This is our daily update of breaking COVID-19 news for Thursday, January 28th, 2021. Previous daily updates can be found here, and up-to-date statistics are here.

New York City is in Phase 4 of reopening now, which includes zoos, botanical gardens, museums, and gyms. Citing rising hospitalization rates, Governor Andrew Cuomo suspended indoor dining in NYC starting December 14th. After being shut down for several weeks, NYC public schools partially reopened on December 7th for 3K-5th grade students, with students with special needs returning on December 10th. Certain parts of Staten Island remain under a zoned shutdown.

Get answers to questions you may have with our "Ask An Epidemiologist" series, or learn more about NYC COVID-19 testing options with our explainer. Here are some local and state hotlines for more information: NYC: 311; NY State Hotline: 888-364-3065; NJ State Hotline: 800-222-1222.

Here's the latest:

1:20 p.m.: Public health officials in South Carolina announced Thursday that two coronaviruses cases are associated with the South African variant. These are the first two cases of this variant, which is named B.1.351, in the United States. 

Epidemiologists in South Africa announced the emergence of this variant in mid-December. Unlike the U.K strain, which is simply better at spreading, researchers say B.1.351’s advantage stems from bypassing our immunity.  

According to the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, there is no known travel history or connection between these two cases—which suggests there’s already community transmission. On Wednesday, White House officials said the nation ranks 43rd in genomic sequencing—the special brand of testing needed to identify these variants and track how quickly they spread.

Both Moderna and Pfizer have voiced concerns over the South African variant, after initial studies by their researchers and independent labs found that it could partially weaken the protection offered by their vaccines. These findings place extra emphasis on the need for taking both doses of these vaccines to ensure people’s health.

The B.1.351 variant also appears to bypass the protections of monoclonal antibody therapeutics, which have been used in emergencies to treat patients such as President Trump, Rudy Giuliani, and Rep. Bonnie Coleman Watson. Two makers of these drugs--Eli Lilly and Tarrytown’s Regeneron--are planning updates for these medicines. On Wednesday, Dr. Anthony Fauci of the White House COVID-19 task force said these drugs may require updates in the future. Regeneron is already working on one.

On Wednesday, New Jersey officials announced the country’s first death due to the U.K. variant.

Legal Advocates Call For Cuomo To Change Policy On COVID-19 Vaccines For State Prisoners

Attica Correctional Facility in Attica, New York, 2013

Attica Correctional Facility in Attica, New York, 2013

Attica Correctional Facility in Attica, New York, 2013
Inmate Golf Art, Attica, USA

11:00 a.m.: Legal advocates are calling on Governor Andrew Cuomo to start COVID-19 vaccinations for all vulnerable people in state prisons. In a letter sent to the governor, attorneys from The Legal Aid Society describe the state’s current policy “cruel” and “inhumane.”

While federal prisons began immunizations for those in custody in late December, the state still hasn’t provided a timeline for when the most vulnerable inmates would begin to receive shots. New York City started jail-wide vaccinations in early January.

State officials currently allow vaccinations for corrections officers, while the 1,100 people older than 65 currently held in state prisons are ineligible. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends vaccination for all incarcerated people and corrections officers simultaneously, given the coronavirus’s tendency to spread through all members of prison communities before leaking into the general public.

“[There is] complete silence from the State about the plan for providing the vaccine to one of the most at-risk populations.” the letter reads. The signatories demand the state reverse the policy and immediately release its plan to vaccinate incarcerated people.

Last week, a state judge ordered the vaccination of a 65-year-old incarcerated man with chronic lung disease, but his attorneys say he still hasn’t been offered one. Meanwhile, COVID-19 outbreaks in the state’s 52 prisons continue to balloon, with 560 new infections of state prison inmates and one death over the past week.

New York State officials did not immediately return a request for comment.