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DOH: Uptick in Maui cases connected to virus variant

California strain found here more than other islands

A sign at Leilani’s on the Beach in Kaanapali in January encourages customers to wear masks and observe social distancing. State health officials said Friday that a variant of the coronavirus that’s become predominant in California has been associated with the recent uptick in cases on Maui, which has seen more instances of the variant than any other island. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

A COVID-19 variant that has spread widely in California has been associated with a recent uptick in cases on Maui, Hawaii’s acting state epidemiologist said Friday.

Dr. Sarah Kemble said that the B.1.429 variant, previously called the L452R variant, has been found on Maui at a higher rate than any of the other islands.

The variant was first detected in Hawaii almost four weeks ago and has been associated with increasing numbers of cases in California, where it’s become predominant, Kemble added.

“That seems to be the pattern we are kind of seeing on Maui,” Kemble said.

Over the past week, Maui’s daily COVID-19 case counts have, at times, been as high as or outpaced the more populous Oahu. While other islands have dropped to relatively low positivity rates, Maui County has been averaging 19 new cases a day and a state-high 4.7 percent positivity rate. Oahu is averaging 26 new cases a day and a 1 percent positivity rate and has loosened restrictions in response to a drastic decline in cases.

Pink by Nature in Makawao features a sign reminding patrons to follow the usual 6-foot drill in January. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

State Laboratories Division Director Dr. Edward Desmond said on Friday that through surveillance testing, health officials have identified 28 cases of the B.1.429 variant on Maui in January and February. He said the variant was also present on Maui last year.

There were 17 cases of the variant found on Oahu, four on Hawaii island and one on Kauai, Desmond said. He did not indicate a time frame for the other islands.

“We are seeing a mix of cases associated with a cluster in the correctional setting and cases out in the community,” Kemble said. “It does appear that strain is circulating in the community on Maui.”

On Friday, 19 new COVID-19 cases were reported at Maui Community Correctional Center in Wailuku, as well as 64 negative results out of a total 83 inmate tests. There are currently 34 active cases at the jail; 11 inmates have recovered.

Kemble said there may be a several reasons why a strain takes over, including something called the “founder effect” in which the variant is at the right place at right time when a larger outbreak occurs. She said the outbreak may have more to do with the setting, such as a congregate facility like a jail.

Dr. Sarah Kemble, acting state epidemiologist, speaks to media on Friday about COVID-19 variants, including the B.1.429 variant that has been associated with a recent uptick in cases on Maui. The Maui News / MELISSA TANJI photo

Kemble added that in preliminary findings from California, researchers are noticing that the B.1.429 variant may spread quickly through households but not as quickly as the highly transmissible B.1.1.7 strain first found in the U.K. The B.1.429 variant has been found in more than 40 other states and is still “under investigation” by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s unclear how effective current vaccines are against it, the DOH said.

The department also announced Friday that a new variant has been found on Oahu — P.2, which contains the E484K mutation and has so far been found only in one individual who recently traveled to the Mainland, Kemble said. The person is asymptomatic.

Officials are closely watching the P.2 variant because two individuals in Brazil who were previously infected with COVID-19 were reinfected with the P.2 variant. It is unclear whether the P.2 variant is more resistant to vaccines and antibodies gained through previous COVID-19 infection, a news release from the state Department of Health said.

The P.2 variant is thought to have originated in Brazil and has been found in the U.S. and Europe. While it is still being studied, people previously vaccinated or previously infected are not expected to become seriously ill if infected with the P.2 variant, the Health Department said.

The variants in Hawaii were discovered as part of proactive statewide surveillance conducted by the DOH in collaboration with private hospitals and independent clinical laboratories.

Desmond said Hawaii currently leads the nation in the percentage of specimens that are sequenced and sent to the international GISAID (Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data) database.

Kemble said that even with the variants, the guidance is the same — wear a mask, watch your distance, wash hands and stay home when sick. She said vaccinations also will help.

“New case counts are down from a month ago, but these variants remind us to remain vigilant,” state Health Director Dr. Elizabeth Char said. “The more the virus is able to infect people, the more opportunity it has to mutate, so it behooves us to prevent infections. We all know that is done by wearing masks, maintaining physical distance, avoiding large gatherings and getting vaccinated when it is our turn.”

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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