Editor’s note: This is a live account of COVID-19 updates from Wednesday, December 29, 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 It is no longer being updated.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 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s move to shorten the recommended isolation period from 10 days to five for people who contract COVID-19 has drawn strong criticism from some medical experts.

The new guidelines, which come as several states in the U.S. report surges in cases stressing their hospitals, do not require people to get tested to see if they’re still contagious once their isolation period ends.

Meanwhile, Florida health officials are reporting record numbers of COVID-19 cases and officials are anticipating a spike in hospitalizations in the following weeks, which could stress health care systems even if cases are mild. Hospitals in the state are already stressed due to understaffing issues caused by an increase in health care workers who contracted 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 and the world.

Flight attendant union slams new CDC COVID guidelines that airline CEOs supported

Hours after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its quarantine guidelines for people who test positive for or are exposed to the coronavirus, the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA International pushed back against the new guidance.

The CDC now recommends that people who test positive for the coronavirus need only isolate for five days if they’re no longer symptomatic, and should wear a mask around others for the following five days. The CDC also shortened quarantine timelines for people who come into contact with someone who tested positive. The changes may help minimize disruption for schools, businesses and supply chains as cases rise nationwide. 

Sara Nelson, the president of the AFA, said in a statement that the changes may give businesses cover for putting staffing needs ahead of worker health.

“The CDC gave a medical explanation about why the agency has decided to reduce the quarantine requirements from 10 to five days, but the fact that it aligns the number of days pushed by corporate America is less than reassuring,” Nelson said in the statement.

Read the full story here.

—Ella Ceron and Rakshita Saluja, Bloomberg

In under-vaccinated Bosnia, inmate population stands out

Bosnia’s rate of vaccination against the coronavirus is one of the lowest in Europe, but one population in the Balkan country has bucked the national trend: its prison inmates.

Over 80% of the 2,000 men and women serving sentences in Bosnia’s 13 prisons have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. That compares to slightly over 27% for the nation as a whole, a rate that results from a lack of takers, not an absence of shots.

At the country’s largest penal institution, the maximum-security prison in the city of Zenica, is a case in point, over 90% of the prison’s 600 inmates and over 60% of the staff have received two shots.

Read the story here.

—Sabina Niksic, The Associated Press

The vaccine gap between Black and white Americans narrowed. But it’s back for booster shots.

Deneen Richmond hears a lot of confusion — and a lot of concern — about coronavirus vaccine boosters in this majority-Black suburb of Washington.

Some say vaccines don’t seem to work because vaccinated people are still getting sick. Others say it’s not worth taking time off to deal with the potential side effects. Or that no one clearly explained why guidance changed from two shots to three.

“We have to overcome the naysayers all over again,” said Richmond, who leads Luminis Health Doctors Community Medical Center, a hospital that was founded in Prince George’s County, Md., in 1975. “It’s like, ‘Hit replay, repeat.’ … That is what we are going to need to do with the booster.”

Across the country, the herculean efforts of advocates and health officials like Richmond brought shots to those who were initially resistant in churches, barber shops, homes and wherever people felt comfortable. Such nationwide campaigns helped narrow initially yawning gaps in vaccination rates between Black and white Americans.

But with the arrival of the booster, the disparity returned.

Public health experts say that many of the same issues that initially led to slower vaccine uptake among Black Americans, including difficulties obtaining shots and a sometimes deep-seated distrust of the medical system, are now behind lagging booster rates.

Read the story here.

—Rachel Chason, The Washington Post

More cruise ships under CDC investigation due to COVID cases

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is investigating more cruise ships due to new cases of COVID-19 as the omicron variant drives extremely high infection levels in the industry hub of Florida.

The CDC said 88 vessels are now either under investigation or observation, but it did not specify how many COVID-19 cases have been reported. Four other vessels are also being monitored by the CDC as well.

Florida hit a new record for daily cases on Tuesday with 46,900 new cases in a day. Since Christmas, the state’s 7-day average of daily cases has surpassed previous records set during last summer’s surge, rising to 29,400 infections.

Coronavirus hospitalizations in the state have also risen from about 1,200 patients two weeks ago to about 3,400 on Wednesday. But that is still less than one-fifth the number of hospitalizations reported in late August due to the delta wave.

Read the full story here.

—Adriana Gomez Licon, The Associated Press

Why isn’t proof of COVID vaccination required for domestic flights?

