Editor’s note: This is a live account of COVID-19 updates from Wednesday, Dec. 30, 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 It is no longer being updated.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 Department of Corrections began vaccinating some high-risk prisoners and prison workers this week, ranking them among the state’s first recipients of a coronavirus vaccine because cramped prisons mimic conditions in long-term care facilities, public health experts say.

After a quiet summer with few cases among King County’s homeless population and a fall with only a few isolated spikes, 226 cases — including employees — have been connected to shelters and service sites or meal programs in the last month of 2020. Thirty people living at the Red Lion Hotel in Renton have tested positive for the virus since mid-December.

Many economists now regard the COVID recession as two very different recessions: For many people in higher-wage, office-based jobs, the economic fallout from the pandemic was often about the inconvenience of adjusting to working from home while for many lower-wage workers, the pandemic more often meant either layoffs or reduced hours or, in “essential” sectors such as grocery and health care, a greater risk of COVID-19 exposure.

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.

2020 finally ending, but New Year’s revelries muted by virus

CANBERRA, Australia — This New Year’s Eve is being celebrated like no other, with pandemic restrictions limiting crowds and many people bidding farewell to a year they’d prefer to forget.

Australia will be among the first nations to ring in 2021 because of its proximity to the International Date Line. In past years 1 million people crowded Sydney’s harbor to watch fireworks that center on the Sydney Harbor Bridge.

Authorities this year are advising revelers to watch on television. People are only allowed in downtown Sydney if they have a restaurant reservation or are one of five guests of an inner-city apartment resident. People won’t be allowed in the city center without a permit.

“For the first time in many, many years we made the big decision, difficult decision to cancel the fireworks,” Melbourne Mayor Sally Capp said.

“We did that because we know that it attracts up to 450,000 people into the city for one moment at midnight to enjoy a spectacular display and music. We are not doing that this year,” she added.

—Associated Press

Minimum wage hike Jan. 1 a welcome prospect for workers, but employers are divided

An extra $1.50 an hour “is not going to break our back,” says Ali Ghambari, owner of Cherry Street Coffee in downtown Seattle, seen above Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2020. “Our back is already broken.” 
(Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

When it comes to Seattle’s minimum wage, which is set to jump by as much as $1.50 an hour on Friday, Ali Ghambari, owner of Cherry Street Coffee, tries to take a philosophical view.

The 11% increase — from $13.50 to $15 for many small businesses like Ghambari’s (larger companies will pay more) — represents an unwelcome new expense when he’s already struggling with the pandemic.

Still, the raises that 14 of his 25 workers will get starting Jan. 1 is necessary in such an expensive region, Ghambari says. And realistically, a wage hike is probably the least of his worries, given that his overall business is down more than 70% compared to 2019. An extra $1.50 an hour “is not going to break our back,” he says with a rueful laugh. “Our back is already broken.”

Across Seattle and the state, many employers are coming to terms with an annual ritual that has special significance in the year of COVID-19.

For some employers, the looming wage increases are another burden during the worst downturn in memory. Many are seeing both cratering revenues and rising costs.

Read the full story here.

—Paul Roberts

South Korea tries to curb virus cluster at prison

SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea has enforced its toughest physical distancing rules at correctional facilities after a cluster of coronavirus infections flared at a Seoul prison.

The Justice Ministry says 792 people — 771 inmates and 21 staff — at Seoul’s Dongbu Detention Center have tested positive for the virus since one of the center’s officials was found infected on Nov. 27. One of the infected inmates has died.

South Korea is struggling to contain a viral resurgence tied to a variety of sources such as nursing homes, churches, army bases and family gatherings. Earlier Thursday, South Korea reported 967 new virus cases, taking the country’s total to 60,740 with 900 deaths.

Vice Justice Minister Lee Yong-gu said Thursday the government has imposed the highest-level distancing rules, called “Tier-3,” on all correctional facilities in South Korea for two weeks to guard against COVID-19. Other parts of South Korea are under lower levels of distancing rules.

The new curbs will ban visitors and let inmates connect to people on the outside by video or phone, while trials and summoning of inmates will be minimized. 

—Associated Press

China gives conditional approval to Sinopharm COVID vaccine

BEIJING — Chinese health regulators said Thursday that they have given conditional approval to a coronavirus vaccine developed by state-owned Sinopharm.

The inactivated, two-dose vaccine is the first one approved for general use in China. The go-ahead comes as the country carries out a campaign to vaccinate 50 million people before a major holiday for the Lunar New Year in February.

Chen Shifei, the deputy commissioner of the National Medical Products Administration, said at a news conference that the decision had been made the previous night.

The vaccine was developed by the Beijing Institute of Biological Products, a subsidiary of state-owned conglomerate Sinopharm. The company announced Wednesday that preliminary data from last-stage trials had shown it to be 79.3% effective.

