A new COVID-19 strain originating in South Africa that is both highly contagious and able to evade antibodies was detected in an Oahu resident, state health officials announced Monday.

The resident had no travel history, indicating they contracted the virus in the community. The person also likely exposed several household members who have tested positive and may have transmitted it to others at the person’s workplace, although Dr. Sarah Kemble, the state acting epidemiologist for the Department of Health, would not specify how many at a press conference Monday.

“There are positive contacts who we assume have the same variant,” she said, adding that the Disease Outbreak Control Division is conducting an investigation of the person’s workplace. “It’s concerning to see the South Africa variant here and in a non-traveler, because that means that there has already been some circulation in our community even though it may be limited at this time.”

Researchers at the Hawaii State Laboratories Division take a random sampling of COVID-19 test specimens from Hawaii patients to conduct a full genomic analysis. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Two more infections caused by the COVID-19 strain that originated in the U.K. were confirmed this week as well, taking the total to eight cases in the span of three weeks. An Oahu resident who had traveled to Las Vegas and another member of their household contracted the U.K. strain.

The U.K. strain is on track to become dominant in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Certain mutations of the new variants have demonstrated the ability to infect even those who previously recovered from COVID-19, according to Edward Desmond, the State Laboratories Division administrator. The division conducts a comprehensive genomic analysis of test specimens to confirm which variants and mutations are at play.

“That creates some concern that immunity is not absolute when you have one of these strains,” he said.

At least one of the eight Hawaii patients confirmed to have the B117 variant reported getting a COVID-19 vaccine, but that was after they were exposed, according to Kemble.

The vaccine will not work in someone whose body is incubating the virus, she said, since the protection vaccines provide is not complete until two weeks after the last shot.

The arrival of more variants in Hawaii underscores the importance of the state’s vaccine rollout.

According to data provided by the health department, about 16% of the state’s population has received at least one vaccine dose. But health care providers on Lanai and Molokai are on track to complete the inoculation of all those eligible and willing to take the vaccine, in part because of their smaller populations.

The state as a whole remains in phase 1b of its vaccine rollout, with vaccines limited to people who work in critical industries, health workers, first responders and seniors. Those who are 70 years and older became eligible for vaccine sign-ups on Monday.

“It is in some ways a race of vaccine against the variant,” Kemble said.

Three different vaccines are now available in the U.S. Hawaii received the first shipments of the one-dose vaccine developed by Johnson & Johnson last week, but federal suppliers have indicated there will be a lull in shipments before they ramp up again, Kemble said.

The new strains are also arriving as Oahu loosens some restrictions on business and group activities as part of its reopening strategy. An average of 24 new cases per day were recorded on Oahu last week, and fewer than 1% of all people tested had positive COVID-19 results.

Honolulu could meet criteria for the least restrictive tier by the end of March.

“Our case numbers continue to be stable to downtrending overall so that’s a good situation to be in as far as our vaccination campaign goes,” Kemble said. “We’re still at a critical juncture.”

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