage. These so-called geographic priorities will be ended over the coming two years, making it easier for children from anywhere to apply for a spot, the mayor said at a news conference.

The city will also end “screening” practices at hundreds of middle schools that admit students based on a mixture of grades, test results, attendance rates.

These practices led to disproportionately high admissions of white and Asian students and fewer Black and Latino students in the best-performing schools in the nation’s largest and most diverse education system, which serves some 1.1 million children. Admissions will instead be determined by a random lottery.

“We have been doing this work for seven years to more equitably redistribute resources throughout our school system,” de Blasio told reporters. “I think these changes will improve justice and fairness.”

Although calls to overhaul school admissions long predate the novel coronavirus pandemic, the disruption caused by school closures to stem the spread of COVID-19 was a factor in the overhaul: for example, some state exams were canceled and attendance rates became more difficult to track, Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza told reporters.

The New York Civil Liberties Union welcomed the changes but said they should have come sooner, and called for the permanent removal of screening at the high-school level.

“It should not have taken a pandemic to finally remove discriminatory admissions screens for children applying to middle school and to remove the egregious district priorities that concentrate wealth and resources into a few schools,” NYCLU organizer Toni Smith-Thompson said in a statement.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Tom Brown)

Storm may help U.S. Northeast contain coronavirus but could disrupt vaccine delivery

By Peter Szekely

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A winter storm that has blasted the U.S. Northeast with snow, rain and gusty winds was likely to dump a foot or more of snow on parts of New England before heading out to sea on Thursday.

The first major snowstorm of the season forced much of the population to obey stay-at-home coronavirus orders, but also disrupted travel, possibly including distribution of the new COVID-19 vaccine.

By early Thursday morning, the storm had dumped more snow on New York City than all of last year’s winter storms combined, the National Weather Service said.

It also brought its wintry mix to Washington, parts of Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania on Wednesday, affecting an area home to more than 50 million people.

Forecasts showed it would pummel Boston and parts of the New England region before heading out to sea around nightfall.

Before then, many areas could expect 12 to 18 inches of snow.

Wind gusts of up to 50 miles per hour were likely to knock down trees and power lines, the National Weather Service said.

Roads were treacherous. A pileup of 30 to 60 cars on Interstate-80 in Pennsylvania on Wednesday killed two people and injured more, state police said.

At the same time, trucks were delivering the first batches of the COVID-19 vaccine. Healthcare workers around the country started receiving the first inoculations this week.

“We are also watching very carefully the delivery of the vaccine,” New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy told a news conference on Wednesday, noting that some 35 hospitals in his state were expecting deliveries between Wednesday and Friday. “If we didn’t have enough already on our hands, that’s another dimension.”

The New York area’s three major airports reported 20% to 30% of flights were canceled on Wednesday and more cancellations were expected. Amtrak reduced rail service.

New Jersey Transit on Thursday extended its suspension of all rail service, in addition to halting several bus lines including those destined for New York City.

(Reporting by Peter Szekely in New York; Additional reporting by Timothy Garnder in Washington and Brendan O’Brien in Chicago; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Frances Kerry)

Winter storm set to deliver disruptive blow to U.S. Northeast

By Peter Szekely

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A major winter storm was making its way up the U.S. East Coast on Wednesday, ready to deliver a disruptive blow to the region, with up to 2 feet (60 cm) of snow in parts of the Northeast and freezing rain in some Mid-Atlantic areas, forecasters said.

The Nor’easter, which was already bringing a wintry mix of precipitation to Virginia and North Carolina early in the day, was moving up the coast that is home to more than 50 million people before exiting the Boston area on Thursday afternoon, they said.

Meteorologist Bob Oravec of the National Weather Service’s Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland, said the forecast could have been worse if not for the speed at which the system was traveling.

“It’s not a slow-moving system at all, so it’s not going to be a very prolonged snow event,” Oravec said by phone.

Ground zero for snow accumulation is an area that includes several ski resorts stretching from central Pennsylvania to upstate New York, where 18 to 24 inches was expected, Oravec said.