Final proof of its effectiveness will depend on publication of more data.

—Associated Press

Wisconsin health system: Worker deliberately spoiled vaccine

GRAFTON, Wis. — A Wisconsin health system said Wednesday that 500 doses of coronavirus vaccine that had to be discarded after they were left unrefrigerated now appear to have been deliberately spoiled by an employee.

Aurora Medical Center first reported on the spoiled doses on Saturday, and said they had been accidentally left out overnight by an employee at Aurora Medical Center in Grafton.

In a statement late Wednesday, Aurora said the employee involved “today acknowledged that they intentionally removed the vaccine from refrigeration.”

Aurora’s statement said they had fired the employee and referred the matter to authorities for further investigation. Their statement said nothing about a possible motive for the action, and health system officials didn’t immediately respond to messages seeking more information.

—Associated Press

The Seattle Times chronicles lives lost to COVID-19 this year

The impact of the coronavirus pandemic is generally expressed in numbers. But each data point represents a human life whose loss is felt by countless other people.

A veteran Seattle teacher. A Jamaican farmer who worked seasonally in Okanogan County. A doting grandmother. A bus driver who was preparing to retire. A beloved grocery store bag checker. And 3,415 other lives lost to COVID-19 in Washington state.

The Seattle Times has chronicled some of those lives, which you can find here.

—The Seattle Times staff

Health department: 356,650 coronavirus vaccine doses delivered to Washington state, but most have yet to find an arm

The federal government has delivered 356,650 doses of vaccine to Washington state, but only a fraction of those doses have been used, according to data from the state health department.

Fewer than 20% of the distribution — 59,491 doses — had been administered as of Wednesday morning, according to data provided by the state Department of Health. Immunization data reporting lags by about three days, so the number of doses administered is under counted.

The health department estimates that about 500,000 people qualify for vaccination in the top priority group, named 1A, which includes high-risk workers in health care, first responders and residents of long-term care facilities.

To speed the pace of vaccination in some areas, the health department announced Wednesday that it was expanding the definition of the 1A category to allow extra vaccine to be distributed to health-care workers who are not on the front lines.

The new guidance benefits rural health-care organizations that were able to quickly administer the vaccine to high-risk staffers but still have some doses remaining.

Read the full story here.

—Evan Bush

Second Washington corrections employee dies from COVID-19

A second Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) employee has died from complications of COVID-19, the department announced Wednesday.

Corrections officer David Christensen, 62, died on Tuesday, according to a DOC statement. He had previously worked at the Clallam Bay and Stafford Creek correctional facilities from 2015 to 2017, the statement said. It's unclear which facility Christensen was working at when he tested positive for the coronavirus.

“Our hearts go out to Officer Christensen’s grieving family and honor the sacrifice they have made,” Secretary of Corrections Stephen Sinclair said in the statement. “It is a tragedy to lose a member of our public safety community and correctional family.”

DOC is planning to review Christensen's death as a possible line-of-duty death. No further information was immediately available about where he contracted the virus.

Christensen had a "long career in corrections and criminal justice," previously serving at the Oregon Department of Corrections, Grays Harbor County Jail, Aberdeen Police Department and the Grays Harbor County Juvenile Department, the statement said.

“I personally knew Dave for several years and he always impressed me with his leadership skills and his desire to support his fellow officers,” Ron Haynes, superintendent at Stafford Creek Corrections Center, said in the statement. “Dave’s humble nature and interest in maintaining safety of those at the facility were very much in line with the Department’s values."

The first DOC employee to die from COVID-19 was 65-year-old Berisford Anthony Morse, who died in May. Morse joined DOC in 2003 and worked at the Monroe Correctional Complex’s minimum security unit.

—Elise Takahama

Federal prison in Oregon sees COVID cases spike

SHERIDAN, Ore. — The number of people testing positive for the coronavirus has surged over the past month at a federal prison west of Salem, officials said.

Officials confirmed Tuesday that on Dec. 4, the medium-security prison in Sheridan had two cases, The Oregonian/OregonLive reported. By Wednesday, the prison, which is home to about 1,450 male inmates, had 41 active cases among prisoners and another 10 cases diagnosed in staff, according to the Bureau of Prisons.

Colleen Samuel, whose son Robert Benham is serving a seven-year sentence there for bank robbery, said conditions have been deteriorating and that he is concerned for his health and safety.

Benham, 55, told his mom some inmates have been put in a COVID-19 unit housed in a prison gymnasium where they have to lay on their bunks all day.

Farrah Silver, a spokesperson for the Bureau of Prisons, said the facility has had to find “alternate housing and spacing for social distancing, as well as quarantine and isolation purposes,” but that inmates have not been restricted to their bunks.

Silver also said the uptick in cases could be due to increased testing.

