Editor’s note: This is a live account of COVID-19 updates from Thursday, Dec. 31, 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 It is no longer being updated.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.
As experts discuss a new coronavirus variant that showed up in the United States after making headlines in the U.K. — and that may have already been spreading in Washington state — scientists are offering answers on what we should and shouldn’t expect. Here’s what we know so far.
In Washington, Gov. Jay Inslee on Wednesday extended the statewide ban on indoor dining and the closure of gyms and fitness centers for a week, pushing the restrictions back to at least Jan. 11.
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.
Brazil scrambles to approve virus vaccine as pressure mounts
RIO DE JANEIRO — Brazil, a nation proud of its role as a regional leader in science, technology and medicine, finds itself falling behind its neighbors in the global race for immunization against a pandemic that has already killed nearly 200,000 of its people.
Latin America’s largest nation, long heralded for its domestic vaccine development programs, appears to be at least three or four weeks away from launching any formal immunization campaign against COVID-19. In contrast, Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Costa Rica and other countries in the region have already begun giving shots to their populations.
The Brazilian government has not approved a single vaccine and has stumbled in attempts to acquire even syringes and needles for an immunization effort that, as of the new year, still had no definite rollout date.
Meanwhile, the number of new coronavirus infections in the country reached a new high in December — peaking with more than 70,000 cases on Dec. 16.
The lightning rod in Brazil’s vaccine debate is President Jair Bolsonaro, who has cast skepticism on all of the vaccines being developed even as his government negotiates to obtain them. He has said he doesn’t plan to get a shot himself and joked at one point that side effects might turn people into crocodiles or bearded ladies.
Shutdown, impeachment, virus: Chaotic Congress winds down
WASHINGTON — Congress is ending a chaotic session, a two-year political firestorm that started with the longest federal government shutdown in U.S. history, was riven by impeachment and a pandemic, and now closes with a rare rebuff by Republicans of President Donald Trump.
In the few days remaining, GOP senators are ignoring Trump’s demand to increase COVID-19 aid checks to $2,000 and are poised to override his veto of a major defense bill, asserting traditional Republican spending and security priorities in defiance of a president who has marched the party in a different direction.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a top Trump ally, tried to bridge the divide Thursday, saying Congress could try again to approve Trump’s push for bigger COVID aid checks in the new session, which opens Sunday.
As the Senate grinds through the New Year’s holiday, the one-two rebuke of Trump’s demands punctuates the president’s final days and deepens the divide between the Republican Party’s new wing of Trump-styled populists and what had been mainstay conservative views.
The stalemate is expected to drag into the weekend.
Two Chinese airports requiring virus test results
BEIJING — Two major airports in northeastern China are requiring departing passengers show a negative coronavirus test taken over the previous 72 hours before they can board their p
The requirements by the Shenyang and Dalian airports come amid a small but persistent growth in cases in the two cities located in Liaoning province just north of the capital Beijing.
Four new cases were announced Friday in Liaoning, along with another five cases in Beijing, where emergency testing was ordered for more than a million people following the detection of a small cluster in the northeastern suburbs.
Wary of another wave of infections, China is urging tens of millions of migrant workers to stay put during next month’s annual Lunar New Year holiday, usually the world’s largest annual human migration. Classes are also being dismissed a week earlier than usual and tourists are being told not to come to Beijing for holidays.
Evidence of UK virus strain found in Florida man
MIAMI — Florida health authorities late Thursday reported finding evidence of the latest U.S. case of the new and apparently more contagious coronavirus strain first seen in England, saying it was detected in a man with no recent travel history.
The case, disclosed in a Florida Health Department statement tweeted on its HealthyFla site, comes after reports in recent days of two individual cases of the United Kingdom strain of Covid-19 discovered in Colorado and California.
Florida’s health statement said the new virus variant was detected in a man in his 20s in Martin County, which abuts the Atlantic Coast above densely populated South Florida. It said its experts were working with the Atlanta-based federal Centers for Disease Control on investigating the case.
