Editor’s note: This is a live account of COVID-19 updates from Thursday, February 17, 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 It is no longer being updated.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.

A recently published study found that people who had COVID-19 have an increased risk of developing mental health issues in the months following an infection. People who had the virus were 39% more likely to be diagnosed with depression and 35% more like to be diagnosed with anxiety.

Meanwhile, King County officials announced that restaurants, bars and gyms will no longer be required to check for proof of vaccination or negative test results beginning March 1.

In a similar but larger-scale move, officials in Germany announced most COVID-19 restrictions in the country will end on March 20. Austrian officials also announced their decision to end most restrictions on March 5.

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.

Gov. Jay Inslee has set a press conference today at 2 p.m. to discuss the state’s ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Watch here:

What’s changing about mask and COVID vaccine requirements in WA and King County

Last year, masks came down and then back up. Now, rules for face coverings and providing proof of vaccination in Washington state are winding down again.

Starting March 21, the statewide mask requirement will lift for most indoor spaces including schools, grocery stores, bars and gyms.

Gov. Jay Inslee announced Thursday masks will still be required in some settings, and vaccine-verification requirements will also loosen both statewide and in King County. It was not immediately known Thursday whether King County will follow the state and lift their indoor and outdoor mask mandate, which was enacted in September

The changes come as coronavirus cases and hospitalizations fueled by omicron are declining, and as school-district superintendents have called on leaders to loosen mask requirements for schools — a measure other states have recently taken.

Read the full story here.

—Amanda Zhou

Vulnerable to COVID, high-risk Americans can only watch as the U.S. moves on

Denisse Takes’ world is very small these days. She makes a living by producing songs from her living room, plays “Animal Crossing” online with friends and leaves her home in Burbank, California, only occasionally to walk her dog.

Even as her social media feeds are flooded with friends and family members returning to their normal lives, she sees no one except for her husband, who donated his kidney in 2015 so that Takes, 37, could receive a compatible donor’s kidney in return.

The medication that keeps her immune system from rejecting the organ also suppresses it from creating antibodies in response to a coronavirus vaccine. Her body is so bad at fighting off infection that she has gone to the emergency room with common colds, she said. She fears that COVID-19 would kill her.

But the isolation and depression — amplified as the rest of the world seemingly moves on from the pandemic without her — have also taken their toll.

Read the full story here.

—Maggie Astor and Amanda Morris, The New York Times

California adopts nation’s first ‘endemic’ virus policy

California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Thursday announced the first shift by a state to an “endemic” approach to the coronavirus pandemic that emphasizes prevention and quick reactions to outbreaks over mandates, a milestone nearly two years in the making that harkens to a return to a more normal existence.

Newsom said the approach — which includes pushing back against false claims and other misinformation — means maintaining a wary watchfulness attuned to warning signs of the next deadly new surge or variant.

“This disease is not going away,” he told The Associated Press in advance of his formal announcement. “It’s not the end of the quote, unquote, war.”

A disease reaches the endemic stage when the virus still exists in a community but becomes manageable as immunity builds. But there will be no definitive turn of the switch, the Democratic governor said, unlike the case with Wednesday’s lifting of the state’s indoor masking requirements or an announcement coming Feb. 28 of when precisely the school mask-wearing mandate will end.

Read the full story here.

—Don Thompson, The Associated Press

Reservist, nurse charged with running fake vaccine card scam

A Marine Corps reservist who was charged in last year’s riot at the U.S. Capitol also schemed with a nurse to steal, forge and sell hundreds of coronavirus vaccination cards and destroy vaccine doses to fake inoculations, federal authorities said Thursday.

Reservist Jia Liu, 26, and nurse Steven Rodriguez, 27, were awaiting a court appearance Thursday on charges of conspiring to commit forgery and to defraud the federal government.

“By deliberately distributing fraudulent COVID-19 vaccination cards to the unvaccinated, the defendants put military and other communities at risk of contracting a virus that has already claimed nearly 1 million lives in this country,” Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Breon Peace said in a statement.

Liu’s lawyer, Benjamin Yaster, declined to comment. It wasn’t immediately clear whether Rodriguez had an attorney who could speak to the allegations.