—Associated Press

In the nation’s capital, Black families reel from the pain of hundreds lost to COVID-19, killings

WASHINGTON — African Americans in the nation’s capital have always suffered more than white residents during crime waves and economic downturns. But 2020 has been a particularly devastating year for Black D.C., magnifying racial inequalities that were already among the worst in the nation.

Between the coronavirus pandemic and a surge in homicides, nearly 1,000 lives were lost this year in Washington. Almost 80% have been Black, even though African Americans now make up less than half of the city’s population.

Some Black families have been struck by both the pandemic and gun violence, the twin tragedies compounding already immeasurable pain.

And there have been other losses. Black unemployment nearly doubled in D.C. during the first few months of the crisis, while children of color have endured worse educational setbacks than their white classmates.

—The Washington Post

Washington state reports 1,526 new coronavirus cases

The state Department of Health (DOH) reported 1,526 new coronavirus cases and 51 new deaths Wednesday.

The new cases may include up to 270 duplicates, and the state's data for positive test results received Tuesday is incomplete, according to DOH.

The update brings the state's totals to 242,330 cases and 3,420 deaths, meaning that 1.4% of people diagnosed in Washington have died, according to the DOH. The data is as of 11:59 p.m. Tuesday.

In addition, 14,571 people have been hospitalized in the state due to the virus — 126 new hospitalizations. In King County, the state's most populous, state health officials have counted a total of 61,710 COVID-19 diagnoses and 1,037 deaths.

On Dec. 17, The Seattle Times changed its method of reporting daily cases to be more consistent with the state’s reporting methodology, which now includes both confirmed cases and probable cases in its total count. According to DOH, probable cases refer to people who received a positive antigen test result but not a positive molecular test result, while confirmed cases refer to those who have received a positive molecular test result.

The addition of the new probable-cases category could contribute to higher daily case, hospitalization and death counts. In general, DOH’s data dashboard is limited to molecular test results and does not include antigen testing results.

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.

—Asia Fields

Washington state’s indoor-climbing gyms petition Inslee to be allowed to reopen

Tod Bloxham is the owner of Edgeworks Climbing and Stone Gardens. He’s leading an effort to petition Gov. Jay Inslee to allow indoor rock-climbing gyms to be open during COVID under the argument that they can be sanitary and operate under social distancing conditions. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

Indoor-climbing gym owners have called on Gov. Jay Inslee to allow the state's 18 gyms to reopen by Jan. 1, the beginning of their three-month busiest season.

The recently formed Washington Indoor Climbing Coalition said gym owners have faced financial ruin since gyms were shuttered on Nov. 16 under public-health restrictionsto combat the third COVID-19 wave.

While indoor-climbing gyms operated from July to November, that brief window has barely kept gym owners afloat in what was a growth industry before the pandemic.

“[Indoor-climbing facilities] are essentially as close to being outdoors as one can be while still indoors,” wrote University of Washington medical professor and Harborview Medical Center director Dr. John Lynch in a letter supporting the coalition’s proposal.

A spokesperson for Inslee said Tuesday that there may be "positive developments" on the restrictions over the next week.

Read the full story here.

—Gregory Scruggs

New York makes exception to allow fans at Bills playoff game

The stands were mostly empty of fans due to COVID-19 restrictions before a game at Bills Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y., on Nov. 29, 2020. (Jeffrey T. Barnes / AP)

New York is making an exception to its restrictions on large gatherings to allow about 6,700 fans to attend a Buffalo Bills home playoff game in January as long as all test negative beforehand.

That’s about 10% of the stadium’s capacity. Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the football team staff will only allow fans with negative tests to enter the stadium, where they will be seated distanced apart. Fans must wear masks once they leave their vehicles in parking lots until they return to their vehicles, and will be asked to leave if they take off their masks.

Cuomo, who had sent health department staff to study COVID-19 protocols at stadiums in other states, defended his administration’s efforts to allow fans at the game at a time when more then 11,000 New Yorkers a day are testing positive for COVID-19.

He said the pilot program could be a model for re-opening businesses with rapid testing, which his budget director Robert Mujica said will be conducted in the three days before the game. Cuomo is directing his department of health to contact trace all 6,700 fans following the game.

The department didn’t immediately provide specifics on the pilot program, including whether the state has the resources to contact trace all the fans in the days following the game.

Read the full story here.

—The Associated Press

The UW turned 2020 into a course, and you’re invited to check it out today

University of Washington vice provost Ed Taylor designed a course on 2020 that culminates in creating a time capsule. It will include the paper cranes he folded off screen during Zoom meetings, along with a box made by local high-school students. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

Earlier this year, when University of Washington vice provost Ed Taylor and his colleagues realized the historic nature of 2020 — the intersecting lines between the coronavirus, the country’s racial reckoning and the presidential election — they started patching together a plan to teach it on the fly.

