Editor’s note: This is a live account of COVID-19 updates from Saturday, Dec. 18, 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 It is no longer being updated.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 study conducted across 44 countries in Asia and Europe found that nations that enacted face mask policies early in the pandemic reported significantly lower COVID-19 related deaths per million people than countries that did not adopt mask mandates.

Countries without mask mandates saw COVID-19 death rates of 288 per million people on average, while countries with mask mandates saw a rate of 48 deaths per million people on average, according to the study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. Countries in the U.S. and Canada were not included in the study because mask mandates were enacted at a local level and not nationally.

Meanwhile, health officials in Washington confirmed a multi-county COVID-19 outbreak linked to high school wrestling tournaments. The estimated 200 cases of COVID-19 prompted officials to require K-12 athletes and coaches to get tested more frequently even if they are fully vaccinated.

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.

Navigating the pandemic

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How COVID-19 upended Blinken’s diplomatic mission

HONOLULU, Hawaii (AP) — U.S. Air Force Special Air Mission 50601 departed from Joint Base Andrews on the night of Dec. 9 with an ambitious journey ahead — an eight-day, around-the-world trip with America’s top diplomat, Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

But the diplomatic mission to Britain, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand would soon be upended by the global surge in coronavirus cases. At least three members of the traveling party tested positive for COVID-19 and forced the abrupt cancellation of the last stop and a frantic re-calculation of the remaining itinerary.

The Air Force confirmed on Saturday that at least two members of its crew on the plane had tested positive for COVID. That followed the State Department’s announcement that a journalist among the traveling press corps had tested positive, which alarmed the rest of the party and resulted in the trip being cut short.

“Two U.S. Air Force aircrew members supporting the Secretary of State’s international travel tested positive for COVID-19,” Ann Stefanek, the chief of media operations for the Air Force, said in a statement. “Both aircrew members were fully vaccinated. Neither had come into close contact with the Secretary of State or senior staff.”

Read the full story here.

—MATTHEW LEE, The Associated Press

Hits ‘keep coming’: Hospitals struggle as COVID beds fill

DETROIT (AP) — Hospitals across the country are struggling to cope with burnout among doctors, nurses and other workers, already buffeted by a crush of patients from the ongoing surge of the COVID-19 delta variant and now bracing for the fallout of another highly transmissible mutation.

Ohio became the latest state to summon the National Guard to help overwhelmed medical facilities. Experts in Nebraska warned that its hospitals soon may need to ration care. Medical officials in Kansas and Missouri are delaying surgeries, turning away transfers and desperately trying to hire traveling nurses, as cases double and triple in an eerie reminder of last year’s holiday season.

“There is no medical school class that can prepare you for this level of death,” said Dr. Jacqueline Pflaum-Carlson, an emergency medicine specialist at Henry Ford Health System in Detroit. “The hits just keep coming.”

The national seven-day average of COVID-19 hospital admissions was 60,000 by Wednesday, far off last winter’s peak but 50% higher than in early November, the government reported. The situation is more acute in cold-weather regions, where people are increasingly gathering inside and new infections are piling up.

Read the full story here.

—ED WHITE, The Associated Press

Blaming omicron variant, NHL resumes daily COVID-19 testing

The NHL reintroduced stricter COVID-19 protocols Saturday that include daily testing and other steps in a bid to limit a growing outbreak among players and team personnel.

The enhanced protocols will be put into effect immediately and last through Jan. 1 with an evaluation of their impact no later than Jan. 7. The move follows discussions between the NHL and NHL Players’ Association as virus conditions worsen across North America.

Three teams — Calgary, Colorado and Florida — are virtually shut down through next week because of virus cases. Approximiately 70 players — 10% of the 700 league-wide — are in the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol and the number of games postponed this season has climbed past 20.

The NHL also announced that games involving the Boston Bruins and Nashville Predators will be postponed at least through the scheduled completion of the league’s holiday break on Dec. 26. Additionally, Saturday night’s Toronto-Vancouver game and Sunday’s Arizona-Vancouver and Toronto-Seattle games have been postponed.

Several Canadian provinces are now or will soon limit attendance at large events like NHL games to 50% of capacity.

Besides the daily testing for players and coaches, “additional pre-game testing may be implemented, on a case-by-case basis, when a COVID outbreak occurs within a team.”

Read the full story here.

—The Associated Press

Kraken’s game against the Maple Leafs on Sunday has been postponed due to COVID-19 issues

As more NHL teams have their seasons paused due to COVID-19 outbreaks, the Seattle Kraken will have another game postponed before the holiday break begins on Friday.

After Seattle’s game in Calgary on Dec. 23 was postponed on Friday due to the Flames’ severe outbreak, the Toronto Maple Leafs won’t visit the Kraken at Climate Pledge Arena on Sunday due to an outbreak in the Toronto organization, an NHL source confirmed.

