A strain of COVID-19 first detected in India and identified in Hawaii earlier this month has been found on the Big Island, the state Department of Health said Tuesday.
According to the DOH, there have been three cases of COVID-19 caused by the Delta variant associated with travel from the mainland — two on Oahu and one on Hawaii Island.
The State Laboratories Division also has identified the variant in a specimen from an Oahu resident with no history of travel.
“This indicates that we do have evidence of spread of the Delta variant in Hawaii, within the state,” acting state Epidemiologist Sara Kemble said in a Zoom call with reporters Tuesday morning. “The Delta variant is a variant of concern because of evidence that it is more transmissible than other variants. There is also recent data suggesting it may be more severe, causing more hospitalization … . For us in Hawaii, this is concerning because this variant could lead to additional surges in cases, additional outbreaks, especially among unvaccinated people.”
Kemble said vaccinations remain highly protective against the strain, and especially protects against severe disease.
All individuals with COVID-19 caused by the Delta variant have been symptomatic, but none have been hospitalized, according to the DOH.
Of the four cases identified in Hawaii, only one person was fully vaccinated against the coronavirus.
In the three travel-related cases, all household members and close contacts who were fully vaccinated against the virus tested negative, according to the DOH.
The state lab began genome sequencing of coronavirus specimens in June 2020 to identify the strains of virus circulating within the community. It now examines 50 to 100 specimens a week and has developed a testing algorithm designed to find variants in a timely manner.
“Right now, the prevalence of the Delta variant is low. It’s recently been introduced into the state,” State Laboratories Division Administrator Edward Desmond said in the same Zoom call. “But I wanted to point out there is about a three-week lag between the time the specimen is collected that is positive for (the coronavirus) and the time that we generate our whole genome sequencing results for Dr. Kemble and for public release.”
According to Desmond, it takes about a week for specimens to be identified for sequencing, another week to collect the samples from private laboratories across the state, and a third week to do the whole genome sequencing.
“We are taking a look at what was happening three weeks ago,” he said. “… We think that we have found community spread of the virus here on Oahu, and so we were, as I mentioned, looking at something that happened three weeks ago. We think that probably during the ensuing three weeks that it spread even further. So this is a matter of concern.”
Kemble declined to share where specifically the Delta variant cases have been found.
“We don’t share the specific locations when we’re talking about small numbers like this, and I think the other really important take-home point is I don’t want people to fixate on one community area, because we know that we’re seeing multiple importations of Delta variant.”
Because not every positive specimen is sequenced, Kemble said it’s not possible to know every case of Delta variant that arrives in Hawaii.
“So the more important point is that it is knocking at the door, that for travel in particular, that’s a risk factor for bringing it back, and as all of the islands have travelers returning to them, the introduction of Delta variant is a possibility,” she said. “It’s more important to think that it is out there, and so we do need to be aware of that, and the biggest thing you can do about that is get vaccinated today.”
According to the DOH, citing the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Delta variant now makes up approximately 10% of all U.S. COVID-19 cases and could soon become the dominant virus strain in the nation.
Email Stephanie Salmons at firstname.lastname@example.org.