The sweeping course was aimed to help students — especially those new to the UW and experiencing their first months of college from behind a screen — make sense of the events of 2020 as they unfolded. The lectures are now available to the public, and there will be a culminating “Remembering 2020” session on Dec. 30 at 4:30 p.m. that’s open to everyone. 

Taylor started asking faculty and a few alumni to participate in July, and quickly got many of the university’s all-stars on board: The president and provost. School of Public Health dean Hilary Godwin, who Taylor dubbed “our own form of a Dr. Fauci.” Dr. Benjamin Danielson, pediatrician and former senior medical director of the Odessa Brown clinic at Seattle Children’s. Arts & Sciences dean Robert Stacey on “how to make a life.” Alexes Harris, a sociology educator, on “the criminal legal system as a social problem.” UW Tacoma psychology professor Carolyn West. Megan Ming Francis, a political science expert, on “transformation vs. change around the edges.”

Read the full story here.

—Joy Resmovits

State distributes federal COVID relief grant money to nonprofits

More than 300 Washington nonprofit and tribal organizations recently received between $25,000 and $75,000 each in grant money funded by the federal government, the Washington State Department of Commerce announced Wednesday.

In total, the Department of Commerce and Philanthropy Northwest distributed nearly $12 million in grant money, funded by the CARES Act, the federal coronavirus relief legislation that passed last spring.

This round of grants was prioritized toward organizations that serve communities of color, the Commerce Department said, and that serve economically vulnerable areas.

All organizations receiving grants have budgets under $1 million, and three-quarters have budgets under $250,000, the Commerce Department said.

About 90% of those receiving grants are led by people of color, the department said.

The grants comprise just a tiny portion of the billions of dollars of coronavirus relief funding that Washington has received from the CARES Act.

A full list of the organizations receiving these grants is available here.

—David Gutman

California announces first confirmed case of virus variant

California on Wednesday announced its first confirmed case of the new and apparently more contagious variant of the coronavirus, the second case documented in the United States in a day.

Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the infection found in Southern California during an online conversation with Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

“I don’t think Californians should think that this is odd. It’s to be expected,” Fauci said.

Newsom did not provide any other details about the person who was infected.

The first person in the U.S. known to be infected with the variant was identified Wednesday as a Colorado National Guardsman who had been sent to help out at a nursing home struggling with an outbreak.

The cases have triggered a host of questions about how the version circulating in England arrived in the U.S. and whether it is too late to stop it now, with top experts saying it is probably already spreading elsewhere in the United States.

Read the full story here.

—The Associated Press

GOP-led Senate rejects vote on Trump’s push for $2K checks

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., walks back to his office on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2020. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell shut the door Wednesday on President Donald Trump’s push for $2,000 COVID-19 relief checks, declaring Congress has provided enough aid as he blocked another attempt by Democrats to force a vote.

The GOP leader made clear he is unwilling to budge, despite political pressure from Trump and even some fellow Republican senators who demanded a vote. Trump wants the recently approved $600 in aid increased threefold.

McConnell’s refusal to act means the additional relief is all but dead.

“We just approved almost a trillion dollars in aid a few days ago,” McConnell said, referring to the year-end package Trump signed into law.

McConnell added, “if specific, struggling households still need more help,” the Senate will consider “smart targeted aid. Not another firehose of borrowed money.”

The showdown between the outgoing president and his own Republican Party over the $2,000 checks has thrown Congress into a chaotic year-end session just days before new lawmakers are set to be sworn into office.

Read the full story here.

—The Associated Press

25 days that changed the world: How COVID-19 slipped China’s grasp

Paramedics transport the first person to test positive for the coronavirus in Hong Kong on Jan. 22, 2020. Chinese scientists and private laboratories had identified the coronavirus and mapped its genes weeks before Beijing acknowledged the severity of the problem. (Lam Yik Fei / The New York Times)

The most famous doctor in China was on an urgent mission.

Celebrated as the hero who helped uncover the severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic, or SARS, 17 years ago, Dr. Zhong Nanshan, now 84, was under orders to rush to Wuhan, a city in central China, and investigate a strange new coronavirus. His assistant photographed the doctor on the night train, eyes closed in thought, an image that would later rocket around China and burnish Zhong’s reputation as the nation’s medic riding to the rescue.

China’s official history now portrays Zhong’s trip as the cinematic turning point in an ultimately triumphant war against COVID-19, when he discovered the virus was spreading dangerously and sped to Beijing to sound the alarm. Four days later, on Jan. 23, China’s leader, Xi Jinping, sealed off Wuhan.

That lockdown was the first decisive step in saving China. But in a pandemic that has since claimed more than 1.7 million lives, it came too late to prevent the virus from spilling into the rest of the world.

The first alarm had actually sounded 25 days earlier, exactly a year ago: last Dec. 30. Even before then, Chinese doctors and scientists had been pushing for answers, yet officials in Wuhan and Beijing concealed the extent of infections or refused to act on warnings.

