Editor’s note: This is a live account of COVID-19 updates from Monday, Dec. 21, 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 It is no longer being updated.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.
As vaccines to vanquish COVID-19 are airlifted and trucked across the United States, so is the coronavirus itself, carried within millions of people who visit family and friends this holiday week.
Moderna’s vaccine, which can be stored at normal refrigerator temperatures, was authorized by the Western States Scientific Safety Review Group, announced Gov. Jay Inslee on Sunday. This follows emergency approval Friday by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Scroll down for a link to Inslee’s news conference, scheduled for 2:30 p.m. Monday, with updates about Washington state’s epidemic response.
Six million doses of the Moderna vaccine are expected to be distributed nationwide this week, following last week’s arrival of the Pfizer vaccine, stored at minus-76 degrees or cooler.
Meanwhile, U.S. air travel has climbed back to 1 million passengers per day, still less than a normal holiday season. Washington State Ferries, which is operating reduced service this holiday weekend, is urging people to avoid its boats except for essential trips.
Four hospitals in Los Angeles are considering rationed care to treat people with the best odds of survival, if California’s intensive care facilities, now 98% occupied, become overwhelmed. By comparison, Washington state is at 84% of capacity.
Over the weekend, Congress agreed on a $908 billion economic-relief package. Uncle Sam will send most Americans a $600 check. Nearly $300 million would reach Puget Sound-area transit agencies, whose ridership has plummeted by more than half.
Throughout Monday, we’ll be posting updates here by Seattle Times journalists and news services, from the Pacific Northwest and worldwide. Previous days’ updates and all our coronavirus coverage can be found here.
Gov. Jay Inslee will holds a press conference at 2:30 p.m. today to give an update on the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic concerning travel from abroad, including the United Kingdom.
Congress approves $900B COVID relief bill, sending to Trump
WASHINGTON — Congress passed a $900 billion pandemic relief package Monday night that would finally deliver long-sought cash to businesses and individuals and resources to vaccinate a nation confronting a frightening surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths.
Lawmakers tacked on a $1.4 trillion catchall spending bill and thousands of pages of other end-of-session business in a massive bundle of bipartisan legislation as Capitol Hill prepared to close the books on the year. The bill goes to President Donald Trump for his signature, which is expected in the coming days.
The relief package, unveiled Monday afternoon, sped through the House and Senate in a matter of hours. The Senate cleared the massive package by a 92-6 vote after the House approved the COVID-19 package by another lopsided vote, 359-53. The tallies were a bipartisan coda to months of partisanship and politicking as lawmakers wrangled over the relief question, a logjam that broke after President-elect Joe Biden urged his party to accept a compromise with top Republicans that is smaller than many Democrats would have liked.
The 5,593-page legislation — by far the longest bill ever — came together Sunday after months of battling, posturing and postelection negotiating that reined in a number of Democratic demands as the end of the congressional session approached.
The holidays could make or break struggling stores
NEW YORK — Clothing stores and specialty retailers are offering big discounts and heavily promoting curbside pickup in hopes of rescuing a lackluster holiday shopping season in which surging coronavirus cases have kept many shoppers at home.
For some, it could be their last chance at survival. And even a last-minute sales boost could be too late to save them.
The holiday season, which accounts for about 20% of the retail industry’s annual sales, has always been make-or-break for struggling stores. But it’s even more important this year as they look to make up for sales lost since the pandemic forced them to temporarily close locations.
That’s a big challenge given that the deadline to order online and get items in time for Christmas has passed. Retailers also can’t rely on big crowds of procrastinators because of restrictions on how many people can shop at once.
Big box retailers like Walmart and Target, which have been deemed essential and mostly allowed to remain open throughout the pandemic, have done well by attracting shoppers with safety concerns who don’t want to go to multiple stores. Supermarkets, home improvement stores and online retailers have also seen strong sales.
