This holiday season, millions of people have weighed their need to spend time with family and friends against the risk of catching the fast-moving omicron COVID-19 variant, at the same time winter chill moves social gatherings indoors.

People are traveling by air at 80% to 90% of pre-pandemic rates, but shortages of crew are cancelling some flights.

Despite vaccination rates of over 80% in King County the area is due for a challenge when weekend snow falls and temperatures below 20 degrees hit Monday, complicating efforts to operate warming shelters without viral spread.

It’s still unclear to what extent universities may revert to online classes, as the University of Washington plans for Jan. 3-9, or how soon the Seattle Kraken will be playing hockey again.

New Zealanders, however, celebrated Christmas with beach barbecues, taking advantage of a nearly 95% vaccination rate, summer weather and the ability to intercept omicron at island borders.

We’re updating this page with the latest news about the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects on the Seattle area, the U.S. and the world.

Click here to see previous days’ live updates and all our other coronavirus coverage, and here to see how we track the daily spread across Washington.

The Washington State Department of Health did not issue updated COVID-19 statistics on Friday afternoon (which would normally appear here in a chart), because of the Christmas holiday.

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The future of coronavirus tests takes shape on a Caribbean yacht

NEW YORK — On Wednesday afternoon, scientist Jonathan Rothberg was sitting on his boat-laboratory in the northeastern Caribbean parsing the future of coronavirus testing. About 1,500 nautical miles away, on a decidedly nontropical First Avenue in Manhattan, New York, the lines stretched a city block as the weary queued up for hours outside a mobile coronavirus testing site.

“You want to see my COVID testing line?” Rothberg asked when a reporter on the other end of the Zoom screen told him of the contrast. Rothberg picked up an oddly shaped white box and placed it on the desk in front of him.

Rothberg, 58, is the founder of Detect, a company whose eponymous product holds the promise of a new and potentially far superior approach to the current tangled system. Detect has come up with an at-home diagnostic that uses the more advanced lab-based method of molecular analysis instead of the more common — and oft-derided — at-home antigen test.

In March 2020, the Connecticut-based Rothberg converted an environment-themed lab on his superyacht the “Gene Machine” to a COVID-focused one, raised $110 million from undisclosed investors, brought some staff onboard — literally — and started researching an efficient but effective way of testing for the coronavirus at home. As of last week, thanks to an emergency authorization from the Food and Drug Administration, a Detect test can be bought on the company’s website. It costs $75 for the “hub” — a device that can be reused for any future Detect test — and an individual coronavirus test.

As he docks in St. Barts for the holidays, Rothberg and several rivals are continuing to seek the coronavirus-diagnostic holy grail: the speed and convenience of an at-home test with the accuracy of a lab one.

Read more here.

—The Washington Post

Anger over mask mandates, other COVID rules, spurs states to curb power of public health officials

At the entrance to the Lowe’s in a central Ohio strip mall, a bright blue-and-white sign tells customers that, under local ordinances, they must wear a face covering inside. Next door, at Hale’s Ales & Kitchen, a sign asks customers to please be patient with a staff shortage — with no mention of masks.

The city line between Columbus and suburban Hilliard crosses right through the strip mall, Mill Run Square. In Columbus, where the Lowe’s Home Improvement Store lies, the city council early in the coronavirus pandemic created a mask requirement that remains in place. In Hilliard, where Hales is located, the city council has not imposed a mask rule, despite entreaties from the top county health official as coronavirus cases spiked.

Under a new law in Ohio — one of at least 19 states this year that have restricted state or local authorities from safeguarding public health amid the coronavirus pandemic — Franklin County’s health commissioner Joe Mazzola can no longer intervene. The county health department was stripped of its power to compel people to wear masks even as the omicron variant fuels a fifth coronavirus surge in the United States.

