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Delta variant expected to spread rapidly

Hawaii health officials anticipate that a highly transmissible variant of COVID-19 could become the dominant strain in the state within a month or so.

The state Department of Health on Friday announced that nine additional cases of COVID-19 caused by the Delta variant were identified this week by the DOH’s State Laboratories Division, bringing the total number of cases caused by the strain to 13.

The Delta variant, which originated in India, was first detected in Hawaii earlier this month and now has been identified on Oahu, Maui, Kauai and Hawaii Island.

“(On Thursday), our molecular biologist in charge of the whole genome sequencing reported a batch of 45 results of whole genome sequencing, and she found that we had nine cases of the Delta variant … ,” Dr. Edward Desmond, administrator of the State Laboratories Division, said Friday in a Zoom call with reporters. “So this is a big increase. Here before we had only had four cases. Now we had an additional nine cases in just one week.”

According to Desmond, two of the new Delta variant cases were on Maui, one was on Kauai and the remainder were on Oahu. One case previously was reported on the Big Island.

The state lab began genome sequencing of coronavirus specimens in June 2020 to identify the strains of virus circulating within the community. It now examines 50 to 100 specimens a week and has developed a testing algorithm designed to find variants in a timely manner.

Earlier-known variants also were identified in the most recent sequencing results. Desmond said 11 cases of the Alpha variant, which originated in the United Kingdom, and 11 cases of the Gamma variant, or Brazilian strain, were found.

“But I think what’s the big concern is the rapid growth in the percentage of our cases that are due to this new Delta variant,” he said.

“Each time we’ve detected a new variant in our state, I think all of us feel a surge of concern and maybe anxiety, and then we in the health department get the question, ‘What do we need to be concerned about?’ or ‘How concerned do we need to be?’ or ‘What should we worry about?” Dr. Janet Berreman, Kauai District Health Officer, said during the same Zoom call. “And the Delta variant is actually one that is even more concerning, although for similar reasons, than some of the other variants.”

The Delta strain appears to be much more transmissible than earlier variants and is the first strain for which there is preliminary indication it might cause more severe disease, she said.

“So obviously when we have a virus that spreads more easily and can make people sicker, those are real reasons to be concerned about this virus and about keeping it under control in our community,” Berreman said. “In contrast to where we were six or eight months ago, we have really good news about this variant. Which is even that though it’s probably the most concerning one we’ve detected, it is still very much prevented by the available vaccinations.”

Although no vaccine is 100% effective against the virus, Berreman said those who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 are much less likely to become ill with any variant and unlikely to become severely ill, be hospitalized or transmit the virus to others.

“To me, the answer to the question of, ‘Should we be worried?’ is yes, we should be worried about this virus, and it is spreading quickly in our state, as we expected it to do, but we can take that worry and move it into action to really effectively slow that spread and protect all of us, and that’s by getting vaccinated if we haven’t already been.”

Acting state Epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Kemble said in a news release that the most recently identified cases represent seven or eight separate introductions into the state.

“Unfortunately, I think that pattern is going to change,” Desmond said. “Now it has been introduced here, the Delta strain will be spread within our state. Then in the future, most of the cases we’d see will be result of community transmission.”

There are some community-acquired cases among the nine reported Friday, he said.

He expects the Delta variant to become the dominant strain in Hawaii, “probably within a month or so.”

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.
Source: Hawaii Tribune Herald

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