But many clothing and department stores have struggled, especially those in shopping malls, some of which were already in trouble even before the coronavirus upended the retail landscape.
Illinois woman finds apparent COVID test in Kohl’s package
CHICAGO — An Illinois woman who ordered flags for her grandmother’s garden got a surprise when the package arrived — someone’s apparent COVID-19 test specimen.
Andrea Ellis was wrapping Christmas gifts at her aunt’s house in East Moline, in northwestern Illinois, when she opened a padded envelope containing the flags she ordered weeks ago from the department store chain Kohl’s, according to The Quad City Times.
“I pulled out the flags and I told my aunt, ‘Look how cute these are,’” she said. “I pulled out the packing slip and then noticed something deeper inside the envelope and pulled that out. It was a biohazard bag containing someone’s COVID-19 test specimen.”
Ellis, who didn’t immediately reply to a Monday phone message from The Associated Press, called the police, who referred the issue to the county health department, according to East Moline police Chief Jeff Ramsey.
Janet Hill, the chief operating officer at the Rock Island County Health Department, told the AP that she picked up the biohazard bag over the weekend and that it appeared to contain a used nasal swab and identifying information of a person from Virginia. She said she was figuring out what to do next, including contacting health officials in Virginia and trying to determine if the specimen was still viable.
“I’ve never heard of anything like this,” Hill said. “I want this person to know that the test has not been done yet.”
Moderna vaccine arrives in Seattle, with more coming later this week
The Seattle Indian Health Board wasn’t expecting its first shipment of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine until next week, so staff were surprised — and delighted — when 500 doses showed up Monday instead. By late afternoon, several executive team members had bared their arms for the shot to demonstrate their faith in its effectiveness and safety.
“I’m excited to take the first step, and to really model the safety and value of the vaccine for our community,” said CEO Esther Lucero, who got the first jab.
Other medical facilities across the state are expecting to get the newly approved vaccine by midweek, doubling the options for fighting back against a disease that is once again threatening to overwhelm the state’s hospitals.
Washington is scheduled to receive 130,000 doses of Moderna’s vaccine this week, along with an additional 45,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTec vaccine, which was the first to be approved, according to a briefing Monday by the Washington State Hospital Association (WSHA). With the discovery last week that most vials of the Pfizer vaccine contain at least one additional dose, that means the total number could be 20% higher, said WSHA President Cassie Sauer.
The additional vaccine shipments could help alleviate concerns raised by staff at hospitals passed over in last week’s initial allocation, and those at facilities where distribution plans left some of the most at-risk health-care workers off the vaccine priority list.
Bezos pledges additional $25 million to support COVID-19 relief efforts in Washington
Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos has pledged another $25 million to All in Washington, a statewide COVID-19 relief effort, to support those "acutely affected" by the pandemic, particularly communities of color, according to a Monday statement from the organization.
The additional contribution brings Bezos' total donations to $50 million, which will put All in Washington closer to its new fundraising goal of $100 million, the statement said.
Since launching in May, All in Washington has received more than $70 million in contributions, including matching funds from Bezos.
"While the generosity of Washingtonians has been unprecedented, the impact of the pandemic is far from over," the statement said. "Due to the urgent need across our state, All In WA has set a new fundraising goal of $100 million. As with his earlier pledge, Jeff Bezos will match individual donations up to $1 million."
The organization has also focused on five "critical areas of needs," including child and family services, food insecurity, small-business recovery, youth homelessness and support for undocumented families, the statement said.
For more information about the All in Washington fund or to contribute directly, click here.
Former state employee sues Florida over search warrant
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — A former Florida Department of Health employee sued the state on Monday over a search warrant executed on her house after investigators said they identified a message sent from a computer at the address to health department employees.
Rebekah Jones, who was fired in May for insubordination after repeatedly violating department policy about communicating with the media, helped create the state’s coronavirus dashboard. She contends that she was fired for not falsifying data.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement served the search warrant earlier this month. Jones posted a 31-second video of officers entering her home, and the department later released more than 20 minutes of bodycam video that shows she refused to respond to phone calls and knocks on her door.