“Typically, when you have a big snowstorm like this, you can have snow totals one to two inches plus per hour,” he added.

But a much larger area that includes the New York City area is likely to get more than a foot of snow, he said.

New York City officials began warning residents on Tuesday of the potential for hazardous travel and urged people to stay off the roads.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Tuesday that it was shaping up to be the first major snowstorm in a couple of years, “and people need to take it seriously.”

New York City schools, which just recently reopened their classrooms after a brief pandemic-induced shutdown, were set to go fully remote on Thursday when students are likely to wake up to more than a foot of snow on the ground, de Blasio said. The snow could significantly reduce visibility and potentially cripple travel in places, while winds of up to 50 miles per hour (80 km per hour) could down trees and power lines, causing power outages, the weather service said.

Many areas of North Carolina and southwestern Virginia were expected to get freezing rain that will leave a quarter-inch of ice on the roads, the service said.

(Reporting by Peter Szekely in New York; Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brian in Chicago)

Fleeing New Yorkers resulted in an estimated $34 billion in lost income -study

By Jonnelle Marte

(Reuters) -Millions of people have moved out of New York City during the pandemic, but at the same time, millions of others with lower incomes have taken their place, according to a study released on Tuesday.

All told, a net 70,000 people left the metropolitan region this year, resulting in roughly $34 billion in lost income, according to estimates from Unacast, a location analytics company.

About 3.57 million people left New York City this year between Jan. 1 and Dec. 7, according to Unacast, which analyzed anonymized cell phone location data. Some 3.5 million people earning lower average incomes moved into the city during that same period, the report showed.

“The exodus isn’t as big as people have been talking about,” said Thomas Walle, chief executive and co-founder of Unacast. “Maybe the greater impact is how the population is changing and how the demographics are changing.”

In Tribeca, a wealthy neighborhood in downtown Manhattan, residents who left this year earned an average income of about $140,000, Walle said. The typical person moving into the neighborhood earned an average $82,000, he said.

The dual hit to population and income across the city can have lasting consequences for New York City as it recovers from the economic crisis caused by the pandemic, Walle said. “The big question is, ‘How does real estate and retail in particular adapt to that?'” he said.

In the longer run, the changing demographics could lead to more affordable brands taking the place of higher-end stores, the researchers noted. At the same time, real estate developers may need to offer more lower-priced housing options, Walle said.

A separate report released earlier this year by StreetEasy found that vacancies rose and rents dropped between February and July in high-end neighborhoods, including the financial district downtown. But rents continued to rise in more affordable neighborhoods.

(Reporting by Jonnelle Marte; Editing by Stephen Coates)

Cuomo orders New York City restaurants to suspend indoor dining, effective Monday

(Reuters) – Indoor dining in New York City will come to a halt on Monday, Governor Andrew Cuomo said, as COVID-19 hospitalizations fail to stabilize and the infection rate rises.

The governor acknowledged indoor dining is not at the top of a list of settings driving the rise in new cases led by household gatherings, but said rising hospitalizations and New York City’s high density were worrying factors.

“You put the CDC caution on indoor dining together with the rate of transmission and the density and the crowding, that is a bad situation,” Cuomo told a news briefing on Friday.

Separately, Cuomo announced that a state review panel unanimously approved the recommendation by an FDA advisory panel to approve Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, and said an additional 346,000 doses of a vaccine manufactured by Moderna are expected in New York the week of Dec. 21. A first shipment of 170,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine could arrive in the state as soon as this weekend, Cuomo said.

(Reporting by Peter Szekely and Maria Caspani, Editing by Franklin Paul)

New York City public schools will begin to reopen with weekly COVID-19 testing

By Jonathan Allen

NEW YORK (Reuters) – New York City’s public schools will begin to reopen for in-person learning on Dec. 7, starting with elementary schools for students whose parents agree to a weekly testing regimen for the novel coronavirus, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Sunday.