Read the full story here.

—Jennifer Peltz, The Associated Press

WA mask mandate for schools, businesses to end March 21, Inslee says

Washington’s COVID-19 mask requirements will lift March 21 for schools, child care facilities, grocery stores, bars, gyms and a host of other indoor establishments, Gov. Jay Inslee announced Thursday.

Masking will still be necessary after March 21 for health care facilities, long-term care facilities, prisons, public transit and school buses, and any private businesses or local governments that want to continue with masking requirements.

In a news conference Thursday, Inslee laid out the coming changes and a broader path going forward for schools and commerce as the wave of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations brought by the omicron variant recedes.

State Department of Health officials will release updated guidance for K-12 schools during the week of March 6, to help schools prepare for the March 21 transition.

Read the full story here.

—Joseph O'Sullivan

Portugal scraps some virus restrictions as pandemic abates

Portugal’s government announced Thursday it is winding down its coronavirus pandemic restrictions, following the path of other European countries where a surge in cases blamed on the omicron variant is ebbing.

Among the requirements being scrapped are: isolation if a close contact tests positive, limits on the number of people gathering in public areas, producing a digital vaccination certificate to gain entry to restaurants and other venues, and proof of a negative test to enter sports events, bars and discotheques.

However, face masks must still be worn indoors and a digital vaccination certificate must be shown to enter the country and on hospital and care home visits.

“This is one more step toward normal life that was snatched away almost two years ago,” Cabinet spokeswoman Mariana Vieira da Silva told a press conference.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

Indonesian cases hit record but less severe, fewer deaths

Indonesia’s confirmed coronavirus infections since the pandemic began crossed 5 million on Thursday, the highest in Southeast Asia, but the related deaths and bed occupancy fueled by the highly transmissible omicron variant remained lower than in the previous outbreak.

Since Tuesday, daily COVID-19 cases have outpaced July’s record that had overwhelmed hospitals on the main island of Java, hitting 63,956 on Thursday. The Health Ministry also reported 206 deaths compared to more than 2,000 a day at the peak of the surge last year. Data showed the bed occupancy rate at 33%, and 25% for intensive case units.

Read the story here.

—Niniek Karmini, The Associated Press

Israel to scrap COVID passport system as omicron wanes

Israel’s prime minister says the country’s coronavirus vaccination “green pass” system will be suspended as new daily cases of COVID-19 continue to decline.

Naftali Bennett said Thursday after meeting with health officials that Israel’s omicron wave “has been broken” and that additional reductions in coronavirus restrictions were forthcoming.

The Green Pass, Israel’s digital vaccination passport, limited entry to indoor venues and large gatherings to people who had recovered from coronavirus or received at least three doses of the vaccine.

Although new infections remain high, Israel’s health ministry has reported a steady decline in serious cases of COVID-19 since the peak of the country’s omicron wave earlier in February.

Israel raced out of the gate last year to vaccinate most of its adult population after striking a deal with Pfizer to trade medical data in exchange for a steady supply of doses. Around 48% of Israel’s 9.4 million people have received three doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine since the country began rolling out immunizations in late 2020. Over 72% of the country has received at least one dose.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

CDC: NYC anime convention did not spread omicron widely

When a person tested positive for omicron after attending an anime convention in New York City in late 2021, health officials raced to determine if the indoor gathering was a superspreader event.

It wasn’t, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded Thursday. Widespread masking, vaccinations and good air flow at the Javits Center prevented the highly contagious omicron variant from spreading widely.

Investigators found 119 infections from about 53,000 people who attended the event over three days in November.

A Minnesota man who attended the convention became one of the first Americans diagnosed with omicron. Omicron spreads more easily than earlier versions of the coronavirus and drove a national surge over the winter.

While omicron cases were found in the man’s small social circle, other cases turned out to be from the older delta variant, the CDC said.

“This large event did not lead to widespread transmission” of omicron, the investigators wrote in one of the two studies published by the CDC.

Read the story here.

