Editor’s note: This is a live account of COVID-19 updates from Thursday, December 16, 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 It is no longer being updated.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 federal appeals court in New Orleans lifted the nationwide ban on President Biden’s vaccine requirement for health care workers Wednesday, instead blocking the requirement in only certain states and creating the potential for patchwork enforcement across the country.

Meanwhile, health officials in Poland reported the highest number of COVID-19 deaths in the country since April as daily case rates continue to rise. New rules aimed at containing the virus went into effect Wednesday, including limiting capacity to 30% in public spaces such as restaurants, churches and sports facilities.

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.

2 Florida men guilty of running $35M COVID-19 fraud scheme

Two South Florida men have pleaded guilty in Ohio to leading a nationwide scheme to fraudulently obtain more than $35 million in COVID-19 relief loans.

James Stote, 55, of Hollywood, Florida, and Phillip Augustin, 52, of Coral Springs, Florida, pleaded guilty Tuesday in Akron, Ohio, federal court to conspiracy to commit wire fraud, according to court records. They each face up to 20 years in prison.

“While many businesses in our communities relied upon relief funds to keep their doors open and employees paid, these defendants profited off a scheme that stole millions of taxpayer dollars intended for struggling businesses and spent it lavishly on themselves,” First Assistant U.S. Attorney Michelle M. Baeppler for the Northern District of Ohio said in a statement.

According to court documents, Stote and Augustin led a group that fraudulently obtained Paycheck Protection Program loans guaranteed by the Small Business Administration under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. Authoriteis say they initially obtained a fraudulent loan for Augustin’s company, Clear Vision Music Group LLC, using falsified documents. After that, they immediately began working to obtain larger PPP loans for themselves and their associates, the documents added.

Read the full story here.

—The Associated Press

Australia’s New South Wales sets daily COVID case record

The premier of Australia’s most populous state said he is not considering lockdowns or other restrictions as a record 2,213 new COVID-19 cases were reported on Friday, the highest number since the pandemic began.

The new peak followed the 1,742 cases reported in New South Wales state on Thursday, which had topped the previous record set in September.

One new death was reported Friday and 215 people were in the hospital, well below the peak of 1,266 in September.

Premier Dominic Perrottet said he will not return to the lockdowns and restrictions that previously were used to check the spread of COVID-19 in New South Wales, now that 93.3 percent of the eligible population is vaccinated.

Read the full story here.

—The Associated Press

Quebec orders shops, bars, restaurants to operate at 50%

Bars, restaurants, stores and entertainment venues across the Canadian province of Quebec will be required to operate at 50% capacity beginning Monday because of a surge in coronavirus cases from the new omicron variant.

The rule was were announced Thursday by Quebec Premier François Legault as part of a series of new pandemic restrictions after forecasts that hospitals in the province could reach capacity for COVID-19 patients within weeks.

Quebec reported 2,736 new coronavirus cases for the previous 24 hours — the highest daily number since Jan. 8. Legault said health officials expect to announce 3,700 new infections Friday.

In addition to capping capacity for retail establishments, Quebec is requiring churches and other faith venues to also keep to half capacity. Worshippers will be required to show proof of vaccination to enter.

Read the full story here.

Justice Department asks high court to allow vaccine mandate

The Biden administration late Thursday asked the Supreme Court to block lower court orders that are keeping President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandate for health care workers from going into effect in about half of the states.

The administration asked the justices to allow the “urgently needed health and safety measure to take effect before the winter spike in COVID-19 cases worsens further.”

It said the requirement “will save hundreds or even thousands of lives each month.”

The administration’s request comes a day after the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals lifted a nationwide ban on the mandate. The court instead allowed the mandate to remain blocked in 14 states that had collectively sued in federal court in Louisiana. That action altered a Nov. 30 ruling by U.S. District Judge Terry Doughty, who originally applied his order nationwide.

Read the full story here.

—The Associated Press

State health officials confirm 1,884 new coronavirus cases

The state Department of Health (DOH) reported 1,884 new coronavirus cases and 18 new deaths on Thursday.

The update brings the state's totals to 798,239 cases and 9,653 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. Wednesday.

