Hawaii health officials are on high alert for more transmissible strains of COVID-19 and are warning the public to be extra vigilant as they usher in the new year.
New coronavirus strains that have been found in the United Kingdom and South Africa are 40% to 70% more transmissible, but have so far not been detected in the islands, according to the state Department of Health. The UK variant was recently found in Colorado, California and Florida.
Health officials are ramping up efforts, along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to find the “significantly more contagious” strains and to understand the exact mechanism by which they are more transmissible.
“All we know is that we have not yet found it,” said Dr. Edward Desmond, director of the State Laboratories Division. “We’re going to cast a wide net to see if we can quickly find it when it is here and then we can make decisions about whether that should impact our community mitigation measures.”
The State Laboratories Division began a molecular surveillance program in June to identify any new strains and so far has completed genome sequencing on nearly 700 virus samples.
“There is no evidence these variants cause more severe illness or increase the risk of death, but research shows they spread much faster than the COVID-19 already found in Hawaii,” Health Director Libby Char said in a news release, urging people to avoid large gatherings and to continue to wear masks and social distance.
Research so far suggests that the COVID-19 vaccines being rolled out nationwide will still be effective against the different strains of the virus, Desmond said.
About 25,000 COVID-19 vaccines have been administered so far in Hawaii. Local pharmacies received a surprise shipment of 3,800 doses this week, boosting the total delivered in December to 65,250.
The vaccines are being administered to front-line workers, nursing homes and private medical practices, and is also being distributed to independent doctors and medical practice staff who are considered high-risk. The state next plans a vaccination campaign for more than 100,000 seniors 75 and older, though the largest number of people to get vaccinated won’t be until late spring or summer.
Health officials reported three new coronavirus-related deaths — two on Oahu and one on the Big Island — and 188 new COVID-19 infections, bringing the totals since the start of the pandemic to 288 fatalities and 21,397 cases.
Even with mutations, COVID-19 is not expected to be as volatile as the flu, which regularly reassorts when passing on to domestic animals and coming back to humans, Desmond said.
“(Influenza) has a notorious efficiency for changing … and rendering our previous immunity no longer effective,” he said. “(COVID-19) won’t be as bad as influenza.”
Dr. Janet Berreman, the district health officer for Kauai, noted that the coronavirus variants may be more widespread than is known in the community, which means “this is really not the time to let down our guard.”
“We’re at a very … strange junction right now where there’s reason for a lot of optimism around the vaccine and a tremendous readiness to move on to change from where we are,” she said. “At the same time, disease rates on the mainland are at the highest they’ve ever been and are continuing to rise. And now there’s this more transmissible virus. So that’s a dual threat that means that until a significant majority of us are vaccinated … we’re at even greater risk than we’ve been in the recent months.”