Editor’s note: This is a live account of COVID-19 updates from Wednesday, February 2, 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 It is no longer being updated.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.

COVID-19 has claimed the lives of U.S. residents at far higher rates than in any other wealthy nation. Despite having high access to COVID-19 vaccines, the country is lagging in vaccination rates.

At the same time, U.S. officials are growing concerned over the lag in administering booster shots, leaving people with fading protections against the virus.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization is raising concerns about tens of thousands of tons of extra medical waste that has strained waste management systems, including billions of masks, gloves, “moon suits,” and syringes. The waste is threatening both health and the environment, pointing to a “dire need” to improve those systems and get a response from both governments and people.

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.

New Zealand to end quarantine stays and reopen its borders

New Zealand’s government on Thursday said it will end its quarantine requirements for incoming travelers and reopen its borders, a change welcomed by thousands of citizens abroad who have endured long waits to return home.

Since the start of the pandemic, New Zealand has enacted some of the world’s strictest border controls. Most incoming travelers need to spend 10 days in a quarantine hotel room run by the military, a requirement that has created a bottleneck at the border.

The measures were initially credited with saving thousands of lives and allowed New Zealand to eliminate or control several outbreaks of the coronavirus.

But, increasingly, the border controls have been viewed as out-of-step in a world where the virus is becoming endemic, and in a country where the omicron variant is already spreading. The bottleneck forced many New Zealanders abroad to enter a lottery-style system to try and secure a spot in quarantine and passage home.

Read the full story here.

—Nick Perry, The Associated Press
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Tonga, once coronavirus free, goes into lockdown weeks after volcano eruption

Five coronavirus cases have been reported in Tonga as the country recovers from last month’s volcanic eruption and tsunami, leading the government to place the once COVID-free Pacific archipelago into a complete lockdown.

The lockdown started at 6 p.m. local time Wednesday. Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni said there would be no boat or plane travel among Tonga’s roughly 170 islands — three dozen of them inhabited — until further notice. Schools were closed, government workers given time off and masks encouraged in public spaces, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

Sovaleni said the restrictions would be reviewed every 48 hours, local news website Matangi Tonga reported.

It’s not clear how the virus was transmitted into Tonga. Two people who contracted it worked at a port in the capital, Nuku’alofa. There was an outbreak of more than two dozen cases aboard an Australian navy ship, the HMAS Adelaide, that docked at the port last week to deliver disaster relief. Aid also arrived from New Zealand, France, Japan and China — all countries that have cases.

Read the full story here.

—Frances Vinall, The Washington Post

When to get free N95 masks from QFC and Fred Meyer in WA

QFC and Fred Meyer will offer free N95 masks starting Thursday, Feb. 3.

While supplies last, every customer may take up to three free masks at any QFC or Fred Meyer with a pharmacy, according to QFC news release Wednesday. Associates are also encouraged to take supplies for themselves and their families.

Customers should look for a “branded display” or ask an associate for assistance.

The free masks are part of a federal effort to give away 400 million N95 masks through pharmacies and health centers that have partnered with the federal government’s vaccination campaign.

Last week, the Washington State Department of Health said free masks will start arriving in stores with pharmacies like Albertsons, Bartell Drugs, Costco, CVS, Rite Aid, Safeway, Walgreens and Walmart, among others. A full list of partners can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention site.

QFC has several locations throughout the Puget Sound region including in Bellevue, Kirkland, Everett and Lacey.

Stores with pharmacies in Seattle include:

  • University District: 2746 N.E. 45th St.
  • Olympic Hills: 1531 N.E. 145th St.
  • Northgate: 11100 Roosevelt Way N.E.
  • Crown Hill: 9999 Holman Road N.W.
  • Uptown: 500 Mercer St.
  • West Seattle: 4550 42nd Ave. S.W.
  • Capitol Hill: 417 Broadway E.

Fred Meyer has pharmacies in the following locations:

  • Lake City: 13000 Lake City Way N.E.
  • Greenwood: 100 N.W. 85th St.
  • Ballard: 915 N.W. 45th St.

“QFC is grateful for the ongoing role we’re able to play in helping help our associates and customers protect themselves and their communities against COVID-19,” QFC President Chris Albi said in a statement.

—Amanda Zhou

Army to immediately start discharging vaccine refusers

The Army said Wednesday it will immediately begin discharging soldiers who have refused to get the mandatory COVID-19 vaccine, putting more than 3,300 service members at risk of being thrown out soon.

The Army’s announcement makes it the final military service to lay out its discharge policy for vaccine refusers. The Marine Corps, Air Force and Navy have already discharged active-duty troops or entry-level personnel at boot camps for refusing the shots. So far, the Army has not discharged any.

According to data released by the Army last week, more than 3,300 soldiers have refused to get the vaccine. The Army has said that more than 3,000 soldiers have been issued official written reprimands, which suggests they are already identified in the disciplinary process, and some of them could be among the first to be discharged.

The Pentagon has ordered all service members — active-duty, National Guard and Reserves — to get the vaccine, saying it is critical to maintaining the health and readiness of the force. COVID-19 cases continue to surge around the country as a result of the omicron variant.

