Editor’s note: This is a live account of COVID-19 updates from Wednesday, December 15, 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 It is no longer being updated.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.

The omicron variant is quickly spreading across the U.S., federal health officials announced Tuesday. They expressed concerns over a possible “triple whammy” for communities with low vaccination rates if an omicron surge were to happen as delta cases continue to rise and flu cases peak.

Some pharmaceutical executives said that they don’t plan on creating a vaccine specifically for the omicron variant, as data has shown that existing COVID-19 vaccines and booster shots are effective in protecting individuals against the mutated virus.

At the same time, Pfizer announced that its experimental COVID-19 pill reduced hospitalizations and deaths by about 89% among high-risk adults when the drug was taken shortly after initial COVID-19 symptoms were detected.

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.

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Health worker vaccine mandate blocked in half the states

A federal appeals court panel on Wednesday lifted a nationwide ban against President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandate for health care workers, instead blocking the requirement in only certain states and creating the potential for patchwork enforcement across the country.

The decision by the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals kept a preliminary injunction in place for 14 states that had collectively sued in federal court in Louisiana. It altered a Nov. 30 ruling by U.S. District Judge Terry Doughty, who originally applied his order nationwide.

A separate preliminary injunction on appeal before the St. Louis-based 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals applies to 10 additional states. That means the vaccine requirement for Medicare and Medicaid providers is blocked by courts in about half states but not in the other half.

“This vaccine rule is an issue of great significance currently being litigated throughout the country. Its ultimate resolution will benefit from ‘the airing of competing views’ in our sister circuits,” the ruling from three 5th Circuit judges said.

Read the full story here.

—Kevin McGill and David A. Lieb, The Associated Press
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How a Kennedy built an anti-vaccine juggernaut amid COVID-19

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. strode onto the stage at a Southern California church, radiating Kennedy confidence and surveying the standing ovation crowd with his piercing blue Bobby Kennedy eyes. Then, he launched into an anti-vaccine rant. Democrats “drank the Kool-Aid,” he told people assembled for a far right conference, branded as standing for “health and freedom.”

“It is criminal medical malpractice to give a child one of these vaccines,” Kennedy contended, according to a video of the event, one of his many assertions that ignored or went against legal, scientific and public health consensus.

Then, Kennedy hawked his book. If just 300 attendees preordered it on Amazon that night, he told the crowd, it would land on the bestseller list and they could “stick it to Amazon and Jeff Bezos.”

All profits, he said, would go to his charity, Children’s Health Defense.

Read the full story here.

—Michelle R. Smith, The Associated Press

Telehealth helps in pandemic, concerns linger: AP-NORC poll

Most older Americans have had to use telehealth during the COVID-19 pandemic and many were comfortable with it, but a new poll finds persistent concerns about issues like technology, the quality of care and patient privacy.

Comfort levels with remote care can vary depending on factors like age, income level or race, according to the survey from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

Since the pandemic started, 62% of adults age 50 and older have used some form of telehealth, the AP-NORC poll found.

The ease of finding an appointment or meeting a specific provider and the chance to get an immediate response were the most common reasons respondents opted for telehealth. Roughly a third said each was a major factor and another third called them minor factors.

Read the story here.

—Tom Murphy and Emily Swanson, The Associated Press

Fauci says omicron-specific vaccine is not yet needed; existing COVID boosters will protect

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Wednesday that an omicron-specific coronavirus vaccine is not needed at this time because early data indicates existing booster shots bolster disease-fighting antibodies. Protection against severe illness should remain intact, though somewhat diminished.

“Our booster vaccine regimens work against omicron. At this point, there is no need for a variant-specific booster,” Fauci said at a White House coronavirus briefing. “If you are unvaccinated, you are very vulnerable not only to the existing delta surge we are experiencing but also to omicron.”

Fauci reviewed a slew of data that has emerged during the past week showing that after two doses of messenger RNA vaccines — the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna shots — antibodies that are a key line of immune defense lose their potency against the omicron variant.

He showed laboratory data from the National Institutes of Health that revealed a Moderna booster shot restored antibodies to what are probably protective levels; those figures will be published in a preprint study in coming days, Fauci said. Similar data was presented on Pfizer-BioNTech boosters last week.

Fauci also showed real-world data from South Africa that after two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, people’s protection against symptomatic infection from omicron plummeted to about 30 percent. But even two doses were “maintaining a degree of protection” against hospitalization — 70 percent effective — though less strong than the protection against the delta variant.

Read the story here.

—Carolyn Y. Johnson, The Washington Post
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US health tab hit $4T as gov’t opened spigot to fight COVID

U.S. health care spending rocketed to $4.1 trillion last year as Congress opened the spigot of federal dollars to battle the coronavirus pandemic across multiple fronts.

