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Hawaii health officials say not to panic about Omicron COVID-19 variant, yet

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This variant first identified in South Africa has now mutated.

HONOLULU (KITV4) -- The World Health Organization (WHO) on Friday identified a new and potentially more transmissible COVID-19 variant of concern called Omicron.

This variant first identified in South Africa has now mutated. Some health experts say current vaccines could be ineffective within a year. Many countries including the United States are sounding the alarm.

In Hawaii, Department of Health Director Dr. Libby Char says she's concerned about the situation, but there's no reason to panic about the Omicron variant for now.

Char says there's no cases of Omicron identified in Hawaii so far or in the US. Despite that news, she says the state's laboratory will continue to monitor possible transmission through surveillance testing of COVID positive samples.

There are lessons learned from the Delta Variant when COVID-19 infections surged.

"It really reminds us, we need to make smart choices," Char said. "No matter if it's a variant or not, still going to be easily transmitted if we're indoors, if there's a lot of people there, if we're clustered together, if we're not wearing masks."

Scientists across the country are still trying to answer questions: will the current vaccines protect us against this strain? How transmissible is it and is the variant easy to detect?

Lt. Gov. Josh Green says the good news is this variant seems to be easier to detect compared to others.

"We should be able to determine if it's this variant when we test for people without going through that genetic analysis," Green said.

The potential threat of Omicron, Dr. Green says, is why it's important to keep the state's Safe Travels Program.

"Because of international travel and international concerns," he said. "We have the capability to tweak our policies quickly if we have to adjust to a variant."

Green also believes vaccination rates of a population can make a difference. Nearly 73% of Hawaii's population is fully vaccinated. Only around 23% of residents in South Africa are fully vaccinated.

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