To go into restaurants, visit gyms, go on a cruise or see the new “Spider-Man” movie in theaters, you need to show proof of vaccination in many parts of the country. But you don’t need proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test to board a commercial flight within the U.S.

With coronavirus cases rising and airlines canceling thousands of flights due to outbreaks among staff, there is mounting pressure to change that.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden’s top infectious disease adviser, told MSNBC on Monday that it would be “reasonable to consider” a vaccination requirement for domestic airline passengers. He did not say whether he had made this recommendation to Biden.

“When you make vaccination a requirement, that’s another incentive to get more people vaccinated,” Fauci said. “If you want to do that with domestic flights, I think that’s something that seriously should be considered.”

Read the full story here.

—Hugo Martin, Los Angeles Times

France ups pressure on unvaccinated amid record infections

France’s government is forging ahead with efforts to increase pressure on unvaccinated people to get coronavirus shots, as the country reported 208,000 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday — a record fueled by the omicron variant.

Health Minister Olivier Veran on Wednesday defended a government plan to allow only the fully vaccinated to enjoy continued access to places such as restaurants, cinemas, theaters, museums, and sports arenas. The pass will also be required on long-distance trains and domestic flights.

Veran said the record number of infections means that more than two French people are testing positive every second for COVID-19.

“There is really little chance that this time you can escape (COVID-19): The virus is spreading too fast.” Veran said to the unvaccinated.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

State health officials confirm 4,800 new coronavirus cases

The state Department of Health (DOH) reported 4,800 new coronavirus cases and 17 new deaths on Wednesday.

The update brings the state's totals to 842,196 cases and 9,839 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, 45,242 people have been hospitalized in the state due to the virus — 172 new hospitalizations. In King County, the state's most populous, state health officials have confirmed a total of 197,469 COVID-19 diagnoses and 2,139 deaths.

Since vaccinations began in mid-December, the state and health care providers have administered 11,871,056 doses and 62.7% 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 38,684 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.


Asia keeps omicron at bay, but a surge may be inevitable

Much of Asia has largely managed to keep omicron at bay even as the variant rages in other parts of the world, but the region that is home to most of the globe’s population is bracing for what may be an inevitable surge.

Strict quarantine rules for arrivals and widespread mask wearing have helped slow the spread of the highly contagious variant in Asia. But cases are mounting, and experts say the next few months will be critical. Those fears have been amplified by doubts about the effectiveness of the Chinese-made vaccines used in China and much of the developing world.

“Once the pace picks up, its upsurge would be extremely fast,” said Dr. Shigeru Omi, a top medical adviser to Japan’s government.

Read the story here.

—Huizhong Wu, The Associated Press

Family blames the unvaccinated for death of man who waited 15 days for major-hospital care

Throughout his life, Dale Weeks was characterized by family and friends in Iowa as “a good neighbor,” someone who would do anything for anyone. So when he was diagnosed with sepsis last month, the retired schools superintendent and his family hoped he would get immediate care and be OK to reunite with them for the holidays.

But at a time when unvaccinated COVID-19 patients have again overwhelmed hospitals because of the fast-spreading omicron variant, finding an available bed at a large medical center able to give him the treatment he needed proved to be difficult. He had waited 15 days to be transferred to a larger hospital with better treatment options, because facilities throughout Iowa did not have an open bed for him as a result of the latest hospital surge of unvaccinated patients, his children told The Washington Post.

When Weeks was finally able to have surgery more than two weeks later, his condition from sepsis had worsened. Weeks died Nov. 28 of complications after surgery. He was 78.

Anthony Weeks, his son, said that the family believes their vaccinated and boosted father was the latest indirect victim of the pandemic — and that he would have survived his sepsis diagnosis if he was immediately admitted to a larger medical center that had an open bed.

"The thing that bothers me the most is people’s selfish decision not to get vaccinated and the failure to see how this affects a greater group of people," one of Weeks' children said. "That’s the part that’s really difficult to swallow.”

Read the story here.

—Timothy Bella, The Washington Post

Omicron variant might help defend against delta, lab study suggests

People who have recovered from an infection with the new omicron coronavirus variant may be able to fend off later infections from the delta variant, according to a new laboratory study carried out by South African scientists.

If further experiments confirm these findings, they could suggest a less dire future for the pandemic. In the short term, omicron is expected to create a surge of cases that will put a massive strain on economies and health care systems around the world. But in the longer term, the new research suggests that an omicron-dominated world might experience fewer hospitalizations and deaths than one in which delta continues to rage.