The health department did not give further details, such as releasing the man’s medical condition or how the strain was detected.
Trump returns to White House early, offers year-end message
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump delivered a year-end video message Thursday after returning early from vacation, highlighting his administration’s work to rapidly develop a vaccine against COVID-19 and rebuild the economy.
As the end of his presidency neared, Trump cut short his stay at his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida and got back to the White House a day ahead of schedule.
Upon his return, Trump released a video message over Twitter to underscore his administration’s work on the vaccine, economic stimulus checks and America’s “grit, strength and tenacity” in the face of challenges.
He called the vaccine, which is rolling out nationwide, a “truly unprecedented medical miracle” and said it would be available to every American early this coming year. “We have to be remembered for what’s been done,” Trump said in the nearly five-minute message.
The White House didn’t give a reason for Trump’s early return, and the schedule change means Trump will miss the glitzy New Year’s Eve party held annually at his Palm Beach club.
Pandemic polar bear plunges await you, outdoors or in, as Seattle area starts 2021
Sure, it’s probably going to be dark and rainy and completely soaking on Friday, but if there was ever a year to try a polar bear plunge, this might be it.
Though many of the places that have in the past organized the plunges that saw people immerse themselves in icy water on Jan. 1 are not officially hosting this year, there are still plenty of places to get cold and wet.
Seattle Parks and Recreation, which has seen several thousand participants at Matthews Beach in previous years, said its event this year will be virtual but will be “amazing and fun.”
Although it’s too late to register for the city’s DIY plunge kit, the department invites people to get their “plunge on” by filling their bathtubs with cold water, using their garden hoses or even taking an icy shower as a safe alternative to larger bodies of water.
Are you eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine? Washington state to launch tool, rely on honor system
Washington state will rely on an honor system to determine eligibility for COVID-19 vaccinations, so those administering vaccines do not have to police who qualifies.
The state plans to launch an online questionnaire — called PhaseFinder — soon where people can determine their own eligibility for vaccination.
When more vaccination sites are available, members of the public could present screenshots of their questionnaire results at vaccination sites, said Mary Huynh, a deputy director at the state Department of Health. The state also plans to provide a template letter for employers to vouch for workers’ eligibility.
As Washington seeks to speed its vaccine rollout, these tools could be efficient means to clarify who is eligible for vaccination, but they’re reliant on Washington residents to faithfully represent themselves. And efficiency comes at a cost — health officials acknowledge people will likely take advantage of the system and attempt to jump their spot in the priority line.
“It’s all self-reported. It’s all trust-based,” Huynh told the committee. “We really wanted to relieve the burden of the vaccination site to have to assess phase eligibility. It’s just awkward conversation …”
WA Notify app is working to alert users of coronavirus exposures, but no data on how well
About 1.6 million people, more than one-quarter of Washington’s adult population, have activated or downloaded the WA Notify smartphone app that aims to let people know if they may have been exposed to the coronavirus, the state Department of Health (DOH) said this week.
The app is active and is sending notifications to people who may have been exposed, but the state does not have reliable data on how many times the app has been used to alert people or on how many people have been alerted.
Part of that is by design — privacy protections built into the app limit how much information public health officials get — but part of it is because the data the state does have is messy and filled with possible double-counts or inaccuracies, health officials said.
The state Department of Health knows how many codes have been sent out to people who tested positive, and they know how many of those codes were then entered into users’ apps. But, the department said, the data they have is not useful.
Stock market ends 2020 in record territory, even as virus surges and millions go hungry
The U.S. stock market ended 2020 at all-time highs, enriching the wealthy and capping a soaring comeback despite a deadly pandemic that has killed more than 340,000 Americans and left millions jobless and hungry.
The S&P 500 index, the most widely watched gauge, finished the year up more than 16%. The Dow Jones Industrial Average and the tech-heavy Nasdaq gained 7.25% and 43.6%, respectively. The Dow and S&P 500 finished at record levels despite the ongoing public health and economic crises.