—Mike Stobbe, The Associated Press

Inslee expected to announce today when Washington’s COVID mask mandates will lift

OLYMPIA — The days of ubiquitous COVID-19 masks in Washington may be drawing to a close.

Gov. Jay Inslee, scheduled to hold a news conference at 2 p.m. on Thursday, is expected to release details for when the state will end emergency mask requirements covering businesses and schools.

Thursday’s news conference arrives as Washington’s daily confirmed cases and hospitalizations due to the omicron variant have gradually declined. Hospital officials recently warned, however, that the current wave is likely to persist for a few weeks more.

That hasn’t stopped the planning for a post-omicron world.

Last week, Inslee announced the end of a statewide order requiring masks to be worn outside at gatherings of 500 or more people.

Read the story here.

—Joseph O'Sullivan

Court: Pilot, attendant will suffer under vaccine mandate

 A pilot and a flight attendant for United Airlines will suffer “irreparable harm” under the airline’s COVID-19 policy that makes them choose between getting vaccinated in violation of their religious objections or going on unpaid leave, a divided federal appeals court panel in New Orleans ruled Thursday.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ 2-1 ruling doesn’t block the airline’s mandate. But it says a lower court judge in Texas must consider temporarily blocking the requirement for the employees while they fight United’s vaccine policy.

The decision to get vaccinated or go on leave “is an impossible choice for plaintiffs who want to remain faithful but must put food on the table,” said the majority opinion from Jennifer Walker Elrod and Andrew Oldham.

They said the lower court judge erred by stating that the employees did not face irreparable harm, and sent the case back to him to consider other factors — including whether the two employees are likely to ultimately win their court battle.

The third judge on the panel, Judge Jerry E. Smith, rejected the majority’s finding in a stinging, lengthy dissent. Smith said the lower court judge’s denial of an injunction last year should stand.

“For every conceivable reason that the plaintiffs could lose this appeal, they should,” Smith wrote, saying his fellow panel members’ ruling went against laws and court precedents.

Read the story here.

—Kevin McGill, The Associated Press

Trudeau says protests must end, truckers brace for crackdown

Police poured into downtown Ottawa on Thursday in what truckers feared was a prelude to a crackdown on their nearly three-week, street-clogging protest against Canada’s COVID-19 restrictions.

Work crews in the capital began erecting fences outside Parliament, and for the second day in a row, police handed out warnings to the hundreds of protesters to leave. Busloads of police converged on the area.

“It’s high time that these illegal and dangerous activities stop,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declared in Parliament, not far from where the protesters were parked.

“They are a threat to our economy and our relationship with trading partners,” he said. “They are a threat to public safety.”

Ottawa represented the self-styled Freedom Convoy’s last stronghold after weeks of demonstrations and blockades that shut down border crossings into the U.S., inflicted economic damage on both countries and created a political crisis for Trudeau.

Read the story here.

—Rob Gillies and Wilson Ring, The Associated Press

Estimated 73% of US now immune to omicron: Is that enough?

The omicron wave that assaulted the United States this winter also bolstered its defenses, leaving enough protection against the coronavirus that future spikes will likely require much less — if any — dramatic disruption to society.

Millions of individual Americans’ immune systems now recognize the virus and are primed to fight it off if they encounter omicron, or even another variant.

About half of eligible Americans have received booster shots, there have been nearly 80 million confirmed infections overall and many more infections have never been reported. One influential model uses those factors and others to estimate that 73% of Americans are, for now, immune to omicron, the dominant variant, and that could rise to 80% by mid-March.

This will prevent or shorten new illnesses in protected people and reduce the amount of virus circulating overall, likely tamping down new waves. Hospitals will get a break from overwhelmed ICUs, experts agree.

“We have changed,” said Ali Mokdad, a professor of health metrics sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle. “We have been exposed to this virus and we know how to deal with it.”

The coronavirus — the current variant or future ones that are sure to pop up — remains a dangerous germ. It is still infecting more than 130,000 Americans and killing more than 2,000 every day. Tens of millions of people remain vulnerable.

Read the story here.