“Omicron is likely to push delta out,” said Alex Sigal, a virus expert at the Africa Health Research Institute in Durban, South Africa, who led the new study. “Maybe pushing delta out is actually a good thing, and we’re looking at something we can live with more easily and that will disrupt us less than the previous variants.”

Read the story here.

—Carl Zimmer, The New York Times

2 U.S. House members rack up over $100,000 in fines over mask mandate

During a recent marathon session in the House, two Republican lawmakers from Georgia sat in full view of television cameras. Neither was wearing a mask.

It was the latest act of defiance by the pair, Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Andrew Clyde, against a rule requiring legislators to wear masks on the House floor. Most Republican lawmakers, however grudgingly, have complied with the mandate, which can carry fines that quickly add up to hefty amounts. But Greene and Clyde have repeatedly, and proudly, flouted it.

To date, the two have incurred more than $100,000 combined in fines, which are taken directly from their paychecks.

A resolution approved by the House in January says that members will be fined $500 the first time they fail to wear a mask on the House floor, and $2,500 for subsequent violations. The House Ethics Committee notes each fine in a news release, but Greene’s and Clyde’s violations were so numerous that the panel began announcing theirs in bunches.

Read the story here.

—Luke Broadwater, The New York Times

They were so careful, for so long. They got COVID anyway.

Fareha Ahmed had been cautious since the beginning of the pandemic. She had eaten in restaurants only three times. She and her husband were vaccinated and boosted, and their 7-year-old got vaccinated in November as soon as he was eligible. In mid-December, Ahmed, 39, who lives in Washington, D.C., met a former colleague for an outdoor lunch. A few days later, the family attended an indoor gathering for the first time with other families, to bake Christmas cookies.

Then COVID caught up with her.

Two days after the lunch, the colleague tested positive for coronavirus. Ahmed took PCR and rapid tests — both negative — and then for good measure took another PCR test the day of the cookie party; the other participants told her to come over and not worry.

But three days after the party she started feeling ill, and the next day her PCR test came back positive.

“Like garbage,” was how she felt when she saw the result, which came shortly before Christmas. “Like my stomach basically was in my throat … like I’d just ruined everybody’s Christmas, including my own family’s.”

Across the nation and the world, people who thought they knew how to avoid COVID are getting a rude surprise. Safety precautions that had for so long felt talismanic ― get vaccinated, mask up, avoid large indoor gatherings — have in the past week or two collapsed under the weight of omicron, a much more highly transmissible variant than the ones before it.

Read the story here.

—Tara Bahrampour, The Washington Post

New criminal, civil trials in King County Superior Court suspended due to omicron

Presiding Judge Jim Rogers has ordered the suspension of the start of criminal and civil trials in King County Superior Court until Jan. 14 to protect jurors, witnesses, court staff and other visitors from the COVID-19 omicron variant, according to an emergency order filed Tuesday.

Criminal and civil trials already underway will be allowed to continue to completion and juvenile bench trials may be held in person at the discretion of the chief juvenile court judge, the order says.

As of Tuesday, Public Health — Seattle & King County reported a 195% increase in positive cases and a 58% increase in hospitalizations across the county, according to the order.

Read the story here.

—Sara Jean Green

Widespread flight cancellations continue as omicron spreads

Hundreds of flights were cancelled Wednesday as the omicron variant creates havoc both for travelers and for airlines that are having to cobble together flight crews as pilots, flight attendants and ground crews become infected or are exposed to others who have been.

More than 850 flights were cancelled by midday Wednesday and that number has ticked higher throughout the day, according to data from the flight-tracking website FlightAware. There were nearly 1,300 cancellations for flights entering, leaving or inside the U.S. Tuesday, and about 1,500 on Monday.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

Cancel New Year’s plans, U.S. leaders urge: ‘Omicron and delta are coming to your party’

Leaders and public health experts across the country are urging Americans to scrap their New Year’s Eve plans and stay home for the second year in a row as new cases of the coronavirus spread at a record-setting pace.

The volley of warnings serves as yet another reminder that the pandemic is far from over, with the omicron variant spurring a familiar pattern of cautions and cancellations during a time when many hoped to reclaim a sense of normalcy.

But instead of partying like it’s 2019, officials are asking people to reconsider gatherings and other revelry to fight rising case counts, which on Tuesday hit an all-time high when the seven-day average of new infections topped 266,000.

“Omicron and delta are coming to your party,” Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, D, said at a news conference this week. “So you need to think twice about how many people will be gathered together, keeping social distancing if you’re at a party. And if you can’t, leave.”

