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 It is no longer being updated.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

While the omicron surge has been waning across many countries, scientists from the World Health Organization are keeping a close eye on an omicron subvariant that appears to be more contagious.

Denmark was the first nation to report that the subvariant made up the majority of cases in that country. At the same time, the subvariant has been on the rise in several Asian nations.

Meanwhile, the European Union and African Union announced that six African countries will receive support to build vaccine production factories to reverse-engineer the existing commercially-sold COVID-19 vaccines.

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-19 pill shows more promise in reducing risk of hospitalization

The antiviral pill molnupiravir reduced the risk of COVID-19 hospitalization by 65% in a new study by Indian researchers that offered stronger results than previous research about the drug’s effectiveness.

The study, led by a researcher at the Chennai Antiviral Research and Treatment Clinical Research Site, split 1,218 Indian adults infected with the coronavirus and experiencing mild symptoms into comparably sized groups.

Read more here.

—The New York Times
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Omicron wave accounts for more U.S. deaths than delta surge

The omicron wave is breaking, but deaths, which lag cases by as much as several weeks, have surpassed the numbers from the delta wave and are still increasing in much of the country.

In 14 states, the average daily death toll is higher now than it was two weeks ago. They are Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, California, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Kentucky, Maine, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and West Virginia.

Read more here.

—The New York Times

COVID cases still rising at Larch Corrections Center in Washington

The Washington Department of Corrections reported 97 active COVID-19 cases Friday among incarcerated individuals at Larch Corrections Center. The number of active cases among staff — six — has remained the same since Monday.

The minimum-security prison near Yacolt was placed on facilitywide outbreak status Feb. 7 after four inmates in the living unit tested positive. Incarcerated individuals who test positive are being temporarily relocated to the prison’s Elkhorn Unit to help stop the virus’s spread, according to the department.

Read more here.

—The Columbian

How long COVID exhausts the body

Millions of people continue to suffer from exhaustion, cognitive problems and other long-lasting symptoms after a coronavirus infection. The exact causes of the illness, known as long COVID, are not known. But new research offers clues, describing the toll the illness takes on the body and why it can be so debilitating.

Patients with severe COVID may wind up in hospitals or on ventilators until their symptoms resolve. Damage to the body from severe COVID — pneumonia, low oxygen, inflammation — typically shows up on traditional diagnostic tests.

Long COVID is different: A chronic illness with a wide variety of symptoms, many of which are not explainable using conventional lab tests. Difficulties in detecting the illness have led some doctors to dismiss patients or to misdiagnose their symptoms as psychosomatic. But researchers looking more deeply at long COVID patients have found visible dysfunction throughout the body.

Read more here.

—The New York Times
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Hong Kong delays an election amid a COVID surge as leaders ‘focus on the epidemic’

Hong Kong will postpone the election of its next leader so that it can focus on containing a surge in coronavirus cases driven by the omicron variant, the city’s chief executive said Friday.

The leader of Hong Kong is not elected by the public but by an “election committee” of more than 1,400 backers of China’s Communist Party. That committee’s vote, which was to take place March 27, was rescheduled for May 8, said the chief executive, Carrie Lam.

She also announced a plan to introduce mandatory testing for the city’s entire population of 7.5 million. She had previously rejected calls from pro-Beijing lawmakers to introduce mandatory universal testing.

“Our government needs to focus on the epidemic,” Lam said at a news conference Friday. “We cannot afford to lose.”

Hong Kong is experiencing its worst wave of the pandemic yet, with patients waiting on sidewalks outside overwhelmed hospitals, and quarantine facilities reaching capacity. On Friday, more than 3,600 new cases were reported. Before this week, the city had never seen more than 2,000 daily new cases. Read the full story.

—The New York Times

Africa may have been hit harder by COVID-19 than anyone knew

It’s one of the enduring mysteries of COVID-19: Why didn’t the pandemic hit low-income African nations as hard as wealthy countries in North America and Europe?

There is no simple answer to that question. But this week, two new studies added to our understanding of it. One suggested that the number of COVID-19 cases may be vastly undercounted across the continent; another found good evidence that the number of deaths in at least one country could be significantly undercounted.

Neither study necessarily changes our current big picture understanding of the pandemic – that wealthy countries often saw worse outcomes than developing nations.

However, they could have a big impact on the debate about how and why African nations were forgotten by wealthy nations during the pandemic – especially as the European Union and the African Union meet in a joint summit in Brussels and the World Health Organization pushes for wealthy nations to back a South African facility that aims to share mRNA technology.

