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New COVID variant found in Hawaii, while uptick on Maui attributed to predominate California variant

                                A drive-thru COVID-19 testing took place at Wahiawa Health, Dec. 6. A new COVID variant has been confirmed in Hawaii.


    A drive-thru COVID-19 testing took place at Wahiawa Health, Dec. 6. A new COVID variant has been confirmed in Hawaii.

A new COVID variant thought to have originated in Brazil has been confirmed in Hawaii.

The state Department of Health said its State Laboratories Division confirmed the presence of the P.2 variant, which it says contains the E484K mutation, through surveillance testing.

The strain was confirmed in an Oahu resident who had recently traveled to the mainland and was asymptomatic, according to acting state Epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Kemble. That resident is now out of isolation, she said, and so far, no further transmission has been detected.

State officials said the variant is being closely watched after two people in Brazil who were previously infected with COVID were reinfected with the P.2 variant. However, it is unclear whether this variant is more resistant to vaccines and antibodies gained through previous COVID infection.

The P.2 variant has also been found in several mainland states and Europe.

People previously vaccinated or previously infected “are not expected to become seriously ill if infected with the P.2 variant,” the department said.

“Right now with the investigation, it doesn’t appear that further transmission has occurred with this P.2. strain,” said Kemble. “This variant was brought in because of travel, and there is ongoing travel so there is always going to be that possibility.”

Also, surveillance testing confirmed three additional cases of the B.1.1.7 variant on Oahu, bringing the statewide total to six. All six are on Oahu and are household contacts.

On Maui, however, there is growing concern over the B.1.429 variant, which has been associated with an increase of COVID cases on the Valley isle.

This variant, previously called L452R, was first detected in Hawaii about a month ago and has gradually become the predominant strain in California around the same time as a surge in that state, according to state Laboratories Division Director Edward Desmond.

“It can become predominant, and it can be associated with a surge in cases,” he said.

Twenty-eight cases of the B.1.429 variant were detected on Maui, making up nearly half of the cases of that variant in the state so far this year.

There have also been 17 cases of the variant detected on Oahu, four on Hawaii island and one on Kauai so far this year.

On Maui a mix of these cases was associated with a cluster in the correctional setting as well as in the community, said Kemble, so it does appear the variant is circulating in the community on Maui.

It was first detected in California in December and has been found in more than 40 other states.

The strain may be more transmissible than other COVID strains but is still under investigation by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It remains unclear how effective current vaccines are against B.1.429.

While Kemble thinks the detection of these new variants should be reason for caution, just as Oahu eases restrictions and moves to Tier 3, she believes the reopening framework will work as needed.

The daily case numbers on Oahu are decreasing while vaccination efforts are well underway, she said.

“I think that the tiers are designed so that if we see with the reopening to Tier 3 that we are headed back in the wrong direction, there is check and balance there,” she said. “So if we see that trend heading in the wrong direction, we can adjust for it.”

The mitigation response to the new variants should be the same as for nonvariant strains, she said, which includes wearing your mask, watching your distance, staying home when you’re sick, and washing your hands — also, getting your vaccine when it’s your turn.

The state Health Department will continue its surveillance for variants in collaboration with private hospitals and independent clinical laboratories.

Currently, about 75 state specimens per week undergo genomic sequencing.

On Friday the department reported two new corona virus-related deaths and 44 new infections, bringing the state’s totals since the start of the pandemic to 437 fatalities and 27,399 cases.

The latest deaths were an Oahu man in his 60s and a Maui man, also in his 60s, both of whom had underlying health conditions.

By island, Oahu has 384 active cases, Maui has 197, the Big Island has 27, Kauai has four and Molokai has one, according to the state’s latest tally. Lanai has no active cases.

Health officials counted 4,768 new COVID-19 test results in Friday’s tally, for a 0.92% statewide positivity rate. The state’s seven-day average positivity rate is 1.2%, according to the Hawaii COVID-19 Data dashboard.

According to the state’s verified weekly Hawaii COVID-19 vaccine summary, 326,766 vaccines have been administered of the 404,090 received by the state as of Feb. 25. About 14.1% of the general population in Hawaii has received at least one dose of the vaccine, while about 60% of those age 75 and over have received one dose.

Of the administered vaccines, 304,899 were given to the general public, and 21,867 were distributed through the federal pharmacy program, officials said.

The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency announced Friday that the state has been awarded $87.4 million in federal funds to open multiple, state-led community vaccination sites.

The reimbursement grant — to be managed by HI-EMA, the state Department of Health and the Department of Budget and Finance — will cover expenses for medical and support staff, personal protective equipment, facility costs and supplies required to store, handle, transport and administer COVID-19 vaccines.

It will also cover efforts to inform the public about the COVID-19 vaccinations.

The amount in approved funding, HI-EMA said, represents 50% of Hawaii’s estimated cost of administering the vaccination program statewide for the first 90 days.

The state is gathering paperwork on eligible expenditures from counties and various health care organizations to file for the monthly reimbursements. Qualified health care organizations may also apply for the reimbursements directly from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The funding is a result of the Stafford Act Public Assistance program, which provides disaster assistance to states, tribes, local governments and certain private nonprofits, following a presidential disaster declaration, to quickly respond to and recover from major disasters or emergencies.

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