As the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines in Hawaii continues, the state has been dealt a blow with the confirmation that a variant of the novel coronavirus is now present in the state.
The state Department of Health confirmed Monday that its Laboratories Division detected two cases of the SARS-CoV-2 variant L452R in Hawaii — one on Oahu and one on Maui.
Officials said the variant was first detected in Denmark in March and is now found in more than a dozen U.S. states, including California.
While science has not shown that the L452R variant spreads more quickly or poses a greater threat than other COVID-19 variants, state health officials are concerned because it has been linked to a growing number of cases — including several large outbreaks — in California.
In addition, the state Health Department on Monday identified and confirmed 60 previously unreported COVID-19-related deaths after close inspection of death certificates.
The 60 deaths — which occurred between August and December — were uncovered after a thorough review of the department’s Electronic Death Registration System, according to DOH Director Dr. Libby Char. Fifty-one deaths were on Oahu, six on Hawaii island and three on Maui, Char said.
On Monday the state’s COVID-19 death toll stood at 342. The additional deaths, to be added today, would bring the state’s COVID-19 death toll to at least 402.
Also on Monday, Hawaii recorded 123 new coronavirus infections, including 91 on Oahu, 21 on Maui, six on Hawaii island and five residents diagnosed outside of the state, bringing the statewide total to 25,275.
Dr. Sarah Kemble, acting state epidemiologist, said it is common to find variants of viruses like COVID-19 and that some present greater risks than others.
“We are working with our colleagues in other states as well as the (CDC) to learn more about the characteristics of this particular variant,” she said.
In a follow-up question-and-answer session, Kemble shared that one of the cases, which was related to mainland travel, was found on Oahu, and the other, which does not appear to be travel-related, on Maui.
The two cases do not appear to be related to one another, she said.
“It could mean that there was a travel connection that we’re unable to ascertain,” she said. “It could mean the virus has been here for longer than we might realize and is circulating in our community. I think again, given our ties to California and the West Coast, where these strains are definitely being seen, that wouldn’t be entirely surprising. I think those are the possibilities that we’re looking at. We’re trying to understand how recently it might have been introduced.”
The L452R variant is linked to multiple outbreaks in Santa Clara County, according to the University of California, San Francisco, as well as in Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego counties.
As an investigation continues into how widespread the new strain could be, both cases have been cleared from isolation, she said. At this point, she said, there is no evidence pointing to the need for the state to shift its mitigation strategies for COVID-19.
The department’s Laboratories Division began genome sequencing in June to look for possible COVID-19 variants, and now examines 75 specimens a week, a level it does not plan to change. It also has developed a testing algorithm designed to find variants as soon as possible after they arrive.
Officials said the B.1.1.7 variant, first found in the United Kingdom, and the B.1.351 variant, first found in South Africa, both have “enhanced transmissibility.” Neither has yet been detected in Hawaii.
The Queen’s Health Systems officially launched its first mass COVID-19 vaccination clinic for kupuna 75 and older at Blaisdell Center Concert Hall at 8 a.m. Monday.
The clinic, which is staffed by more than 80, will be available to those with appointments from 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. daily except Tuesdays.
Queen’s expected to vaccinate more than 1,200 kupuna 75 and older with the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine Monday after a soft opening on Saturday in which more than 550 were vaccinated.
At its peak, Jill Hoggard Green, president and chief executive officer of The Queen’s Health Systems, said she expects the clinic to be able to vaccinate 5,000 people a day.
Hoggard also said Queen’s would strictly administer the vaccines only to those 75 and older at the Blaisdell clinic, and not their accompanying caregivers at this time. An exception will be made if the caregiver is also 75 or older and has an appointment. Each person may bring up to one adult caregiver.
So far, more than 12,000 appointments have been scheduled for the Blaisdell clinic. The appointments are scheduled up to a month out, and are given only if both the first and second doses are available.
To date, Queen’s Health Systems has administered more than 20,000 vaccine doses to employees, community health care professionals, people 75 and older, and essential workers across the state.
During a Spotlight Hawaii interview Monday morning, Lt. Gov. Josh Green said 106,654 vaccination shots have been administered in the state so far, or roughly 56% of about 189,000 available vaccines in stock.
The state Health Department still advises wearing masks when leaving home, even if vaccinated, and limiting interactions and maintaining 6 feet of distance with people outside immediate households.
“Hawaii is not immune to new strains,” Char said in a statement. “The arrival of L452R reminds us we must wear masks, maintain physical distance from people outside our immediate households, and avoid crowds. These safe practices coupled with COVID-19 vaccines will help us stop the spread.”
Queen’s COVID-19 Vaccination Clinic
>> Where: Blaisdell Center Concert Hall, 777 Ward Ave.
>> When: 8 a.m.-6:30 p.m. daily except Tuesdays
>> Who: Kupuna 75 and up only, and by appointment only
>> Cost: Free. Please bring a government-issued ID, insurance card and pre-filled-out screening form. Parking at Blaisdell Center will also be free (please enter from King Street).
>> To make an appointment, visit covid.queens.org/vaccination or call 691-2222.