The number of states that have passed laws similar to Ohio’s is proliferating fast, from eight identified in one study in May to more than double that many as of last month, according to an analysis by Temple University’s Center for Public Health Law Research. And around the country, many more measures are being debated or being prepared for legislative sessions to start early in the new year.

Read more here.

—The Washington Post

In the other Washington, city’s population shrinks as people left after coronavirus hit

WASHINGTON – The pandemic helped suppress U.S. population growth across the country, new data released this past week showed – but in the District of Columbia, the decrease was particularly sharp: After steadily growing for a decade and a half, the city shrank this year by around 20,000 residents, or 2.9%.

Most of the loss was due to domestic migration (more people moving out than in), raising questions about whether the exodus is a blip or heralds a flattening out or even a reversal of the city’s long growth spurt.

About 23,000 more people moved out of the city than moved into it between July 1, 2020, and July 1, 2021, according to Census Bureau estimates, a decrease that was offset by a gain of about 2,100 people from natural increase (births over deaths) and about 1,100 from international migration.

Read more here.

—The Washington Post

Flight cancellations drag on as airlines short-staffed

Airlines continued to cancel hundreds of flights Saturday as staffing issues tied to COVID-19 disrupted holiday celebrations during one of the busiest travel times of the year.

FlightAware, a flight-tracking website, noted 921 flights entering, leaving or inside the U.S. canceled Saturday, up from 690 Friday. Over 200 more flights were already canceled for Sunday. FlightAware does not say why flights are canceled.

Delta, United and JetBlue on Friday had all said the omicron variant was causing staffing problems leading to flight cancellations. United spokesperson Maddie King said staffing shortages were still causing cancellations and it was unclear when normal operations would return. “This was unexpected,” she said of omicron’s impact on staffing.

Delta and JetBlue did not immediately respond to questions Saturday.

Read the full story and updates here.

—The Associated Press

COVID-19 makes Biden’s 1st White House Christmas less merry

So long eggnog, shrimp cocktail and pet-shaped sugar cookies.

It’s been a less merry holiday scene at the White House this year under COVID-19’s shadow. President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden have replaced the packed parties and overflowing buffet tables of the past with food-free open houses, face masks and testing for the unvaccinated.

Beyond the impact on Biden’s first Christmas in office, the virus and its variants largely put the kibosh on the entire White House social scene for 2021, starting with an inauguration that positioned flags in place of people on the National Mall.

“It is disappointing that we cannot host as many people as the Bidens would like to, but as we have done since Day 1 of the Biden Administration, we will continue to implement strong COVID protocols, developed in consultation with our public health advisers,” LaRosa said.

From a studio set up at the White House, Biden, joined by his wife, Jill, and their new puppy, Commander, the president on Saturday spoke via video to service members representing the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, Space Force and Coast Guard, stationed at bases in Quatar, Romania, Bahrain and the U.S.

Read the full story here.

—The Associated Press

COVID Christmas in French ICU: Fear, fatigue and loving care

From the intensive care ward in France where he is spending the holidays, COVID-19 patient David Daniel Sebbagh said he has one overriding regret: that he didn’t get vaccinated.

“The vaccine, it’s not a danger,” the 52-year-old said as he lay in a Marseille hospital. “It’s choosing life.”

The ICU’s chief doctor, Dr. Julien Carvelli, is trying to keep his team motivated as they spend another Christmas tending to patients on breathing machines, periodically flipping them back to front, front to back.

The staff is tired, the omicron variant is bearing down, and the unit’s beds are filling fast. “We’re afraid we won’t have enough space,” Carvelli said.

Marseille’s La Timone Hospital, one of France’s biggest hospitals, has weathered wave after wave of COVID-19. On Christmas Eve, medical personnel decorated a fir tree in the corridor and seized a moment for a communal meal in their scrubs, trying to maintain a semblance of holiday spirit in between rounds.

Read the full story here.

—The Associated Press

A shortage in Washington state ‘never seen before’: Health care unions push for safe staffing standards

Sarah Norisada is no stranger to multitasking. In fact, it’s essential to her role as a certified nursing assistant at MultiCare Deaconess Hospital in Spokane.

