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Gov. Ige urges caution as new virus strains are found in Hawaii

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald People sport masks while walking across the bridge to Coconut Island in Hilo on Monday.

Although new variants of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 have been confirmed in Hawaii, Gov. David Ige said Monday that those strains are not prevalent in the community.

“I just wanted to start by saying our state laboratory is really on it,” Ige said during a livestream with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. “They were one of the first state laboratories certified to be able to conduct COVID-19 testing, and they are one of the few state labs that are able to do the entire genome sequence.”

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The state Department of Health’s State Laboratories Division confirmed on Friday the presence of B.1.1.7, a highly transmissible variation of the virus that was first detected in the United Kingdom. A second case of COVID-19 with that same variant was confirmed Saturday.

According to the DOH, both cases involve individuals on Oahu. The individuals did not have contact with one another, and neither has a history of travel.

The two confirmed instances of the B.1.1.7 variant were found in four specimens identified as having a molecular clue consistent with strain. The state performed whole genome sequencing on those four specimens last week.

The state’s surveillance efforts have been looking for virus variants since the summer, Ige said.

“And we are finally seeing that network payoff,” he said. “It has identified a few variants.”

In addition to the B.1.1.7 variant, the L452R variant, first found in Denmark, also has been identified in Hawaii, but Ige said at this point it’s not believed to spread easier or be more debilitating.

Ige said nine or 10 cases of that variant have been found in the state.

“The U.K. variant, as we’ve heard, is definitely more transmissible,” Ige said. “We had two confirmed cases, and I do want everyone to know that we continue to look for these variants so we can continue to stay on top of it.”

According to Ige, there’s no need to increase the number of surveillance samples, and that the 300 specimen samples currently surveyed each month are sufficient to identify virus variants.

“I just want to remind people that the same public health actions we all take — wearing masks, maintaining physical distance, washing your hands, staying home when you’re sick — still apply for the variants,” Ige said. “It’s not that we have to do something different, but we would note that the U.K. variant is definitely more transmissible, so if you’re not wearing your mask, or you’re going to events with many people, then it won’t be long before that becomes the dominant variant here in the islands. Then more people will get COVID if they’re not taking precautions.”

Statewide, the number of new COVID-19 cases has been declining.

The DOH on Monday reported 33 new COVID-19 cases statewide, bringing the total number of new cases since the start of the pandemic to 26,500.

Four new cases were reported on the Big Island.

According to data from the DOH, fewer than 10 cases have been reported in Hilo over the past 14 days, while 24 have been reported in North Kona during that same time frame.

Hawaii County has a 0.8% test positivity rate, compared to a 1.7% positivity rate statewide.

As of Monday, 202,200 COVID-19 vaccines have been administered statewide.

Ige said he’s satisfied the state has a broad network of partners working to administer vaccines.

According to the governor, the state receives between 30,000 and 40,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines each week, which are going directly to clinics, hospitals and pharmacies for administration.

“I hope they can increase production,” Ige said. “As you know, President Biden has invoked the Defense Production Act, and that would allow them to scale (up production) hopefully much quicker.”

The state could easily administer twice as many vaccines as it currently receives, and could expand beyond that if the state knew it could get more doses, he said.

Although the vaccination efforts are ongoing, Ige is not yet ready to make changes to the state’s travel requirements.

Hawaii’s Safe Travels program permits trans-Pacific travelers to bypass a mandatory 10-day quarantine with a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of arrival, but a proposal by Lt. Gov. Josh Green, a Big Island physician, would allow those who are fully vaccinated to travel freely.

Ige, however, said that until the science can confirm that those who are vaccinated cannot carry or transmit the virus,”I think it would be irresponsible to say that those vaccinated can travel about freely.”

But as the number of cases in each county steadily declines, Ige said restrictions on interisland travel could be relaxed.

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“There is some concern about new variants, and we are carefully watching those,” he said. “I do think that that has heightened the whole notion about interisland travel again, but I do think all the mayors recognize the more that we can get back to travel within the state, the quicker we can do that, I think the better it would be for our hotels and other travel industry partners to be able to at least encourage interisland travel.”

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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