Politics stymied science, in a tension that would define the pandemic. China’s delayed initial response unleashed the virus on the world and foreshadowed battles between scientists and political leaders over transparency, public health and economics that would play out across continents.

In an article drawing on Chinese government documents, internal sources, interviews, research papers and books, including neglected or censored public accounts, The New York Times examines those 25 days in China that changed the world.

Chinese scientists and private laboratories identified the coronavirus and mapped its genes weeks before Beijing acknowledged the severity of the problem. Scientists were talking to their peers, trying to raise alarms — and in some cases, they did, if at a price.

“We also spoke the truth,” said professor Zhang Yongzhen, a leading virus expert in Shanghai. “But nobody listened to us, and that’s really tragic.”

Read the story here.

—The New York Times

Armed anti-mask protesters cause Republican governor to cancel inauguration

FILE – In this Nov. 3, 2020 file photograph, N.H. Gov. Chris Sununu wears a protective mask, due to the COVID-19 virus outbreak, at a polling station in Windham, N.H. New Hampshire joined three dozen other states, including the rest of New England, in enacting a statewide mask mandate as the coronavirus pandemic intensifies. Sununu issued an executive order requiring masks to be worn in public spaces, indoors or outside, when social distancing isn’t possible, which goes into effect on Thursday Nov. 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)

New Hampshire’s Republican governor said Wednesday that he is canceling his outdoor inauguration ceremony next month because of public safety concerns — namely, armed protesters who have been gathering outside his home in the weeks since he issued a mask order.

Protesters started gathering outside Sununu’s home in Newfields on Nov. 22 over his order, which had taken effect two days earlier, requiring masks to be worn in public spaces, indoors or outside, when social distancing isn’t possible because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

Italy turns to ‘flower power’ to help spread vaccine message

This has been an ugly year for Italy.

The first wave of the coronavirus took the country by surprise and killed tens of thousands. The second wave somehow took the government by surprise and has killed thousands more. And Italians, desperate for the new vaccine, have struggled to get their hands on simple flu shots or to understand if they will have to be home — and stay home — for the holidays.

To brighten things up as Italians await the vaccine, the government has turned to urban planner and architect Stefano Boeri. Best known for making so-called vertical forests out of Milan skyscrapers, Boeri has sought to help his country with architectural flower power — designing 1,500 pavilions with a primrose theme where the vaccine will be distributed.

“The primrose is the first flower after the winter, it’s something even a child knows,” Boeri said in an interview, calling his vision for the building design “a strong message that everyone can understand.”

Italy has run with the proposal. Last Sunday, medical workers received the first vaccinations under posters bearing the country’s official slogan for the program, “With a flower, Italy comes back to life.”

Critics have found the government’s emphasis on Milanese design a little misplaced in a pandemic.

“A clown show,” proclaimed one Italian member of the European Parliament. “Idiots,” offered a prominent commentator. “I don’t want a primrose,” protested a top Italian economist, Carlo Cottarelli. “I want an anti COVID vaccine!”

Read the story here.

—Jason Horowitz, The New York Times

‘Gilligan’s Island’ star Dawn Wells dies, COVID-19 cited

Actor Dawn Wells, who played the wholesome Mary Ann among a misfit band of shipwrecked castaways on the 1960s sitcom “Gilligan’s Island, died Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2020, of causes related to COVID-19, her publicist said. (Matt Sayles / AP, 2008)

Dawn Wells, who played the wholesome Mary Ann among a misfit band of shipwrecked castaways on the 1960s sitcom “Gilligan’s Island,” died Wednesday of causes related to COVID-19, her publicist said.

She was 82.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

Excessive fees for Washington state high-school music trips canceled due to COVID-19 will be refunded

A company that illegally charged Washington students for a COVID-canceled trip to Europe will have to pay nearly a half-million dollars in refunds, according to state Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s office.

In a consent decree filed this week in King County Superior Court, Voyageurs International is legally required to pay $464,000 in refunds after it violated the Sellers of Travel Act and the Consumer Protection Act by charging 235 Washington high-school students at least $1,900 each in cancellation fees, according the complaint against the Colorado-based company by the attorney general’s office.

Voyageurs will pay the full refund to the Attorney General’s Office which will then contact the Washington students and their families directly to set up their full refund.

Questions about this refund may be directed to Khalid Ali in the Consumer Protection Division at Khalid.Ali@atg.wa.gov.

Read the story here.

—Christine Clarridge

Canada to require negative test for people entering country

The Canadian government said Wednesday that passengers must have a negative COVID-19 test taken within three days before they arrive in the country.

Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc said the measure will be implemented in the next few days.

Canada already requires those entering the country to self-isolate for 14 days and it has already banned all flights from the United Kingdom because of the new variant of COVID-19 spreading there.

