Editor’s note: This is a live account of COVID-19 updates from Thursday, December 23, 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 It is no longer being updated.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.
Amid surges in hospitalizations, the only monoclonal antibody treatment likely to work against omicron is becoming increasingly scarce, leaving hospitals across the U.S. scrambling. Two other treatments that hospitals have depended on to treat COVID-19 and prevent patients from becoming severely ill have not been successful in treating the latest variant.
An early-stage British study suggests people who became sick with omicron were about 40% less likely to be hospitalized for one night or more than those who became ill with the delta variant. Scientists noted the latest variant is still more highly transmissible than delta.
Another study conducted in Scotland, also in its early stages, suggests that the risk of being hospitalized for omicron was two-thirds less than it was for delta. But scientists noted that nearly 24,000 omicron cases in the country were reported among young people, a group that is less likely to develop severe complications from COVID-19.
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.
US sets shorter COVID-19 isolation rules for health workers
Worried that a new COVID-19 wave could overwhelm understaffed U.S. hospitals, federal officials on Thursday loosened rules that call on health care workers to stay out of work for 10 days if they test positive.
Those workers now will be allowed to come back to work after seven days if they test negative and don’t have symptoms. Isolation time can be cut to five days, or even fewer, if there are severe staffing shortages, according to the new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance.
“As the health care community prepares for an anticipated surge in patients due to omicron, CDC is updating our recommendations to reflect what we know about infection and exposure in the context of vaccination and booster doses,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said in a statement.
“Our goal is to keep health care personnel and patients safe, and to address and prevent undue burden on our healthcare facilities,” she added.
Pregnancy apps have become a battleground of vaccine misinformation
For generations of parents, Heidi Murkoff’s 1984 pregnancy guide “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” has been a trusty companion, offering calm, scientifically informed advice for a nerve-wracking nine months.
These days, of course, there’s an app for that: What to Expect’s “Pregnancy & Baby Tracker,” which offers personalized articles, videos, graphics of your baby’s development, and other features based on your due date.
But parents who’ve used What To Expect’s app say they also offered something they weren’t expecting: a “community” section rife with scare stories, conspiracy theories, and outright falsehoods about the safety of vaccines, posted by other users and surfaced by the app’s search functions and email notifications.
Mashaya Engel, 26, who gave birth to a daughter in August, said she encountered multiple posts expressing skepticism about the safety of getting vaccinated against the coronavirus during pregnancy.
Alaska to stop offering COVID-19 tests at state’s airports
COVID-19 tests will no longer be offered at Alaska’s airports as of Jan. 31 because the state is not renewing its contracts for the tests, the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services said.
Airports across Alaska offer the service. Earlier in the coronavirus pandemic, people arriving in Alaska from out of state were required to be tested. The state made testing optional in April.
The department estimates the tests have detected more than 6,000 cases of COVID-19 since June 2020, KTOO reported.
A spokesperson said officials were out of the office and not immediately available for questions about why the contracts won’t be renewed.
New Year’s Eve in Times Square still on, with smaller crowd
Revelers will still ring in the new year in New York’s Times Square next week, there just won’t be as many of them as usual under new restrictions announced Thursday as the city grapples with a spike in COVID-19 cases.
Viewing areas that normally accommodate about 58,000 people will be limited to about 15,000 to allow for more distancing, and everyone in attendance must show proof of vaccination and wear a mask, Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a news release announcing the changes.
The added precautions for New Year’s Eve in Times Square were spurred by the rapid spread of the omicron variant.
On Wednesday, the city set yet another one-day testing record with 22,808 new cases, though a true comparison to the number of cases during the initial COVID-19 surge in spring 2020 is impossible because tests were very limited at the time.
Greece cancels Christmas events, brings back mask mandate
Christmas concerts and other events have been canceled in Greece under new restrictions announced Thursday that include a general mask mandate for outdoors and all public areas.
Incoming travelers will also be required to have follow-up tests for COVID-19 on the second and fourth days after their arrival.
The restrictions will take effect Friday as the country braces for the expected impact of the omicron variant of the coronavirus, with the public health service already under pressure and intensive care space at more than 90% capacity.
Greece suffered a spike in pandemic-related deaths in November and December with the infection level easing in recent days. But the emergence of the omicron variant has renewed concern in the country where about a quarter of the adult population remains unvaccinated.
State health officials confirm 4,154 new coronavirus cases
The state Department of Health (DOH) reported 4,154 new coronavirus cases on Thursday, a near doubling of cases from the previous day. Officials also reported 29 new deaths on Thursday.
The update brings the state's totals to 813,741 cases and 9,784 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, 44,566 people have been hospitalized in the state due to the virus — 106 new hospitalizations. In King County, the state's most populous, state health officials have confirmed a total of 8,990 COVID-19 diagnoses and 2,134 deaths.
