Highly transmissible COVID-19 variant found in Hawaii


HONOLULU (KHON2) — Gov. David Ige held a news conference at the state Capitol on Friday, Feb. 5, announcing that a highly transmissible COVID-19 variant has been found in Hawaii.

[Hawaii news on the go–LISTEN to KHON 2GO weekday mornings at 7:30 a.m.]

The variant — known as B1.1.7. — was first discovered in the United Kingdom.

“We’re concerned because it’s more infectious. It’s up to 60% more infectious, and that research is still ongoing,” Lt. Gov. Josh Green said.

Only one case of the B1.1.7. U.K. variant has been confirmed on Oahu. The patient did not have any travel history — indicating it came from the community. One close contact has tested positive for COVID-19 and sequencing of the U.K. strain is being conducted.

“I anticipate likely that would also be a B1.1.7 given the epidemiology, but we will see what the final sequencing shows on that,” Dr. Sarah Kemble, Acting State Epidemiologist said. “The other close contacts have been investigated and so far tested negative. So, that contact tracing investigation is ongoing.”

A total of 33 states had cases of B1.1.7 with over 600 cases nationwide as of the evening of Thursday, Feb. 4, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. California and Florida had the most cases of the UK variant.

“We do want to emphasize that the B1.1.7 variant is different,” said Gov. Ige. “So, we’ve seen in the United Kingdom, it can swiftly spread and erase all progress that we’ve made here in the state.”

Hawaii currently has one of the lowest positivity rates in the country, 1.8%, and has been averaging 101 new cases daily.

State leaders want to keep it that way but said hospitals are prepared if cases start to rise.

“The vaccine seems to work quite well against this new U.K. B1.1.7. variant,” State Laboratories Division Director Dr. Edward Desmond said in the news conference.

The way that the virus transmits is not any different, according to Dr. Kemble.

“It’s not that it is more airborne or transmit in a different mechanism,” she said. “The variant has been shown to have higher viral loads in those who are infected and it has to do with some of the mutations and the spike protein.”

The variant also does not change what you need to do to prevent transmission, she added. All anyone can do is be in control of what can be controlled.

“That’s wearing masks, socially distancing, not double-dipping our chips at the Super Bowl party, which we shouldn’t be having — these are the things that we can control,” said Green.

The state is currently sampling 75 specimens per week that are likely to have viruses that have the variance. “And we collect them also from all parts of the state to make sure that we don’t miss it in any of the neighbor islands and so forth,” explained Dr. Desmond. “As I mentioned it takes about a week, and we create a large data set. We report when variants that are present to the state epidemiologist and then they are able to implement the control measures and the contact investigation.”

State officials concluded the conference saying they plan to redouble their vaccination efforts.

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