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State to keep eye out for omicron variant

While there are no detected cases of the new omicron variant in Hawaii and in the United States, a top state health official said they are looking to “bump up surveillance” to catch “it when it appears” in Hawaii.

State Department of Health Epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Kemble said that some of the concern among public health officials is the possibility that omicron has “already spread further than we have yet to detect.”

“So I think that we’re looking to see how we can bump up surveillance to make sure we’re catching it when it appears,” Kemble said during a media briefing on Monday. 

Like previous strains of the coronavirus, omicron can be worrisome because “we know so little about it,” such as the transmissibility and the severity of illness that it can cause, she said. 

“The other thing that I think raises concern about this variant is that it exposes a weakness globally that we have had since the beginning of this pandemic and that is that this virus has found ways to transmit through human populations,” she added. “So when there are health inequities, when there are gaps, and pockets in which there are large numbers of unvaccinated people, that’s when these variants can transmit rapidly.”

The World Health Organization on Friday classified the variant B.1.1.529, or omicron, as a concern based on the evidence presented by its Technical Advisory Group on Virus Evolution.

According to WHO, omicron has several mutations that may have an impact on how it behaves, how easily it spreads, or the severity of illness it causes. 

The organization said that researchers in South Africa and around the world are conducting studies to better understand the mutation. 

President Joe Biden said during a news conference from the White House on Monday that the new omicron coronavirus variant is “a cause for concern, not a cause for panic.”

“Sooner or later we’re going to see cases of this new variant here in the United States,” Biden said. 

Gov. David Ige on Monday signed the latest COVID-19 emergency proclamation, setting the stage for the next phase of state and county measures, according to a news release. 

“While we are moving forward with updated emergency measures, we must remain vigilant. The omicron variant will likely be detected in the United States,” said Ige. 

He reassured that Hawaii has a “robust surveillance system” and the State Laboratories Division has the capacity to conduct genome sequencing to detect variants. 

“We have not seen the omicron variant here in Hawaii as of (Monday) morning, but we are closely monitoring the situation and will identify the variant as early as possible should it show up here,” Ige added. 

At the media update, Kemble said omicron may have a feature that “makes it more detectable” than other strains while running PCR tests, Kemble said. 

Any potential samples containing this clue, called an S gene dropout, would be sent to the health department and put through the same genome sequencing process as done in the past. 

“We’ve put up the same call to all participating laboratories, saying ‘if you see specimens with S-target dropouts, we want to hear about them right away,’ so those are coming into our State Laboratories Division,” she said. “We haven’t seen a lot lately because most of our virus has been delta and delta does not have that S-target dropout feature, which actually puts us in a better position to detect this new variant.” 

Overall, Kemble said, “We really need to band together to stay on top of this and make sure that we don’t become victims again.”

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

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