Since vaccinations began in mid-December, the state and health care providers have administered 11,687,162 doses and 62.5% 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 38,796 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.
German health minister expects virus surge around New Year’s
Germany’s health minister said Thursday that he expects a surge in coronavirus cases around New Year’s and people will likely need a fourth vaccine shot to maintain the best immune response against COVID-19.
Shortly later the national disease control center said the country has now recorded its first death of someone with the new omicron variant.
Health Minister Karl Lauterbach told public radio network WDR 2 that Germany hasn’t yet seen a big, rapid wave of new infections from omicron like some other European countries.
“That will change around New Year and in the first week of January,” Lauterbach said.
The national disease control center, the Robert Koch Institute, said that 3,198 COVID-19 cases in Germany were attributed to omicron as of Wednesday, a 25% increase compared with the previous day.
Florida judge latest to block Biden contractor vaccine rule
A federal judge in Florida on Wednesday blocked President Joe Biden’s requirement for federal contractors to receive coronavirus vaccines, adding to a series of legal setbacks for the mandate.
U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday wrote that Florida’s lawsuit against the rule demonstrated a “substantial likelihood” that the White House did not have authority to set the requirement.
The preliminary injunction in Florida comes after a federal judge in Georgia this month had already blocked enforcement of the rule nationwide. Judges in Missouri and Kentucky have issued similar rulings.
The decision marks the one of the latest victories for Republican-led states challenging Biden’s vaccine mandates.
U.S. jobless claims unchanged at 205,000
The number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits was unchanged last week, remaining at a historically low level that reflects the job market’s strong recovery from the coronavirus recession last year.
Jobless claims remained at 205,000. The four-week average, which smooths out week-to-week ups and downs, rose to just over 206,000. The numbers suggest that the spread of the omicron variant did not immediately trigger a wave of layoffs.
In Washington state, new initial claims for unemployment benefits rose 14.5% to 6,190 for the week that ended Dec. 18, from 5,408 the prior week, according to data from the federal Department of Labor.
The Washington state Employment Security Department reports its own figures later Thursday; those often differ slightly from the federal numbers.
Omicron worries push mortgage rates down; 30-year at 3.05%
Fears about the economic fallout from the omicron variant pushed long-term U.S. mortgage rates lower this week.
Mortgage buyer Freddie Mac reported Thursday that the average rate on the benchmark, 30-year home loan dipped to 3.05% this week from 3.12% last week. A year ago, the 30-year rate stood at 2.66%.
The average rate on 15-year, fixed-rate mortgages, popular among those refinancing their homes, fell to 2.3% from 2.34% last week. It was 2.19% a year ago.
Rates fell despite unusually high inflation because financial markets are worried that omicron will weigh on economic growth by forcing lockdowns and cancellations, discouraging Americans from going out to shop, eat and drink.
Sam Khater, chief economist at Freddie Mac, said rates "are expected to increase in 2022 which will impact homebuyer demand as well as refinance activity.”
Trump becomes vaccine advocate despite his base’s skepticism
Former President Donald Trump has taken a sudden interest in promoting coronavirus vaccines and boosters among his base, continuing to do so even after being booed for it.
On Sunday, during an event with former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, Trump revealed to a crowd of supporters that he had gotten a booster shot. He was immediately booed, but the former president told his supporters to knock it off.
Then, during an interview published Wednesday by the Daily Wire, Trump told conservative commentator Candace Owens that the coronavirus vaccines are “one of the greatest achievements of mankind.” Owen tried to cast doubt on this, saying that “more people have died” since the vaccines became available and calling their efficacy into question.
“Oh no, the vaccines work,” Trump interrupted. “The ones who get very sick and go to the hospital are the ones that don’t take the vaccine. But it’s still their choice. And if you take the vaccine, you’re protected.”
Trump told Owens he takes credit for the “incredible speed” with which the vaccines were developed, and he insisted that “people aren’t dying when they take the vaccine.”
US adds Merck pill as 2nd easy-to-use drug against COVID-19
U.S. health regulators on Thursday authorized the second pill against COVID-19, providing another easy-to-use medication to battle the rising tide of omicron infections.
The Food and Drug Administration authorization of Merck’s molnupiravir comes one day after the agency cleared a competing drug from Pfizer.
Pfizer’s pill, Paxlovid, is likely to become the first-choice treatment against the virus, thanks to its superior benefits and milder side effects.
As a result, Merck’s pill is expected to have a smaller role against the pandemic than predicted just a few weeks ago. Its ability to head off severe COVID-19 is much smaller than initially announced and the drug label will warn of serious safety issues, including the potential for birth defects.