A government report out Wednesday said national health spending jumped by 9.7% in 2020, more than double the usual growth rate, with health care accounting for nearly $1 of every $5 in the economy. The federal government share of health spending increased by 36%.

In a twist, that growth was driven not so much by care devoted to patients, but by federal subsidies to keep hospitals and medical providers solvent; funding to develop and deploy COVID tests, vaccines, treatments and countermeasures; and assistance to state Medicaid programs facing a potential wave of uninsured people in a public health crisis.

Read the story here.

—Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, The Associated Press

State health officials confirm 1,487 new coronavirus cases

The state Department of Health (DOH) reported 1,487 new coronavirus cases and 27 new deaths on Wednesday.

The update brings the state's totals to 796,369 cases and 9,635 deaths, meaning that 1.2% of people diagnosed in Washington have died, according to the DOH. The data is as of 11:59 p.m. Tuesday.

In addition, 43,986 people have been hospitalized in the state due to the virus — 82 new hospitalizations. In King County, the state's most populous, state health officials have confirmed a total of 177,812 COVID-19 diagnoses and 2,117 deaths.

Since vaccinations began in mid-December, the state and health care providers have administered 11,404,318 doses and 62.2% of Washingtonians have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to vaccination data, which the state updates on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Providers are currently giving an average of about 43,297 vaccine shots per day.

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. State health officials recommend reviewing the dashboard's epidemiologic curves tab for the most accurate representation of the state's COVID-19 spread.

Stickers and superheroes: EU starts vaccinating kids 5-11

Greece, Italy and a handful of other European Union nations began vaccinating children ages 5-11 against COVID-19 on Wednesday as EU governments braced for the omicron variant to spread quickly during the travel and large gatherings of the holiday season.

Acrobats dressed as superheroes rappelled down the walls of a hospital in Milan, Italy, as the city prepared to join the new vaccine rollout. Wearing capes and bodysuits, they stopped to greet patients through the windows at a pandemic ward and other children in a pediatric wing.

Youngsters getting their first shot in Greece were given stickers and the day off from school.

Greece administered its first shots to younger children hours after authorities announced the country’s highest daily death toll of the pandemic: 130 people. Among the first to respond was Greek Education Minister Niki Kerameus.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press
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Facing COVID spike, NFL mandates boosters but stops short on testing

The Los Angeles Rams had five players test positive before Monday night’s prime time game against the Arizona Cardinals. A Washington Football Team employee reportedly had the league’s first case of the omicron variant. The Detroit Lions held meetings remotely Monday after placing their eighth player in as many days on the COVID-19 list.

In all, 37 players tested positive Monday, the highest single-day total since the start of the pandemic. Even with a vaccination rate among players that is over 94%, more coronavirus cases have been reported this season in the NFL compared with last year, according to a review of league data by The New York Times, numbers which show how difficult it is to control the spread of the virus.

The NFL said the players’ positive tests were being driven by community spread, including contact with team employees, and on Monday said in a memo that it would mandate booster shots for team staff members who work most closely with players.

The number of coronavirus cases across the United States, while rising, is still below 2020 levels. According to NFL data, 360 players and team staff members tested positive from August to mid-November, a 33% increase compared with the 270 cases detected over the same time in 2020.

In its memo to all 32 teams sent Monday, the NFL ordered coaches and team employees who work directly with players to receive booster shots by Dec. 27 or be relegated to noncontact roles “to ensure that we continue to reduce risk of transmission and allow us to complete the NFL season safely during the pandemic.”

Read the story here.

—Robin Stein and Emmanuel Morgan The New York Times

Los Angeles schools delay student COVID-19 vaccine mandate

The Los Angeles school district, which was among the first to announce mandatory COVID-19 vaccines for students, has become the latest in California to delay a plan that would have forced thousands of unvaccinated students to return to distance learning.

The board of the Los Angeles Unified School District voted Tuesday night to postpone a Jan. 10 deadline for students 12 and older to be vaccinated to attend classes on campus, moving the deadline to the fall of 2022.

So far, 87% of Los Angeles Unified students in that age group have shown proof of vaccination or qualified for a medical exemption, which interim Superintendent Megan K. Reilly called “a major milestone.”

But enforcing the January deadline would have disrupted the education of too many students, both vaccinated and unvaccinated, officials said. It would have barred about 27,000 unvaccinated students from campuses and overwhelmed the district’s independent study program, which was already struggling with staff shortages, but also affected classrooms across the district that stood to lose teachers due to the exodus of unvaccinated students.

Read the story here.

