Editor’s note: This is a live account of COVID-19 updates from Wednesday, February 16, 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 It is no longer being updated.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 Biden administration told Congress it will need $30 billion more to respond to COVID-19: $17.9 billion to purchase vaccines and treatments, around $4.9 billion for testing, $3 billion for people without health insurance and $3.7 billion to prepare for future variants.

While several scientists are focused on creating vaccines to target the latest variant, other scientists expressed that it would be more viable to focus on developing a universal COVID-19 vaccine that could target existing and new variants.

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 the rest of our coronavirus coverage and here to see how we track the daily spread across Washington.

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COVID patients may have increased risk of developing mental health problems

Social isolation, economic stress, loss of loved ones and other struggles during the pandemic have contributed to rising mental health issues like anxiety and depression.

But can having COVID-19 increase the risk of developing mental health problems? A large new study suggests it can.

The study, published Wednesday in the journal The BMJ, analyzed records of nearly 154,000 COVID patients in the Veterans Health Administration system and compared their experience in the year after they recovered from their initial infection with that of a similar group of people who did not contract the virus.

The study included only patients who had no mental health diagnoses or treatment for at least two years before becoming infected with the coronavirus, allowing researchers to focus on psychiatric diagnoses and treatment that occurred after coronavirus infection.

Read the full story here.

—Pam Belluck, The New York Times
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Florida House OKs budget that punishes mask mandate schools

School districts that ignored Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’ order banning mask mandates will face a $200 million penalty under a budget bill passed Wednesday by the Florida House. The funding stripped from those districts would be spread among the state’s other districts.

Republican Rep. Randy Fine angrily defended the proposal to punish the 12 districts, saying they broke the law.

“Following the law is not optional. … These school districts broke the law,” Fine said. “And they were broken for nothing.

Fine also said school districts being punished are still getting more money than they did last year because of an overall $1.2 billion increase in public school spending. He also admonished Democrats who accused Republicans of taking $200 million from the disobedient districts out of retribution.

Read the full story here.

—Brendan Farrington, The Associated Press

Nearly 50 WA superintendents call on state to lift mask mandate for schools

Nearly 50 superintendents from Eastern Washington school districts signed a letter Tuesday calling on state leaders to lift the mask mandate for schools.

The letter — addressed to Gov. Jay Inslee, state Superintendent Chris Reykdal and state Health Secretary Dr. Umair A. Shah — also requests that contact tracing responsibilities be moved away from local districts to the state Department of Health.

The request comes as other states have relaxed mask mandates in school settings and as Inslee is considering a timeline for scaling back statewide indoor mask orders.

Citing declining case counts and hospitalizations and feedback from districts, Reykdal last week requested the statewide mask mandate for students in schools be rescinded to allow local health officials to make that decision instead.

Read the full story here.

—Amanda Zhou

More virus rules fall as CDC hints at better times ahead

The nation’s leading health officials said Wednesday that the U.S. is moving closer to the point that COVID-19 is no longer a “constant crisis” as more cities, businesses and sports venues began lifting pandemic restrictions around the country.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said during a White House briefing that the government is contemplating a change to its mask guidance in the coming weeks. Noting recent declines in COVID-19 cases, hospital admissions and deaths, she acknowledged “people are so eager” for health officials to ease masking rules and other measures designed to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

“We all share the same goal – to get to a point where COVID-19 is no longer disrupting our daily lives, a time when it won’t be a constant crisis – rather something we can prevent, protect against, and treat,” Walensky said.

With the omicron variant waning and Americans eager to move beyond the virus, government and business leaders have been out ahead of the CDC in ending virus measures in the last week, including ordering workers back to offices, eliminating mask mandates and no longer requiring proof of vaccine to get into restaurants, bars and sports and entertainment arenas.

Read the story here.

—Sara Burnett, The Associated Press
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COVID a wildcard as Biden prepares for State of the Union

President Joe Biden is hoping to use his upcoming State of the Union address to nudge the pandemic into the nation’s rear-view mirror. But it could turn into yet another disruptive display of national tensions and frustration over trying to move past COVID-19.

Biden’s March 1 address to Congress will play out against what Vice President Kamala Harris has called a “malaise” over the persistence of COVID and growing public impatience to get back to normal after two full years of pandemic restrictions.

The setting — Capitol Hill — remains one of the most significantly disrupted workplaces in the country, something of a ground zero for culture wars over the lingering restrictions.