Wall Street’s resurgence has been fueled by the largest federal government stimulus ever, historic support from the Federal Reserve and optimism about how quickly the economy is likely to bounce back next year as coronavirus vaccines become widely distributed. Investors have largely ignored the ongoing pain on Main Street, including pronounced unemployment, overrun hospitals and battered small businesses. On the eve of the new year, nearly 10 million people remain out of work, a jobs crisis worse than anything seen during the Great Recession.
Michael Farr, president of Farr, Miller & Washington, a money management firm based in Washington, D.C., said that “2020 has been stunning,” adding: “That a pandemic-induced economic shutdown of epic proportion has been digested with stocks ending the year 15% higher is mind-blowing.”
Browns lose CB Ward for Steelers game after positive test
CLEVELAND — The Browns ended 2020 without practicing for their first game in 2021. COVID-19 has Cleveland’s playoff hopes in peril.
Issues with the virus intensified Thursday for the Browns as top cornerback Denzel Ward and linebacker Malcolm Smith tested positive and were ruled out for Sunday’s game. The team also canceled practice as it prepares to face the Pittsburgh Steelers — with a playoff spot up for grabs.
The latest positive tests forced the Browns to initially close their facility to do close contact tracing. However, after consulting with the NFL, the team decided to call off practice days before it biggest game in years for “the health and well-being of our players, coaches and staff.”
Despite the new cases, Sunday’s game at Cleveland’s FirstEnergy Stadium remains on schedule, according to an NFL spokesman. The league is closely monitoring the Browns’ situation and overseeing standard contact tracing.
The Browns aren’t the only team wrestling the virus in the last week of the regular season.
Gov. warns businesses not to reopen, defy COVID-19 orders
SALEM, Ore. — Gov. Kate Brown issued a warning to Oregon businesses Thursday that defy her executive orders meant to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. The warning comes as some business owners say they plan to reopen Jan. 1.
Brown said she has directed Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Oregon Liquor Control Commission to deploy all available resources to ensure businesses are in compliance. Businesses could face fines or closure notices.
Some Oregon mayors are also appealing to the governor to change how she categorizes counties by risk and backing the plans of business owners to reopen, KATU-TV reported.
“It’s unfortunate and irresponsible that some local politicians are choosing to willfully mislead business owners into jeopardizing public health and risking fines, instead of working with their communities to help stop the spread of COVID-19 so that we can reopen businesses, schools, and more quickly return to normal life,” Brown said.
Washington state reports 4,425 new coronavirus cases
The state Department of Health (DOH) reported 4,425 new coronavirus cases and 41 new deaths Thursday.
The new cases may include up to 750 duplicates, according to DOH.
The update brings the state's totals to 246,752 cases and 3,461 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, 14,748 people have been hospitalized in the state due to the virus — 177 new hospitalizations. In King County, the state's most populous, state health officials have counted a total of 62,580 COVID-19 diagnoses and 1,050 deaths.
On Dec. 16, DOH’s case, hospitalization and death counts started including 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 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.
California hospitals at ‘brink of catastrophe’; 25,000 dead
LOS ANGELES (AP) — California surpassed 25,000 coronavirus deaths since the start of the pandemic, reporting the grim milestone Thursday as an ongoing surge swamps hospitals and pushes nurses and doctors to the breaking point as they brace for another likely increase after the holidays.
“We’re exhausted and it’s the calm before the storm,” said Jahmaal Willis, an emergency room nurse at Providence St. Mary Medical Center in Apple Valley. “It’s like we’re fighting a war, a never-ending war, and we’re running out of ammo. We have to get it together before the next fight.”
Public health officials continued to plead with residents just hours before the start of 2021 not to gather for New Year’s Eve celebrations.
Positive-test rates in King County soared earlier this month; hospitalizations, deaths were up
King County’s positive-test rate for the novel coronavirus continued to climb in early December, while the number of hospitalizations and deaths surged.