The message that led to the search warrant implored employees still at the Health Department “to speak up before another 17,000 people are dead. You know this is wrong. You don’t have to be a part of this. Be a hero.”
Jones has had several run-ins with law enforcement over personal issues, but has gained international attention by disputing Florida’s COVID-19 statistics. She was paid almost $48,000 a year as a Department of Health employee, but since May has raised nearly $260,000 on a GoFundMe account after criticizing Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Farm company fined $2 million after 2 workers die of virus
An agricultural company in Washington state where two workers died from COVID-19 was fined more than $2 million for repeatedly violating coronavirus virus safety procedures.
“It’s unacceptable to chose to ignore health and safety rules,” Joel Sacks, the director of state Department of Labor & Industries, told reporters Monday.
Labor & Industries launched an investigation in July after being contacted by an employee of Gebbers Farm Operations in Brewster, Washington. The employee said a worker had died of coronavirus, and that the migrant workers who shared a cabin with the deceased were not tested and then split into other cabins.
Authorities say they confirmed a 37-year-old temporary worker from Mexico died July 8, and the death was not reported to state officials as required. A second worker, a 63-year-old from Jamacia, died July 31. Both workers died of COVID-19.
The state investigation led to Gebbers being cited for 24 “egregious willful violations” for unsafe sleeping arrangements and unsafe worker transportation.
The company was fined $2,038,200, which it can appeal.
A new pastor who couldn’t meet members of her church found a way to celebrate Christmas with them
Rev. Katie Day is preparing to lead Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church’s roughly 375 members through Christmas, one of the most theologically significant holidays in the Christian faith, while knowing most of her congregants only through Zoom calls and socially distanced outdoor greetings.
Day’s church is among hundreds of thousands of congregations nationwide whose worship has been radically changed by the pandemic. Among mainline Protestants who regularly attend services at least monthly, just nine percent told the Pew Research Center in July that they had worshipped only in person during the past month. More than half said they had participated solely online or via TV, and 12 percent reported attending both in-person and virtual services.
The crisis raises questions about how to maintain a church’s identity when members can’t meet under the conditions they’ve faced for decades. For many churches, being forced to rethink how to nurture faith and community could reshape their post-pandemic operations.
Inslee issues new travel limits on arrivals from nations with coronavirus mutation
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 of the virus 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 — and the restriction applies to those who have recently arrived. 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.
Q&A: Scientists urge concern, not alarm, over new virus strains
Does it spread more easily? Make people sicker? Mean that treatments and vaccines won’t work? Questions are multiplying as fast as new strains of the coronavirus, especially the one now moving through England. Scientists say there is reason for concern but that the new strains should not cause alarm.
“There’s zero evidence that there’s any increase in severity” of COVID-19 from the latest strain, the World Health Organization’s emergencies chief, Dr. Michael Ryan said Monday.
“We don’t want to overreact,” the U.S. government’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, told CNN.
Worry has been growing since Saturday, when Britain’s prime minister said a new strain, or variant, of the coronavirus seemed to spread more easily than earlier ones and was moving rapidly through England. Dozens of countries barred flights from the U.K., and southern England was placed under strict lockdown measures.
Here are some questions and answers on what’s known about the virus so far.
Q: WHERE DID THIS NEW STRAIN COME FROM?
A: New variants have been seen almost since the virus was first detected in China nearly a year ago. Viruses often mutate, or develop small changes, as they reproduce and move through a population — something “that’s natural and expected,” WHO said in a statement Monday.
State reports 1,984 new coronavirus cases and two new deaths
The state Department of Health (DOH) reported 1,984 new coronavirus cases and two new deaths as of Sunday.