The Kraken are hosting the Edmonton Oilers on Saturday night and were scheduled to face Toronto in the back-to-back. The Maple Leafs were scheduled to face the Canucks in Vancouver on Saturday night, but the Canucks’ two games this weekend have now been canceled.

After the Flames, Panthers and Avalanche had their games paused going into the holiday break on Friday, Nashville, which has nine positive cases, is expected to join them.

Read the full story here.

—By Marisa Ingemi, Seattle Times staff reporter

Latinos are a vulnerable population for spam texts since the COVID-19 pandemic began

Smishing – the practice of sending fraudulent text messages targeting individuals to give personal and/or banking information – has existed pretty much as long as texting has.

Who could be more vulnerable to fall for a smishing scam? Whether they are robot-generated or written by people, everyone is susceptible yet the most vulnerable could be those who don’t easily distinguish spelling or grammatical errors when reading quickly in a second-learned language, are financially strapped, anxious about their economic safety and/or surrounded by misinformation.

A large population that sometimes shares these characteristics is Latino immigrants. Text messages are a main source of communication — and information — among Latinos (whether limited in English proficiency or not) across the country as with their family and friends abroad.

Though anyone with a cellphone can receive a fraudulent text message from someone impersonating a bank, there is an increased targeting of Latinos. “I think it has to do with the fact that many of them use WhatsApp to communicate with families across the border or in their native country, because it is one of the most cost-effective methods for them to be able to communicate,” Jose Rodriguez, president and CEO of El Concilio, said.

Read the full story here.

—Laura S. Diaz, The (Stockton) Record

OSHA vaccine mandate penalties to start Jan. 10

The Occupational Health and Safety Administration said Saturday that it would not issue citations tied to its coronavirus vaccination mandate before Jan. 10, so that companies have time to adjust to and implement the requirements.

The federal agency separately said there would be no citations of companies regarding its testing requirements before Feb. 9.

The announcement came after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth District in Cincinnati decided on Friday that the mandate for large employers could go forward, reversing a previous court decision made after 27 Republican-led states, conservative groups, business associations and some individual companies challenged the mandate.

OSHA said in a statement that it would not issue citations before the listed dates “so long as an employer is exercising reasonable, good faith efforts to come into compliance with the standard.”

The mandate was previously slated to take effect Jan. 4.

The Biden administration’s vaccine requirement applies to companies with 100 or more employees and covers about 84 million U.S. workers. Employees who are not fully vaccinated have to wear face masks and be subject to weekly COVID-19 tests. There are exceptions, including for those who work outdoors or only at home.

Read the full story here.

—The Associated Press

https://www.seattletimes.com/life/travel/what-6-health-experts-advise-for-holiday-travel-amid-omicron/

Just weeks since its discovery, the new highly transmissible omicron coronavirus variant is now rapidly spreading in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, omicron’s prevalence jumped sevenfold in a single week, and its case numbers appear to be doubling every two days.

While health experts predicted a winter surge, “it’s higher and faster than anyone anticipated,” says Chris Beyrer, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

As colleges send students home and professional sports cancel games, should people consider changing their holiday travel plans as well? We asked six public health professionals for their advice.

Read the full story here.

—Natalie B. Compton, The Washington Post

Highly vaccinated countries thought they were over the worst. Denmark says the pandemic’s toughest month is just beginning.

COPENHAGEN, Denmark – In a country that tracks the spread of coronavirus variants as closely as any in the world, the signals have never been more concerning. Omicron positives are doubling nearly every two days. The country is setting one daily case record after the next. The lab analyzing positive tests recently added an overnight shift just to keep pace.

And scientists say the surge is just beginning.

As omicron drives a new phase of the pandemic, many are looking to Denmark – and particularly the government institute devoted to testing, surveillance and modeling – for warnings about what to expect.

The emerging answer – even in this highly vaccinated, wealthy northern European country – is dire. For all the defenses built over the last year, the virus is about to sprint out of control, and scientists here expect a similar pattern in much of the world.

“The next month will be the hardest period of the pandemic,” said Tyra Grove Krause, the chief epidemiologist at Denmark’s State Serum Institute, a campus of brick buildings along a canal.

Ever since omicron’s emergence in November, the best hope has been that the variant might cause less severe sickness than the delta version it is competing with, which might make this wave more manageable and help covid-19 transition into an endemic disease. But Denmark’s projections show the wave so fully inundating the country, that even a lessened strain will deliver an unprecedented blow.

Scientists caution that the knowledge of omicron remains imprecise. Denmark’s virus modelers have many scenarios, not just one. But even in a middle-of-the-road scenario, Danish hospitals will soon face a daily flow of patients several times beyond what they’ve previously seen.

