A Hawaii health care worker who was among the first to receive a two-dose COVID-19 vaccine in January contracted the virus after traveling to the mainland, local disease investigators have found.

The Oahu resident and a travel companion both tested positive after traveling to “multiple mainland U.S. cities” in February but never developed symptoms, according to the Department of Health’s Disease Outbreak Control Division. No family, friends or coworkers became infected.

A local case in which a vaccinated health worker contracted COVID-19 demonstrated how people can still contract the virus but the vaccines work to prevent severe illness and death. Courtesy: The Queen's Health Systems

It’s one of three “breakthrough” cases identified by the health department in which people who were vaccinated nonetheless contracted the virus. The health department said the cases are not surprising considering that 165,000 people in Hawaii have been fully vaccinated and the vaccines are proven to be about 95% effective, meaning that some people will still get it. None of the three people got severely ill or transmitted it to others.

“The really important thing is that being vaccinated prevents us from serious illness, hospitalization, and death. That’s what we really need the vaccines to do for us,” Dr. Libby Char, the director of the health department, said in a press release. “Thankfully, their symptoms were very mild, which is exactly the protection the vaccine affords, but you can get infected with COVID.”

The news was announced as part of the division’s weekly cluster report. Traveling outside of Hawaii has been a common thread among those who contract the virus, particularly variant cases.

Of the nine total infections confirmed in Hawaii to be caused by a strain that was first identified in the U.K., three had traveled to Las Vegas, according to the report.

Health officials are advising people to refrain from traveling for leisure.

The state announced this week that more doses of vaccine are on the way, and eligibility will be expanded to new groups starting Monday, including people with certain high-risk medical conditions and to those 65 and older as part of the launch into phase 1c of the vaccine rollout.

Until now, the vaccines were limited to health workers, long-term care facility residents, and kupuna 70 years old and older, along with essential workers.

People between the ages of 16 and 64 meet 1c phase eligibility if they are dependent on dialysis or on oxygen for a respiratory or cardiovascular disease or are undergoing chemotherapy or immunosuppressive medication therapy at an infusion center because of cancer or an autoimmune disease, according to the Healthcare Association of Hawaii. Otherwise, the state plans to continue to open eligibility by lowering the age requirement in five-year increments.

Hawaii recorded an average of 54 daily COVID-19 cases this week. Most infections were on Oahu, but Maui and Hawaii counties are seeing the highest percentage of positive results, albeit the numbers are still low.

Weekly case rates show COVID-19 disease prevalence remains relatively sparse in the islands. Department of Health

Maui continues to deal with several infection clusters, the largest at the Maui Community Correctional Center, where a total of 85 people have tested positive for COVID-19 to date.

Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi is easing COVID-19 related restrictions on Oahu, and as of Thursday, Honolulu bars were allowed to reopen for groups up to 10 and large funerals and conventions were permitted. Next month, Blangiardi said outdoor sporting events may resume.

The move marks a break from the original tier system based on average cases and testing rates. The tier system was developed by former Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s administration.

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