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The last chapter in the pandemic story for Cuomo: A new wave of COVID in NYC?

There’d be something grimly poetic about the pandemic ending the way it began, with a clueless Andrew Cuomo presiding over an avoidable outbreak in America’s biggest city because he was too slow to close things down.

Thankfully, the next one — if it happens — won’t be nearly as bad as the first. Deaths from COVID in NYC right now are a small fraction of what they were when the virus was rampaging through the city 12 months ago and it’s all but inconceivable that they’d ever approach that level again. There’s too much immunity now, both via infection and vaccination, for corona to lay waste to New York the way it once did. And the governor has seemingly learned his lesson after his brilliant plan to send infected nursing-home patients back into their residences.

But it’s worth paying attention to what’s happening in NYC, as the number of daily cases there is higher than you might expect. The state of California, with 40 million people, had around 3,500 new cases yesterday; New York City, with a population of eight million, had … 3,519 on a day earlier this week. (Important note: California had more than four times as many deaths.) Like everywhere else in America, NYC has seen cases fall sharply since the worst of the pandemic this past winter — but not as sharply as the country as a whole. The U.S. is about 75-80 percent off its peak in January. New York City isn’t even 50 percent off its peak:

It topped out at a seven-day average of around 6,400 cases in early January. Why is NYC, where immunity should be more common than it is in most of the country, having trouble keeping pace with the rest of the U.S. in tamping down COVID cases?

An ominous possibility: The “New York variant” of the virus that scientists identified a few weeks ago really is more contagious than common coronavirus. Per the latest data, that seems to be the case.

One of the so-called variants, first detected in the city, now accounts for nearly 40 percent of all cases analyzed in local laboratories. The increase in the variant, B.1.526, was so striking that officials said they believed it was more infectious than the original form of the coronavirus.

Another more contagious variant, B.1.1.7, first discovered in Britain, also is spreading steadily in the city, accounting for 12 percent of cases analyzed in the last week of February, up from 8 percent the prior week. B.1.1.7 may be more lethal than earlier versions of the virus…

Dr. Anthony West, a computational biologist at Caltech, said in an interview on Wednesday that his ongoing research also showed that the B.1.526 variant was “increasing at a considerable pace in New York City” but that it remained “fairly localized” in the area.

B.1.526 made up 31 percent of all cases in NYC in the third week of February compared to 40 percent now, which means it’s gaining ground. Combine that with the 12 percent of cases attributable to the British variant and more than half the cases across the city at the moment were caused by strains known to be more infectious than coronavirus 1.0. The good news is that COVID caused by the New York variant doesn’t seem to be more lethal than original COVID — or, maybe, there’s just less human timber around for the virus to burn through. Many seniors are vaccinated, many others have natural immunity, and thousands more perished last year in Cuomo’s half-assed purge of the olds. But a more contagious virus should mean more deaths as it spreads more widely. So what’s America’s worst governor doing to avert that?

Well, lately, he’s been … reopening businesses. It’s hard to remember now after the lefty uproar about Texas lifting its pandemic restrictions but it was Cuomo’s move to loosen regulations last month that first got public-health experts like Fauci complaining about governors reopening too quickly after the winter surge. Early last month Cuomo announced restaurants could reopen for indoor dining at 25 percent capacity; yesterday he expanded that to 50 percent for restaurants in NYC starting March 19 and to 75 percent for restaurants outside the city. Today he announced that domestic travelers will no longer need to quarantine upon arrival in New York beginning April 1. Concert venues are also set to open at 33 percent capacity early next month.

None of those are gamechangers in and of themselves. But a series of reopenings by an executive who’s been known for caution since his horribly bungled first act of the pandemic is a signal to New Yorkers that things will only get better from here, and that just ain’t necessarily so given the prevalence of the variants. Americans are already letting down their guards on social distancing as vaccinations proceed; according to smartphone data, we’re traveling more now than we did at this time last year. Now here’s Cuomo nudging NYC residents to socialize again when scientists know that the more contagious strains of the virus are picking up speed. And if cases begin to climb, he may be reluctant to shut things down again. Not only would that amount to an admission that he reopened too early, as scientists had warned him, but it would make the public more hostile to him at a moment when the public’s already pretty darned hostile.

So, we’ll see. One more hard spell for New York City before the virus finally departs for good, perhaps.

New York isn’t the only locale where contagious variants are taking over, by the way. According to Biden advisor Michael Osterholm, more than 50 percent of the viruses now coming from Florida, Texas, and Georgia are the British strain.