Read the full story here.

—Chico Harlan, The Washington Post

For Johnson, a political rebuke as omicron variant engulfs Britain

LONDON — In the predawn hours Friday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson learned that his Conservative Party had crashed to defeat in a district it had represented for more than a century. Twelve hours later, Britain reported more than 90,000 new cases of COVID-19 as the omicron variant engulfed the country.

Each of those events would be daunting enough on its own. Together, they pose a uniquely difficult challenge to Johnson as he struggles to navigate his nation through the latest treacherous phase of the pandemic.

The electoral defeat exposed the vulnerability of a prime minister who built his career on his vote-getting skills. Normally reliable Conservative voters turned on the party in striking numbers, disgusted by a steady drip of unsavory ethics disclosures and a growing sense that the government is lurching from crisis to crisis.

The defeat came on top of a mutiny in the ranks of Conservative lawmakers, around 100 of whom voted against Johnson’s plan to introduce a form of COVID pass in England earlier in the week. Having been politically rebuked, he now has less flexibility to impose new restrictions to curb a virus that is spreading explosively.

Johnson is betting he can avert a full-blown crisis by massively accelerating Britain’s vaccine booster program. But so far, the rate of infections is outrunning the percentage of people getting their third shots. With cases of the omicron variant doubling every 2.5 days, public health researchers warn that some type of lockdown might ultimately be the only way to prevent an untenable strain on hospitals.

Read the full story here.

—MARK LANDLER and STEPHEN CASTLE, The New York Times

Omicron and holidays unleash scramble for coronavirus tests across the U.S.

Coronavirus testing was a breeze when J.D. Schroeder traveled to Abu Dhabi and Mexico this fall. Not so much at home in Pennsylvania when he felt sick Wednesday and found out he had been exposed.

The mechanical engineer started looking for an over-the-counter rapid test because the earliest antigen test appointment he could find in his Pittsburgh-area community was almost a week away. Rite Aid would only let him order online. The closest CVS pharmacies were all out of stock. He nabbed the last box at a Walgreen’s, which came back positive.

When he traveled to the United Arab Emirates for work last month, he paid roughly $13 for lab tests and got results within two hours. A hotel in Mexico where he vacationed over Thanksgiving had ample rapid testing kits for guests.

“I’m 31 and I’m pretty tech savvy. I can’t imagine someone who doesn’t have access to a computer or isn’t comfortable searching different places to figure this stuff out because it can be confusing,” said Schroeder, who is now quarantining at home.

Easy access to coronavirus tests – both rapid at-home kits and PCR tests analyzed in labs – is uneven across the United States as the nation faces the prospect of explosive outbreaks linked to holiday travel and the highly transmissible omicron variant, connected to sharp surges in cases globally. Government officials and public health experts have urged Americans to get tested before they attend big events like holiday parties and gather for Christmas. It’s a way to break chains of transmission by nipping outbreaks at the bud, especially in places declining to reinstate mask mandates or social distancing measures.

Read the full story here.

—FENIT NIRAPPIL and Jaimie Seaton, The Washington Post

Could humanity catch a break with omicron?

In the weeks since the omicron variant made its presence known, scientists have braced themselves for yet another nasty surprise from a virus that has killed more than 5.3 million and sickened hundreds of millions more. But as they sort through preliminary data on the strain, they’re cautiously considering an unexpected possibility: that with omicron, the coronavirus may finally be cutting humanity a little slack.

There’s still plenty of reason to worry: Omicron has spread to at least 77 countries, found its way to at least 35 U.S. states, and is on track to become the dominant strain in Europe by mid-January.

According to a raft of lab tests and population studies in South Africa, where omicron is surging, the variant has cut deeply into the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine’s ability to prevent new infections. And compared with delta and other variants, it is much more likely to reinfect people who have already recovered from a bout with COVID-19.

At the same time, there are intriguing signs that with omicron, the coronavirus has taken a turn for the milder.

South African adults infected during the omicron surge were 29% less likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19 compared with their countrymen who were sickened during the first wave of cases there in the summer of 2020. And compared with past waves, adults hospitalized with omicron were less likely to be admitted to the intensive care unit, or to need costly and intrusive levels of hospital care.

All of that suggests that in a world dominated by omicron, the proportion of infected people who die could fall well below the 1% to 2% death rate that’s prevailed across much of the pandemic. Likewise, the surges in hospitalizations that have strained healthcare systems and exhausted medical professionals could be dampened.

Read the full story here.

