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Inslee announces travel restrictions to South Africa, U.K. as new COVID-19 strain spreads quickly

UPDATED: Tue., Dec. 22, 2020

Travelers from the United Kingdom and South Africa are now required to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival in the state of Washington as a new fast-spreading strain of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is creating concern among health officials.

Gov. Jay Inslee announced Monday new travel restrictions targeting countries that have reported the new mutated virus that experts say seems to spread more easily. Those returning to Washington from these countries, including travelers who arrived in the last few days, are now required to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival and receive a negative test.

“This is a cautionary reminder that we’re perhaps months away from being out of the worst of this pandemic,” Inslee said.

Currently, the list of countries with restrictions includes the United Kingdom and South Africa, but Inslee said more could be added if it becomes known that they have the strain.

The new strain has ripped through the U.K., leading Prime Minister Boris Johnson to announce new restrictions Saturday and several European Union countries and Canada to ban or limit some flights from the U.K. The new strain is responsible for more than 60% of the most recent infections in London .

The virus that causes COVID-19 has had many mutations already, although most variations aren’t appreciably different in their effects , said Trevor Bedford, associate professor and researcher at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

A lot is still unknown about this new coronavirus strain, Bedford said. For example, it’s unclear if it’s more deadly, if it has a longer incubation period or if it is more likely in asymptomatic people.

The strain has not yet appeared in the United States, Bedford said.

“We plan on being very vigilant and looking for this strain here in Washington state,” state epidemiologist Dr. Scott Lindquist said.

It is unclear how long the travel restrictions will remain in place.

The 14-day quarantine is a legal requirement, Inslee said, but he is still working on the logistics of how it will be enforced . His hope is that airlines will coordinate and help issue guidance to passengers once they touch down in Washington.

The state does not have the logistical ability to take people into custody if they don’t comply, Inslee said.

“We have found that these proclamations do have a positive benefit,” Inslee said. “This is a message to save your life.”

What might be particularly concerning about the emergence of a more infectious strain of the coronavirus is the health care capacity statewide, said Dr. Steve Mitchell, medical director of the Washington Medical Coordination Center and the Emergency Department for Harborview Medical Center. Its spread here, were it to happen, could further overwhelm the health system.

The way to stay safe from a new strain of the coronavirus is the same way to stay safe from the original one, Mitchell told reporters in a Washington State Hospital Association briefing Monday. Wear a mask, social-distance, avoid gathering with people outside your household.

Health officials are again urging people not to travel this holiday season. It does not look like Washington saw a huge spike in COVID cases after Thanksgiving, Inslee said, but the situation remains “very tenuous.”

“Many people consider this to be the most wonderful time of the year,” Cassie Sauer, president and CEO of the Washington State Hospital Association, said. “People’s behaviors now will prevent it from being the most terrible time of this year.”

State prepares for Moderna vaccine, additional Pfizer doses

With Moderna’s coronavirus vaccine now approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration, the state of Washington is preparing for this week’s vaccine deliveries.

The state is expected to receive 44,850 more doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which was administered for the first time last week. It will also receive 128,000 doses of the new Moderna vaccine, according to a draft spreadsheet shared during a Washington State Hospital Association news briefing.

The Moderna vaccine was approved by the FDA on Friday. Inslee announced Sunday the authorization of the vaccine by the Western Scientific Safety Review Workgroup, comprised of vaccine experts from Washington, California, Oregon and Nevada.

The Pfizer doses will go mostly to hospitals that have the ultracold storage needed for it, Sauer said. The Moderna doses will go to public health departments, primary care facilities, medical groups and other hospitals.

Shipments are expected in the state by mid-week, Sauer said.

Some of the Pfizer shipments might actually include more doses than they originally anticipated, Eric Wymore, vice president of pharmacy at CHI Franciscan, said. Each vial is expected to contain five doses, but after mixing it, there is often enough left over in the vial for an extra dose, which Pfizer has said is acceptable to use.

The goal is to have all front-line workers in the highest prioritization group vaccinated by the end of January, Sauer said.

Those who have received the vaccine so far report minimal side effects, other than a sore arm, Mitchell said. He received the vaccination last week.

“It was an incredible experience,” he said. “It represents that hope is coming, as long as we can stay vigilant for the next couple months.”

Wymore said Washington has not seen any of the allergic reactions from the Pfizer vaccine that have been reported elsewhere. He said those instances were “very minimal and very rare.”

Even with beginning of vaccine arrivals, health officials continue to urge everyone to wear a mask, stay socially distant and avoid large gatherings, especially this holiday season.

Hospitalizations remain high and capacity is still limited, said Mark Taylor, director of operations for the Washington Medical Coordination Center. Although hospitalizations are slightly decreasing or plateauing, it is still a “rapidly changing environment.”

Daily numbers

The Spokane Regional Health District confirmed 196 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday as well as 424 additional cases on Saturday and Sunday, bringing the county’s total to more than 24,000 total cases since the beginning of the pandemic.

The county also reported five more deaths on Monday, bringing the total to 334. There are currently 57 county residents hospitalized due to the virus.

The Panhandle Health District reported 547 new COVID-19 cases in its North Idaho region on Monday, including numbers from Saturday and Sunday. Two more people have died from the virus, bringing the total for the five-county district to 149 deaths.

As of Monday, there were 92 patients currently hospitalized in the district, with 86 at Kootenai Health.

Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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