On a typical day, Norisada will know how stretched she is when she sees how many other nursing assistants are on her floor with her. The assistants evenly divide up the patients, so if the unit is full and staffing is short, Norisada could be caring for more than a dozen patients during a shift.

The strain on the health care profession during the pandemic has been well documented. As health care workers contemplate leaving the medical field for less stressful work, in potentially large numbers, hospital leaders are worried patients will suffer if there are not enough workers to care for them. A group of labor unions will ask the Washington Legislature in the upcoming session to create laws outlining minimum staffing levels and patient-to-staff ratios.

Read the full story here.

—The Spokesman-Review

How will 2021, the second pandemic year, be remembered?

Remember 2021 before ’21 was ’21?

Those were anxious, tongue-chewing weeks. Vaccines were on the way, but not quite here. We’d learned to live with a pandemic, more or less, but it was taking its toll and some of us didn’t know how much longer we could keep it together. Top Google searches from those days include: “coronavirus symptoms,” “unemployment,” “where is my stimulus money?” and “how to cut men’s hair at home.” Dim days.

But we diluted our exhaustions and long-simmering anxieties with generous splashes of hope and extravagant fantasies. Post-vax, we planned to live life at the top of our little lungs: big trips, big parties, strangers kissing on Main Street just because they could. Roaring ’20s. Shots, then shots. Mask-off dance-off. Et cetera.

Didn’t turn out that way, did it?

Read this full retrospective by Seattle Times staff here.

—Seattle Times Staff

As omicron spreads and cases soar, the unvaccinated remain defiant

As a fast-spreading new strain of the coronavirus swarms across the country, hospitals in Ohio running low on beds and staff recently took out a full-page newspaper advertisement pleading with unvaccinated Americans to finally get the shot. It read, simply, “Help.”

But in a suburban Ohio cafe, Jackie Rogers, 58, an accountant, offered an equally succinct response on behalf of unvaccinated America: “Never.”

In the year since the first shots began going into arms, opposition to vaccines has hardened from skepticism and wariness into something approaching an article of faith for the approximately 39 million American adults who have yet to get a single dose.

Now health experts say the roughly 15% of the adult population that remains stubbornly unvaccinated is at the greatest risk of severe illness and death from the omicron variant and could overwhelm hospitals that are already brimming with COVID patients.

Read the full story here.

—The New York Times

South Africa ends quarantines and contact tracing, authorizes booster shots

South Africa’s government, buoyed by encouraging data showing that infections from the omicron variant aren’t as severe, has dropped quarantine restrictions for all but symptomatic people.

That includes allowing people who have tested positive but show no symptoms to gather with others, so long as they wear a mask and social distance. A top health official explained that since the variant spreads so quickly, there are likely many infected people socializing with others and it no longer made sense to quarantine only those who have tested themselves.

The move was yet another step toward a slow acceptance that many countries around the world will likely need to find a way to live with COVID-19, rather than avoid it. The new measures follow recommendations from a committee of experts who called for focusing on vaccinations rather than contact tracing and quarantining.

Read the full story here.

—The New York Times

Thousands line up for ‘jingle jabs’ on Christmas in England

Thousands of people across England are spending a few minutes of Christmas Day to line up under leaden winter skies to be vaccinated against COVID-19 as the omicron variant fuels a surge in infections across the country.

The Good Health Pharmacy in north London is one of dozens of vaccination sites that kept their doors open Saturday to administer “jingle jabs” amid a government push to offer booster shots to all adults by the end of the year.

Pharmacist Fenil Lalji said the shop’s owners decided to stay open because they lost a family member to the pandemic and wanted to do what they could to help others stay safe.

Britain has expanded its booster program over the past two weeks, reopening sports stadiums and cathedrals as inoculation hubs, after research showed that two doses of the vaccine weren’t enough to protect against the highly transmissible omicron variant.

