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Virus variant detected on Maui, Oahu

DOH also confirms 60 unreported COVID deaths

A new strain of the COVID-19 virus has been found in a case on Maui and another on Oahu, according to the state Department of Health, which also announced 60 previously unreported COVID-19-related deaths statewide following a deeper review of its records.

The State Laboratories Division detected the SARS-CoV-2 variant L452R, a strain of the coronavirus that was first detected in Denmark in March 2020 and is now found in more than a dozen U.S. states.

Dr. Sarah Kemble, acting state epidemiologist, said during a media availability Monday that the Oahu case appears to be travel related from the Mainland, while “the other does not appear to be” and is under active investigation. The two cases are unrelated and have already been cleared from their quarantine period.

“Part of our investigation, we’ll of course be seeing who else we can collect samples from surrounding that case so we can see who else shares the same strain,” Kemble added. “This will help us to see how widespread the strain could be.”

The strain is different from ones discovered in the U.K. and South Africa that health officials fear are more contagious. Science has not shown that the L452R variant spreads more quickly or poses a greater threat than other COVID-19 strains, according to a DOH news release. Still, there is some concern because of the links to growing case counts in California and other West Coast states.

“We’re trying to understand how recently it had been introduced but we’re also trying to understand how important it is that we see this strain now,” Kemble said. “There have been other situations in other states and other countries where a strain takes over, but it may not change anything about how we respond to the virus and the actions that we’re taking to prevent transmission, so that’s equally important to try and understand if it requires us to change what we’re doing and there’s no evidence at this point that, even with these new strains, that we need to change mitigation strategies.”

The State Laboratories Division began genome sequencing in June, looking for possible COVID-19 variants. Officials examine 75 random specimens a week and have developed a testing algorithm designed to find variants as soon as possible after they arrive.

Kemble said it can take six to eight days to identify those strains upon sampling.

“It is common to find variants to viruses like COVID-19. Some present greater risks than others,” Kemble said in the news release. “We are working with our colleagues in other states as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to learn more about the characteristics of this particular variant.”

However, data so far hasn’t shown any significant difference between any of the known variants, Kemble said, though the B.1.1.7 variant first found in the U.K. and the B.1.351 variant first found in South Africa both have higher transmission rates.

Neither B.1.1.7 nor B.1.351 has been detected in Hawaii.

“Based on that, there is some concern that (L452R) might be a more transmissible variant,” she said. “It doesn’t mean that it makes you sicker, but it does mean that this one person who’s infected might infect more people if mitigation measures aren’t practiced.”

If this strain of COVID-19 is more transmissible, she said that a higher percentage of the population may have to get vaccinated in order to achieve “herd immunity.”

“That’s some of the main concern is that with these new strains, does that mean more of an uphill battle for us with the vaccine program?”

About 10,195 doses have been administered in Maui County as of Jan. 17, while a total of 70,095 doses have been administered statewide out of the 154,150 doses received in Hawaii.

Regardless of what COVID-19 variants are found, residents and visitors are encouraged to continuing wearing masks when leaving home, limiting interactions with people outside immediate households, keeping physical distance of at least 6 feet apart, washing hands for 20 seconds, getting the COVID-19 vaccine if they are eligible and the vaccine is available and continuing these safety measures even after vaccination.

“Hawaii’s not immune to new strains,” DOH Health Director Dr. Libby Char said in a news release. “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.”

The DOH on Monday also identified and confirmed 60 previously unreported COVID-19 related deaths that occurred from August through December, including 51 deaths on Oahu, six on Hawaii Island and three on Maui.

Unreported deaths can be identified by DOH’s Electronic Death Registration System if the underlying cause is listed as COVID-19 on the death certificate. However, reviewing death certificates can take a lot time, resulting in “significant lags,” the department said.

A COVID-19-related death may not be identified by DOH officials if the individual passes away after their monitoring period with DOH has been completed and their health care provider did not report the death, according to a news release.

Hawaii’s COVID-19 death rate still remains among the lowest in the U.S., the department noted.

“Our close inspection of death certificates not only revealed 60 previously unreported deaths,” Char said. “It also uncovered flaws that led to delays in the current reporting system. We are implementing changes to the process that will improve the timeliness of COVID-19 death reporting.”

* Dakota Grossman can be reached at dgrossman@mauinews.com.

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