Read the story here.

—Reis Thebault, The Washington Post

New COVID-19 cases in U.S. soar to highest levels on record

More than a year after the vaccine was rolled out, new cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. have soared to the highest level on record at over 265,000 per day on average, a surge driven largely by the highly contagious omicron variant.

The previous mark was 250,000 cases per day, set in mid-January, according to data kept by Johns Hopkins University.

The fast-spreading mutant version of the virus has cast a pall over Christmas and New Year’s, forcing communities to scale back or call off their festivities just weeks after it seemed as if Americans were about to enjoy an almost normal holiday season.

COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. have climbed over the past two weeks from an average of 1,200 per day to around 1,500.

Read the story here.

—Kathleen Foody, The Associated Press

Coronavirus cases surge across Australia as omicron explodes

Coronavirus cases surged across Australia on Wednesday as an outbreak of the omicron variant exploded, prompting Prime Minister Scott Morrison to schedule an emergency national cabinet meeting.

The surge has already overwhelmed testing stations, prompted new vaccine mandates and caused at least one state to cut back on elective surgeries.

New infections in Sydney and surrounding parts of New South Wales state skyrocketed to more than 11,000, up from 6,000 a day earlier. Victoria state also reported a record 3,700 cases, up by more than 1,000 from the previous record set on Tuesday.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

Citing COVID, judge prods Maxwell jury to work overtime

The jury weighing the fate Ghislaine Maxwell’s fate said Tuesday they were “making progress” at the end of the fourth full day of deliberations at the closely watched sex trafficking trial where a judge expressed concern New York City’s coronavirus surge could derail proceedings.

Judge Alison J. Nathan granted jurors’ request to leave at 5 p.m. — an hour earlier than planned — but told them they were expected to work toward a verdict the rest of the week, if needed. Earlier Tuesday, Nathan told lawyers out of the presence of the jury that the “astronomical spike” in the number of coronavirus cases necessitated jurors working longer hours.

“We now face a high and escalating risk that jurors and trial participants may need to quarantine,” Nathan said. “We are simply in a different place regarding the pandemic than we were a week ago.”

In her explanation to the lawyers, Nathan voiced what had largely gone unmentioned in her previous requests to get the jury to work overtime: the fear that sickened jurors could force a mistrial.

Read the story here.

—Larry Neumeister and Tom Hays, The Associated Press

Omicron is not more severe for children, despite rising hospitalizations

The latest coronavirus surge sweeping the United States, much of it driven by the highly contagious omicron variant, has produced a worrisome spike in hospitalizations among children, not to mention heightened anxiety among parents nationwide.

Several states have reported increases of about 50% in pediatric admissions for COVID-19 in December. New York City has experienced the most dramatic rise, with 68 children hospitalized last week, a fourfold jump from two weeks earlier.

But even as experts expressed concern about a marked jump in hospitalizations — an increase more than double that among adults — doctors and researchers said they were not seeing evidence that omicron was more threatening to children.

Read the story here.

—Andrew Jacobs, The New York Times

WHO: global COVID cases up 11% last week, omicron risk high

The World Health Organization says the number of COVID-19 cases recorded worldwide increased by 11% last week compared with the previous week, with the biggest increase in the Americas. The gain followed a gradual increase since October.

The U.N. health agency said in its weekly epidemiological report released late Tuesday that there were nearly 4.99 million newly reported cases around the world from Dec. 20-26.

Europe accounted for more than half the total, with 2.84 million, though that amounted to only a 3% increase over the previous week. It also had the highest infection rate of any region, with 304.6 new cases per 100,000 residents.

WHO said that new cases in the Americas were up 39% to nearly 1.48 million, and the region had the second-highest infection rate with 144.4 new cases per 100,000 residents. The U.S. alone saw more than 1.18 million cases, a 34% increase.

Reported new cases in Africa were up 7% to nearly 275,000.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

Catch up on the last 24 hours

Washington state has hit yet another coronavirus-related record high: More cases were recorded on Christmas Eve than on any day since the pandemic began.

King County plans to distribute 300,000 coronavirus at-home test kits to community groups, health centers, libraries and other congregate locations amid a surge in cases. Here's what we know so far about the recently-ordered kits — and when the first batch will arrive.

Travelers anxious to fly to or from Seattle faced cancellations, delays, lost luggage, unexpected hotel stays and mounting frustration with the way airlines were coping — or not coping — with winter weather and pandemic-related staffing issues.

—Seattle Times staff