This is our daily update of breaking COVID-19 news for Sunday, December 20th, 2020. 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 Monday, 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.

5:28 p.m.: The CDC's advisory panel has voted to recommend people older than 75 years and frontline essential workers should be next in line for the COVID-19 vaccine.

Frontline essential workers would include first responders, teachers and school faculty, and workers in industries such as food, agriculture, manufacturing, corrections facilities, the postal service, public transit, and grocery stores, according to a Sunday presentation from the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices.

Targeting older people and essential workers was anticipated and in line with NYC and the state's indications of its priority groups. The vote officially determined federal guidance on priority groups in phase 1b, which includes people 75 and older and frontline essential workers, and phase 1c, which includes people 65 to 74 years old, those between 16 and 64 with high-risk health conditions, and other essential workers.

Phase 1a includes 24 million people, according to the committee. That group included long term care facility residents and healthcare workers. About 49 million people are in phase 1b and 129 million in phase 1c.

The panel voted 13 to 1 on the guidance, which state governments can use when making their decisions, according to CNBC. The news channel reported Dr. Henry Bernstein of Northwell Cohen Children's Medical Center voted against the phase 1b and phase 1c recommendations because he wanted those 65 years of age and older to be included.

The NYC Health Department has previously said future vaccine phases in NYC would be determined by vaccine supplies and availability as well as the advisory committee's recommendations. Governor Andrew Cuomo laid out his own priority strategy back in October breaking down various groups of at-risk individuals, which included people older than 65 who were not already included earlier phases in a third phase.

Dr. Kathleen Dooling of the CDC said the specific prioritization of each group is unlikely to impact how coronavirus infections play out in the country.

"Differences between strategies in minimal," Dooling said, according to CNBC. "Vaccinating older adults first averts slightly more deaths, while vaccinating younger adults first, essential workers and younger adults with high-risk conditions, averts slightly more infections."

The CDC has also recommended the use of the Moderna vaccine for anyone 18 and older after the FDA permitted its emergency use on Friday night. Moderna vaccines were shipped off to sites around the country starting Sunday.

In New York, vaccinations at long term care facilities are expected to begin Monday, Governor Andrew Cuomo said during a Sunday press call. Updated information on vaccine supplies is also expected Monday. Previously, the governor said NY would get 346,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine. State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker said the state was not impacted by a miscommunication to states on vaccine supplies that Operation Warp Speed official General Gustave Perna took the blame for on Saturday.

A normally very busy Bromley High Street in Bromley, South East London looked deserted this morning on the last Sunday before Christmas day on December 20th.

A normally very busy Bromley High Street in Bromley, South East London looked deserted this morning on the last Sunday before Christmas day on December 20th.

A normally very busy Bromley High Street in Bromley, South East London looked deserted this morning on the last Sunday before Christmas day on December 20th.
Grant Falvey/LNP/Shutterstock

New Virus Variant Blamed For Accelerated Spread Of COVID In England

2:33 p.m.: A new variant of the coronavirus has started spreading in London, leading the city to be placed under the strictest lockdown since the early days of the pandemic.

"It seems that the spread is now being driven by the new variant of the virus," Prime Minister Boris Johnson said during a Saturday press conference. "It may be up to 70% more transmissible than the old variant, the original version of the disease. This is early data and it's subject to review."

The new lockdown in London, and the southeast and east of England, began Sunday. Non-essential retail, gyms, and personal care services must close, and stay home for work if they can. Residents must not stay overnight away from home and can only gather with one person from outside their household in an outdoor setting under "Tier 4" restrictions.

"It is with a very heavy heart, I must tell you, we cannot continue with Christmas as planned," Johnson said Saturday.

Various European countries have since blocked incoming flights from the U.K.

Travel restrictions for entering the U.S. continue to be in effect on non-American citizens who have been in the U.K., Ireland, the Schengen zone, Iran, Brazil, and China in the past two weeks. American citizens and permanent residents as well close family members or diplomats are exempt from the COVID travel restrictions.

The U.S. implemented travel restrictions on parts of Europe in March. President Donald Trump was reportedly considering lifting restrictions before Christmas after urging from U.K. officials in recent weeks, before the latest public health measures in London.

Governor Andrew Cuomo said further preventative measures should be put into place on travel from the U.K. Six flights a day arrive in NY from the U.K., the governor said during a Sunday press call.

"To me, this is reprehensible because this is what happened in the spring," Cuomo said.

"Right now this variant in the U.K. is getting on a plane and flying to JFK," Cuomo warned, urging the federal government to add a new requirement that anyone coming to the U.S. from the U.K. get a COVID-19 test on the U.K. side, like 120 countries already do, according to Cuomo. "Where is HHS? Where is CDC? Where is the NIH? This is the same mistake."

"Doing nothing is negligent," the governor added.

The NY Times reported new variants of the virus are not surprising. But the mutations should be monitored to determine the effects of different versions of the coronavirus.

Though British officials say transmissibility is much higher for the new variant of the virus, an infectious disease expert, Dr. Muge Cevik, told the Times: "We can't entirely rule out the fact that some of this transmissibility data might be related to human behavior."

Additionally, the adaptations to the virus doesn't mean a person's immune system will be unable to stave off the virus with other types of antibodies and defenses, according to the Times.

Cuomo said Sunday state health officials have not found the new variant of the virus in New York cases.

U.S. health authorities are "looking very carefully into this," Operation Warp Speed official Moncef Slaoui said on CNN.

In NY, 6,185 people were in the hospital for COVID-19, according to figures the governor announced Sunday. The positivity rate was at 5.05%, down from 5.18% the day prior.

An additional 123 New Yorkers died from coronavirus, bringing the official state death toll to 28,597. The state does not include probable coronavirus deaths in its count.