The decision came a day after the premier of Canada’s largest province said he had ordered his finance minister to end a Caribbean vacation, saying he is “extremely disappointed” the official went abroad at a time the government is urging people to avoid nonessential travel because of the pandemic.

Ontario Finance Minister Rod Phillips went to the French island of St. Barts for the holidays, a popular vacation spot for the rich and famous.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

On the COVID-19 beat: Rule enforcers seek cooperation but come ready to fine scofflaws

It looked like a scene from before: Sunday brunchers sipped bottomless mimosas in downtown dining rooms and on bustling patios. The uniform on this balmy December morning was upscale casual — and very few masks.

Standing out from the crowd were three men in khaki pants and polos, with county logos on their chests, masks on their faces and purpose in their strides. At bar after bar, restaurant after restaurant, they peeked inside to check for maskless patrons. Those eating and drinking would be ignored, but if anybody was standing at the bar or walking around without a mask, the restaurant could be cited and fined as much as $15,000 for violating measures designed to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus.

On the front lines of this patchwork policing effort in Palm Beach County, Fla. are the 25 members of the “Covid Education and Compliance Team,” some of whom were borrowed for this unprecedented job from other county agencies. Their job involves patrolling restaurants to enforce a county mask mandate adopted in June after a raucous public hearing where one anti-mask activist called it “the devil’s law.”

By early December, the team had issued 157 written warnings and 86 violations and ordered the temporary closure of 27 businesses.

Read the story here.

—The Washington Post

1st reported US case of virus variant is a Colorado Guardsman

 The first person in the U.S. known to be infected with a new and apparently more contagious variant of the coronavirus was identified Wednesday as a Colorado National Guardsman who had been sent to help out at a nursing home struggling with an outbreak. And health officials said a second Guard member may have it, too.

The cases have triggered a host of questions about how the mutant version circulating in England arrived in the U.S. and whether it is too late to stop it now, with top experts saying it is probably already spreading elsewhere in the country. The discovery has also added urgency to the nation’s vaccination drive.

The two Guard members were among six dispatched on Dec. 23 to work at the Good Samaritan Society nursing home in the small town of Simla, in a mostly rural area about 90 miles outside Denver, said Dr. Rachel Herlihy, state epidemiologist.

The confirmed case is in a Colorado man in his 20s who hadn’t been traveling, officials said. He has mild symptoms and is isolating at his home near Denver, while the person with the suspected case is isolating at a Colorado hotel, Herlihy said.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

Inslee extends indoor dining ban, gym closures by one week

Gov. Jay Inslee extended the statewide ban on indoor dining and the closure of gyms and fitness centers for one week on Wednesday, pushing the restrictions back to at least Jan. 11.

Gyms, theaters and indoor dining at restaurants and bars has been closed throughout Washington state for the last six weeks, since Inslee tightened statewide coronavirus restrictions in the wake of rising case numbers.

Originally scheduled to expire in mid-December, the regulations have been repeatedly extended.

"Our consistent mission has been keeping Washingtonians safe and ensuring health care system and hospital capacity," Inslee said in a prepared statement Wednesday. "We understand the profound impact COVID is having on our healthcare system, families and businesses, but I am heartened by the number of Washingtonians who continue to do the right thing. If we continue distancing from others, wearing facial coverings and avoiding social gatherings, we will make it to the other side of this pandemic together.”

The restrictions require restaurants and bars to shut down indoor service and to limit outdoor service to parties of five or fewer. Indoor gyms and fitness centers must also shut down. Same with movie theaters, bowling alleys and museums. Indoor gatherings with people outside your household are prohibited unless participants have quarantined for at least a week and tested negative for the virus.

Read the story here.

—David Gutman

Common questions answered as scientists try to understand new virus variant

Does it spread more easily? Make people sicker? Mean that treatments and vaccines won’t work? Questions are multiplying as fast as new variants of the coronavirus, especially the one moving through England and now popping up in the U.S. and other countries.

Scientists say there is reason for concern and more to learn but that the new variants should not cause alarm.

Worry has been growing since before Christmas, when Britain’s prime minister said the coronavirus variant seemed to spread more easily than earlier ones and was moving rapidly through England. On Tuesday, Colorado health officials said they had found it there.

Read more about the new variant, where it came from and what the mutation means for treatment here.

—The Associated Press

Hospitals serving poor, nonwhite L.A. hit hardest by COVID-19

As the pandemic besieges the region’s hospitals, its destructive sweep is being dispensed in unequal measures.

While all hospitals across Los Angeles County are being slammed by waves of COVID-19 patients, those in lower-income, densely populated and nonwhite communities have been hit hardest and face the greatest challenge in providing care, according to a Times data analysis.

The data underscores how communities of color have been disproportionately hit by the pandemic, with Latino and Black residents far more likely to get the virus and die of it compared with whites. Low-income essential workers often get sick while on the job and then spread COVID-19 to family, officials have said.

