As the COVID-19 outbreak continues to spread throughout the United States, it is exploding in New York City. Research shows thousands of infected persons from New York spread coronavirus through much of the country before the city began implementing its lockdown protocols. The unrestricted travel helped fuel outbreaks in Louisiana, Texas, Arizona and even in West Coast states.
The data has been drawn from geneticists tracking signature mutations of the virus, the travel histories of people with COVID-19 and outbreak models made by infectious disease experts.
“We now have enough data to feel pretty confident that New York was the primary gateway for the rest of the country,” said epidemiologist Nathan Grubaugh of the Yale School of Public Health.
NYC joins other urban hot spots around the world, such as Wuhan in China, Milan in Italy and Qom in Iran, which all have become vectors for coronavirus.
New York City’s coronavirus outbreak grew so large by early March that it became the primary source of new U.S. infections, new research revealshttps://t.co/etBdPzxRyq
— The New York Times (@nytimes) May 7, 2020
On March 14, NYC closed down all of the city’s public libraries; this was followed by the city’s schools on March 15; and on March 17, theaters, nightclubs and concert venues were also shut down. The following week, on March 22, Gov. Andrew Cuomo put the whole state on lockdown.
Despite the lockdown, the coronavirus still continued to spread throughout the U.S. because by this time, NYC had already turned into the “Grand Central Station” of coronavirus, according to David Engelthaler, head of infectious disease at the Translational Genomics Research Institute in Arizona.
What this means is that the city acted late to prevent the domestic spread of the coronavirus. However, even if they had locked down the city – and the state – early enough, the virus probably would have continued to spread. One of America’s early outbreaks came from Seattle. This spread the coronavirus throughout Washington state and across 14 other states, including Connecticut and Maryland in the Eastern Seaboard.
But the spread of the Seattle outbreak was nothing compared to the spread of NYC. By the end of February, thousands of infected people had passed through the city and, during crucial weeks in March when the city would have been able to take decisive action to quell the spread of the virus, the city’s political leaders waited too long before taking aggressive action. This, despite the fact that NYC already had tens of thousands of cases by the time Cuomo shut down the whole state.
#BREAKING: I will sign an Executive Order mandating that 100% of workforce must stay home, excluding essential services.
This order excludes pharmacies, grocery stores, and others.
— Andrew Cuomo (@NYGovCuomo) March 20, 2020
Geneticists analyzed and shared over 2,000 coronavirus samples from infected people all over the country.
As the virus spread throughout the U.S., it replicates and picks up different mutations which, while they don’t change the behavior of the virus, can help researchers pinpoint the virus’ origins.
Many of the samples taken from COVID-19 patients in Wisconsin, Texas, Ohio, Louisiana, Idaho and many other states carried with them distinct mutations that the geneticists traced back to New York. Grubaugh estimated that infections that spread from NYC accounted for around 60 to 65 percent of the virus samples they sequenced. However, other scientists want to take more samples before calculating precise figures.
Despite that, Grubaugh and the other researchers agreed that travelers from New York has played a prominent role in the spread of the coronavirus across the United States. They believe the national spread may have begun in early March, around two weeks before the state’s lockdown orders were issued. This is supported by The New York Times, who analyzed cellphone and travel data and found that the severity of the outbreak in certain areas depended on how many people in that location had been to New York in the past two weeks.
The analysis also found that a majority of the viruses tied to New York had a distinct genetic signature that they were able to link to outbreaks in Europe, suggesting that European visitors to the city helped spread the virus. This contrasts with the Seattle outbreak, which had genetic signatures linking directly traceable to China. (Related: New York City becomes the new Wuhan: Big Apple now the new US epicenter of global coronavirus pandemic.)
NYC and Seattle aren’t the only sources of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States. Other large urban areas have also contributed to the spread, and the coronavirus is showing a more diverse genetic mix, especially in areas in the Midwest and in parts of the South.
Furthermore, even as domestic travel was spreading coronavirus throughout the country, international travelers were also bringing the virus in, which is why some scientists believe it may be too early to put a lot of the blame on NYC alone. It is still possible, they argue, that some of the virus samples the geneticists attributed to NYC may have instead come from Europe, especially through direct flights or lay-overs in NYC.
For this reason, some scientists want to continue their research and gather more samples to try and figure out how the coronavirus spread so rapidly throughout the U.S. – and possibly figure out a way to better halt it dead in its tracks.