The first flight from the United Kingdom to arrive in Washington state after Gov. Jay Inslee announced quarantine requirements on travelers from countries with a new, more transmissible coronavirus variant, landed Wednesday.
The British Airways flight from London landed at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport carrying about 80 passengers. They are all required to quarantine for 14 days under the governor’s Monday order aimed at reducing the chance that the variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus could be introduced into Washington.
The order comes about a month after Inslee issued an advisory to all travelers to Washington, including residents, recommending a 14-day self-quarantine after returning to the state.
The new quarantine requirement currently applies to travelers from the U.K. and South Africa, where the new virus variant — which spreads significantly more quickly and easily, but is not thought to be deadlier or more vaccine-resistant — has been detected.
However, importation of the variant seems likely, according to U.S. officials.
“Ongoing travel between the United Kingdom and the United States, as well as the high prevalence of this variant among current U.K. infections, increase the likelihood of importation,” the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in an update Tuesday.
The variant has not been found in the U.S. yet, but given the small fraction of U.S. COVID-19 case that have been sequenced — some 51,000 out of more than 17 million cases — the CDC said it “could already be in the United States without having been detected.”
The variant has been associated with a rapid increase in COVID-19 cases in London and southeast England since November, accounting for about six in 10 cases reported in London, according to the CDC.
Kate Hudson, Sea-Tac aviation communications manager, said passengers traveling from the U.K. are notified of the quarantine requirement when they reserve their flight, with announcements at the departure airport and with signage in the international arrivals area at Sea-Tac.
British Airways is the only carrier operating flights to Sea-Tac from the U.K. Scheduled flights arrive on Sundays, Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, but have been 30% to 50% full on average. The Monday flight was canceled this week.
Washington’s quarantine is mandatory and can be legally enforced, but Inslee said on Monday that the state is unlikely to take such measures. He said the state cannot ban flights from the U.K.
While dozens of other countries have banned travel from countries with the new variant, the U.S. has not.
The variant is sometimes referred to as N501Y, a shorthand notation of the position of a mutation on its spike protein believed to make it more transmissible. It is also called SARS-CoV-2 VOC 202012/01, indicating that it’s the first variant of concern from December 2020, according to the CDC.