The data released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services shows that more than 6,000 patients with the coronavirus were hospitalized in L.A. County on average last week, nearly four times as many as a month ago, pushing the share of all admitted patients with the disease above 40%.

But it is much worse at some hospitals than others.

Read the story here.

—Matt Stiles, Los Angeles Times

A baritone finds a safe way choirs can sing together again: over car radios

Baritone-for-hire David Newman was looking forward to a year of singing gigs.

Then, in March, the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, two members of a choir in Washington state died, and dozens more fell ill after their two-hour practice became a super-spreader event.

Concerts were quickly wiped from calendars around the world.

“The piercing irony of having to cancel is that the joy this music brings is what we now as a culture need more than ever,” said an email Newman received from Wisconsin’s Madison Bach Musicians.

Singing had been the centerpiece of his life. It got him through high school and into Westminster Choir College, a music school in New Jersey, where he majored in vocal performance.

When he wasn’t singing professionally, he taught voice as an adjunct professor at James Madison University near his home in Virginia.

Now singing could kill.

Read the story here.

—Richard Read, Los Angeles Times

Chinese drugmaker: Vaccine 79.3% effective in final tests

A Chinese drugmaker said Wednesday its coronavirus vaccine was found to be 79.3% effective at preventing infection in preliminary data from the final round of testing, moving Beijing closer to possibly being able to fulfill its pledge to supply other developing countries.

The announcement by a unit of state-owned Sinopharm gave the first official data from a Chinese vaccine’s late-stage trial. Its reported effectiveness rate is behind Pfizer Inc.’s vaccine at 95% and Moderna Inc.’s at 94%.

Sinopharm is one of at least five Chinese developers that are in a global race to create vaccines for the disease that has killed more than 1.7 million people.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

Virus surge swamping hospitals prompts indefinite lockdown in California

California’s most densely populated area continues to set new death and hospitalization records and will remain under strict stay-home orders for the foreseeable future as another hospital-filling coronavirus surge looms in mere weeks, public health officials said.

Los Angeles County, which has recorded 40% of all COVID-19 deaths in the state, reported another 227 new deaths on Tuesday, although the new daily record included reporting from holiday backlogs. The county’s public health department also confirmed its highest number of hospitalizations reported in a day, at more than 7,000 people, a nearly 1,000% increase from two months ago.

California’s top health official, Dr. Mark Ghaly, announced Tuesday an indefinite extension of the Dec. 6 lockdown restrictions for the county and 22 others in Southern California and the agricultural San Joaquin Valley.

The regions have about 60% of the state’s population of 40 million and also have seen COVID-19 surges since the Thanksgiving holiday that have left hospitals struggling to find beds for emergency room and intensive care unit patients.

State officials notified hospitals late Monday they should prepare for the possibility that they will have to resort to “crisis care” guidelines established earlier in the pandemic, which allow for rationing treatment when staff, medicine and supplies are running short.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

COVID-19 ‘superspreader’ event feared in L.A. as Christian singer defies health order for concerts

A conservative evangelical Christian singer with a history of defying COVID-19 health mandates plans three days of New Year’s gatherings in the Los Angeles area, including stops on skid row and at a tent city in Echo Park, raising fears that the events will be viral “super-spreaders.”

Some activists plan a car blockade to stop Sean Feucht — a Redding, Calif., volunteer pastor and failed Republican congressional candidate — and his followers from staging what is billed as a “massive outreach” Wednesday evening on skid row, at the height of Los Angeles County’s pandemic crisis.

Feucht began hosting “Let Us Worship” open-air concerts nationwide to push back against government restrictions on religious gatherings, then broadened his focus to cities that erupted in protest after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

He was in Seattle in September where he staged a Let Us Worship protest near Gas Works Park and at Cal Anderson Park the month before.

The City of Seattle closed Gas Works Park before the Let Us Worship event in September, 2020, so participants took to the street instead. Worship leader Sean Feucht says critics of his events and of Christian gatherings don’t raise the same issues with other protests and events. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

Feucht’s events have featured hundreds of maskless worshipers tightly packed together and singing and dancing.

Read the story here.

—Gale Holland, Los Angeles Times

Amid virus fears, China urges workers to skip holiday travel

People wearing face masks to protect against the spread of the coronavirus walk along a street during the morning rush hour in Beijing, Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2020. Beijing has urged residents not to leave the city during the Lunar New Year holiday in February, implementing new restrictions and mass testings after several coronavirus infections last week. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

China is encouraging tens of millions of migrant workers not to travel home during next February’s Lunar New Year holiday to prevent further spread of the coronavirus, disrupting its most important time for family gatherings.

The measure from the National Health Commission is not a direct travel ban but is still extraordinary because the traditional holiday is the only time of the year when many workers have the opportunity to travel home to see their families.