In addition, 44,067 people have been hospitalized in the state due to the virus — 81 new hospitalizations. In King County, the state's most populous, state health officials have confirmed a total of 178,403 COVID-19 diagnoses and 2,118 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.

Sweden to end vaccine pass exemption for Nordic neighbors

Swedish authorities said Thursday that citizens from fellow Nordic countries will have to show a valid COVID-19 vaccination certificate when entering Sweden starting next week.

As of Dec. 21, people from Norway, Finland, Denmark and Iceland no long will have an exemption to the certificate requirement and must also show their passes to enter Sweden.

Swedish Social Affairs Minister Lena Hallengren also encouraged all travelers to be tested for the coronavirus upon entry due to a “deteriorating” public health situation.

“The spread of infection is increasing sharply. The new virus variant omicron makes it difficult to predict the spread of infection in the future,” Hallengren said during a news conference.

Read the full story here.

—The Associated Press

CDC panel recommends Pfizer, Moderna COVID shots over J&J’s

Most Americans should be given the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines instead of the Johnson & Johnson shot that can cause rare but serious blood clots, U.S. health officials said Thursday.

The strange clotting problem has caused nine confirmed deaths after J&J vaccinations — while the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines don’t come with that risk and also appear more effective, said advisers to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The panel recommended the unusual move of giving preference to the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, and late Thursday the CDC’s director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, accepted the panel’s advice.

Until now the U.S. has treated all three COVID-19 vaccines available to Americans as an equal choice, since large studies found they all offered strong protection and early supplies were limited. J&J’s vaccine initially was welcomed as a single-dose option that could be especially important for hard-to-reach groups like homeless people who might not get the needed second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna options.

Read the full story here.

—Lauran Neergaard and Mike Stobbe, The Associated Press

Live theater in London, NYC grapple with new virus outbreaks

 Many stages on both Broadway and the West End have been forced to go dark once more as the live theater community grapples with backstage outbreaks of the coronavirus and its variants, temporarily closing everything from London’s revival of “Cabaret” starring Eddie Redmayne to mighty “Hamilton” in New York.

“At the end of the day, we’ll follow the science, and the science will say, ‘You need to shut down this performance,’” Broadway League President Charlotte St. Martin told The Associated Press on Thursday. “We anticipated that because they were telling us all along that if more people didn’t get their shots, that new variants would arrive and new variants would have cases. And guess what? It’s called omicron.”

On Broadway, “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” canceled its Wednesday matinee, “Tina” canceled two shows on Wednesday and “Hamilton” has called off shows through Friday night. “Ain’t Too Proud” scrapped its Tuesday performance and “Freestyle Love Supreme” canceled two performances. “Mrs. Doubtfire,” which just opened and has been dark since Sunday, intends to resume performances Thursday. ​​

Read the story here.

—Jill Lawless and Mark Kennedy, The Associated Press

1 in 5 nurses say they’ll quit their careers as pandemic takes steep toll on mental health, WA study shows

In fall 2020, Seattle therapist Shelley Green started taking appointments with health care workers whose lives had turned profoundly bleak during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Green had faced her own stresses. She’d given birth in spring 2020, during some of the most uncertain days of the pandemic in Washington. And as a member of the health care community, she felt fortunate she could do her teletherapy work from the comfort of her home. For a small group of health care workers without that luxury, she decided to offer her therapy services free of charge.

She listened to their fears. They were terrified of bringing the coronavirus home and accidentally killing a family member. As the months wore on, she heard their disillusionment. Some were so ill-supported at work, by their communities and by public officials, she said, that they felt they were being “left to die.”

These days, Green hears their anger. 

They feel disrespected, even ridiculed, by those most at risk for getting sick or needing their care: people who won’t wear a mask or refuse to get vaccinated. 

Green’s clients’ experiences fit with startling new research. Repeated exposure to sickness and death, and a sense of fear and anxiety that’s rippled across the medical and first-responder communities during the pandemic, is crippling the mental well-being of many people in these vital workforces, according to a new study published Dec. 16 in the Journal of General Internal Medicine and led by Dr. Rebecca Hendrickson, a physician and researcher at VA Puget Sound Health Care System and assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at University of Washington School of Medicine.

