HONOLULU (KHON2) — The Department of Health (DOH) confirmed more cases of the contagious UK and South African COVID-19 variant on Friday, March 19.
The announcement comes as Hawaii has welcomed over 120,000 trans-Pacific travelers in the last week.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and health officials advised Americans not to travel over spring break as the country tries to stop the variants from spreading.
The DOH confirmed Hawaii had its first case of the South African variant on Monday, March 8, from an Oahu resident who had no travel history.
State epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Kemble told the media, “There are some household contacts who have also tested positive, we are also doing an investigation of the workplace.”
She did not specify how many close contacts tested positive for COVID-19 and said it would be a week or so until labs could confirm if they caught the variant as well.
According to the CDC website, Texas and California have recorded fewer cases of the highly contagious variant when compared to Hawaii.
“As people travel, as people don’t wear masks, they are going to spread these variants,” explained Dr. Toni Brayer, an internal medicine doctor in California. “The fact that it is increasing in Hawaii just tells us that people are not being as vigilant and it’s spreading.”
The Hawaii State Lab director also confirmed two more cases of the contagious UK variant.
“So both variants are present in the community, they’re both being spread which is why we have to make sure we don’t relax our precautions which is masking, physical distancing, hand washing, and no partying,” said Dr. Edward Desmond.
Dr. Desmond said the UK variant is 40% to 70% more transmissible and deadly.
The California variant, which is spreading across Maui, is about 20% more contagious and is the cause for the recent uptick in cases.
Health officials say it is a race to get shots in arms.
“If you had the vaccine and if you get infected with one of those strains the South African or California, you will not go to the hospital and you will not die,” explained Dr. Desmond. “So the virus will not cause serious illness in those people.”
The CDC warned Americans against traveling for spring break but more than 120,000 people came to Hawaii in the last week as more restrictions were lifted and case numbers started to rise.
The last time Hawaii recorded three days of 80 or more cases was the first week in February, 2021. Health officials say that was a result of the holiday season.
“I think you’re going to see a surge, you’re already seeing a surge,” said Dr. Brayer. “This is what happened in California after the Christmas holiday when people were traveling. Now, you’re getting the California variant and other states are coming to your beautiful islands because they want your weather, but this is not the time to really be embracing a lot of tourism and I think you’re seeing why.”
Dr. Brayer said, Hawaii’s vaccine rollout is well behind other states and said the sooner hospitality workers can be vaccinated, the safer the economy will be.
“Get the locals vaccinated, and then you know that there’s going to be people that sneak in that are bringing a variant, but you’ll have enough immunity among everyone to keep it from catching hold,” she said.
Health officials advise anyone who can sign up for the vaccine to do so.
KHON2 asked what happens if 60% of the country decides not to get vaccinated by July 4.
“Then we’re going to have more mutations, more variants, and more infections,” Dr. Brayer said. “The longer it smolders along, the more mutations there are.”