New York’s COVID-19 testing positivity rate has fallen below 3% for the fist time since Nov. 23, indicating that the winter holiday surge is over.

But the good news about the declining positive test results was tempered with news of the first case of the South African variant of the virus that causes COVID-10 in a resident of New York State. The South African variant was confirmed in a Nassau County resident, the governor said. Last week, a Connecticut resident who had been hospitalized in New York City was found to have the South African variant.

The South African variant, like the U.K. variant and a new variant that emerged in Brazil, which was first identified at the end of last month, seems to spread more easily and quickly than the virus that has been prevalent in the United States since the start of the outbreak here last spring, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Neither variant is believed to be more deadly or cause more serious illness than the strain of the virus that has been confirmed in nearly 27.9 million Americans to date. And indications are that the current vaccines are effective against these variants. “This is being closely investigated and more studies are underway,” the CDC says on its website.

As of Thursday, Feb. 18, the U.K. variant has been identified in 42 states, including New York, where 70 infections with the variant have so far been confirmed, according to the CDC. There were a total 1,523 reported cases of the U.K. variant in the U.S. as of that date.

Also as of Thursday, there were 21 known cases of the South African variant in the U.S., according to the CDC. It was confirmed in 10 states: Massachusetts (2), Connecticut (1), Maryland (8) Washington D.C. (1), Virginia (2), North Carolina (1), South Carolina (2), Illinois (1), Texas (1) and California (2).

It is unknown how widely the new variants have actually spread in the United States, since genome sequencing is conducted a a very small sample of confirmed positive samples. The U.S. has no nationwide surveillance system for monitoring coronavirus genomes for variants. A patchwork of state and commercial labs are doing genome sequencing on fewer than 3,000 samples each week. Even after the recent decline in confirmed positive cases, the U.S. still had more than 478,000 new confirmed cases in the week just ended. CDC reports it is in the process of scaling up sequencing efforts.

The CDC said last month its modeling data indicate that the trajectory of the U.K. variant in the U.S. show its rapid growth would make it the the predominant form of the virus in March.

A team of researchers in a study partly funded by CDC examined half a million coronavirus tests and hundreds of genomes and predicted the U.K. variant, known as B.1.1.7 would become predominant in the U.S. in March, if the variant behaves the same way as it did in the U.K.

The B.1.1.7 variant is 35-45% more transmissible, the researchers reported, doubling in relative frequency about every week and a half. The spread of this variant will lead to further surges of COVID-19 in the country, unless urgent mitigation efforts are immediately implemented, their report stated.

Further complicating the government’s effort to get a clear picture of where things stand with the variants in the U.S. is the potential for the variants changing the performance of COVID-19 tests.

The FDA last month issued a letter to clinical labs and health care providers advising that the genetic variants may lead to false negative test results.

Laboratories should expect some false negative results to occur even when very accurate SARS-CoV-2 tests are used, the FDA said.

New York’s statewide testing percent-positive was 2.99% yesterday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced this morning. Of 221,157 test results reported, 6,610 were positive. The seven-day average test positivity rate was 3.4%

Hospitalizations statewide are also down. There were 3,792 people admitted to hospitals with COVID-19 in the week ended Feb. 19.

Total daily hospitalizations dropped below 6,000 for the first time since Dec. 14, to 5,977.

There were 753 COVID-19 deaths in the week ending Feb. 19.

About 2.2 million — New Yorkers have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine as of Feb. 19 and more than 1 million have received both doses, according to data provided by the governor.

In Suffolk County, the testing positivity rate at 4.4% for the week ended Feb. 19 remains above the state average of 3.6% for the same seven-day period.

Two hundred, seventy people were admitted to hospitals in Suffolk in the week while 281 were discharged. The seven-day average of daily inpatient hospitalizations was 522 patients. There were 99 people in ICU beds as of Feb. 19.

Sixty-nine Suffolk residents died of COVID-19 in the seven-day period ending Feb. 19.

Suffolk’s total fatalities in the pandemic this week rose above 3,000 deaths. As of Friday, the COVID death toll in Suffolk was 3,022. The county has not yet released data for Feb. 20.

The number of deaths statewide was 37,851 on Feb. 20.

The death toll from the virus is approaching half a million since the first U.S. death was reported in Washington State on Feb. 28 last year. (Postmortem testing revealed two earlier deaths in California, which were reported in April.) The CDC today reported 496,112 total fatalities in the U.S., an increase of 2,104 since yesterday and 13,339 in the past week.

The seven-day rolling average has fallen below 2,000 per day for the first time since late November. The average had been around 3,000 deaths per day from mid-January to mid-February.

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.