Dec. 23, 2020 -- New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that starting today, all visitors to the city from the United Kingdom must quarantine or face a $1,000 fine. The move is in response to word that a highly contagious COVID-19 variant is now spreading across the UK
“We cannot take chances with anyone who travels, particularly folks traveling in from the U.K.,” de Blasio said in a Wednesday morning briefing.
Under the new regulations, the New York Department of Health will send orders of a 2-week quarantine to travelers via certified mail or hand delivery by the sheriff’s office. The sheriff's Travel Unit will be performing door knocks to verify that the travelers are in comply. If they defy the order, they will be fined.
The move comes as the state’s governor. Andrew Cuomo, says scientists have begun “aggressive” testing to find out if the variant has entered New York. Though no evidence of the variant has been found in the state or any other place in the United States, several health experts say it is probably already here but hasn’t yet been detected.
Cuomo said the Wadsworth Center, the state public health lab in Albany, has looked at 3,700 virus sequences from the state, but has not found the U.K. variant in any samples so far.
Six hospitals across the state will collect virus samples for testing, with more hospitals being added in coming days, Cuomo said in a news release.
The governor also repeated his call for the federal government to put restrictions on travelers coming from the U.K..
"Upon learning of this new variant, we immediately worked with airlines to ensure that anyone getting on a plane from the U.K. bound for New York tests negative, but we need federal action and we need it now,” he said.
"We know that the virus originally got on a plane and came to New York from Europe in the spring. It's inexcusable that the federal government has failed to learn that lesson and we need them to do the smart thing and institute testing requirements for travelers entering the United States from any country.”
Several airlines have already agreed to test passengers coming to New York City from the U.K., including Virgin Atlantic, British Airways, and Delta Air Lines, WABC reported.
In a WebMD interview, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, Anthony Fauci, MD, said the variant “might well be here” already. He also says he doesn’t favor a travel ban on the U.K.
“The European Union is banning travel from the U.K. I think that may be an overreaction now,” he said during an interview on “Coronavirus in Context,” a WebMD video series. “I would not be against at least seriously considering making sure that people who fly here or come here from the U.K. ... be tested before they get on the plane so that you know they’re negative when they get here.”
Other scientists agree with Fauci’s assessment that people are likely infected with the variant already.
"If I had to guess, I would say it's probably in hundreds of people by now," said Michael Worobey, PhD, head of the department of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona, according to CNN. "It's very possible it's arrived multiple times in multiple places."
He estimated the virus may have arrived in the U.S. in mid-November, CNN said.
The CDC said the variant has not been identified in the United States yet, but noted viruses have been sequenced from only 51,000 of the 17 million U.S. cases.
“Ongoing travel between the United Kingdom and the United States, as well as the high prevalence of this variant among current UK infections, increase the likelihood of importation. Given the small fraction of US infections that have been sequenced, the variant could already be in the United States without having been detected,” the CDC said.
Public Health England said the variant may be 70% more contagious than other coronavirus strains and probably caused a spike in cases in southeastern England.
There’s no evidence so far that the variant is more deadly than other strains or is resistant to the Pfizer vaccine that’s being administered in the U.K. and the United States, health authorities say.