The update brings the state's totals to 226,635 cases and 3,106 deaths, meaning that 1.4% of people diagnosed in Washington have died, according to the DOH. The data is as of 11:59 p.m. Sunday. Tallies may be higher earlier in the week because new state data isn’t reported on Sundays and COVID-related deaths aren’t reported on the weekends.
In addition, 13,515 people have been hospitalized in the state due to the virus — 124 new hospitalizations. In King County, the state's most populous, state health officials have confirmed a total of 58,747 COVID-19 diagnoses and 956 deaths.
On Dec. 17, The Seattle Times changed its method of reporting daily cases to be more consistent with the state’s reporting methodology, which now includes both confirmed cases and probable cases in its total count. According to DOH, probable cases refer to people who received a positive antigen test result but not a positive molecular test result, while confirmed cases refer to those who have received a positive molecular test result.
The addition of the new probable-cases category could contribute to higher daily case, hospitalization and death counts. In general, DOH’s data dashboard is limited to molecular test results and does not include antigen testing results.
The DOH says its daily case reports may also include duplicate test results, results assigned to the wrong county, results that are reported for today but are actually from a previous day, occasional false positive tests and other data discrepancies. Because of this, the previous day’s total number of cases plus the number of new daily cases does not add up to the new day’s total number of cases.
Why Americans are numb to the staggering coronavirus death toll
When Todd Klindt buried his dad, he was stunned. Some of the mourners arrived not wearing masks — for the funeral of a man killed by the coronavirus.
Just days earlier, Klindt had held his father’s hand in a hospital intensive care unit. Now, watching people at the funeral — acting as if the world was not on fire, as if people were not dying by the dozen every hour of every day — he wanted to shout, “He’s right here!”
“I’m like, ‘Are you paying attention at all? Is any of this sinking in?’ ” said Klindt, who lives in Ames, Iowa.
Death is now everywhere and yet nowhere in America. We track its progress in daily bar graphs. We note its latest victims among celebrities and acquaintances. Yet, in many parts of America, we carry on — debating holiday plans, the necessity of mask mandates, how seriously to take the virus, whether it’s all a hoax.
In the face of one of the biggest mass casualty events in American history, we are growing increasingly numb to death, experts say — numb to the crisis and tragedy it represents and to the action it requires in response.
Something happens in the brain when fatalities reach such high numbers, say psychologists who have studied genocides and mass disasters. The casualties become like a mountain of corpses that has grown so large it becomes difficult to focus on the individual bodies.
Millions of Christmas presents may arrive late because of USPS package delays
WASHINGTON — Competing crises are slamming the U.S. Postal Service days before Christmas, imperiling the delivery of millions of packages as the mail agency contends with spiking coronavirus case numbers among its workforce, unprecedented volumes of e-commerce orders and the continuing fallout from a hobbled cost-cutting program launched by the postmaster general.
Nearly 19,000 of the agency’s 644,000 workers have called in sick or are isolating because of the novel coronavirus, according to the American Postal Workers Union. Meanwhile, packages have stacked up at some postal facilities, leading employees to push them aside to create narrow walkways on shop floors.
Some processing plants are refusing to accept new mail shipments. The backlogs are so pronounced that some managers have reached out to colleagues in hope of diverting mail shipments to nearby facilities. But often, those places are full, too. Meanwhile, packages sit on trucks for days waiting for floor space to open so their loads can be sorted.
“[Customers] are screaming, ‘Where’s my package? Why did it go to Jacksonville, Fla., when it’s going to Miami?’ ” said Martin Ramirez, president of the APWU Local 170 in Ohio. “I can’t speak on that. I’ve never seen this before where these places are overflowing.”
The end result: Many families will not see online orders arrive in time for Christmas Day.
Through Dec. 12, the start of the Postal Service’s busiest period for package deliveries, parcel volume was up 14% compared with the same period in 2019, the agency told mailing industry officials. That surge has employees in some areas working upward of 80 hours a week, including some who have worked every day since Thanksgiving without a weekend. In Philadelphia, staffers are scheduled to work Christmas Day, said one mail carrier, who like others interviewed for this report, spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid retribution.