From Nov. 28 to Dec. 12, , the most recent and accurate data available, roughly 55,300 county residents were tested for COVID-19, and more than 9,800 had a positive result. That pencils out to a positive-test rate of 17.8%, which is more than three percentage points higher than when I last reported on these numbers, using data from mid-November. The rate was 14.5% then.
Needless to say, we are currently nowhere near the state’s goal, which is a rate of 2% positive tests over a two-week period. A higher positivity rate is one sign that transmission of the virus is accelerating. It also means that it’s more likely you’ll encounter someone who is infected with the virus if you go out in your neighborhood.
Perhaps more alarming is the increase in hospitalizations and deaths due to COVID-19. In the new data, a total of 443 people were hospitalized in the county, up from 351 in the Nov. 7 through 21 period. And sadly, deaths more than tripled from that time, increasing from 30 to 102 in the new two-week data.
Increased testing needed as Africa sees rise in virus cases
As a result of holiday gatherings, African officials warn of a resurgence of COVID-19 on the continent and urge increased testing to combat it.
The level of testing across the continent is considerably less than what health experts say is needed to effectively control the spread of the disease.
Looking at the tests carried out per 1,000 people, African countries are on the low end ranging from 0 to the highest in Morocco at 119 tests per 1,000 people, according to the data.
Sen. Perdue quarantines for virus exposure before GA runoff
Republican Sen. David Perdue was forced into quarantine Thursday in the home stretch of Georgia’s high-stakes Senate runoffs, disclosing just five days before the election that he had been exposed to a campaign worker infected with the coronavirus.
Perdue’s campaign did not say how long he plans to stay in quarantine, but guidelines of the federal Centers for Disease Control say those exposed to the virus can resume normal activities after seven days if they have a negative test result.
It’s bad timing for Perdue and fellow Republicans heading into critical runoffs that will determine control of the Senate. Following the CDC’s guidance would keep Perdue in isolation for the remainder of the campaign, including a planned Georgia rally Monday with President Donald Trump.
New Year’s revelries muted by virus as curtain draws on 2020
This New Year’s Eve is being celebrated like no other in most of the world, with pandemic restrictions limiting crowds and many bidding farewell to a year they’d prefer to forget.
As the clock struck midnight across Asia and the South Pacific, the New Year’s experience mirrored countries’ responses to the virus itself. Some canceled or scaled back festivities, while others without active outbreaks were able to carry on like any other year.
Australia was among the first 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. This time, most watched on television.
Famous night spots were eerily deserted.
In South Korea, Seoul’s city government canceled its annual New Year’s Eve bell-ringing ceremony for the first time since the event was first held in 1953, months after the end of the Korean War.
Cities and countries that have managed to control the virus got to celebrate. New Zealand, which is two hours ahead of Sydney, and several of its South Pacific island neighbors that also have no active COVID-19 cases held their usual New Year’s activities.
Xi hails China’s economic growth despite pandemic setback
China has made major progress in developing its economy and eradicating rural poverty over the past year despite the coronavirus pandemic, Chinese President Xi Jinping said in a New Year address Thursday.
China was the first major economy to register positive economic growth in 2020, with its gross domestic product expected to exceed 100 trillion yuan (almost $14 trillion) for the year, Xi said on nationwide television, speaking from behind his desk in his wood-paneled office.
The International Monetary Fund forecast in October that China, the world’s second-largest economy, would grow 1.9% in 2020, a sharp slowdown from its 6.1% gain in 2019, and then expand 8.2% in 2021.
That compares with an IMF forecast for a global economic contraction of 4.4% for 2020, the worst plunge since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Nearly 150 employees at a Costco near Yakima test positive for COVID-19, but the store remains open
So far, 145 workers have tested positive for COVID-19 at a Costco store near Yakima, but the store remains open while the Yakima Health District investigates.
Infected workers at the Union Gap Costco are in quarantine, the store is conducting sitewide testing and more cases are expected to be reported, the health district said in a Tuesday news release.
The health district said it will continue to monitor the outbreak that is believed to have started before Christmas, when 68 workers tested positive for the virus.
