Editor’s note: This is a live account of COVID-19 updates from Wednesday, Aug. 19, as the day unfolded. It is no longer being updated. Click here to see all the most recent news about the pandemic, and click here to find additional resources.

A GOP senator confirmed Tuesday that Senate Republican leaders are preparing a slimmed-down coronavirus relief package of roughly $500 billion, which will include funding for the struggling U.S. Postal Service, extended payments for unemployed people and help for small businesses.

In Washington, public health officials are reporting that a smaller portion of tests done in King County are coming back positive, though several parts of the county are moving in the opposite direction.

Throughout Wednesday, on this page, we’ll be posting Seattle Times journalists’ updates on the outbreak and its effects on the Seattle area, the Pacific Northwest and the world. Updates from Tuesday can be found here, and all our coronavirus coverage can be found here.

Kemp defends coronavirus response after White House report

ATLANTA — Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp defended his administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic in fiery remarks Wednesday after a report from the White House coronavirus task force said Georgia led the nation last week in new cases per capita.

The White House report, dated Aug. 16, recommends several steps to curb the virus that Kemp has declined to take, including closing bars and issuing mask mandates in counties with 50 or more active cases.

Kemp was among the first governors to ease earlier restrictions this spring, and while infections declined for weeks afterwards, they began to rise in June and peaked in late July.

First reported by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the report says “Georgia’s small gains are fragile and statewide progress will require continued, expanded, and stronger mitigation efforts, including in all open schools.”

Kemp insisted Wednesday that other markers he’s watching paint a different picture.

—Associated Press

Old format, new problem: Biennial legislatures face COVID-19

CARSON CITY, Nev. — When the coronavirus pandemic hit, state legislators scrambled to authorize relief programs, review emergency protocols and rebalance their budgets amid plummeting revenue projections.

In California, they passed emergency measures to allow remote voting. In Arkansas, they moved to makeshift chambers in a college basketball arena. But in four states confronting the pandemic, lawmakers stayed home, not scheduled to return until 2021 for their legislative sessions.

In 1960, 31 legislatures met every other year. Over time, states have gradually abandoned the format as governance has grown more complex. In Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, and Texas, the format still holds— a vestige from a bygone era when lawmakers crossed vast rangelands with difficulty to get to state capitals.

In these states, lawmakers continue to meet for regular sessions in odd-numbered years and spend the rest of the time making minor decisions remotely in interim subcommittees.

Calls to convene the Legislature every year have historically failed to gain traction in these states. But the pandemic has galvanized the idea’s long-time supporters from both parties and won backing from frustrated lawmakers watching from the sidelines as governors coordinate responses.

—Associated Press

Mexico targets junk food as obesity takes toll amid pandemic

MEXICO CITY — As more states propose or approve bans on junk food sales to minors, Mexico is seeing the tide turn against high-calorie snacks that experts say have given the country one of the highest rates of childhood obesity and an unusually young coronavirus death toll.

The Gulf coast state of Tabasco passed restrictions on the sale of sugary bottled drinks and high-carbohydrate snacks this week, less than two weeks after the southern state of Oaxaca became the first to do so. Legislators in several more states have introduced similar bills, all of which forbid merchants from selling “junk” food to minors unless their parent or guardian is present and approves.

In the northern state of Chihuahua, Rep. Rene Frias introduced a bill “to guarantee our children and youths a healthier diet and to fight obesity and excess weight.” The bill has not yet been voted on.

In Mexico City, the country’s largest retail market, Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum said earlier this month “we are working with legislators to see if it is feasible to get similar legislation in Mexico City.”

Some of the measures also would ban vending machines from dispensing such foods and prohibit their sale in or near schools.

—Associated Press

Arizona close to meeting virus metrics for school reopenings

PHOENIX — Arizona’s downward trend of coronavirus cases means parts of the state could meet all three metrics the state’s health and education departments set for at least a partial reopening of schools by Labor Day, according to a former state health director.

And bars and nightclubs in at least some counties could meet the parameters for reopening shortly after that, according to Will Humble, who now leads the Arizona Public Health Association.

But caution is the word of the day, according to Humble and Dr. Joshua LaBaer, executive director of the ASU Biodesign Institute, which has been tracking the virus in Arizona.

“Arizona continues on what I would consider a positive trend, a good trend for us,” LaBaer said Wednesday at his weekly media briefing. But he said it is still difficult to predict if that decline will continue.