Both treatments will be free to patients in the U.S. after being purchased by the federal government.
The Food and Drug Administration authorized Merck’s drug for adults with early symptoms of COVID-19 who face the highest risks of hospitalization, including older people and those with conditions like obesity and heart disease. The U.K. first authorized the pill in early November.
Is the COVID-19 vaccine safe for children?
Is the COVID-19 vaccine safe for children?
Yes, U.S. regulators authorized Pfizer’s vaccine for younger children after millions of 12- to 17-year-olds already safely got the shot, the only one available for children in the country.
More than 5 million children ages 5 to 11 have gotten a first dose since early November, and government safety monitoring has not uncovered any surprise problems.
This age group gets kid-size doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, a third of the amount used to vaccinate everyone 12 or older. The Food and Drug Administration cleared the shots based on a study showing the kid-size doses were 91% effective at preventing symptomatic COVID-19. The 5- to 11-year-olds developed virus-fighting antibodies as strong as those of teens and young adults who got regular doses, with similar or fewer annoying reactions such as sore arms, fever or achiness.
The FDA assessed the safety of the kid-size doses in 3,100 vaccinated youngsters. Regulators deemed that enough data, considering the trove of safety information from hundreds of millions of larger doses given to adults and teens worldwide.
More Marines discharged over vaccine refusal, total at 169
The Marine Corps discharged 66 Marines in the past week for refusing to get the coronavirus vaccine as mandated by the military, outpacing the other services at discipline related to the shots.
The latest Corps actions, which came as COVID-19 cases surged across the country as a result of the omicron variant, brought the total number of Marines booted out of the service for vaccine refusal to 169.
The Marine Corps has been the most aggressive in discharging troops who refuse the vaccine. And it also has denied all religious requests for vaccine exemptions that have been processed. As of Thursday, 3,080 of the 3,192 requests received — or more than 96% — had been processed and rejected.
The Marine vaccination rate is the lowest among the military services. The Army, Navy and Air Force all have nearly or more than 98% who have gotten at least one shot.
Thousands who ‘followed the rules’ are about to get COVID. They shouldn’t be ashamed, doctors say
For two years now, Aline, a 30-something graduate student in Ohio, has diligently — desperately, even — protected herself against the coronavirus. Vaccinated and boosted, she took a test last week ahead of holiday travel to Atlanta. She was stunned when it came back positive.
Aline, who requested to be identified by her first name only for privacy reasons, is still puzzling over how she got the virus — was it because she wore a cloth mask rather than a medical-grade one? — and worries that the cough she has now could worsen because she has diabetes. That’s not the most painful part of the ordeal, though: “I feel very embarrassed and dumb,” she says, and upset that she’s causing her family stress. “It’s eye-opening that I feel so much shame from it. I’m realizing how much judgment I was secretly harboring against people who got it before.”
Aline is part of a rapid uptick in cases in the United States. As two variants collide and states hit new records daily, breakthrough cases are becoming more normal and less of an exception; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns these cases are now “likely” to occur. For many people who test positive during this latest surge, the virus is sparking yet another unpleasant feeling in an ordeal that’s churned out plenty: shame.
China puts city of 13 million in lockdown ahead of Olympics
China plunged a city of 13 million people into lockdown on Thursday to stamp out an increase in coronavirus infections, as the country doubles down on its “zero tolerance” policy just weeks before it is set to host the Winter Olympics.
The restrictions in the northeastern city of Xi’an took effect at midnight Wednesday, with no word on when they might be lifted. They are some of the harshest since China imposed a strict lockdown last year on more than 11 million people in and around the city of Wuhan, where the coronavirus was first detected in late 2019.
One person from each household will be allowed out every two days to buy household necessities, a government order said. Other family members were required to stay at home and people who happened to be staying in hotels became stuck.
Though the latest outbreak is about 620 miles southwest of the Olympic host city of Beijing, any sign that the pandemic might be worsening in China will raise questions about whether and how it will manage to welcome thousands of athletes, officials and journalists when the Games open in just weeks on Feb. 4.
Buttigieg doles out $241M to US ports to boost supply chain
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is awarding more than $241 million in grants to bolster U.S ports, part of the Biden administration’s near-term plan to address America’s clogged supply chain with infrastructure improvements to speed the flow of goods.
The transportation money is being made available immediately to 25 projects in 19 states. Next year, the amount of money for port improvements will nearly double to $450 million in grants annually for five years under President Joe Biden’s new infrastructure law.
“U.S. maritime ports play a critical role in our supply chains,” Buttigieg said with Thursday’s announcement. “These investments in our nation’s ports will help support American jobs, efficient and resilient operations and faster delivery of goods to the American people.”