Health district officials said evidence indicates the Costco outbreak resulted from a “super-spreader event,” in which multiple people were infected at the same time.
Costco has not responded to requests for comment.
Freshman Miami congresswoman-elect to miss D.C. swearing-in ceremony due to COVID-19
Miami Congresswoman-elect María Elvira Salazar will be unable to attend a Sunday ceremony in Washington to swear in members of the new Congress after learning she has COVID-19 during an emergency trip to the hospital, her office announced Thursday morning.
Salazar, a Republican who last month defeated Democratic U.S. Rep. Donna Shalala in perhaps the most surprising congressional upset in the country, learned she had contracted the coronavirus overnight after she was admitted to Doctors Hospital with a heart arrhythmia, according to a news release issued Thursday.
Salazar was treated and released, according to her office. Salazar says she will quarantine for at least 14 days, forcing her to miss a Jan. 3 ceremony in Washington to swear-in members of the 117th Congress.
COVID-19 dominates annual list of banished words, terms
Even as vaccines are being rolled out to battle the coronavirus, wordsmiths at Lake Superior State University in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula say they want to kick any trace of it from the English language.
“COVID-19” and “social distancing” are thrown in with “we’re all in this together,” “in an abundance of caution” and “in these uncertain times” on the school’s light-hearted list of banned words and phrases for 2021.
Out of more than 1,450 nominations sent to the school, about 250 words and terms suggested for banishment due to overuse, misuse or uselessness had something to do with the virus.
Seven of the 10 ultimately selected are connected to the virus, with “COVID-19” leading the way. “Unprecedented,” which was banished back in 2002, has been restored to the list.
“To be sure, COVID-19 is unprecedented in wreaking havoc and destroying lives,” Banished Words List committee members said Thursday in a release. “But so is the overreliance on ‘unprecedented’ to frame things, so it has to go, too.”
U.S. breaks daily COVID death toll for second day in a row
The United States reported a record high daily COVID-19 death toll Wednesday, topping the peak reached just a day earlier.
More than 3,740 peopled died of coronavirus Wednesday, up from 3,725 Tuesday, according to Johns Hopkins University’s tracker.
Health experts believe much of the uptick in the spread is linked to the holidays, when people seemingly gave up on safety measures to celebrate with their families.
Race to vaccinate millions in US off to slow, messy start
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Terry Beth Hadler was so eager to get a lifesaving COVID-19 vaccination that the 69-year-old piano teacher stood in line overnight in a parking lot with hundreds of other senior citizens.
She wouldn’t do it again.
Hadler said that she waited 14 hours and that a brawl nearly erupted before dawn on Tuesday when people cut in line outside the library in Bonita Springs, Florida, where officials were offering shots on a first-come, first-served basis to those 65 or older.
“I’m afraid that the event was a super-spreader,” she said. “I was petrified.”
The race to vaccinate millions of Americans is off to a slower, messier start than public health officials and leaders of the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed had expected.
One COVID treatment aims to keep people out of hospitals but overburdened hospitals aren't giving it
Medical centers in the United States are balking at providing the only treatment for COVID-19 that aims to keep people out of the hospital, leaving hundreds of thousands of doses of the medication unused.
Monoclonal antibodies — described as “unbelievable” by President Donald Trump, who received the treatment this fall — are designed for patients newly diagnosed with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, who have a high risk of developing complications and becoming seriously ill.
But for hospitals already strained by a surge of COVID-19 cases, the outpatient pharmaceutical treatment presents a major logistical challenge as exhausted staff scramble to care for patients and race to inoculate front-line workers with the first coronavirus vaccines.
As of Wednesday, the federal government had allocated 550,000 doses to states and territorial health departments, which had distributed 378,000 doses to health-care facilities, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. But only 20 percent of the supply had been used, HHS said.
Fresh warnings about virus after death of Luke Letlow, congressman-elect
The COVID-19 death of Louisiana Rep.-elect Luke Letlow --- who commended President Trump’s handling of the pandemic and expressed skepticism about mask mandates -- has been met with shock and grief from fellow lawmakers, offering another stark example of the lethality of a pandemic that has killed more than 340,000 Americans.
