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New Molokai Case, New Variant in HI

By Catherine Cluett Pactol

Molokai logged a new COVID-19 case last week, bring the island’s total to 28 cases since the pandemic began. The Dept. of Health reported the new case last Friday. No further details were publicly available.

A highly transmissible variant was detected in Hawaii last week, causing concern among health officials. The new strain is called B.1.351 and is sometimes referred to as the South African variant. It was found in an Oahu resident with no travel history, according to the DOH.

“This is concerning because B.1.351 has a mutation that makes it more transmissible from one person to another, and a separate mutation that might make it less responsive to the antibodies we form when we have COVID or get vaccinated,” said DOH State Laboratories Division Director Dr. Edward Desmond.

The mutation that increases transmissibility is called N501Y, while the mutation that may reduce effectiveness of antibodies is called E484K.

The N501Y and E484K mutations have previously been found in Hawaii, but this is the first time both mutations have been found together in one virus, stated a DOH news release.

“While theoretical concerns have been raised about whether vaccination will be effective against new variant strains, the real-world data so far are reassuring” said Acting State Epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Kemble. “A study in South Africa showed the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was effective in preventing serious disease requiring hospitalization and in preventing death even where B.1.351 was the predominant strain.”

Two new cases of the B.1.1.7 variant, also known as the U.K. variant, were also found, for a total of eight B.1.1.7 variant cases detected in Hawaii to date. This variant, first detected in Hawaii in early February, has the N501Y transmissibility mutation, but not the E484K mutation. The most recent cases of B.1.1.7 involve two Oahu residents, one who traveled to the mainland and a household contact of that individual.

The DOH also reported three “breakthrough” cases of COVID-19, or cases in which a fully vaccinated person (someone who received both doses) has contracted the virus.

“This number is not outside what we would expect with nearly 165,000 people in Hawaii who are fully vaccinated,” said DOH spokesperson Brooks Baehr. “A vaccine with 95 percent efficacy will protect 95 out of 100 people. This means five percent may still contract COVID if exposed. This another reason we must all do our part to keep case counts low.”

The DOH notes that none of the individuals with breakthrough COVID became severely ill and none are known to have transmitted COVID to someone else.

“The vaccines are preventing serious illness as they are designed to do,” said Baehr.

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