The schools, which make up the country’s largest school system, were closed less than two weeks ago after the citywide rate of coronavirus tests coming back positive exceeded a 3% benchmark agreed to by the mayor and the teachers’ union.

“It’s a new approach because we have so much proof now of how safe schools can be,” de Blasio told reporters, saying the 3% benchmark was being scrapped and pointing to research that shows young children appear to be less vulnerable to COVID-19. On Sunday, the city’s seven-day rolling average of positive tests was 3.9%, de Blasio said.

Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, who joined the mayor at a news conference, said with the new measures he believed the city could “safely and successfully keep our schools open for the duration of this pandemic.”

Michael Mulgrew, the president of the United Federation of Teachers, said in a statement that the labor union was supportive of the mayor’s phased reopening so long as “stringent testing was in place.”

New York City, which teaches more than 1.1 million students in its public schools, was one of the few jurisdictions in the United States to attempt to reopen schools in the autumn as the country continues to struggle with the world’s deadliest outbreak of the coronavirus, and its efforts are being widely watched. But it closed classrooms back down in mid-November, less than eight weeks after they had begun to offer in-class lessons.

Some New Yorkers were frustrated to see schools close down again while gyms were allowed to operate and restaurants could offer indoor dining in most areas under rules enforced by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has publicly feuded with de Blasio over how best to tamp down the virus’ spread.

“I think that’s the right direction,” Cuomo said of the mayor’s announcement on a later conference call with reporters. Health experts said schools “should be kept open whenever it’s possible to keep them open safely,” he said.

Pre-kindergarten classes will also reopen Dec. 7 alongside elementary schools. Schools that serve children with special educational needs, known as District 75 schools, will reopen Dec. 10. De Blasio said middle schools and high schools would reopen at later dates that had not yet been set.

Many families had opted for remote learning even as classrooms reopened in September, but the city also offered “blended” learning, with students attending in-person classes a few days each week if they agreed to monthly coronavirus tests.

With the reopening of schools next month, to enter a classroom, students must have a signed consent form agreeing to coronavirus testing or a letter of medical exemption from a doctor, de Blasio said. Tests will be soon be carried out in schools on a weekly, not monthly, basis, but only about a fifth of students will be tested in a given week.

The mayor said the plan was to have in-person learning five days a week where possible when schools reopen.

The governor retains the power to override the city and close schools in neighborhoods where the test positivity rate surges, de Blasio noted. The city will also monitor schools’ coronavirus test results, and may close down any individual classrooms or entire schools where multiple cases are reported.

The United States has reported over 4 million new cases so far in November and over 35,000 coronavirus-related deaths, according to a Reuters tally, with more hospitalizations than ever this year and deaths reaching their highest level in six months.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen; Additional reporting by Lisa Shumaker; Editing by Leslie Adler)

California, Ohio order nightly curfews on gatherings as coronavirus surges

By Sharon Bernstein and Maria Caspani

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) – California’s governor on Thursday imposed a curfew on social gatherings and other non-essential activities in one of the most intrusive of the restrictions being ordered across the country to curb an alarming surge in novel coronavirus infections.

The stay-at-home order will go into effect from 10 p.m. until 5 a.m. each day, starting Saturday night and ending on the morning of Dec. 21, covering 41 of California’s 58 counties and the vast majority of its population, Governor Gavin Newsom said.

“The virus is spreading at a pace we haven’t seen since the start of this pandemic, and the next several days and weeks will be critical to stop the surge,” Newsom, a Democrat, said in a statement announcing the measure a week before the Thanksgiving holiday.

A similar 10 p.m.-to-5 a.m. curfew order was issued on Thursday in Ohio and will remain in effect for the next 21 days, Governor Mike DeWine, a Republican, announced separately.

As in California, the Ohio curfew would not prohibit grocery stores from remaining open past 10 p.m., or keep restaurants from staying open late for takeout orders. Individuals would likewise be permitted to venture out for food, medical care, or other necessities, as well as to take a jog or walk a dog.