Read the full story here.
Canada’s Ontario to go on province-wide shutdown Dec. 26
TORONTO — Ontario on Monday announced a province-wide shutdown because of a second wave of COVID-19 in Canada’s most populous province.
The lockdown will be put in place for southern Ontario from Dec. 26 until Jan. 23, but will lift for northern Ontario on Jan. 9. One top infectious disease doctor said waiting until the day after Christmas to shutdown is ridiculous.
Ontario has had seven straight days of more than 2,000 cases a day. Modeling shows that could more than double in January. Health officials earlier said a four- to six-week hard lockdown could significantly stop the spread of COVID-19.
Toronto, Canada’s largest city, had already closed restaurants for indoor dining but schools remained open. All high schools in Ontario will now be closed for in-person learning until Jan. 25. Elementary schools will be closed until Jan. 11.
California hospitals discuss rationing health care
Four hospitals in Los Angeles County are writing emergency plans in case they have to limit how many people receive life-saving care, as medical centers in California and other states overflow with COVID-19 patients.
"The worst is yet to come," a doctor told The Associated Press.
The Corona Regional Medical Center, southeast of L.A., has set up triage tents, and converted an old emergency room to intensive-care beds. Statewide, about 98% of intensive-care beds were occupied as of Sunday.
Vaccinations are being shipped across the nation, but it could be months before most of the U.S. population receives theirs.
Washington state's 8,732 acute-care beds are 84.2% occupied, Department of Health data say. That's better than California, but worse than Washington state's goal of 80% or fewer. So far, 13,391 people here have been hospitalized because of COVID-19. This spring the Army installed a 250-bed field hospital next to Lumen Field in Seattle's Sodo area, but that space wasn't needed so equipment was shipped to help New York City.
Read the Los Angeles coverage here.
State ferries: please use less of our product this holiday season
If you haven't sailed yet with Washington State Ferries this year, you might be in for a shock at the docks this Christmas weekend.
The agency is urging people to make essential trips only, and reminding them that masks are required in the terminals and boat galleys. Car passengers are urged to stay in their vehicles.
What's more, travelers should expect delays as the holiday surge of people conflicts with a reduced fleet schedule, reports Michelle Baruchman of The Seattle Times Traffic Lab. Read the full story here.
The Fauntleroy-Vashon-Southworth triangle is short one vessel, crew availability is low because of COVID-19, and some sailings out of Whidbey Island and Bremerton end at 9 p.m. over the three-day holiday weekend.
Next week, the Mukilteo-Whidbey Island (Clinton) route will be suspended 18 hours, as crews replace the old waiting lot with the new Mukilteo multimodal terminal, complete with viewing balconies, that opens at 5:50 p.m. Dec. 29.
Holiday travel sets record for busiest weekend of the pandemic
Pre-Christmas air travel surpassed 1 million daily passengers nationwide for three consecutive days this weekend — breaking the record for most weekend travelers of the pandemic and outpacing Thanksgiving numbers that assumed that title and worried health experts last month. The 3.2 million passengers screened Friday, Saturday and Sunday mark the only time during the pandemic that over 1 million air travelers were seen three days in a row.
The influx in air travel undercuts health officials’ guidance for Americans to stay home this holiday season. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidance earlier this month that discouraged travel and urged those who need to travel to acquire coronavirus tests before and after their journey.
The next two contenders for busiest travel weekends were those before and after Thanksgiving, Transportation Security Administration spokesperson Daniel Velez said in an email. Pre-Thanksgiving weekend saw 3,052,139 travelers, with the following weekend logging 2,961,120.
California governor in precautionary coronavirus quarantine
LOS ANGELES (AP) — California Gov. Gavin Newsom is back in a precautionary coronavirus quarantine for the second time in two months as surging COVID-19 cases swamp the state’s hospitals and strain medical staffing.
