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Maui official: Brazil variant cases up

Separately, 1st positive found via post-arrival test program

Trans-Pacific passengers after deplaning take their post-arrival test at Kahului Airport recently. The Maui News / KEHAULANI CERIZO photo

The variant first detected in Brazil is beginning to take the place of California variants that had dominated portions of Hawaii, and Maui County residents should take heed, a Maui-based state Department of Health official said.

“The bad news is that the state lab has been seeing a lot of the new Brazilian variant that’s coming in,” Dr. Marc Nishimoto, Maui District Health officer, said during the county news conference Friday. “It’s been going up over the past several weeks.”

Nishimoto said the variant from Brazil is displacing the California variant, which had dominated Maui’s cases about a month ago.

He added that the California variant is 20 percent more transmissible than the original COVID-19 virus, while the strain from Brazil is “much, much more transmissible than the California variant.”

“So we’ve got a little bit of a problem,” Nishimoto said. “We may have a situation where we are getting a lot more people being exposed to the Brazilian variant.”

Cuong Chan, of Dallas, takes a post-arrival test recently at Kahului Airport. The county plan is aimed at detecting variant strains and providing an additional protection layer to the state’s Safe Travels program, which mandates a pre-travel test. The Maui News / KEHAULANI CERIZO photo

Amid a surge in variants, Maui County has stepped up testing at the Kahului Airport in hopes of determining how many cases may be connected to travel. The county’s new trans-Pacific post-arrival testing program recorded its first positive COVID-19 case since it began earlier this month.

Discovered with an onsite COVID-19 rapid test and later confirmed with a more thorough PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test, the positive case was reported Friday by county officials. The visitor went into isolation, according to county Managing Director Sandy Baz.

Doctors of Waikiki, contracted to manage and administer the program, had completed 20,429 rapid tests as of Friday, Baz said. Of those tested, there were 12 positives, with 11 proven to be false.

A total of 29,410 had been screened as of Friday, with 8,981 exempted due to being fully vaccinated nated (more than 14 days after their final shot). More than 30 percent of average daily trans-Pacific travelers to Maui are fully vaccinated, according to Baz.

The county’s post-arrival testing program began May 4 to help detect variant strains and offer another layer of protection to the state’s Safe Travels program that requires a negative pre-travel test to bypass quarantine.

Chelsea Vincent, a lab technician with Doctors of Waikiki, works at Kahului Airport during the launch of Maui County’s post-arrival testing program May 4. The Maui News / KEHAULANI CERIZO photo

It requires that trans-Pacific travelers on direct flights to Kahului Airport from any Mainland city take an onsite COVID-19 antigen test that produces results in about 15 to 20 minutes. Those with proof of full vaccination are exempt.

The county contracted Doctors of Waikiki at a cost of $25 per test, not to exceed 124,000 tests. Funding comes from federal and county money.

The Valley Isle, which up until about a month ago had seen COVID-19 cases surging, had the highest prevalence per capita of variants in the state, according to a state Department of Health report released last month.

A state health official on Sunday said an updated report is not yet available and will be released soon.

Toward the end of last month, the state’s acting epidemiologist, Dr. Sarah Kemble, said the California variant has “taken over” on Maui, with more than 80 percent of Maui’s cases tied to the B.1.429 strain.

Nishimoto said the good news about the variant from Brazil is that its effects aren’t more severe and that current vaccines, Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, are “both effective against the variants.”

“So my plea to the community is because we have this more transmissible virus here, we need to get more people vaccinated, because that’s the only way we will stop this thing from spreading,” he said.

The state health official urged vaccination and mitigation strategies such as mask wearing, hand washing and social distancing. Citing work done to quell measles and polio, Nishimoto said vaccines have “always worked in the past.”

“We need to get a certain amount of people vaccinated — the higher the better,” he said. Nishimoto that children under 12 cannot yet be vaccinated and represent 10 to 15 percent of the population. He added that herd immunity can be reached with a 70 to 95 percent vaccination rate.

“Adults, you need to step up and protect the kids (by getting vaccinated),” he said.

In a state DOH report issued April 23, which included information updated as of April 20, Hawaii had 555 cases tied to variants of concern.

Maui cases included 207 of the B.1.429 California variant, six of the B.1.1.7 variant first found in the U.K. and two of the P.1 variant first found in Brazil.

Oahu, which has about five times the population of Maui, has recorded 251 cases from variants, including 205 California strains (184 B.1.429 and 21 B.1.427 cases), 35 of the B.1.1.7 variant from the U.K, seven of the B.1.351 variant first found in South Africa and four of the P.1 variant from Brazil.

There are three CDC classifications for variants: variants of interest, variants of concern and variants of high consequence. Currently, there are no COVID-19 variants that rise to the level of high consequence.

Variants of concern, the only kind found in Hawaii, have shown evidence of increased transmissibility, more severe disease, significant reduction in neutralization by antibodies generated during previous infection or vaccination, reduced effectiveness of treatments or vaccines and diagnostic detection failures, according to U.S. Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention.

* Kehaulani Cerizo can be reached at kcerizo@mauinews.com.

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