Inslee announces quarantine orders for travelers from UK, South Africa

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Washington residents coming back from countries including the United Kingdom and South Africa are required to self-quarantine for two weeks following arrival back in the state, Gov. Jay Inslee proclaimed, in a recent effort to stop the spread of a potentially more active form of the virus that causes COVID-19.

During a press conference Dec. 21, Inslee announced the proclamation, which imposes a legally-required 14-day self-quarantine on individuals coming back from countries shown to have prevalent spread of a new variant of coronavirus. Inslee said the proclamation includes passengers who may have arrived in the past few days, but there were exemptions for flight crews.

The restriction is based on current research showing that the new variant may spread more than others, though that research is ongoing. At the virtual press conference Trevor Bedford, a virologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, said that mutations seen in studying the virus’ genetic code appear to be ones that can change its function.

First appearing in September, Bedford said that in London in the past few weeks the virus variant had been rapidly increasing in frequency, and is now the most prevalent variant found circulating there. Based on data currently available, he said he believed it was likely, but not certain, that the new variant was more transmissible than others.

Exactly how it was more potentially transmissible remains to be seen, Bedford said, explaining it could simply be “more intrinsically infectious,” have a longer presymptomatic period, or have milder symptoms, leading to greater asymptomatic transmission.

Bedford said that current research shows individuals with the variant have higher “viral load” or the amount of virus present in testing, which may be a factor in increased transmission.

Bedford said so far there hasn’t been evidence that the variant was present in the U.S., “but we can’t say for sure that it’s not here,” he added, due to the levels of research on the variant conducted stateside.

Inslee called the proclamation “a common-sense public health measure,” and an effort to prevent any spread of the new variant before it makes its way to the United States.

“We believe this has a reasonable chance of slowing the spread of a mutation that we know is causing chaos in the United Kingdom right now,” Inslee said.

Inslee said the proclamation wasn’t coordinated with other states, adding that Washington did not have authority to prohibit flights from affected countries into the state, as that was something only the federal government could do.

Washington State Epidemiologist for Communicable Diseases Scott Lindquist said that apart from quarantine, those coming from the subject countries to get tested for COVID-19 to see if they have the strain. He said that the proclamation wasn’t a ban on travel, though Inslee added that self-quarantine was a legal requirement.

Inslee noted the state didn’t have the logistical capability to take individuals into custody to enforce the order, but the governor said that such proclamations did have an effect on the population’s habits regardless of 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. We are masking up. Businesses are following these difficult restrictions.”

“We would have lost thousands of more Washingtonians had we not followed those legal requirements,” Inslee remarked.

While the self-quarantine order was another restriction imposed in the state, Inslee pointed to positive signs in the fight against COVID-19, including federal approval of a second vaccine and data that suggests Washington would not be seeing a post-Thanksgiving spike in disease activity. He cautioned that Washingtonians should still adhere to social distancing and other preventative measures, noting the remaining holidays in the season coming up.

“Santa will be perfectly safe coming down the chimney to be indoors, but we really hope people avoid others being in the household this holiday season,” Inslee remarked.

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