Biden on Wednesday touted the coming grants as one of a series of efforts that will alleviate supply bottlenecks over the short and long term.
“Earlier this fall we heard a lot of dire warnings about supply chain problems leading to a crisis around the holidays, so we acted,” Biden said. “We brought together business and labor leaders to solve problems and the much predicted crisis didn’t occur. Packages are moving. Gifts are being delivered. Shelves are not empty.”
COVID patients overwhelm U.S. hospitals: ‘People are dying because we cannot get to them fast enough’
A winter surge in coronavirus cases and an uptick in acutely sick patients is overwhelming hospitals across the nation, leading to long wait times that emergency medicine experts and first responders say threaten patient safety.
When inpatient hospital beds fill up, emergency departments have no place to send patients who must be admitted to the main hospital for further care, leaving them stuck as others languish in waiting rooms.
“An underappreciated and underreported aspect of this, nationally, is people are dying because we cannot get to them fast enough. If you wait for a long time in the waiting room, your situation is going to deteriorate and you have a much higher chance of morbidity and catastrophic events,” said Gabe Kelen, chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Johns Hopkins University.
Omicron may be on your next flight. Here’s how to protect yourself.
Airplane passengers have been collecting tips and tools to protect themselves from the coronavirus for the better part of two years, but the super-transmissible omicron variant poses a renewed threat. Because it is adept at slipping past disease-fighting antibodies, even vaccinated travelers will need to deploy every defensive weapon at their disposal.
“It is more likely that the person sitting next to me is infected than it was a few weeks ago,” said Robert Wachter, chair of the department of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco. “If he or she is infected, they are more contagious.”
David Powell, medical adviser to the International Air Transport Association, told Bloomberg News that the risk of infection from omicron on planes is assumed to be two to three times greater than with delta — which is itself considered highly transmissible. He emphasized that getting vaccinated and boosted is “the greatest protection you can give yourself.”
So what else should travelers be doing?
S. Korea marks deadliest day of pandemic as omicron looms
South Korea set a new record for COVID-19 deaths on Thursday as officials warned that the highly transmissible omicron variant could soon become the dominant strain.
In recent weeks, South Korea has been grappling with soaring infections and deaths after it significantly relaxed restrictions in early November as part of efforts to return to pre-pandemic normalcy.
The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency said a record 109 people died in the last 24-hour period, raising the country’s total number of pandemic fatalities to 5,015. It said the number of patients in serious or critical conditions also hit a fresh high of 1,083.
The agency said that additional 6,919 people have tested positive for the coronavirus, bringing the national caseload to 589,978. It said authorities have also confirmed 12 more cases of the omicron variant, pushing the total to 246.
What makes the omicron variant spread so easily?
The omicron variant arrived in the United States right around Thanksgiving. Less than a month later, it’s the country’s dominant coronavirus strain, accounting for 73% of new infections last week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
How did that happen? Infectious disease experts say there are two key factors that determine how quickly a virus will spread: how easily it is transmitted and how well it eludes the body’s defenses.
One secret of omicron’s success appears to be its ability to replicate rapidly. Researchers from the University of Hong Kong reported that compared with delta, omicron “infects and multiplies 70 times faster” in the bronchus, the main airways into the lungs. Its advantage over the original virus is even greater, they added. The difference was apparent a mere 24 hours after infection.
House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn reports COVID infection
House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn said Wednesday he has tested positive for COVID-19, though he is fully vaccinated with a booster and has no symptoms.
“America is in a new phase of this pandemic,” Clyburn, 81, said in a statement. “No one is immune.”
The South Carolina Democrat said he tested negative for COVID-19 last week ahead of President Joe Biden’s visit to South Carolina State University.
Catch up on the past 24 hours
You test positive for COVID-19. Now what? Everyone should plan for this possibility as omicron surges, health officials say. Here are the steps to take and the latest thinking on isolating, plus advice specific to vaccinated people with infections. You can also use the new feature on Washington's app that allows people who tested positive at home to anonymously notify others who may have been exposed. Nationwide, thousands of people who "followed the rules" are about to get COVID-19. They shouldn't be ashamed, doctors say.
Carolers, visitors and cheer are returning to Washington's long-term care facilities, even as omicron has many on edge. With hugs, kisses and favorite snacks aplenty, the contrast with last Christmas is stark.
Seattle parents, be ready. The school district warned yesterday that if infections spike after the holidays, classes could go remote again. The district also encouraged students to get tested before school resumes.
Good news: Three separate teams of scientists report that omicron infections caused milder illness than earlier variants. The studies also confirm that vaccinations and boosters protect against severe illness. But while the research is heartening …
"People are dying because we cannot get to them fast enough." The virus is overwhelming U.S. hospitals, with ER patients waiting up to 24 hours for care in some places.
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