The state Health Department today confirmed that its Laboratories Division detected two cases of the SARS-CoV-2 variant L452R in Hawaii.
Officials said the coronavirus strain was first detected in Denmark in March 2020 and is now found in more than a dozen U.S. states. The Centers for Disease Control and Protection has warned that it will probably become the dominant version in the country by March.
While science has not shown the L452R variant spreads more quickly or poses a greater threat than other COVID-19 strains, officials said there is a concern because it has been linked to a growing number of cases — including several large outbreaks — in California.
“It is common to find variants to viruses like COVID-19. Some present greater risks than others,” said Dr. Sarah Kemble, acting state epidemiologist, in a news release. “We are working with our colleagues in other states as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to learn more about the characteristics of this particular variant.”
In a follow-up question and answer session, Dr. Kemble shared that two separate cases of the strain were found – one on Oahu which was related to U.S. mainland travel, and one on Maui which does not appear to be travel related.
The two cases do not appear to be related to one another, she said.
“It could mean that there was a travel connection that we’re unable to ascertain,” she said. “It could mean the virus has been here for longer than we might realize and is circulating in our community. I think again, given our ties to California and the West Coast, where these strains are definitely being seen, that wouldn’t be entirely surprising. I think those are the possibilities that we’re looking at. We’re trying to understand how recently it might have been introduced.”
As an investigation continues into how widespread the new strain could be, both cases have been cleared from isolation, she said.
At this point, she said there is no evidence pointing to the need for the state to shift its mitigation strategies for COVID-19.
The department’s Laboratories Division began genome sequencing in June to look for possible COVID-19 variants, and now examines 75 specimens a week. It has also developed a testing algorithm designed to find variants as soon as possible after they arrive.
Officials said the B.1.1.7 variant first found in the United Kingdom and the B.1.351 variant first found in South Africa both have “enhanced transmissibility.” Neither has yet been detected in Hawaii.
“Hawaii is not immune to new strains,” said Health Director Dr. Elizabeth Char in a statement. “The arrival of L452R reminds us we must wear masks, maintain physical distance from people outside our immediate households, and avoid crowds. These safe practices coupled with COVID-19 vaccines will help us stop the spread.”