Gov. Jay Inslee on Monday announced new travel restrictions for people arriving from the United Kingdom, South Africa and other nations where a new variant of the novel coronavirus has been reported.
Early estimates indicate that the new mutation of the virus, while not more deadly or vaccine-resistant, spreads faster and more easily than prior strains. There is not yet evidence of this new strain in the United States, but Inslee said it was crucial to act early, “before the horse is out of the barn.”
Inslee’s new proclamation requires anyone arriving in Washington from those countries within the last 14 days to quarantine for 14 days. It also urges those people to get tested for the virus.
The quarantine is mandatory and legally enforceable, but the state is not likely to take many enforcement measures, Inslee said.
He compared the new restrictions to other orders he’s put in place — like the state’s mask mandate, limitations on retail capacity and a ban on indoor dining at restaurants — which have been legally binding but have come with sparse enforcement.
“We have found that when we have put legally binding requirements in the state, we have had incredible levels of compliance,” Inslee said. “The vast, vast majority of Washingtonians are pitching in, they are masking up, businesses are following these difficult restrictions.”
Also Monday, Inslee, in response to a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court, changed the 200-person cap on religious services from a binding order to a recommendation.
More than 40 countries have banned travelers from the United Kingdom over the last several days. Inslee said the state does not have the authority to ban flights from the U.K.
In southern England, the United Kingdom has moved to its strictest level of coronavirus restrictions, ordering all nonessential businesses to close and ordering families to nix planned Christmas gatherings.
Inslee stressed that the travel restrictions were precautionary. But even if the new strain is not more severe, higher transmissibility means it could lead to a surge in infections and place more stress on hospitals and intensive care units.
Three flights per week arrive at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport from the U.K., said Perry Cooper, an airport spokesperson. That number used to be higher, but two airlines canceled their flights last spring due to the pandemic.
A London-to-Seattle flight scheduled to land Monday was canceled, Cooper said, but the reason for the cancellation wasn’t clear. Flights are frequently canceled if not enough tickets are sold, Cooper said.
Overall, international passenger traffic through Sea-Tac was down 75% compared to last year, Cooper said.
Trevor Bedford, an infectious-disease researcher at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, said London has seen a rapid increase in recent weeks in this strain of the virus and estimates place it at perhaps 70% more transmissible.
But, he said, researchers don’t yet know why it may be more transmissible.
“It seems very likely to me, but not certain — not at all certain — that it is more transmissible, but we don’t know the mechanism for that,” Bedford said. “It could be milder and have more asymptomatic transmission. There’s a lot of ways you could accomplish this.”
He said that researchers in the U.S. have sequenced the genome of 1,150 coronavirus infections in the U.S. since Nov. 1. Most of them are slightly different from one another.
“The virus is mutating all the time and most of the mutations don’t do much,” Bedford said. “None of them have been this new strain of the virus.”
Still, he noted, that’s only 1,150 cases out of about 200,000 new cases reported every day in the U.S.