Proxy voting in the House allows lawmakers to skip going into the office and has been extended through March. Tours and office visits are limited. GOP lawmakers have racked up thousands of dollars in fines for violating mask-wearing mandates on the House floor.

Read the story here.

—Lisa Mascaro and Zeke Miller, The Associated Press

State health officials confirm new coronavirus cases, deaths

The state Department of Health (DOH) reported 2,629 new coronavirus cases on Monday and 3,897 on Tuesday. It also reported 149 more deaths over those days.

The update brings the state's totals to 1,410,499 cases and 11,522 deaths, meaning that 0.8% of people diagnosed in Washington have died, according to the DOH. The data is as of 11:59 p.m. Tuesday. New state data is reported on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

In addition, 57,145 people have been hospitalized in the state due to the virus. In King County, the state's most populous, state health officials have confirmed a total of 361,635 COVID-19 diagnoses and 2,456 deaths.

Since vaccinations began in late 2020, the state and health care providers have administered 12,928,492 doses and 66.5% of Washingtonians have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to vaccination data, which the state updates on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Providers are currently giving an average of about 12,665 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.

—Amanda Zhou

BioNTech plans modular vaccine factories in Africa

German vaccine maker BioNTech, which developed the first widely approved shot against COVID-19 together with Pfizer, unveiled plans Wednesday to establish manufacturing facilities in Africa that would boost the availability of much-needed medicines on the continent.

The modular design presented at a ceremony in Marburg, Germany, consists of shipping containers fitted with the equipment necessary to make the company’s mRNA-based vaccine, save for the final step of putting doses into bottles, a process known as fill and finish.

“Our goal is to enable mRNA production on all continents,” BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin told The Associated Press.

BioNTech has been criticized by some campaign groups for refusing to suspend its vaccine patents and let rivals manufacture the shots as part of an effort to make them more widely available, especially in poor countries. The company argues that the process of making mRNA vaccines is difficult and it prefers to work with local partners to ensure consistent quality of the shots worldwide.

Read the story here.

—Frank Jordans, The Associated Press
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Slovakia plans to gradually ease most virus restrictions

Slovakia is planning to gradually ease most coronavirus restrictions as hospitals appear to be coping despite a current record surge of infections caused by the highly transmittable omicron variant.

Prime Minister Eduard Heger said on Wednesday that people will have access to stores, shopping malls, various public gatherings and services, including bars and restaurants, without any restrictions. They won’t have to present any certificate that they have been vaccinated, recovered from COVID-19 or tested negative for the coronavirus.

Those restrictive measures should be lifted by the end of February.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

Canadian truck drivers distance themselves from ‘Freedom Convoy’ protests

In just a matter of weeks, Canadian truck drivers protesting coronavirus vaccine mandates became the unexpected darlings of the global right wing.

Republican politicians showered the truckers, who descended on the Canadian capital, with praise. Copycat convoys gathered from New Zealand to France.

The protests against U.S. and Canadian regulations barring unvaccinated truck drivers from crossing the border began Jan. 28 — and soon attracted a range of anti-government activists, far-right figures and opponents of pandemic restrictions more broadly

But even as the vocal group of truckers known as the “Freedom Convoy” grabbed the world’s attention, many of Canada’s truck drivers were scrambling to distance themselves from the movement, which they view as radical and fringe.

In their view, the protesters’ actions — including shutting down cross-border trade and laying siege to the capital — have hurt rather than helped drivers in the industry, and failed to advance the labor issues most truckers care about. They point out that only a small percentage of Canadian truckers have joined the demonstrations, and the vast majority of drivers are already vaccinated, according to trucking associations and Canadian authorities.

Read the story here.

—Claire Parker, The Washington Post

Austria to drop most COVID restrictions on March 5

The Austrian government said Wednesday that it plans to end most of the country’s COVID-19 restrictions on March 5, though wearing masks will remain obligatory in some places.

Chancellor Karl Nehammer announced the decision at a news conference in Vienna. Officials stressed that the pandemic is not yet over but a stabilization of new infections allows Austria, which recently became the first European country to enshrine obligatory vaccinations for most adults in law, to open up step by step.