Read the full story here.

—The Associated Press

Denmark sees initial signs that dire omicron surge can be avoided

Early benchmarks from Denmark on infections and hospitalizations are providing grounds for guarded optimism that highly vaccinated countries might be able to weather the omicron wave.

The developments, coupled with Denmark’s speedy rollout of booster shots, have raised hopes the country can avoid the dire surge for which it has been bracing.

“It’s too early to relax, but it’s encouraging that we are not following the worst-case scenario,” said Tyra Grove Krause, the chief epidemiologist at Denmark’s State Serum Institute.

Read the full story here.

—The Washington Post

3 members of K-pop sensation BTS diagnosed with COVID-19

Three members of the K-pop superstar group BTS have been infected with the coronavirus after returning from abroad, their management agency said.

RM and Jin were diagnosed with COVID-19 on Saturday evening, the Big Hit Music agency said in a statement. It earlier said another member, Suga, tested positive for the virus on Friday.

All three took their second jabs in August, the agency said.

The BTS is a seven-member boyband.

Read the full story here.

—The Associated Press

At West Virginia vaccine clinic, pandemic fatigue sets in

Chania Batten has as much reason as anybody to feel pandemic fatigue.

As a nurse staffing a drive-thru clinic at the only hospital in rural Roane County, West Virginia, she has spent months patiently answering questions, dispelling misinformation and reassuring the skeptical that COVID-19 shots are the key to beating back the coronavirus.

Batten shudders at the thought of the pandemic entering another calendar year.

“It is frustrating,” said the mother of two young children. “We all want to get back to our lives.”

Soon after the first vaccines were approved for use a year ago, West Virginia briefly led the nation in getting people the shots, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the state quickly hit a wall of resistance and its ranking began to slip. It’s unclear how far it fell because of discrepancies between state and federal figures, but the struggle in Roane County suggests there is plenty of room for improvement.

Only about 45% of the county’s population is fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. Nearly one-third of the state’s 55 counties are under 50%, according to the CDC.

Read more from this report here.

—The Associated Press

On Christmas, pope prays for pandemic’s end, peace dialogues

Pope Francis prayed Saturday for an end to the coronavirus pandemic, using his Christmas Day address to urge health care for all, vaccines for the poor and for dialogue to prevail in resolving the world’s conflicts.

Amid a record-setting rise in COVID-19 cases in Italy this week, only a few thousand people flocked to a rain-soaked St. Peter’s Square for Francis’ annual “Urbi et Orbi” (“To the city and the world”) Christmas address. Normally, the square would be packed with tens of thousands of holiday well-wishers.

At least they could gather this year. Italy’s 2020 holiday lockdown forced Francis to deliver a televised address from inside the Apostolic Palace to prevent crowds from forming in the square. Although Italy this week counted more than 50,000 cases in a single day for the first time, the government has not ordered another lockdown.

Read the full story here.

—The Associated Press

The first Christmas as a layperson: Burned out by the pandemic, many clergy quit in the past year

It was Christmas Eve and the Rev. Alyssa Aldape was getting ready for work. Over her decade in Baptist youth ministry, Dec. 24 meant prepping sermons at the church, sending out last-minute Christmas emails to her young people, robing up. After church, her Mexican American family would have tamales.

But this Christmas Eve day, Aldape was in her Washington, D.C., apartment, in a green turtleneck and jeans, drinking iced coffee and getting ready for her shift at the retailer Madewell. She’d clock in, then spend the afternoon folding sweaters and greeting last-minute holiday shoppers at the door with her big smile and “Hi! Welcome!”

“At the store they’re like, ‘You’re so good at welcoming people!'” said Aldape, her smile shifting into a chuckle and then into tears. For the first time in a decade, the 34-year-old wouldn’t be pastoring a congregation on Christmas Eve.

Read the full story here.

—The Washington Post