UPDATED: Airlines agree to added testing for NY-bound passengers as worries grow over new virus strain

Photo by Kevin Coughlin, Office of the Governor
Terminal B at LaGuardia Airport in Queens. Three airlines that fly from the United Kingdom to New York have voluntarily agreed to require a COVID-19 test before allowing passengers to board planes to New York. With this move, New York joins the list of 120 countries with a similar requirement on flights from the U.K.

In the wake of a new, highly contagious variant of the COVID-19 virus found in the United Kingdom, three airlines have agreed to test passengers traveling from the UK to New York.

British Airways, Delta Airlines and Virgin Atlantic have agreed to require a COVID-19 test before allowing passengers to board planes traveling to Port Authority-operated airports from the United Kingdom.

New York is currently the only state on a list of 120 countries that require testing passengers for the COVID-19 virus on flights from the U.K.

Scientists have detected a variation of the coronavirus in southern England which is believed to be up to 70 percent more contagious, though it is not know if the new strain is any more deadly.

The discovery of the variant — known as B.1.1.7. — prompted British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to impose strict travel and gathering restrictions for the holidays.

“This is very concerning, this new strain that they have found in the UK,” Cuomo said Monday. “The strain, according to Boris Johnson, is 70 percent more transmittable than the old strain. They don’t know if there’s any higher rate of death, they don’t know if the vaccine is as effective with the new strain. The quote from the UK medical officer was our ‘working assumption,’ quote unquote, is that the vaccine works.

“The strain is so serious that the UK has closed down again,” Cuomo added. “If the UK believes the strain is so serious that Boris Johnson, who said the week before we’re not going to cancel Christmas, we’re not going to close, did a 180-degree turn, and then closed parts of the UK, it’s serious, my friends, and we are on notice about it.”

Cuomo said Monday he made the request to the three airlines because he doesn’t want New York to be victimized again by “federal incompetence and negligence.” British Airways was the first to volntarily add the testing requirement for New York=bound passengers. Delta and Virgin followed on Monday.

The governor has repeatedly said that the COVID-19 virus arrived in New York on flights from Europe, catching officials off-guard in the spring.

“Why don’t we act intelligently for a change? Why don’t we mandate testing before people get on the flight, or halt the flights from the UK now? Many other countries have done this. This is not a case of first impression. You have many countries that have just restricted flights from the UK. Many European countries have done it.

“Why are we doing nothing,” Cuomo continued. “[Now] 120 countries require the UK travelers to receive a negative test before they get on the plane in the UK — 120 countries and the United States has done nothing.”

The three airlines that come from the UK and fly into New York and New Jersey are British Airways, Delta and Virgin Atlantic, bringing several thousand passengers per day.

The airlines agreed to Gov. Cuomo’s request, making New York the only state on the list of countries that require the added testing. Cuomo said he thinks the new, more virulent strain of COVID-19 is already here in New York, but he is trying to stop new cases from arriving.

“People in government often believe doing nothing is safe. Well, if I do nothing, I won’t be criticized. I don’t believe that. I believe that’s exactly wrong,” Cuomo said. “There are situations where doing nothing is actually doing something; where doing nothing is actually an affirmative action. When you do not require the UK flights to be tested, you are allowing thousands of UK passengers to arrive here every day. The authorities say they haven’t found the strain here yet. They are science based until they find the strain, they will say there is no strain.

“I believe, intuitively, it’s already here. I believe that because if it’s been flying around the world, it will be here. I say that intuitively because I have an educated intuition because I lived this and you lived this. This was the spring. This is how we had that New York ambush in the first place. This was ‘don’t worry, the coronavirus is in China.’ No, it wasn’t. The coronavirus got on a plane in China and went to Europe and it came here from Europe. Nobody said anything for two months in the federal government. It had been coming for so long that it was too late.”

UPDATED 12/22/20 at 1:19 pm:

Gov. Cuomo on Tuesday announced that Wadsworth Laboratory has begun aggressive research of the new, highly contagious COVID-19 strain that has been discovered in the United Kingdom.

Wadsworth has already looked at more than 3,700 virus sequences identified in New York, but has yet to find the U.K. variant present in any of the samples.

Additionally, Wadsworth and the Department of Health have forged agreements with six hospitals from across the State to obtain additional samples and is continuing to make arrangements with other hospitals to do the same. Those hospitals with agreements already in place include: Montefiore; Memorial Sloan Kettering; Northwell Long Island; University of Rochester; Albany Medical Center; and Saratoga Hospital.