—Jocelyn Gecker, The Associated Press

UK appoints ex-judge to head COVID-19 inquiry in 2022

A public inquiry into Britain’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic will be led by a retired judge and start next year, the U.K. government announced Wednesday.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said former Court of Appeal judge Heather Hallett will chair the COVID-19 inquiry, which is due to begin in spring 2022.

After pressure from bereaved families, Johnson agreed to hold an inquiry on his government’s handling of the pandemic, which has left more than 146,000 people in Britain dead. The probe will have the power to summon evidence and to question witnesses under oath.

Britain is currently facing a surge in coronavirus cases due to the omicron variant. The country recorded 78,610 new virus cases on Wednesday, the most confirmed in a day since the start of the pandemic.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press
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US faces a double coronavirus surge as omicron advances

The new omicron coronavirus mutant speeding around the world may bring another wave of chaos, threatening to further stretch hospital workers already struggling with a surge of delta cases and upend holiday plans for the second year in a row.

The White House on Wednesday insisted there is no need for a lockdown because vaccines are widely available and appear to offer protection against the worst consequences of the virus. But even if omicron proves milder on the whole than delta, it may disarm some of the life-saving tools available and put immune-compromised and elderly people at particular risk as it begins a rapid assault on the United States.

“Our delta surge is ongoing and, in fact, accelerating. And on top of that, we’re going to add an omicron surge,” said Dr. Jacob Lemieux, who monitors variants for a research collaboration led by Harvard Medical School.

“That’s alarming, because our hospitals are already filling up. Staff are fatigued,” leaving limited capacity for a potential crush of COVID-19 cases “from an omicron wave superimposed on a delta surge.”

Most likely, he and other experts said at a press briefing Tuesday, an omicron surge is already under way in the United States, with the latest mutant coronavirus outpacing the nation’s ability to track it.

Read the story here.

—Carla K. Johnson and Laura Ungar, The Associated Press

Colleges go back to drawing board — again — to fight COVID

Facing rising infections and a new COVID-19 variant, colleges across the U.S. have once again been thwarted in seeking a move to normalcy and are starting to require booster shots, extend mask mandates, limit social gatherings and, in some cases, revert to online classes.

The threat of the omicron variant comes as a gut punch to schools that were hoping to relax safety measures this spring. Now, many are telling students to prepare for another term of masking, testing and, if cases get bad, limits around social life.

Cornell University shut down all campus activities on Tuesday and moved final exams online after more than 700 students tested positive over three days.

Hours later, Princeton University moved its exams online and urged students to leave campus “at their earliest convenience” amid a rise in cases.

Cornell and Princeton both report student vaccination rates of more than 98%.

After a fall with few coronavirus cases, officials at Syracuse University were “feeling pretty good” about the spring term, said Kent Syverud, the upstate New York school’s chancellor.

“But omicron has changed that,” Syverud said. “It has made us go back and say, until we know more about this variant for sure, we’re going to have to reinstate some precautions.”

Read the story here.

—Collin Binkley, The Associated Press

Burnout among pharmacists slows COVID-19 booster shots

Facing a shortage of pharmacists, drugstores nationwide are urging people to make appointments for COVID-19 shots rather than walking up — even as the Biden administration promotes vaccination as the key to ending the pandemic and relies on pharmacies as the main supplier.

Between flu season and the rush for COVID-19 vaccines, both neighborhood and chain pharmacies in some places are experiencing a crush of demand.

A tight labor market could pose an extra obstacle to vaccination as infections tick up.

Read the story here.

—Emily Kopp, CQ-Roll Call
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AP source: Browns QB Mayfield tests positive for COVID-19

The Browns’ COVID-19 outbreak has widened and worsened.

Quarterback Baker Mayfield and coach Kevin Stefanski tested positive for COVID-19 on Wednesday and will likely miss Saturday’s game against the Las Vegas Raiders as Cleveland deals with a widespread outbreak while trying to reach the playoffs.

Stefanski’s positive test was announced by the team while Mayfield’s was confirmed to the Associated Press by a person familiar with the situation, who spoke on condition of anonymity because testing is ongoing.

The latest positive tests came one day after the team placed eight players, including top receiver Jarvis Landry and starting offensive linemen Wyatt Teller and Jedrick Wills Jr., on the reserve/COVID-19 list.

Read the story here.

—Tom Withers, The Associated Press

German police conduct raids over alleged COVID death threats

Police in eastern Germany carried out raids Wednesday in an investigation of alleged threats to kill a state governor and others by opponents of coronavirus restrictions and vaccinations. They said they found weapons including crossbows, but it wasn’t clear whether they were usable.

The investigation was triggered by a report last week on ZDF television that a group on messenger service Telegram discussed plans to kill Saxony’s state governor, Michael Kretschmer, and other members of the state government. Dresden is the capital of Saxony, which has seen frequent protests against coronavirus policy and has Germany’s lowest vaccination rate.