—Carla K. Johnson, The Associated Press

Hong Kong hospitals hit 90% capacity as COVID-19 cases surge

Hong Kong’s hospitals reached 90% capacity on Thursday and quarantine facilities were at their limit, authorities said, as the city struggles to snuff out a record number of new COVID-19 cases by adhering to China’s “zero tolerance” strategy.

To ease the strain on the city’s healthcare system, officials said they will take a different approach to hospitalization and isolation policies and allow some patients to be discharged sooner. The move comes amid reports of patients being treated on beds outside a hospital in the city’s working-class neighborhood of Sham Shui Po.

Hong Kong reported 6,116 new coronavirus infections on Thursday. Any person in the city who is infected with COVID-19 must be admitted to a hospital or community isolation facility.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

‘My wife says I’m getting weird’: Man offers free pancakes to make friends

Clad in a chef’s hat, Curtis Kimball ladled pancake batter onto an electric griddle as hundreds of hungry neighbors lined up for one of his fluffy flapjacks.

It was a pancake party, and Kimball, 43, hosted it on the front driveway of his home in San Francisco on Feb. 12. This was the second such event; the first he kicked off in late January with a few funny fliers.

“My wife says I’m getting weird,” Kimball typed on sheets of paper, which he then taped to telephone poles around the Bernal Heights neighborhood. “She says I need to make friends. So I’m making pancakes.”

He provided an address, a time and other details, and added: “Come by and say hi and have some pancakes with me.”

“I wasn’t expecting anyone to show up because I didn’t know if people read fliers,” Kimball said.

Then he saw nearly 100 neighbors assembled in front of his house, primed for the inaugural pancake party Jan. 22, and he decided: “I guess they do.”

Kimball came up with the concept of hosting a pancake party as a means of bringing some joy to his neighborhood, where he has lived for about a year with his wife and two daughters. Given the pandemic, it’s been difficult to meet people, he said, and “I just don’t know how grown-ups make friends.”

Read the story here.

—Sydney Page, The Washington Post

Weekly US jobless claims up, but remain historically low

Applications for U.S. unemployment benefits rose last week but remain near historically low levels, reflecting relatively few layoffs across the economy.

Jobless claims rose by 23,000 to 248,000 for the week ending Feb. 12, the Labor Department reported Thursday. Claims were revised upward to 225,000 the previous week.

Yet the four-week average for claims, which compensates for weekly volatility, fell by 10,500 to 243,250. It was the second straight week of declines after rising for five straight weeks as the omicron variant of the coronavirus spread, disrupting business in many parts of the U.S.

Read the story here.

—Matt Ott, The Associated Press

Solomon Islands coronavirus outbreak causing growing concern

With the first community outbreak of the coronavirus in the Solomon Islands spreading rapidly through the largely unvaccinated population, the Red Cross warned Thursday that the Pacific Island nation’s fragile health care system is at risk of becoming overwhelmed.

The capital Honiara has only one small hospital and authorities have already turned a sports building into a field hospital and a football stadium into a vaccination center, said Clement Manuri, secretary general of the Solomon Islands Red Cross Society.

Read the story here.

—David Rising, The Associated Press

COVID virus may be airborne longer and spread by ventilation, shows Tri-Cities research

Scientists at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland have found an unexpected way that the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 may be infecting people.

A new study investigated one way that the virus may remain viable in the air more than 200 feet away from an infected person and after the infected person has left the room.

Conclusions are not definitive, but they do raise the possibility that changes should be considered in how buildings are ventilated to prevent the airborne spread of the virus that caused COVID-19.

Read the story here.

—Tri-City Herald

Catch up on the last 24 hours

Restaurants, bars, theaters and gyms in King County will no longer be requireed to check the vaccination status of their patrons beginning March 1, officials announced Wednesday.

Nearly 50 superintendents from Eastern Washington school districts signed a letter Tuesday calling on state leaders to lift the mask mandate for schools — although some districts are getting rid of the requirement anyway.

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.

A showdown appeared to be shaping up in Ottawa’s nearly three-week siege by truckers protesting the country’s COVID-19 restrictions as police in the capital warned drivers Wednesday to leave immediately or risk arrest. But as the vocal group of truckers 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.

—Seattle Times staff