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caption: Masked travelers exit Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on Monday, May 18, 2020, in Seattle. All passengers and employees traveling through the airport are required to wear face coverings beginning today, Monday, May 18.
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Masked travelers exit Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on Monday, May 18, 2020, in Seattle. All passengers and employees traveling through the airport are required to wear face coverings beginning today, Monday, May 18.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Inslee tightens WA travel restrictions following new coronavirus strain revelations in U.K., South Africa

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee on Monday announced a new, 14-day quarantine requirement for people traveling into the state from the United Kingdom and South Africa, where mutated strains of the coronavirus have recently driven surges in Covid-19 cases.

While much still remains unknown about the variants, scientists have pointed to evidence suggesting both could be more infectious — but not necessarily more deadly — than the strain originally behind the Covid-19 pandemic.

Washington's new proclamation means that people heading into the state from the U.K. and South Africa must isolate for 14 days upon their return. It does not, however, ban travel from the regions altogether —that degree of restriction would need to be ordered at the federal level, Inslee said.

That hasn't happened.

"We've acted fairly quickly because we have found that, if you're behind this virus, it's just too late," Inslee said. "So this is what science tells us and we're following science as quickly as we can."

An increasing number of countries have temporarily banned travel from the U.K. and South Africa, in the wake of Covid-19 spikes caused by new variants of the coronavirus.

RELATED: Travel From The U.K. Shut Down As Nations Assess Threat Of New Coronavirus Strain

Dr. Trevor Bedford, an epidemiologist with Fred Hutch's Vaccine and Infectious Disease Division, outlined the most recent findings about the strain impacting the U.K.

"There are some mutations that, by themselves, look biologically interesting, look relevant, look important," Bedford said. "That just from seeing those mutations in the sequence, you think that they could change the function of the virus to some degree."

While those mutations have been characterized individually, he added, they have not yet been analyzed collectively in a lab.

First disovered in late September, the U.K. coronavirus variant has been the predominant one found among London-based Covid-19 cases recently. Bedford explained a widely circulating statistic that the mutation is up to 70% more transmissible than the original strain driving the Covid-19 pandemic.

"[U.K. virologists] haven't done contact tracing or kind of this detailed work," Bedford said. "Instead, it's by looking at the prevalence of what was circulating, and then seeing that this new variant is rapidly becoming predominant. And that's entirely where the 70% comes from.

"It seems very likely to me — but not at all certain — that it is more transmissible," Bedford continued. "But we don't know the mechanism for that. It could be that it is more intrinsically infectious; it could have a longer pre-symptomatic period; it could be milder and have a more asymptomatic transmission — there are a lot of ways you could accomplish this, that are not just pure infectivity."

It's not presently clear how long Inslee's travel order will remain in effect.

“This is a legal requirement to quarantine — it is not simply a recommendation," Inslee said during a virtual press conference on Monday afternoon. "We obviously want people to voluntarily comply."

The governor added that the state does not intend to take violators of the order into custody. However, it's not presently clear whether those people could be subject to other penalties.

"We have found that these proclamations do have a positive benefit, because people want to ... abide by the law — the large vast majority people — and number two, they want to save lives. And this is a message to save your life and save the lives of your loved ones," Inslee said.

He added that state officials are looking into the logistics of pontentially launching a contact-tracing effort related to travel from the U.K. and South Africa to Washington. Additionally, officials are urging anyone who has traveled to those regions and is exhibiting Covid-19 symptoms to get tested to confirm or rule out the coronavirus mutations.

Inslee on Monday also reiterated pleas by public health officials to continue avoiding indoor gatherings as Christmas approaches, and as the vaccine rollout commences.

"I hope people will find a way to feel that joy that is unique to this season," Inslee said. [There's] no reason we can't have that inner warmth in our hearts for our loved ones, even though we're avoiding a lot of these indoor gatherings."