With Covid-19 cases on the rise again, a new strain of the highly contagious omicron variant has been detected on Oahu, the Hawaii Department of Health said Thursday.

The subvariant known as XE makes up about 1% of the coronavirus strains found in the City and County of Honolulu but still hasn’t been identified on the neighbor islands, according to a report that sequences virus samples statewide.

All of the Covid-19 variants analyzed in the latest report stemmed from omicron, which led to a deadly surge in cases earlier this year. The crisis, which threatened to overwhelm hospitals, has ebbed and most restrictions aimed at preventing the spread of the virus have been lifted despite the frequent emergence of new variants.

XE, which is a hybrid of the original omicron strain BA.1 and a subvariant BA.2, was first identified in January in the United Kingdom.

Health Department spokesman Brooks Baehr said it’s too early to be really concerned about the new subvariant and the agency isn’t recommending the reimplementation of the indoor mask mandate or vaccination requirements.

Still, he urged caution.

“Finding the XE subvariant in Hawaii is another reminder that we’re still living in a pandemic,” Baehr said. “We have seen case counts climb for four consecutive weeks. The average daily case count was 87 on March 23. Now we are averaging 164 new cases a day. The positivity rate has gone from 2.3% in mid-March to 4.9% this week.”

Waimanalo Health Center Moderna COVID-19 vaccine box.
Health officials say getting fully vaccinated remains the best defense against the coronavirus. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Stare epidemiologist Sarah Kemble said it’s possible the virus could spread more quickly with the introduction of XE.

“Right now, we are seeing some signals internationally that XE may expand more rapidly than other Omicron strains,” she said. “We have not seen evidence that it causes more severe disease, or that it is more likely to cause breakthrough infections, but these are the key factors we will continue to watch.”

Hawaii was the last state to drop its Covid mask mandate in March, and Gov. David Ige said that he doesn’t expect to reinstate it anytime soon in part because hospitalizations continue to be low. He didn’t rule out reinstating it in the future if necessary, however.

A spokesman for Mayor Rick Blangiardi said he’s not planning to reimplement any Covid restrictions, such as vaccine or Covid test mandates for public places.

“We are closely monitoring the situation, but there are no imminent plans to change any of our COVID-19 policies at this time. We continue to encourage everyone who is eligible to be vaccinated and boosted to do so,” his office said in an emailed statement.

Compared with earlier this year, Hawaii’s pandemic has cooled down significantly. There were 29 people hospitalized for Covid on Wednesday, down from a peak of more than 400 in late January amid the omicron-driven surge.

Covid patients filled two intensive care unit beds statewide on Wednesday, and were occupying zero ventilators.

The average statewide positivity rate in Hawaii was 4.9% Thursday, with positivity rates highest on Kauai and Oahu. Eight new Covid deaths were reported in the last week, raising the total to 1,390 since the pandemic began in March 2020.

Hawaii recently opened up second booster shots to people aged 50 and up and those who have weak immune systems. Baehr noted that even though masks aren’t required, people can still protect themselves by choosing to mask indoors and among crowds and getting vaccinated and boosted.

Experts say N95 masks are most effective against the spread of omicron. Studies show vaccines can help prevent severe illness and death from Covid.

“We have been trending in the wrong direction for the past month or so and can help reverse the trend by staying home when sick, wearing masks, and getting vaccinated and boosted,” Baehr said.

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