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Omicron case detected on Oahu, first in the islands

Mayor calls it a ‘concern’ but says for now no rules will be changed

State Epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Kemble on Thursday discusses the discovery of the omicron variant of COVID-19 on Oahu, the first known case of the variant found in the islands. Over concerns that the strain is more transmissible, some countries have taken steps to restrict travel, though health officials emphasize there is still much to learn about omicron. The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

The first known case of the omicron variant in Hawaii was confirmed on Oahu on Thursday, and state officials say they are actively looking for the variant on “all islands.”

“This isn’t reason for panic, but it is a reason for concern,” state Department of Health Director Dr. Elizabeth Char said in a news release Thursday afternoon. “It’s a reminder the pandemic is ongoing. We need to protect ourselves by getting vaccinated, wearing masks, distancing as best as we can and avoiding large crowds.”

State Epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Kemble said during a news conference Thursday afternoon that officials are concerned as the variant first identified in South Africa is tied to a spike in cases there, and officials are also worried that the variant could “break through” the vaccines and natural immunity.

“There is still a lot to be learned about this variant,” she said.

Kemble noted that those infected with omicron in an outbreak at a university in South Africa mostly had mild symptoms and were not very severe but that “it’s too soon to say” what symptoms will be like in other cases.

On Thursday, just a day after the first known omicron case in the U.S. was found in California, at least four other states reported the variant, including Hawaii, Colorado, New York and Minnesota, The Associated Press reported.

Kemble said the state is also working to detect the variant in Maui County and other islands.

“We are actively sequencing specimens on all islands for this strain,” Kemble said. “We have a system that’s been in place now for the better part of the last year where we select essentially a random sample from all of the islands — and we over sample the Neighbor Islands to make sure they are adequately represented — and we’re running those every week to look for any new strains.

“For the last number of weeks it’s been a delta predominantly, almost 100 percent of our specimens, so this is definitely a new finding for us. We will now be watching to see if it remains significant or if we begin to see a higher proportion of cases related to omicron. But the Neighbor Islands will definitely be part of that surveillance.”

On Monday, Diagnostic Laboratory Services identified a specimen with a molecular clue indicating it might be omicron, the Health Department said. The State Laboratories Division performed expedited whole genome sequencing and determined Thursday that the specimen is the omicron variant.

The COVID-19-positive individual is an Oahu resident with moderate symptoms who had previously been infected with the virus but was never vaccinated. The person had no history of travel, but Kemble said “my assumption is it did get here through travel, if not through this individual, then through some contact.”

Kemble would only disclose that the person who contracted the omicron variant was under 65 years old and that places where the person visited, their occupation and other details were still being investigated. The person was in isolation at home and symptoms included body aches, coughing and headaches.

Mayor Michael Victorino said in an email late Thursday afternoon that he and other county mayors and Gov. David Ige have been in contact with the DOH since the announcement of the variant.

“We all agree it is a reason for concern, but it does not require an immediate reaction. I have no plans to change public health restrictions for Maui County at this time,” he said.

Victorino, like other DOH officials, said that current mitigation strategies are still the best defense. He encouraged people to get vaccinated and get their booster shots if it is time and said that people should continue to wear their masks indoors, socially distance, avoid large gatherings and wash their hands thoroughly and often.

“We will continue to monitor the situation in close consultation with our team of medical advisors,” Victorino added.

Anyone contacted by a case investigator from DOH is asked to cooperate to help slow the spread of COVID-19, the department said. Anyone with symptoms also should get tested and avoid other people. Unvaccinated people who come in close contact with COVID-positive individuals are advised to get tested, the department added.

For more information on free testing and vaccines, visit hawaiicovid19.com/.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews .com. Managing Editor Colleen Uechi contributed to this report.

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