In a first step starting Saturday, proof of vaccination or recent recovery will no longer be required to attend events, go to restaurants, bars or hairdressers and various other activities. Proof of a negative test will suffice for those things.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press
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Germany announces end to most COVID restrictions on March 20

Germany’s leaders on Wednesday announced plans to end most of the country’s coronavirus restrictions by March 20, a decision that coincided with moves by neighboring Austria and Switzerland to drop many of their curbs sooner.

A three-step plan was endorsed by Chancellor Olaf Scholz and the country’s 16 state governors as official figures show Germany’s COVID-19 infection rate beginning to drift downward.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

King County will end COVID vaccine requirements at restaurants, bars, gyms

Restaurants, bars, theaters and gyms in King County will no longer be required to check the vaccination status of their patrons, beginning March 1, officials announced Wednesday, as the county begins to unwind pandemic policies that have been in place for months.

From March 1, businesses will be free to impose their own vaccination requirements if they choose, but the countywide requirement will disappear. Since last fall, indoor eateries and cultural and recreational spaces have been required to verify their customers’ vaccination status or a negative COVID test, as a condition for entry.

The policy has also applied to outdoor events with more than 500 people, like concerts and sporting events.

Read the story here.

—David Gutman

You think you had COVID during the omicron wave but aren’t sure. You still have ways to find out

You had some sniffles over the holidays. You had exposure to COVID at work. Your spouse had confirmed COVID.

Now, weeks later, you want to know if you had omicron and whether the low-level infection will offer you any immunity going forward.

The COVID tests you take at the drive-thru, walk-up and pharmacy are rapid antigen tests or PCR tests — both which diagnose a current infection.

What you need is an antibody test, which is done through a blood sample and looks for antibodies made after a COVID infection. The test looks for two different types: One that indicates a recent COVID infection and the other that shows antibodies that could come from either a vaccine or infection.

COVID-19 antibody tests are available at doctors’ offices, laboratories and drug stores. Make sure to ask which type you are getting and check the FDA website for the accuracy of that specific test. You also want to know whether the test will give you specific levels or simply a general “positive” or “negative” result.

Read the story here.

—Cindy Krischer Goodman, South Florida Sun Sentinel
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U.S. states break ranks on COVID rules despite scientific doubt

Two years into a global pandemic, states and cities are struggling to answer a critical question: How do you know when to return to normal life?

The question is dividing politically aligned regions that had been in near-lockstep on other COVID-19 mitigation measures earlier in the pandemic. As New Jersey, for example, dropped a mask mandate in schools, neighboring New York signaled it would keep masks until at least March. Meanwhile, it let vaccinated adults go maskless in other indoor spaces.

Experts find little consensus over which metrics should drive public health policy, and often politics dictate critical COVID benchmarks as much as science. For many people, this has created uncertainty on how to go about daily life as it becomes clear that the virus is here for the long haul.

In recent weeks, confusion has played out in particular over masking. A dip in COVID cases and hospitalizations prompted states with some of the most stringent mask rules, including New York and California, to pull back mandates. At the same time, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky have both continued to urge caution.

Walensky said at a press briefing Wednesday that the CDC isn’t ready to update its mask guidance because case numbers and hospitalizations haven’t declined enough. She didn’t say when the agency might reconsider, but White House COVID-19 task force coordinator Jeff Zients said to expect more information in coming weeks.

Read the story here.

—Madison Muller, Bloomberg

Police ticketing, warning truckers to leave Canada’s capital

Canadian police Wednesday began warning truckers who have been protesting the country’s COVID-19 restrictions and clogging the streets of Ottawa for nearly three weeks that they must leave now.

Officers knocked on the doors of the rigs parked outside the Parliament building and handed out notices informing drivers they risk arrest and the loss of their licenses under Canada’s Emergencies Act.

Police also began ticketing vehicles.

Some truckers ripped up the order, and one protester shouted, “I will never go home!”

The warnings came just days after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invoked the law and gave authorities power to ban the blockades and tow away the trucks.

Since late January, protesters in trucks and other vehicles have jammed the streets of the capital and obstructed border crossings, decrying vaccine mandates for truckers and other COVID-19 precautions and condemning Trudeau’s Liberal government.

Read the story here.

—Rob Gillies and Wilson Ring, The Associated Press

S. Korea to give out rapid tests as omicron shatters record

South Korea will distribute free coronavirus rapid test kits at schools and senior care facilities starting next week as it weathers an unprecedented wave of infections driven by the fast-moving omicron variant.