In California, the restriction essentially marks a return to the first-in-the-nation, statewide stay-home order that Newsom imposed in March, except it applies only during the designated curfew hours rather than around the clock.

Signs of a resurgent public health crisis have emerged more starkly across the country, with officials forced to retreat from tentative steps to normalize daily life during what had been a brief lull in the pandemic.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a “strong recommendation” on Thursday that Americans refrain from traveling for the holiday.

Later in the day, President-elect Joe Biden emerged from a teleconference with a bipartisan group of 10 governors saying they had discussed a possible universal face-mask requirement – an idea Biden has strenuously advocated as a “patriotic duty.”

Biden also repeated he had no plans to impose a U.S. economic lockdown.

REIMPOSING RESTRICTIONS

Newsom and DeWine’s orders were among the most restrictive of various measures state and local government leaders nationwide have imposed on social and economic life this week as COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths have soared heading into the winter, when more people congregate indoors.

Minnesota ordered a shutdown of restaurants, bars, fitness centers and entertainment venues from Friday until Dec. 18 at the earliest, as the state’s hospital intensive care units were being stretched to capacity.

The number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 in the United States has jumped nearly 50% in the past two weeks, with more than 80,000 people being treated for the disease in hospitals across the country as of late Thursday, a Reuters tally showed, the most at any time during the pandemic.

The COVID-19 surge – and the refusal of some Americans to take it seriously as a real threat – has taken its toll on healthcare workers.

“I think that we’re exhausted. We feel alone, alienated and hearing people not being supportive or compassionate – in fact, saying that we’re in some conspiracy – is incredibly painful,” Mariam Torossian, a pulmonary critical care physician at Providence Saint Joseph’s Medical Center in Burbank, California.

The U.S. death toll from COVID-19 surpassed 250,000 on Wednesday, with more than 2,000 additional lives lost as of Thursday, and public health experts projecting the cumulative number could climb well above 400,000 by March.

More than 20 states have adopted new mandates this month to confront the mounting crisis.

Newsom, a first-term Democrat, warned that “more stringent actions” may be necessary in California, the most populous U.S. state with some 40 million residents, if the latest efforts to blunt the contagion fall short.

Still, Republican state Assemblyman James Gallagher branded the governor’s curfew “arbitrary,” saying it would “further decimate struggling businesses that already face some of the toughest hurdles in the country.”

Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones, also a Republican, said he would not enforce it.

NEW YORK SCHOOLS, RESTAURANTS

New York City’s public school system, the nation’s largest, halted in-class instruction due to rising infection rates just weeks after allowing its 1.1 million students back into classrooms on a part-time basis.

Mayor Bill de Blasio defended his decision to close the schools as a necessary but temporary measure, and said he expects the state to shut down indoor restaurant dining and gyms in the city “within a week or two” given rising infection rates.

Still, working parents voiced exasperation at the hardships it placed on them and the emotional toll on their children.

“I am sick, as a working mom, of waiting, checking Twitter to see if schools are going to be open tomorrow and how to juggle my work responsibilities and tell my daughter again to buck up,” Natalia Petrzela, whose 8-year-old attends public school in the city, told Reuters.

The Northeast, which for months had maintained low infection rates after being the epicenter of the pandemic in the spring, has experienced the highest percentage jump in hospitalizations at 85% over the past 14 days, according to Reuters data. During that same period, hospitalizations in the Midwest have risen 57%, in the West by 50%, and in the South by 34%.

In the nation’s capital, the Smithsonian Institution announced it would close its museums and the National Zoo beginning on Monday, with no set reopening date.

Looking further ahead, Pennsylvania officials announced that crowds will not be permitted to attend annual Groundhog Day festivities in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, on Feb. 2.

(Reporting by Maria Caspani, Gabriella Borter and Sharon Bernstein; Additional reporting by Anurag Maan, Rich McKay, Susan Heavey, Angela Moore and Rollo Ross; Writing by Steve Gorman and Gabriella Borter; Editing by Bill Berkrot, Bill Tarrant and Daniel Wallis)