That’s particularly true if people ease up on social distancing and wearing face masks in public and start gathering in large groups again.

—Associated Press

Trump: Closing colleges amid outbreaks ‘could cost lives’

President Donald Trump on Wednesday blasted universities that have canceled in-person classes amid coronavirus outbreaks, saying the move could ultimately cost lives rather than saving them.

Raising the issue at a White House press briefing, Trump said the virus is akin to the seasonal flu for college students and that students pose a greater safety threat at home with older family members than on college campuses. He cited no evidence to support either contention, and the White House did not respond to a request for information on what Trump based his remarks.

Health experts have said the novel coronavirus appears to be deadlier than the seasonal flu — initial data suggest a far higher mortality — and it is more easily transmitted. Another major difference: There is no vaccine for the novel coronavirus while there is a vaccine for the seasonal flu.

“It’s significantly safer for students to live with other young people than to go home and spread the virus to older Americans,” Trump said.

—Associated Press

Cuomo brushes back AP report of care home death undercount

NEW YORK — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo responded Wednesday to an Associated Press report that his state’s coronavirus death toll in nursing homes could be a significant undercount, saying it makes sense to include only those residents who died on the home’s property.

Unlike the federal government and every other state with major outbreaks, only New York explicitly says that it counts just residents who died on nursing home property and not those who were transported to hospitals and died there.

“If you die in the nursing home, it’s a nursing home death. If you die in the hospital, it’s called a hospital death,” the Democratic governor said during an interview on Albany public radio station WAMC. “It doesn’t say where were you before.”

Cuomo said if New York were to count a death as a nursing home death and a hospital death, that could lead to a “double count.”

—Associated Press

Washington state rolls out new COVID-19 testing rules for agricultural workers

In the aftermath of a serious COVID-19 outbreak at Gebbers Farms in Okanogan County, Gov. Jay Inslee is ramping up virus testing requirements that agricultural employers must arrange for their workforces.

Inslee’s Wednesday proclamation reflects the continued concern about the spread of the disease among the farm-labor force, which will expand in the weeks ahead as the apple harvest unfolds with the help of thousands of guest workers from other counties who reside in labor camps.

The updated regulations require broad-scale testing whenever an agricultural employer has more than nine cases among workers within a 14-day period, or the virus attack rate equals 10% of the people they employ.

That testing must be timely, and encompass all employees and contractors willing to take the test, and anyone who declines must not be permitted by the employer to continue to work.

In a separate action, Secretary of Health John Wiesman ordered Gebbers Farms, which employs some 4,500 men and women, to test all of their labor force in the coming weeks.

Read the full story here.

—Hal Bernton

Local officials in China hid coronavirus dangers from Beijing, U.S. agencies find

WASHINGTON — Trump administration officials have tried taking a political sledgehammer to China over the coronavirus pandemic, asserting that the Chinese Communist Party covered up the initial outbreak and allowed the virus to spread around the globe.

But within the U.S. government, intelligence officials have arrived at a more nuanced and complex finding of what Chinese officials did wrong in January.

Officials in Beijing were kept in the dark for weeks about the potential devastation of the virus by local officials in central China, according to American officials familiar with a new internal report by U.S. intelligence agencies.

The report concluded that officials in the city of Wuhan and in Hubei province, where the outbreak began late last year, tried to hide information from China’s central leadership. The finding is consistent with reporting by news organizations and with assessments by China experts of the country’s opaque governance system.

—The New York Times

State confirms 425 new COVID-19 cases and 13 new deaths

State health officials reported 425 new COVID-19 cases in Washington as of Monday night, and 13 new deaths.

The update brings the state’s totals to 68,689 cases and 1,822 deaths, meaning that 2.7% of people diagnosed in Washington have died, according to the state Department of Health (DOH). The data is as of 11:59 p.m. Tuesday and represent more than 24 hours' worth of data.

In King County, the state most populous, state health officials have confirmed 18,054 diagnoses (146 more than the previous day) and 701 deaths (3 more than the previous day). To date, 3.9% of people in King County diagnosed with COVID-19 have died.

DOH has stopped releasing the number of tests that have come back negative. The agency, which initially cited technical difficulties, announced Aug. 12 it is changing its test-tracking methodology and won’t report testing totals or the state’s positivity rate again until its new data reporting system is operational.

