Maui and Oahu report cases of new COVID-19 variant

Coronavirus

HONOLULU (KHON2) — The state laboratory has detected two cases of a COVID variant in Hawaii. One of which was found on Oahu and another case on Maui.

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The L452R strain was first detected in Denmark in March of 2020.

The state Department of Health (DOH) says the two cases are unrelated.

On Monday, Dr. Sarah Kemble, Deputy State Epidemiologist, said the Oahu case was linked to mainland travel. The Maui case is still under investigation.

“We’re working on [that investigation] very actively, but we have not found any travel ties for that second case,” she said during a media zoom meeting Monday afternoon.

The DOH says the strain is in about two dozen other states, but has been found in a large number of cases in California.

“Since we are tied to the West Coast, it’s not terribly surprising that we might be seeing it here,” Dr. Kemble said.

The state health department’s laboratories division began genome sequencing in June in search of possible COVID-19 variants.

It now examines 75 specimens a week and has developed a testing algorithm designed to find variants as soon as possible after they arrive.

The DOH says the B.1.1.7 variant, which was first found in the United Kingdom, and the B.1.351 variant, which was first found in South Africa, both have enhanced transmissibility and neither have been detected in Hawaii.

“It’s not clear yet whether we’re detecting that because of our enhanced screening, or if we’re detecting it because it’s relatively new here,” she explained.

Dr. Kemble was asked what would mean if one case was not linked to mainland travel.

“It could mean that there was a travel connection that we are unable to ascertain, it could mean that the virus has been here for longer than we might realize and is circulating in our community,” she responded.

Dr. Kemble said studies have not proved this particular variant to be more contagious or pose a greater threat than other strains.  

“We don’t really have evidence at this point that it’s more transmissible, but we’d like to understand it better,” she said.

The DOH said the turnaround time for a sequence result is six to eight days and both cases have been released from isolation.

“If there are other cases around that person that have been identified, we might have samples available and so we can also try to sequence those, or we may have to go back and see if other people would be willing to be tested,” Dr. Kemble explained.

She said household members have not reported illness but the DOH will try and test them regardless if they have symptoms or not.

Health officials say the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are still effective against the strain.

“This particular variant. There’s no evidence that it would be any less susceptible to the available vaccines,” Dr. Kemble said. “There are news stories about other variants that has been raised as a concern, but this is not one of them.”

Lieutenant Governor Dr. Josh Green says the symptoms of the variant resemble COVID-19 symptoms.

“For our purposes, we don’t think that it’s super prominent or certainly not causing extra spread,” he said. “Our rates are going down. Our positivity rates have been dropping. We certainly expected to have different variants at some point here.”

“We would be worried if we started seeing a big surge in cases, or that the disease looked differently to us as clinicians, and that has not happened,” he continued.

Health officials say people need to remain vigilant.  

“Everyone should still wear a mask. It’s really important. It spreads the same way and all those things apply,” Green said. “But people should not panic, variants happen all the time. This is just a prominent one. But is not to my reading or study been more dangerous, lethal or infectious, so we’re okay.”

Meanwhile, the DOH recommends:

  • Wearing masks when leaving home.
  • Limiting interactions with people outside immediate households.
  • Keeping physical distance of at least 6 feet apart.
  • Washing hands for 20 seconds.
  • Getting the COVID-19 vaccine if eligible and vaccine is available (and continuing these safety measures even after vaccination).

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