New Covid variant discovered in Hawaii, but no new restrictions planned

As Covid-19 cases rise again, a new strain of the highly contagious Omicron variant has been discovered on Oahu, the Hawaii Department of Health announced Thursday.

The subvariant known as XE accounts for about 1% of the coronavirus strains found in Honolulu County, but has yet to be identified on neighboring islands, according to a report sequencing virus samples nationwide.

All of the Covid-19 variants analyzed in the latest report came from omicron, leading to a fatal spike in cases earlier this year. The crisis that threatened to overwhelm hospitals has subsided and most restrictions aimed at preventing the spread of the virus have been lifted despite the frequent emergence of new variants.

XE, a hybrid of the original Omicron strain BA.1 and a subvariant BA.2, was first identified in the UK in January.

Department of Health spokesman Brooks Baehr said it was too early to be really concerned about the new sub-variant and the agency is not recommending a re-implementation of the mask mandate or indoor vaccination requirements.

Nevertheless, he urged caution.

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

Health officials say full vaccination remains the best defense against the coronavirus. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Hawaii was the last state to drop its Covid mask mandate in March, and Gov. David Ige said he doesn’t expect to reintroduce it any time soon, in part because hospital admissions remain low. However, he did not rule out using it again in the future should the need arise.

A spokesman for Mayor Rick Blangiardi said he has no plans to reintroduce Covid restrictions such as vaccine or Covid testing mandates for public places.

“We are closely monitoring the situation, but there are no immediate plans to change our COVID-19 policies at this time. We continue to encourage and encourage everyone who is eligible for vaccination,” his office said in an emailed statement.

Compared to earlier this year, the pandemic in Hawaii has cooled off significantly. On Wednesday, 29 people were hospitalized for Covid, compared with a peak of more than 400 in late January amid the Omicron-driven surge.

Covid patients filled two beds in intensive care units across the country on Wednesday and occupied zero ventilators.

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

Hawaii recently allowed second booster shots for people ages 50 and older and those with weakened immune systems. Baehr noted that while masks are not required, people can still protect themselves by masking indoors and in crowds and getting vaccinated and empowered.

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

“We’ve been trending in the wrong direction over the last few months or so and we can help reverse the trend by staying home when sick, wearing masks and getting vaccinated and empowered,” Baehr said.

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