China has all but eradicated local transmission of the coronavirus, but authorities remain on high alert over a possible resurgence.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

Germany set for longer lockdown as death figures spike

German officials made clear Wednesday that they won’t be able to relax lockdown restrictions in early January as the country recorded more than 1,000 deaths in one day for the first time.

Germany, the European Union’s most populous country, shut restaurants, bars, sports and leisure facilities on Nov. 2. That partial shutdown halted a fast increase in new infections for a while but failed to bring them down, prompting authorities to impose a fuller lockdown from Dec. 16.

Those measures run through Jan. 10. Chancellor Angela Merkel and the governors of Germany’s 16 states will consult Tuesday on how to proceed.

“We have to lament 1,129 deaths this morning alone — 1,129 families will be in mourning this new year,” Health Minister Jens Spahn said at a news conference. "... I don’t see how we can return to the pre-lockdown mode.”

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

Tri-Cities bar says state pulled its liquor license for defying COVID-19 rules

A Kennewick bar says the state of Washington has pulled its liquor license for violating state COVID pandemic restrictions.

And a second Tri-Cities restaurant that also had continued serving customers indoors posted Tuesday night that it was closing indefinitely starting Wednesday.

Koko’s Bartini in Kennewick posted a photo on its Facebook page of a complaint from the Washington state Liquor and Cannabis Board saying Koko’s was serving indoors on Dec. 22, posing a threat to public safety and in violation of Gov. Jay Inslee’s restrictions on indoor service.

A Richland restaurant, Kimo’s Sports Bar and Brew Pub, had also vowed to keep serving indoors following a state warning but a sign posted on Facebook on Tuesday night said, without further explanation, it was closing “until further notice.”

Read the story here.

—Tri-City Herald (Kennewick, Wash.)

China clamps down in hidden hunt for coronavirus origins

MOJIANG, China — Deep in the lush mountain valleys of southern China lies the entrance to a mine shaft that once harbored bats with the closest known relative of the COVID-19 virus.

The area is of intense scientific interest because it may hold clues to the origins of the coronavirus that has killed more than 1.7 million people worldwide. Yet for scientists and journalists, it has become a black hole of no information because of political sensitivity and secrecy.

A bat research team visiting recently managed to take samples but had them confiscated, two people familiar with the matter said. Specialists in coronaviruses have been ordered not to speak to the press. And a team of Associated Press journalists was tailed by plainclothes police in multiple cars who blocked access to roads and sites in late November.

More than a year since the first known person was infected with the coronavirus, an AP investigation shows the Chinese government is strictly controlling all research into its origins, clamping down on some while actively promoting fringe theories that it could have come from outside China.

The government is handing out hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants to scientists researching the virus’ origins in southern China and affiliated with the military, the AP has found. But it is monitoring their findings and mandating that the publication of any data or research must be approved by a new task force managed by China’s cabinet, under direct orders from President Xi Jinping, according to internal documents obtained by The AP. A rare leak from within the government, the dozens of pages of unpublished documents confirm what many have long suspected: The clampdown comes from the top.

Click here to read the full investigation.

—The Associated Press

Catch up on the past 24 hours

A new coronavirus variant that showed up in Colorado after making headlines in the U.K. may have been spreading in Washington state for some time already, experts suspect. A Fred Hutch scientist who tracks it is talking about what he thinks will happen — and whether we need to change our behavior. The Colorado man who came down with the variant hadn't been traveling, which triggers plenty of questions about how it's spreading.

The first doses of a low-cost, easier-to-handle vaccine are shipping today after Britain became the first country to authorize AstraZeneca's shots. 

COVID-19 cases are spiking at the Red Lion Hotel in Renton, which is housing more than 200 homeless people in an effort to keep the virus from spreading in crowded shelters. And King County's overall homeless population is seeing more cases than ever.

The pandemic's economic pain may take years to heal here. As its staggering blow deepens the divides among Washingtonians, take an area-by-area look at where job losses are hitting hardest around the Puget Sound area. "COVID will frame everything" as Washington and other states face showdowns over pandemic powers and spending.

Pandemic isolation is brutal for schools and children, so why not do the exact opposite? Columnist Danny Westneat explores the best idea he's heard so far for how to spend COVID relief money. 

He was supposed to join Congress this Sunday. Instead, Louisiana's Luke Letlow, 41, has become the highest-ranking U.S. politician to die of COVID-19.

Chris Long, 54, used to bike 30 miles three times a week. Then he was hospitalized for COVID-19. Then hospitalized again, and again. Long, who fears "this will never go away," is one of many coronavirus patients locked in a distressing cycle of repeat hospitalizations.

When a critical-care nurse's family got sick with COVID-19, he didn't feel good about the treatment options. So he built his own ICU at home.

—Kris Higginson

How is the pandemic affecting you?

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