Letlow, 41, died Tuesday at a hospital in Shreveport, La., succumbing to the virus just days before he was to be sworn in Sunday after winning a runoff vote this month for Louisiana’s 5th Congressional District.
Letlow, whose office announced that he had tested positive on Dec. 18, is the highest-ranking U.S. politician to die of the coronavirus despite treatment with Remdesivir and steroids.
Doctors said Letlow had no apparent underlying health conditions that contributed to his death. He is survived by his wife, Julia, and two young children.
Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., a doctor who tested positive this year and has since recovered, was more pointed in flagging the dangers of the virus.
“It just, just, just, just brings home COVID can kill,” Cassidy said. “For most folks it doesn’t, but it truly can. So, as you remember Luke, his widow, his children, in your prayers, remember as well to be careful with COVID.”
Los Angeles County records its 10,000th COVID-19 death
Los Angeles County on Wednesday tallied its 10,000th COVID-19 death, “a terrible milestone,” said Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer.
L.A. County on Wednesday broke the single-day record for COVID-19 deaths for the second day in a row — 262 deaths, breaking the record from Tuesday, when 242 deaths were reported. The records were influenced in part by a backlog of deaths from the Christmas holiday weekend.
L.A. County is now averaging about 129 COVID-19 deaths a day over the past week, a figure that has never been higher. The county is also averaging about 13,000 new coronavirus cases a day — a bit better than the high in mid-December of 14,800 but still 10 times as bad as the situation on Nov. 1, when it was tallying about 1,300 cases a day.
EU reviews BioNTech request for ‘extra dose’ of virus shot
The European Union medicines watchdog said Thursday that German company BioNTech has applied for clearance in the 27-nation bloc to administer up to six doses of its COVID-19 vaccine from each vial, instead of the five doses currently approved.
In an email to The Associated Press, the European Medicines Agency said that BioNTech, which developed its vaccine together with U.S. drugmaker Pfizer, has “submitted a request for change” which will be reviewed by the agency’s human medicines committee “in the shortest possible timeframe.”
BioNTech intentionally fills the vials with more vaccine than necessary to ensure that even inexperienced doctors can get at least five doses out of them and regulators in the United States, Switzerland and the U.K. already allow up to six doses of 0.3 milliliters each to be drawn from vials.
Catch up on the past 24 hours
• The fight over what you can and can't do: Washingtonians won't be able to eat indoors or hit the gym anytime soon, after Gov. Jay Inslee extended his ban yet again. But indoor climbing gyms, facing financial ruin, are pushing Inslee to take their reopening proposal seriously. And in the Tri-Cities, one bar is refusing to close in a showdown with the state. Here's a full look at what's allowed now, and what isn't.
• Only a fraction of Washington state's 350,000-plus vaccine doses have been used, and the state is expanding its definition of who qualifies for the first tier. As states struggle with bumpy vaccine rollouts, one Wisconsin hospital says a worker intentionally ruined hundreds of doses.
• A highly contagious variant of the virus has popped up in California. How widely has it spread? The answer may color virtually every aspect of the U.S. pandemic response, from lockdowns to school closures and more.
• Busted: A Canadian province's finance minister was filmed thanking residents of his province for staying home — as he was enjoying a Caribbean vacation. Now he's been ordered back home for a "very tough conversation" with Canada's premier.
• Sometime in 2021, many Americans will return to workplaces and schools. Left behind: their pets, many of whom have been living fabulous lives. An animal behavior specialist outlines how to prepare them for post-pandemic life.
How is the pandemic affecting you?What has changed about your daily life? What kinds of discussions are you having with family members and friends? Are you a health care worker who's on the front lines of the response? Are you a COVID-19 patient or do you know one? Whoever you are, we want to hear from you so our news coverage is as complete, accurate and useful as possible. If you're using a mobile device and can't see the form on this page, click here.
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