Read the full story here.

—The Washington Post

Health experts offer strategies on the COVID travel precautions to keep

As the crushing omicron wave subsides, even the strictest states are dropping mask requirements. Countries around the world are getting rid of testing requirements for vaccinated visitors. And the travel industry is pushing for the United States to jettison its testing rules to fly into the country.

So should we prepare to travel like it’s 2019 again?

Not quite – and possibly not ever, said health experts interviewed by The Washington Post.

“The pandemic, whether we want to believe it or not, is still happening,” said Michael Mina, an epidemiologist and chief science officer at eMed, which offers proctored rapid tests for home use.

In the United States, the seven-day average of new coronavirus cases has dropped significantly from the omicron peak and well below the numbers seen during the delta surge. But new infections are higher than they were during much of 2020 and 2021. While hospitalizations and deaths are dropping, Washington Post data show that the average number of daily new deaths in the country is nearly 2,300, and almost 69,000 are hospitalized with COVID-19.

Doctors say travelers need to determine the level of risk they are comfortable taking based on their own health status, especially as some rules fall away.

To learn more about precautions to take while traveling, read the full story here.

—The Washington Post
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As COVID becomes endemic, research finds infection can cause hearing loss, ringing in ears

Did you hear the news? COVID-19 cases are dropping, and everyday life is starting to return to normal.

But maybe you didn’t hear the news — because you’ve been exposed to COVID-19. A recently published study, led by Massachusetts Institute of Technology RNA-virus expert Lee Gehrke and Stanford University otolaryngologist Konstantina Stankovic, links coronavirus infection with hearing loss, ringing in the ears and other inner-ear problems.

“Our study showed evidence that the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 can directly infect the inner ear,” Stankovic told a university publication.

This is no small thing, with the hearing loss and balance issues from inner-ear infection proving quite serious at times. But such problems often were overlooked at the height of the pandemic in 2020-21, Stankovic pointed out, as doctors focused on keeping acute COVID-19 patients alive.

“They weren’t paying much attention to whether [patients’] hearing was reduced or whether they had vertigo,” she said. Read more about the research here.

—Oregonlive.com

Canadian police clear Parliament street to end siege

Hundreds of police in riot gear swept through the streets of Canada’s besieged capital Saturday, arresting or driving out protesters, towing away their trucks and finally retaking control of the streets in front of the country’s Parliament buildings.

With protesters in clear retreat under the increasing pressure of one of the largest police operations in Canada’s history, authorities’ hopes were rising for an end to the three-week protest against the country’s COVID-19 restrictions and the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

By early Saturday afternoon, protesters were gone from the street in front of Parliament Hill, the collection of government offices that includes the Parliament buildings, which had the heart of the protests. It had been occupied by protesters and their trucks since late last month, turning into a carnival on weekends.

“They are trying to push us all away,” said one protester, Jeremy Glass of Shelburne, Ontario, as authorities forced the crowds to move further from the Parliament buildings. “The main camp is seized now. We’re no longer in possession of it.”

Police said protesters remained “aggressive and assaultive” and that pepper spray had been used to protect officers. Read more here.

—The Associated Press

De Minaur denies link to Spain probe of fake vaccine passes

Australian tennis player Alex de Minaur has denied wrongdoing after being linked to a Spanish police investigation of people suspected of paying for false COVID-19 vaccination certificates.

Spanish media reported that De Minaur is among 2,200 people that the National Police say are under investigation for having paid a criminal ring for forged certificates.

“I want to make it 100% clear that I received my second shot, that I have a completely valid, accurate and true vaccination record,” the 23-year-old De Minaur, whose mother is Spanish, wrote Thursday evening on Twitter. “Everyone around me, including my family, is fully vaccinated.”

He said he is not under investigation “in any way.”

National Police would not confirm his name or any other individuals when asked by The Associated Press.

De Minaur said he received his first vaccination in London last summer before getting his second shot at Madrid’s La Paz Hospital. Read more here.

—The Associated Press
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Arkansas county praises doctor who gave inmates ivermectin

A northwest Arkansas county issued a resolution praising the doctor at its jail who faces a lawsuit from inmates who say they were unknowingly prescribed ivermectin to treat COVID-19, despite warnings from health officials about the anti-parasitic drug.