According to the report, the group’s 103 members shared a rejection of vaccinations, the state and the current coronavirus policy. It featured audio messages in which people urged opposing policy measures “with armed force if necessary."

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

Omicron spreading rapidly in U.S., could bring punishing wave as soon as January, CDC warns

Top federal health officials warned in a briefing Tuesday that the omicron variant is rapidly spreading in the United States and could peak in a massive wave of infections as soon as January, according to new modeling analyzed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The prevalence of omicron jumped sevenfold in a single week, according to the CDC, and at such a pace, the highly mutated variant of the coronavirus could ratchet up pressure on a health system already strained in many places as the delta variant continues its own surge.

The warning of an imminent surge came even as federal officials and some pharmaceutical executives signaled that they don’t currently favor creating an omicron-specific vaccine. Based on the data so far, they say that existing vaccines plus a booster shot are an effective weapon against omicron.

The CDC briefing Tuesday detailed two scenarios for how the omicron variant may spread through the country. The worst-case scenario has spooked top health officials, who fear that a fresh wave, layered on top of delta and influenza cases in what one described as “a triple whammy,” could overwhelm health systems and devastate communities, particularly those with low vaccination rates.

Read the story here.

—The Washington Post
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COVID has complicated hospital visits. Here’s what you need to know.

If nurse Joseph Falise could impart one tip to those with a loved one in the hospital nowadays, it would be to call ahead and confirm the visitation policy. Most hospitals still have tighter pandemic-related rules throughout their facilities, not just on covid wards. At University of Miami Hospital and Clinics, where Falise works, for example, only one visitor is permitted per day. When other family members or friends show up, he said, “It’s like a surprise attack when we say, ‘I’m really sorry, but you can’t come in.'”

Nearly two years into the pandemic, keeping up with visitor restrictions is one more stressor for already anxious friends and family of hospital patients. In addition to limiting visitors, some hospitals have shortened visiting hours, restricted visitors to one for a patient’s entire stay, and closed lobbies and other public places. (Some loosen certain restrictions if a patient is in hospice care.) Some hospitals also require all visitors to be vaccinated.

The University of Miami hospital’s policy has changed numerous times throughout the coronavirus pandemic, said Falise, the nurse manager in the cardiovascular and neuroscience ICUs. And “there’s a hospital across the street that’s doing it differently than we are.”

There is no standardized visitation policy for hospitals in the United States.

Read the story here.

—Angela Haupt, The Washington Post

Florida science teacher fired for refusing to wear mask

A teacher in South Florida has been fired for repeatedly refusing to wear a mask.

The school board in Broward County on Tuesday unanimously voted to fire John C. Alvarez, a science teacher at Piper High for gross insubordination.

Alvarez plans to appeal the decision to an administrative law judge, according to the South Florida Sun Sentinel.

Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration has prohibited student mask mandates, leading to months of bitter legal disputes with Broward and other counties. But DeSantis’ orders, which were codified into law by state lawmakers last month, do not apply to employees, only students.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

Poland’s COVID deaths highest since April, new restrictions

Poland on Wednesday registered the highest number of COVID-19-related deaths since April amid a continuing high daily rate of new coronavirus infections.

There were 669 virus-related deaths reported, including 496 people with preexisting health issues, and 24,266 new infections in the nation of about 38 million. The death rate was the highest since April 22, when 694 deaths were reported.

Also Wednesday, restrictions took effect that closed discos and nightclubs, except for limited activity for up to 100 people for New Year’s celebrations.

The new rules cut the limit of unvaccinated people in restaurants, eateries, hotels, theaters, cinemas, churches and sports facilities to 30% of capacity from 50%. Food is banned at cinemas. The limits can be extended only for people who can prove to facility supervisors that they are fully vaccinated. But critics say there are no clear regulations for conducting checks.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press
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Catch up on the past 24 hours

What happens to travel when omicron meets winter storms: Hundreds of flights have already been canceled at the last minute due to pandemic staffing shortages and wild weather this season. Here's how to prepare for turbulence and make quick flight changes.

A massive omicron wave may swamp the U.S. within weeks. The CDC yesterday detailed two scenarios for how the variant may spread, leaving top health officials spooked about how few Americans have gotten booster shots. For a preview of the effects, we can look to Britain, where omicron is multiplying at a staggering rate. Here's how to get a vaccine or booster in Washington state.

More than 400 students tested positive in two days, so Cornell University shut down its campus. Other U.S. universities are following suit, imposing booster mandates and feeling the gut punch of going back to the drawing board again. 

The White House is skipping holiday parties amid the pandemic's persistent threat, not wanting to risk the superspreaders and political firestorms that are embroiling other leaders. 

—Kris Higginson