—Brendan Kiley

Seahawks to play first three home games of the 2020 season without fans

The Seahawks announced Wednesday they will play their first three home games without fans, the latest adjustment to the 2020 season as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Those games are the home opener against New England on Sept. 20, Dallas on Sept. 27 and Minnesota on Oct. 11.

The team said it will “continue to follow the lead of public health and government officials” to influence further decisions about potentially having fans for the other five home games.

“After careful consideration, we have made the difficult determination to play at least our first three home games (Sept. 20, Sept. 27 and Oct. 11) without fans in attendance,” the Seahawks said in a statement. “While CenturyLink Field has become the best home field advantage in the league thanks to the energy and passion of the 12s, the health and safety of all of our fans, players and staff remains our top priority.”

Read the story here.

—Bob Condotta

Trail of bubbles leads scientists to new coronavirus clue

A doctor checking comatose COVID-19 patients for signs of a stroke instead stumbled onto a new clue about how the virus may harm the lungs — thanks to a test that used tiny air bubbles and a robot.

Dr. Alexandra Reynolds, a neurologist at New York’s Mount Sinai Health System, initially was baffled as she tracked “the cacophony of sound” made by those harmless bubbles passing through the bloodstream of patient after patient.

A bedside test performed by a robot showed tiny, harmless bubbles of air were reaching the brain unfiltered by the tiny capillaries in healthy lungs that do the job when they're working.

The weird finding excited lung specialists who now are studying if it helps explain why often, the sickest coronavirus patients don’t get enough oxygen despite being on ventilators.

The tale illustrates how months into the pandemic, scientists still are struggling to unravel the myriad ways the coronavirus attacks — and finding hints in surprising places.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

Pandemic fear: Church to apologize for funeral refusal

Noel Alexander had helped build Pine Hill Baptist Church in west-central Louisiana. He’d been its music minister, served on numerous committees and he and his wife kept the church’s books.

After he died from COVID-19 at age 79, his visitation and funeral were scheduled for the church he loved.

But his family said that when they arrived, they were told they couldn’t hold either the visitation or the funeral in the spacious building currently used for services because of the pandemic. And, they learned, the funeral director had been told he’d be met with a gun if he tried to bring the body inside.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

Iowa governor’s push to reopen schools descends into chaos

An aggressive push by Iowa’s governor to reopen schools amid a worsening coronavirus outbreak has descended into chaos, with some districts and teachers rebelling and experts calling the scientific benchmarks used by the state arbitrary and unsafe.

The clash in the Midwest has illustrated in condensed form the tension between science and politics — and between economic concerns and health fears — that has characterized the nation’s response to the outbreak from the White House on down. The virus has devastated the U.S. economy and killed over 170,000 Americans.

“We’re about to see a tragedy occur in the state. And there’s not a lot we can do about it. That’s frightening,” said Sara Anne Willette of Ames, a parent and former math tutor who runs a website tracking state infection data.

At issue is Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds’ mandate in July that districts offer at least 50% classroom instruction.

The conflict intensified Wednesday when the statewide teachers union announced a lawsuit challenging the governor’s ability to make such decisions for local districts.

Read the story here.

—Ryan J. Foley, The Associated Press

FDA’s emergency approval of blood plasma is now on hold

Last week, just as the Food and Drug Administration was preparing to issue an emergency authorization for blood plasma as a COVID-19 treatment, a group of top federal health officials including Dr. Francis Collins and Dr. Anthony Fauci intervened, arguing that emerging data on the treatment was too weak, according to two senior administration officials.

The authorization is on hold for now as more data is reviewed, according to H. Clifford Lane, the clinical director at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. An emergency approval could still be issued in the near future, he said.

Donated by people who have survived the disease, antibody-rich plasma is considered safe. President Donald Trump has hailed it as a “beautiful ingredient” in the veins of people who have survived COVID-19.

But clinical trials have not proved whether plasma can help people fighting the coronavirus.

Read the story here.

—The New York Times

No fear of coronavirus at drive-through haunted house

It’s a living nightmare — but a socially distanced one.

“Zombies” attack vehicles, smearing them with artificial blood. But the customers inside the cars are safely separated from their stalkers by the windows.

Production company Kowagarasetai, translated as Scare Squad, has launched a drive-through haunted house in Tokyo in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“We have started this drive-in because we cannot get close to customers” at a traditional haunted house because of the virus, explains Daichi Ono, a cast member.

