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Maui COVID Rise Brings Concern

By Catherine Cluett Pactol

An uptick in COVID-19 cases on Maui — 75 reported by the Dept. of Health last Saturday — has raised concerns among officials. Thirty-one of those cases are historic cases dating back as far as November that had not previously been reported due to a laboratory reporting issue, according to the DOH. However, the 44 new cases include two current clusters, as well as community spread cases.

“We really need to ramp up compliance to safety protocols or the alternative would be really high case numbers in the coming week, possibly resulting in tighter restrictions,” said Dr. Lorrin Pang, the DOH Maui District Health Officer. He and other public health experts are asking people across the state to mask up, practice social distancing, and wash your hands frequently, even though restrictions in some places are being relaxed.

Though Molokai has had no new cases recently, some residents have expressed concern with the growing number of cases on Maui because travel within Maui County is currently free of testing or quarantine restrictions. Officials have not said yet whether they anticipate that to change.

Nineteen of the recent Maui cases are from the Maui Community Correctional Center cluster, nine cases are attributed to a Pacific Islander cluster and seven resulted from a bar and restaurant cluster, according to a press release from Mayor Victorino’s office Saturday. The 10 remaining cases are attributed to community spread, including seven connected to a previously diagnosed case, and two travel-related cases.

“DOH is following standard protocol with contact tracing and quarantine isolation,” Mayor Victorino said. “Hawaii Health Director Dr. Libby Char also confirmed the DOH will deploy a second round of vaccinations at the correctional facility and another vaccine round in affected housing complexes in Central Maui. I have also requested supplemental vaccines for Maui in the coming days and weeks.”

A COVID-19 variant, B.1.429, previously called L452R, is also associated with spread on Maui. It was first reported in Hawaii about a month ago, and first detected in California in December. On February 2, 2021, the Department of Health (DOH) announced seven known cases on Oahu, one case on Kauai, and one case on Maui. It has become the dominant strain in California and is found in more than 40 other states, according to DOH. The B.1.429 variant may be more transmissible than other COVID strains but there is still a lot of unknowns about it and it’s considered “under investigation” by the CDC. It is not clear how effective current vaccines are against B.1.429.

“DOH officials report the California variant, recently identified on Maui, is more transmissible, so residents and visitors must be even more vigilant in following public health safety guidelines, especially wearing face masks, avoiding gatherings and maintaining a safe distance from others,” said Victorino. “I am consulting with our medical advisors to determine if additional restrictions are needed at this time.”

A new variant was also reported last week on Oahu, in an individual that recently traveled to the U.S. mainland. The P.2 variant, which contains the E484K mutation, was identified through surveillance testing conducted on Oahu, according to the DOH.

The implications of this additional strain are unknown at this time, but the P.2 variant is closely watched because two individuals in Brazil, where the variant is thought to have originated, who were previously infected with COVID, were reinfected with the P.2 variant.

It is unclear whether this variant is more resistant to vaccines and antibodies gained through previous COVID infection.

“New case counts are down from a month ago, but these variants remind us to remain vigilant,” said Hawaii Health Director Dr. Elizabeth Char. “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.”

The state of Hawaii was granted $87.4 million in funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to open multiple, state-led community vaccination sites. The funds will cover expenses for medical and support staff, personal protective equipment, facility costs and supplies required to store, handle, transport and administer vaccines, and efforts to share public information regarding vaccinations, according to the Hawaii Dept. of Defense. Site locations have not yet been announced.

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