The Washington County Quorum Court voted 9-4 Thursday night in favor of the resolution praising Dr. Robert Karas for his work treating inmates with COVID-19 at the county jail. The panel also rejected, by a 10-4 vote, a separate resolution supporting the principle of informed consent for medical treatments.

The nonbinding resolutions don’t mention the lawsuit filed by inmates last month against Karas and Washington County Sheriff Tim Helder. The inmates said they weren’t told they were being given ivermectin to treat COVID-19, and said instead were told they were being given vitamins, antibiotics or steroids. Attorneys for Karas and the county have asked a judge to dismiss the lawsuit.

Read more here.

—The Associated Press

‘Fortress Australia’ has a new message: Come back

Moments after the Australian government announced that it would reopen the country’s borders to international travelers later this month, Emily Barrett locked in a fare for a flight to Sydney. The 32-year-old nanny from Palo Alto, California, spent three days researching and talking to Australian friends before she decided to book her trip to the island continent, which for two years had some of the world’s strictest border controls and longest lockdowns aimed at controlling the spread of the coronavirus.

“They all said, ‘if we go back into a lockdown now, people will go into the streets,’” she said. Her two-week trip is scheduled to start a few days after the border opens Monday.

Potential travelers and tourism operators alike are cautiously optimistic about “Fortress Australia’s” reopening, but many wonder if the isolated nation’s ongoing COVID restrictions — such as vaccine and testing requirements, as well as mask mandates — will make the return of international travel more of a trickle than a splash. Australia’s reputation for rigidity and reclusiveness during the pandemic — at odds with the inviting, easygoing nature portrayed by the country’s tourism boards — may also be a hurdle to overcome.

“There is no doubt that a full recovery will take time, but we are confident that the demand for Australia is strong,” said Phillipa Harrison, the managing director of Tourism Australia, the country’s tourism board.

Read the full story.

—The New York Times

Dems, GOP set inflation, COVID mandates as election themes

Democrats and Republicans each want to flash election-year signals that they are riding to the rescue of families struggling with rising costs and the 2-year-old coronavirus pandemic.

Not surprisingly, the parties differ over how to do that. And in comments and votes in the Senate last week, each side fleshed out themes it will use to compete for voters in this fall’s voting for control of Congress.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., talked about inflation, bashing President Joe Biden and Democrats for policies like curbing drilling on federal lands that he said were stifling domestic energy production and driving up gasoline prices. But he also raised culture war issues that have flared in the nation’s schools, including mask mandates and social justice instruction that conservatives find objectionable.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Democrats will focus on pushing “solutions that will lower costs and leave more money in people’s pockets.” Chiding Republicans, he said, “Complaining about the problem doesn’t make inflation better, proposing solutions does.”

Read more here.

—The Associated Press
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Cruise lines say they will follow CDC coronavirus guidelines

The world’s largest cruise companies said Friday that they will voluntarily follow public health measures meant to reduce the risk of coronavirus outbreaks on ships operating in the United States.

Carnival Corp., Royal Caribbean Group and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings – representing more than a dozen brands between them – told The Washington Post that they would participate in the new voluntary program under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Cruise Lines International Association, an industry group, recommended its members opt in.

“The updated instructions move closer to recognizing the cruise industry’s leadership in effectively mitigating COVID-19, as well as acknowledging ongoing improvements in the health environment,” the group said in a statement.

The CDC confirmed that the three major companies opted in but did not provide an update on any smaller cruise lines. Operators had until Friday to decide. The deadline came just days after the CDC lowered its coronavirus travel warning for cruises from “very high” to “high.” The agency said that people who are not up to date with their vaccines, as well as those at increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19, should still avoid cruises.

Read the full story here.

—The Washington Post

Here’s what is changing about mask and COVID vaccine requirements in WA and King County

Rules for masks are winding down in Washington state. But if you live in Seattle or King County, don’t be so quick to toss your mask.

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.

However, King County won’t be lifting its mask mandate for indoor settings just yet, according to Public Health — Seattle & King County spokesperson Kate Cole. The agency, she said, will continue to monitor coronavirus-related metrics and reassess the mandate in the “coming weeks.”

Inslee announced Thursday masks still will be required in some settings, and vaccine-verification requirements also will loosen both statewide and in King County.

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 taken recently.

Local governments still have the authority to continue or reimplement mask mandates, and private businesses can still require employees and customers to wear masks, according to Inslee’s office.

Read the full story here.

—Amanda Zhou