“But the distance (between customers and cast) has actually gotten shorter since there is only a window between them,” he said.

Unlike a traditional haunted house, where guests can flee if frightened, customers are confined to their cars and cannot escape the horrors during the 13-minute performance.

With no actual contact between the audience and performers, the risk of transmitting the virus is virtually eliminated. And of course, inside their cars, customers can scream as loudly as they like.

Once the horror is over, instead of eating brains, these helpful zombies actually clean the blood off the cars they attacked just minutes earlier.

—The Associated Press

Iran surpasses 20,000 confirmed deaths from the coronavirus

Iran surpassed 20,000 confirmed deaths from the coronavirus on Wednesday, the health ministry said — the highest death toll for any Middle East country so far in the pandemic.

The announcement came as the Islamic Republic, which has been struggling with both the region’s largest outbreak and the highest number of fatalities, went ahead with university entrance exams for over 1 million students. Iran is also preparing for mass Shiite commemorations later this month.

Iran suffered the region’s first major outbreak, seeing top politicians, health officials and religious leaders in its Shiite theocracy stricken with the virus. It has since struggled to contain the spread of the virus across this nation of 80 million people, initially beating it back only to see it spike again beginning in June.

Still, international experts remain suspicious of Iran’s case counts. Even researchers in the Iranian parliament in April suggested the death toll is likely nearly double the officially reported figures, due to undercounting and because not everyone with breathing problems has been tested for the virus.

Read the full story here.

—The Associated Press

Here's how coronavirus saliva tests work

As the United States grapples with building testing capacity to meet the growing demand brought on by people resuming school and work, officials have placed their hopes on several solutions including saliva testing.

Since the test, called SalivaDirect and developed by the Yale School of Public Health, doesn’t require chemical reagents or swabs that have become scarce during the pandemic and offers a faster turnaround than the standard test, some believe it could offer the country a way to determine the spread of the virus quickly.

“Providing this type of flexibility for processing saliva samples to test for COVID-19 infection is groundbreaking,” said FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn in a statement.

The Yale team’s research, which has not been peer-reviewed, was funded by the NBA. The league uses SalivaDirect to test asymptomatic players and staff in its bubble, a quarantined zone for teams at Walt Disney World in Florida. Comparing the results of saliva tests to the more common method, called polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, the scientists found that the test was just as accurate.

Read the full story here.

—The Washington Post

Venezuela deploys security forces in coronavirus crackdown

Officials in Venezuela’s government are denouncing people who may have come into contact with the coronavirus as “bioterrorists” and urging their neighbors to report them. The government is detaining and intimidating doctors and experts who question Maduro’s policies on the virus.

And it is corralling thousands of Venezuelans who are streaming home after losing jobs abroad, holding them in makeshift containment centers out of fear that they may be infected.

In commandeered hotels, disused schools and cordoned-off bus stations, the returning Venezuelans are forced into crowded rooms with limited food, water or masks and held under military guard for weeks or months for coronavirus tests or treatment with unproven medications, according to interviews with the detainees, videos they have taken on their cellphones and government documents.

“They told us we’re contaminated, that we’re guilty of infecting the country,” said Javier Aristizabal, a nurse from the capital, Caracas, who said he spent 70 days in centers after he returned from Colombia in March.

Read the full story here.

—The New York Times

Catch up on the past 24 hours

Crew members from a Seattle-based fishing boat hit by an explosive coronavirus outbreak have provided what could be the first direct evidence that antibodies can protect people from reinfection.

Don't say "later, gaiter" just yet. After a small study led to fears about their ability to protect you from coronavirus, scientists are saying the backlash was unwarranted. "I’ve been recommending neck gaiters, and my kids wear neck gaiters," one of the world’s leading authorities on aerosols says. 

Young people are becoming the primary coronavirus spreaders in many countries, the World Health Organization is warning as officials worry the trend will worsen in the U.S. as colleges and K-12 schools reopen. Universities in Washington state are seeing a smattering of cases; here's a breakdown of their case numbers and reopening plans. 

Can dogs detect the coronavirus? Nine pooches are showing promise as they test an idea that could revolutionize virus screening. Watch them at work.

Doctors are fearing dangerous outbreaks of preventable diseases like measles because of a steep drop in the number of kids getting routine vaccines during the pandemic. Health professionals are also urgently pushing flu shots to avoid a "twindemic."

—Kris Higginson