Newsom will quarantine for 10 days after one of his staffers tested positive for COVID-19 on Sunday afternoon, the governor’s office said. Newsom was then tested and his result came back negative, as did the tests of other staffers who were in contact.
Last month, members of the governor’s family were exposed to someone who tested positive for the virus. Newsom, his wife and four children tested negative at that time.
NIH launches study on rare allergic reactions to COVID vaccine
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is rushing to study why a few people experienced severe allergic reactions to the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine.
The potentially life-threatening incidents are known as anaphylaxis, a sudden breathing loss that can be reversed by an epinephrine injection.
Health experts say these rare episodes shouldn't deter the public from getting vaccinated, though standard guidance calls for people to linger at a clinic for 15 minutes after injection, or 30 minutes for those who have histories of allergic reactions, the Washington Post reported.
Some 556,000 Americans have received a dose as of Sunday afternoon.
To date, there are no anaphylaxis cases associated with the Moderna vaccine, which does have similar components to the Pfizer version.
Read more of the story here.
Amazon closes a warehouse after COVID-19 outbreak
Amazon temporarily closed a New Jersey warehouse after a spike in asymptomatic COVID-19 cases, until Dec. 26.
That site is a sorting center that sends finished packages to other locations including post offices for final delivery, in the Trenton and Philadelphia regions. Amazon is likely to compensate by switching orders to other warehouses, in its vast network.
The Seattle-based retailer normally strives to keep warehouses open, while relying on in-house coronavirus testing, social distancing, and cleaning. Still, Amazon has said some 20,000 workers caught the virus in the first six months, since the nation's first big outbreak killed nursing-home residents in Kirkland, Wash. around Feb. 29.
Amazon's holiday hiring binge has soaked up as many as 1,400 new workers per day, causing a University of Washington history professor to tell the New York Times, "We are turning into Amazon nation."
Read the New Jersey warehouse story here.
Catch up on the past 24 hours
• Most Americans will get direct payments under a $900 billion COVID-19 relief deal that Congress is expected to pass today. It also includes help for hard-hit workers and businesses, and much more. Here are details of what's in it for you. The relief will be part of a spending package that also includes major FAA oversight reform, propelled by outrage over the deadly Boeing 737 MAX crashes. Oh, and lawmakers included a tax deduction for what critics call the "three-martini lunch."
• What you can do post-vaccine, and when: Disease specialists are outlining what will be safe during several phases on the way to our new normal.
• President-elect Joe Biden is getting the vaccine today on live TV, joining a growing list of high-profile politicians on the same day a second vaccine produced by Moderna starts arriving in states.
• "Wrestling match" over who gets vaccinated next: A federal panel yesterday recommended that shots quickly go to Americans over 75 and essential workers, followed by several more tiers of people. But who counts as essential? Major companies are getting loud about how they're really "the front line to those front-line people." And although teachers are near the front, students are in back, raising questions about reopening schools.
• Travelers are ignoring public health pleas to avoid holiday trips. More than a million people passed through U.S. airport security checkpoints on Friday and again on Saturday despite an alarming surge in COVID-19 cases.
• British leaders say a highly contagious new strain of the virus is spreading rapidly, prompting a tight new lockdown as other nations slam their borders closed to U.K. travelers. Scientists are worried but not surprised by recent mutations: “It’s a real warning that we need to pay closer attention,” says an evolutionary biologist at Seattle's Fred Hutch.
• Today's Rant & Rave celebrates those of you who take an extra little step with your masks. It sends a big signal, one reader writes.
How is the pandemic affecting you?What has changed about your daily life? What kinds of discussions are you having with family members and friends? Are you a health care worker who's on the front lines of the response? Are you a COVID-19 patient or do you know one? Whoever you are, we want to hear from you so our news coverage is as complete, accurate and useful as possible. If you're using a mobile device and can't see the form on this page, click here.
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