Health officials on Wednesday reported its highest daily jump in coronavirus infections with 90,443 new cases, shattering the previous one-day record set on Tuesday by more than 33,000 cases. The figure represents more than a 20-fold increase from the levels seen in mid-January, when omicron emerged as the country’s dominant strain.

While experts say omicron appears less likely to cause serious illness or death compared to the delta varian, hospitalizations have been creeping up amid the greater scale of outbreak.

Read the story here.

—Kim Tong-Hyung, The Associated Press
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Idaho lifts ‘crisis standards’ designation for hospitals

Idaho has lifted the “crisis standards of care” designation for hospitals in the southwestern portion of the state, with public health officials saying coronavirus-related staffing and blood shortages have improved somewhat, though hospitals remain stressed.

The crisis standards of care designation — which allows hospitals to triage health care as needed when they don’t have the capacity to deal with patient influxes — was put in place for 18 counties in the southern half of the state about three weeks ago, as the omicron variant of the coronavirus surged statewide. At the time, many health care providers were struggling because so many staffers were unable to work after they had contracted or been exposed to COVID-19. The hospitals were also reeling from a nationwide shortage of blood products, forcing many to implement blood conservation strategies.

Health care systems across the state are still using “contingency operations,” which means they are not yet able to operate normally, and dealing with high patient numbers.

Read the story here.

—Rebecca Boone, The Associated Press

San Francisco recalls 3 members of city’s school board

San Francisco residents recalled three members of the city’s school board Tuesday for what critics called misplaced priorities and putting progressive politics over the needs of children during the pandemic.

Voters overwhelmingly approved the recall in a special election, according to tallies by the San Francisco Department of Elections.

Parents in the politically liberal city launched the recall effort in January 2021 out of frustration over the slow reopening of district schools and the elimination of competitive admissions at the elite Lowell High School.

Read the story here.

—Jocelyn Gecker, The Associated Press

Portland man tried to open plane’s emergency door as attention-grab to share vaccine views, feds say

A Delta Air Lines passenger is facing federal charges after he allegedly tried to open an emergency door in-flight in the hope that other passengers would record him sharing his views on coronavirus vaccines, prosecutors announced Monday.

Michael Brandon Demarre, 32, was on a Friday flight from Salt Lake City to Portland when he removed a plastic covering over the handle on the aircraft’s emergency exit and forcefully pulled on the handle, Justice Department officials wrote in a news release. After a flight attendant intervened and demanded he let go of the handle, Demarre complied and was physically restrained by the flight crew, officials say.

When asked why he attempted to open the emergency door in-flight, the Portland resident told police he hoped passengers onboard would start filming him so he had “the opportunity to share his thoughts on COVID-19 vaccines,” according to an affidavit from FBI agent Adam Hoover.

Read the story here.

—Timothy Bella, The Washington Post
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Xi urges Hong Kong to get control as COVID-19 cases surge

Coronavirus patients lay in hospital beds or open-air tens amid record numbers of infections as Hong Kong doggedly adheres to its “zero-COVID” strategy, and China’s leader Xi Jinping said the local government’s “overriding task” was to control the situation.

Hong Kong is facing its worst outbreak of the pandemic, topping 2,000 new COVID-19 cases each day this week. The city government has already instituted strict rules banning gatherings of more than two households.

But health care facilities are beginning to overflow, and the city’s Caritas Medical Center was forced Wednesday to treat some patients in beds outside the building. Others were waiting in tents, some appalled by the government’s response to the outbreak.

“The reason why our society has become chaotic like this today is all because of this policy. The organizational skill of the government has made Hong Kong people feel so hopeless,” said Daisy Ho, a 70-year-old homemaker.

Read the story here.

—David Rising and Alice Fung, The Associated Press

Catch up on the last 24 hours

The CDC says taking a cruise now presents a lower risk than it did at the end of 2021 — at least in some cases.

COVID-19 vaccines during pregnancy can protect babies after they’re born and lead to fewer hospitalized infants, a U.S. government study released Tuesday suggested.

You think you had COVID during the omicron wave but aren’t sure. Now, weeks later, you want to know if you had omicron and whether the low-level infection will offer you any immunity going forward. Here are the options you have to find out.

The Washington Senate Tuesday passed a bill that would give state legislative leaders a new tool to limit the governor’s powers during states of emergency. Here's what you need to know.

—Seattle Times staff