Read the story here.

—Hannah Furfaro

Pressure builds against doctors peddling false virus claims

They have decried COVID-19 as a hoax, promoted unproven treatments and pushed bogus claims about the vaccine, including that the shots magnetize the human body.

The purveyors of this misinformation are not shadowy figures operating in the dark corners of the internet. They are a small but vocal group of doctors practicing medicine in communities around the country.

Now medical boards are under increasing pressure to act. Organizations that advocate for public health have called on them to take a harder line by disciplining the doctors, including potentially revoking their licenses. The push comes as the pandemic enters a second winter and deaths in the U.S. top 800,000.

At least a dozen regulatory boards in states such as Oregon, Rhode Island, Maine and Texas recently issued sanctions against some doctors, but many of the most prolific promoters of COVID-19 falsehoods still have unblemished medical licenses.

“Just because it is physicians, it is no different than if someone called you claiming to be the IRS trying to steal your money,” said Brian Castrucci, president and chief executive officer of the de Beaumont Foundation. “It’s a scam, and we protect Americans from scams.”

Read the story here.

—Heather Hollingsworth, The Associated Press

Vaccine skeptics in Eastern Europe having change of heart

Some former vaccine skeptics in Eastern Europe have shifted over to the other side as coronavirus infections surge, countries are making it more difficult for the unvaccinated to travel abroad and authorities battle against government distrust and vaccine disinformation.

When she rolled up her sleeve in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo to take her first COVID-19 vaccine dose, Fata Keco was afraid of possible adverse side effects. But she said the worst she had to contend with over the next few days was “moderately discomforting pain” in her left arm around the site of the injection.

More significantly, the 52-year-old self-employed cleaning woman has joined the global community of vaccine-believers after months of “being very susceptible” to what she now describes as “the most ridiculous theories.”

She told The Associated Press that some of those that she heard were “that the coronavirus does not exist, that journalists were paid to spread panic, that planes were spraying us with viruses at night, that vaccines were being used by the powers that be to implant us with tracking microchips.”

“Now I feel relief for having done something to protect my health after putting myself in danger for a long time,” Keco said. “Also, I don’t mind that it will make my life easier if I decide to take a trip abroad.”

Read the story here.

—Sabina Niksic, The Associated Press

Army: 98% of active duty got COVID-19 vaccine by deadline

Army officials said Thursday that 98% of their active duty force had gotten at least one dose of the mandatory coronavirus vaccine as of this week’s deadline for the shots but that more than 3,800 soldiers flatly refused and could start being removed from the military next month.

The U.S. military’s largest service, however, reported the lowest number of service members seeking a religious exemption — a bit more than 1,700 soldiers — compared with the other three smaller services. In comparison, there are more than 4,700 in the Air Force, 3,000 in the Marine Corps and 2,700 in the Navy who are requesting religious exemptions, according to data released by the services in the past week. None has yet been approved.

The Pentagon announced earlier this year that the COVID-19 vaccine was mandatory for all service members, including the National Guard and Reserve. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has said repeatedly that getting the vaccine is critical to maintaining a heathy, ready force.

The Army, which totals more than 478,000 active duty soldiers, had the last vaccine deadline among the services for their active duty troops, Wednesday. And it scored the second highest rate for those who have gotten at least one shot, 97.9%. The Navy leads with more than 98%, while the Air Force is at 97.5% and the Marine Corps is at 95%.

Read the story here.

—Lolita C. Baldor, The Associated Press

New California rules end distinction for vaccinated workers

Workplace regulators are poised on Thursday to extend California’s coronavirus pandemic regulations into next year with some revisions that business groups say could worsen the labor shortage.

The main change to the California Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board’s revised temporary rule is that it would erase current distinctions between vaccinated and unvaccinated employees.

Both would be barred from the workplace if they come in close contact with someone with the virus.

The revised temporary rules would require that exposed, vaccinated but asymptomatic workers stay home for 14 days even if they test negative or, if they return to work, wear masks and stay 6 feet (1.8 meters) from anyone else during those two weeks.

Read the story here

—Don Thompson, The Associated Press

Can your pet get COVID-19?

