VIDEO: COVID-19 variant from U.K. found in Oahu resident with no history of travel

A super-spreading COVID-19 strain first discovered in the United Kingdom has been found in an Oahu resident with no history of travel.

“That indicates that it came from somewhere in the community,” said acting state Epidemiologist Sarah Kemble at a news conference today. A close contact has also been found to be positive for the virus, though testing is still underway to confirm the variant. “There is some community transmission, albeit small right now. We haven’t detected a lot of these cases, and we have been looking.”

Hawaii health officials earlier this week warned that the 60% more highly contagious U.K. strain, known as B1.1.7, may be circulating in the islands, a potential setback in the race to vaccinate as many residents as possible before exposure to new strains.

The Department of Health’s State Laboratories Division identified four specimens that “exhibit a molecular clue associated with the UK B1.1.7 (variant).” The DOH is still working to confirm the other samples.

In addition, health officials found nine cases of the Denmark L452R strain last week, although that variant has not yet shown to spread more quickly or pose greater risk than other mutations.

More transmissible strains mean that it might take 80% to 90% of the population to be vaccinated in order to achieve so-called herd immunity instead of the state’s goal of 60% to 70%, Kemble told reporters earlier this week.

“We do know it’s likely to be a higher vaccine coverage that’s needed to get that tipping point where we break transmission through vaccination in the community,” she said. “It’s really about redoubling our efforts. This just underscores the importance of getting out the vaccine and getting out the people to come get shots in arms.”

Health officials reported 101 new coronavirus infections, bringing the state’s total since the start of the pandemic to 26,286 cases. There were no new COVID-­ 19 deaths reported, with statewide fatalities remaining at 416. The U.S. coronavirus death toll has surpassed 456,900. Of the state’s total infection count, 1,342 cases are considered active.

The U.K. variant can spread more aggressively, so residents must be vigilant, said Lt. Gov. Josh Green.

“Be in control of what we can control, and that’s our behavior. One of our weapons is vaccinations,” Green said, adding that the state had administered 189,446 shots as of Thursday and is distributing about 50,000 doses on average per week. By March 1 the target is to get about 350,000 shots in arms and by April 1, 550,000, he said. “We are … in a race against time to protect our kupuna and all of our people in the state. This is the way we defeat COVID.”

The tools to combat the variants have not changed, including mask-wearing, social-distancing, washing hands and staying home when sick, said Gov. David Ige.

“We do want to emphasize that the B1.17 variant is different. As we’ve seen in the United Kingdom, it can swiftly spread and erase all progress that we’ve made here in the state, but we do know how to stop this and other variants,” he said, urging the public not to attend in-person Super Bowl parties that can be super-spreader events. “We know what actions and precautions we need to take in order to slow the spread. We are not helpless in fighting this variant or the spread of COVID-19.”

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