—Melissa Healy, Los Angeles Times

Omicron will bring about 40,000 new COVID-19 cases a day in Florida by February, UF model says

MIAMI — University of Florida researchers are projecting the highly contagious omicron variant will lead to about 40,000 new COVID-19 cases a day in Florida by its February apex, around 75% higher than what the state witnessed during the peak of the delta variant.

But the new COVID-19 wave will be less lethal for Floridians than delta, according to the University of Florida model published Friday.

The report, produced by three UF researchers at the Emerging Pathogens Institute at UF, projects four different scenarios about how the COVID-19 situation may play out in Florida considering transmission, the ability for the virus to evade natural or vaccine immunity, and the severity of the disease.

“We may see an awful lot of infection,” said Glenn Morris, the director of the institute and professor of medicine specializing in infectious diseases. “What contributes to that is that it is highly contagious and you really need to have a strong immune response to avoid getting infected.”

The institute has been working on models for Florida since the beginning of the pandemic; two weeks ago, the team decided they needed new models factoring in omicron.

Given what is known about the omicron variant, and the data that were available when they started producing the models, the experts concluded that the most likely outcome would be more cases and fewer deaths. Other possible scenarios noted in the report: lower transmissibility and low severity, lower transmissibility and moderate severity, and high transmissibility and moderate severity.

Read the full story here.

—Ana Claudia, Chacin Miami Herald

Europeans reimpose restrictions as omicron sweeps continent

LONDON (AP) — Nations across Europe are moving to reimpose tougher measures to stem a new wave of COVID-19 infections spurred by the highly transmissible omicron variant, triggering calls for protests from Paris to Barcelona.

As case numbers escalated, alarmed ministers in France, Cyprus and Austria tightened travel restrictions. Paris canceled its New Year’s Eve fireworks. Denmark closed theaters, concert halls, amusement parks and museums. Ireland imposed an 8 p.m. curfew on pubs and bars and limited attendance at indoor and outdoor events.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan underscored the official concern about the climbing cases and their potential to overwhelm the health care system by declaring a major incident Saturday, a move that allows local councils in Britain’s capital to coordinate work more closely with emergency services.

Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin captured the sense of the continent in an address to the nation, saying the new restrictions were needed to protect lives and livelihoods from the resurgent virus.

“None of this is easy,” Martin said Friday night. “We are all exhausted with COVID and the restrictions it requires. The twists and turns, the disappointments and the frustrations take a heavy toll on everyone. But it is the reality that we are dealing with.”

Read the full story here.

— DANICA KIRKA, The Associated Press

Health officials predict another COVID surge in Oregon

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Following three confirmed cases of the omicron variant in Oregon, health officials warned on Friday that the state may face its worst COVID-19 surge in the coming weeks, with the number of patients hospitalized more than doubling the pandemic’s peak.

As local scientists predict that the state has a three week window to prepare for the next surge, Gov. Kate Brown and health authorities are urging people to get their COVID-19 booster shot.

“Today’s forecast is a warning we can’t ignore. Like a tsunami alert, the (Oregon Health & Science University) forecast is telling us that a big wave is coming,” said Patrick Allen, the director of the state health authority. “And it threatens to be bigger than any wave we’ve seen before.”

Officials say the threat that the highly transmissible omicron variant poses is “deeply troubling and demoralizing,” especially as hospitals continue to struggle with staffing shortages and limited available beds due to the surge caused by the delta variant.

As of Thursday, 389 people with COVID-19 were hospitalized in Oregon. There currently are only 57 available adult intensive care unit beds and only 94% of the state’s adult non-ICU beds are full.

“We are approaching this next surge, while still sitting at the halfway point coming down from delta,” said Dr. Renee Edwards, the chief medical officer for Oregon Health & Science University,

Read the full story here.

—ARA CLINE, The Associated Press

WHO: Omicron detected in 89 countries, cases doubling fast

VIENNA (AP) — The omicron variant of the coronavirus has been detected in 89 countries, and COVID-19 cases involving the variant are doubling every 1.5 to 3 days in places with community transmission and not just infections acquired abroad, the World Health Organization said Saturday.

Omicron’s “substantial growth advantage” over the delta variant means it is likely to soon overtake delta as the dominant form of the virus in countries where the new variant is spreading locally, the U.N. health agency said.

WHO noted that omicron is spreading rapidly even in countries with high vaccination rates or where a significant proportion of the population has recovered from COVID-1levels of population immunity

It remains unclear if the rapid growth of omicron cases is because the variant evades existing immunity, is inherently more transmissible than previous variants, or a combination of both, WHO said.

Other major questions about omicron remain unanswered, including how effective each of the existing COVID-19 vaccines are against it. Conclusive data also does not exist yet on how ill omicron makes COVID-19 patients, the health agency said.

WHO first labeled omicron a variant of concern on Nov. 26.

—The Associated Press