Can your pet get COVID-19?

Yes, pets and other animals can get the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, but health officials say the risk of them spreading it to people is low.

Dogs, cats, ferrets, rabbits, otters, hyenas and white-tailed deer are among the animals that have tested positive, in most cases after contracting it from infected people.

While you don’t have to worry much about getting COVID-19 from your pets, they should worry about getting it from you. People with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 should avoid contact with pets, farm animals and wildlife, as well as with other people, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“If you wouldn’t go near another person because you’re sick or you might be exposed, don’t go near another animal,” says Dr. Scott Weese at Ontario Veterinary College.

Read the story here.

—Emma H. Tobin, The Associated Press

SKorea bans gatherings of 5 or more people amid virus surge

South Korea will prohibit private social gatherings of five or more people nationwide and force restaurants to close at 9 p.m., rolling out the country’s toughest coronavirus restrictions yet as hospitals grapple with the deadliest month of the pandemic.

Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum said Thursday that the new measures will be enforced for at least 16 days after taking effect on Saturday.

The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency reported 7,622 new cases on Thursday, close to the daily record of 7,850 set a day earlier.

Most of the transmissions were in the capital region, where officials say more than 86% of intensive care units designated for COVID-19 treatment are already occupied amid a spike in hospitalizations and deaths.

Read the story here.

—Kim Tong-Hyung, The Associated Press

Canada advises against foreign travel, Ontario limits events

The Canadian government on Wednesday advised Canadians against all non-essential international travel, and the largest province of Ontario capped capacity at large events like NBA and NHL games at 50% because of the new coronavirus variant.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canadians shouldn’t travel right now and anyone entering the country is going to face extra barriers like testing.

“It’s the last thing families want to be dealing with right now, but COVID in the presence of omicron is back with a vengeance,” Trudeau said.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford said all adults in Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, can book virus booster shots beginning Monday if three months have passed since their second vaccine dose. Canada trails the U.S, Britain and other countries in getting citizens booster shots.

Read the story here.

—Rob Gillies, The Associated Press

In lawsuit, radio host Dave Ramsey’s ex-employee says he was told to ‘pray away’ COVID before being fired

Days after Tennessee Republican Gov. Bill Lee declared a state of emergency in March 2020 over the coronavirus pandemic, Christian financial guru Dave Ramsey allegedly called 900 people to an in-person meeting of his company, Ramsey Solutions. The evangelical radio host told the staff they would not be permitted to work from home, saying it showed a “weakness of spirit,” according to a new lawsuit.

Ramsey’s remarks were troubling to at least one employee, Brad Amos, who this week filed a lawsuit against Ramsey and his company claiming he was retaliated against and ultimately fired for wanting to take precautions during the pandemic. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Tennessee, where Ramsey Solutions is based, describes a “cultlike” workplace where employees were forced to share personal details about their lives and were told to “pray away” COVID-19.

The lawsuit demands back pay and monetary damages for what Amos claims was religious discrimination. Amos, who was hired as a senior video editor in August 2019, in his lawsuit alleges he was fired in July 2020 after requesting permission to work from home to protect his family during the pandemic and trying to take additional precautions.

Read the story here.

—Julian Mark, The Washington Post

Catch up on the past 24 hours

Washington state is investigating a "very large" COVID-19 outbreak linked to school wrestling tournaments this month. It includes cases of the omicron variant, which are rising statewide as officials reconsider their guidance.

Why omicron is changing the rules of the pandemic: In the U.S., we're seeing a new wave of COVID cancellations as scientists warn of a double surge. In Europe, leaders are scrambling today to crack down together after the U.K. saw its highest-ever number of new COVID infections. What's behind the strong reactions? Even if omicron cases are mild — and it's too early to draw clear conclusions about that — the variant poses new dangers, this analysis explains.

CDC advisers today will consider limiting the Johnson & Johnson vaccine because of continued blood clot issues.

Only one NHL player is unvaccinated, but a big outbreak is hitting the league. With more than 30 players entering protocol this week, including some from the Kraken, we took a look at the reasons. The NBA, NFL and college teams are also getting slammed with outbreaks, but don't expect a return to "bubble play." 

—Kris Higginson