HONOLULU (KHON2) — The Department of Health (DOH) has confirmed its first case of the omicron variant in Hawaii on Thursday, Dec. 2, joining a handful of states — New York, Colorado, Minnesota — to report the variant a day after it was detected in California.
State Epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Kemble said the new variant was found in an unvaccinated adult resident under the age of 65 who was previously infected with the coronavirus in 2020.
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On Monday, Nov. 29, the DOH received a notification from Diagnostic Laboratory Services, Inc. of a specimen with a molecular clue that indicated it may have been the omicron variant. The State Laboratories Division then conducted “expedited whole genome sequencing” which positively identified this specimen as the omicron variant.
“We were able to use a new sequencing platform that returned results within days,” explained Dr. Kemble. “Even faster than we’ve been able to receive them in the past.”
Previously, she explained it would take seven to 10 days to detect a new variant.
Dr. Kemble said this initial case is from Oahu; however, more specific information on what part of the island could not be disclosed at this time. The patient has experienced mild to moderate symptoms, including headaches, body aches, and coughing.
“We are currently still investigating the case to identify close contacts and providing appropriate quarantine measures,” she continued.
The patient is currently isolated at home and has not been hospitalized, nor did they report traveling.
“There was no travel history outside the state, signifying that community transmission of the omicron strain has already occurred in Hawaii,” stated Dr. Kemble.
She added that it is possible this person may have been exposed by coming into contact with other travelers, but this connection has not been confirmed as of Thursday. It is also currently unknown whether this person attended any major events, as well as what their occupation is.
Watch the DOH’s livestream discussing the first omicron variant case confirmed in Hawaii:
Health officials are continuing to investigate this case and monitor the omicron variant in Hawaii.
“Some of the concerns about this variant are that it could potentially breakthrough a vaccine and natural infection. So, there is still a lot to be learned about this variant, a lot of unknowns but we are watching it closely… The bottom line in terms of prevention measures, they are essentially unchanged. We still anticipate that vaccination is going to be one of the best ways to slow transmission, whether it’s getting your first dose or booster.”Dr. Sarah Kemble, State Epidemiologist
Dr. Kemble also said the DOH is now “actively sequencing” specimens for the omicron variant on all Hawaiian Islands.
“We still really are in a place where we need to maintain caution, and that it’s going to take a layered strategy to combat this,” Dr. Kemble added.
“This isn’t reason for panic, but it is reason for concern. It’s a reminder the pandemic is ongoing. We need to protect ourselves by getting vaccinated, wearing masks, distancing as best we can and avoiding large crowds,” said Health Director Dr. Elizabeth Char, FACEP.
County mayors recently relaxed COVID restrictions and said they are waiting to learn more about the variant from health officials; they will respond if and when it is necessary.
A statement from Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi:
“The State of Hawaii Department of Health has confirmed the first positive case of Omicron on Oahu. While it is concerning, it is not necessarily surprising based on our prior briefings with health officials. We will continue to work with the experts to learn more about this variant.
We have gone through an arduous journey and pulled through the most difficult times because our communities and people have responded beautifully.
We will respond when we have the facts. In the meantime, we continue to encourage vaccinations, boosters and getting our keiki vaccinated.”
A statement from Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami:
“This is not the first variant we’ve encountered and there are still a lot of unknowns at this time. As we await more guidance from the CDC, we will continue to monitor the situation closely. We shouldn’t panic, but we should continue to take precautions that we know keeps us safe – wear a mask, avoid large gatherings, take a post-travel test three to five days after arrival, stay home if you’re sick, and get vaccinated.”
A statement from a Hawaii County spokesperson via e-mail:
“As of now, the restrictions we have in place in Hawaii County are the same that have kept us going through the pandemic, and particularly through the delta surge. Things such as masking indoors, sanitizing regularly, and avoiding large gatherings as much as possible, are all still very much required and/or encouraged. We feel that the community knows what to do at this point. They have been doing it, and as a result, we have seen our hospitals and other medical resources stabilize accordingly. That said, we are watching the variant closely and are prepared to pivot if necessary, but are optimistic that the increase in vaccinations, coupled with the aloha of the community we will be able to continue reopening with a measured approach.
Additionally, hospital capacity is certainly a huge factor for us. If there is a surge again that results in hospital and medical resource overflow, then stricter rules could be put in place. ICUs, ventilators, and hospital beds remain the best indicators of public health on our end. However, we also take into account the “burnout” of staff at the hospitals and our other frontline workers, as their health and safety is also an important factor for providing adequate healthcare for our community.“
COVID restrictions were re-imposed statewide in summer 2021 during the delta surge when hospitals reached capacity. As of Thursday, the Healthcare Association of Hawaii said there were 38 COVID patients in hospitals, but bed space is limited as more people are seeking basic care.
“We’re only 50 patients away from where we were at the peak of the surge,” Hilton Raethel, President and CEO of the Healthcare Association of Hawaii, said on Thursday.
Raethel also said they can add about 300 additional hospital beds and FEMA-funded nurses can be called back to Hawaii if necessary.
“Unfortunately, this pandemic keeps sort of, you know, twisting and turning, and we don’t know we have no way of knowing. Obviously, it will have an impact into the new year but how far into the new year continues to have a serious impact, only time will tell,” Raethel said.
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The omicron variant was first identified in South Africa and has already been detected in at least 23 countries.