Read the full story here.

—Lolita C. Baldor, The Associated Press
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What to do with your at-home COVID test results

There are now more opportunities to get your hands on a free coronavirus test (and N95 masks!).

It’s important to familiarize yourself with the different types of tests, how to use them and even when officials say you should take a test.

Check out The Seattle Times’ guide for what you need to know about coronavirus testing, and read on to know what to do with your results once you self-test.

What should I do if I test positive?

Consider a second test: While an at-home antigen test provides rapid results, PCR tests are performed in a lab. You can get a PCR test at a health care provider’s office or a testing site, or use an at-home nasal swab and saliva PCR test to collect a sample to mail to a lab to be analyzed.

Read the full story here.

—Seattle Times staff

EXPLAINER: COVID vaccines for kids under 5: What’s next?

Parents who thought their children under 5 would have to wait several more months for COVID-19 vaccinations instead just might get them as early as March. Before they become available in the U.S., they need to be reviewed and authorized by the extra-low doses need to be reviewed and authorized by the Food and Drug Administration.

Here are the answers to some commonly asked questions about the shots that are one-tenth the size of the adult doses, including where the shots will be administered and how many doses will be given.

Read the story here.

—Lauran Neergaard, The Associated Press

Czech Republic to end mandatory COVID testing this month

The Czech Republic’s government has agreed to end mandatory coronavirus testing at schools and companies this month, the prime minister said Wednesday.

The testing “undoubtedly” helped slow down the spread of infections and prevented the health system from being overwhelmed, Prime Minister Petr Fiala said.

“Given the development, we’ve decided to end the compulsory testing on Feb. 18,” Fiala said.

All company employees have been tested twice a week while schoolchildren and all school employees have been tested once a week since Jan. 17.

With 57,195 new cases recorded on Tuesday, the country registered a new day-to-day record, about 2,500 more than the previous record set last week on Wednesday.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press
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State health officials confirm new coronavirus cases, deaths

The state Department of Health (DOH) reported 7,512 new coronavirus cases on Monday and 10,252 on Tuesday. It also reported two more deaths over those days.

The update brings the state's totals to 1,355,428 cases and 10,845 deaths, meaning that .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.

DOH data systems are experiencing substantial slowdowns delaying reports of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths.

In addition, 54,644 people have been hospitalized in the state due to the virus — 495 new hospitalizations. In King County, the state's most populous, state health officials have confirmed a total of 348,766 COVID-19 diagnoses and 2,315 deaths.

Since vaccinations began in late 2020, the state and health care providers have administered 12,741,475 doses and 66% 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 20,769 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.

—Daisy Zavala

CEO of embattled WA startup marketing COVID drug ousted

Biotechnology company CytoDyn has new leadership after its board of directors removed Nader Pourhassan as chief executive, effective Jan. 24. The southwest Washington-based company’s chief financial officer, Antonio Migliarese, will be interim president.

CytoDyn faced heat after testing its drug leronlimab to treat COVID-19. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration was compelled to issue a statement in May saying, “It has become clear that the data currently available do not support the clinical benefit of leronlimab for the treatment of COVID-19.”

The company used results from a small subgroup of test participants to suggest there was a “mortality benefit in certain patients” who took the drug, the FDA’s statement said.

Read the story here.

—Sarah Wolf, The Columbian, Vancouver, Wash.

White House wades into Spotify’s COVID controversy as more artists pull their music

The White House is joining the debate about coronavirus misinformation on streaming platform Spotify, insisting that more needs to be done to ensure Americans get accurate information about the pandemic.

Press secretary Jen Psaki called it a “positive step” that Spotify had decided to add disclaimers about COVID misinformation in response to criticism from medical professionals and musicians that some content, in particular from provocative podcaster Joe Rogan, spreads false information about the coronavirus and vaccines.

“Our hope is that all major tech platforms and all major news sources, for that matter, be responsible and be vigilant to ensure the American people have access to accurate information on something as significant as COVID-19,” Psaki said Tuesday. “That certainly includes Spotify.”

“So this disclaimer, it’s a positive step, but we want every platform to continue doing more to call out misinformation and disinformation while also uplifting accurate information,” she added.

Hundreds of medical professionals have criticized Spotify over the past few weeks for allowing Rogan to spread “false and societally harmful assertions.” After artists including Neil Young and Joni Mitchell said they would protest the service and Britain’s Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, who have a deal to host and produce Spotify podcasts, also expressed “concerns,” Rogan said he would do better research on COVID-19 and start including mainstream experts alongside guests who espouse more fringe opinions.

Read the story here.

—Adela Suliman and Eugene Scott, The Washington Post
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Raise your hand: Schools seek volunteers in staffing crunch

With teacher absences mounting and substitutes in short supply, parents may be wondering: Who’s teaching the kids?

The answer around the U.S. could be a local police officer, National Guard soldier, state budget analyst, parent or recent high school graduate — nearly anyone willing to help keep schools’ doors open through the omicron-driven staffing crunch.

States have been loosening teaching requirements to give schools more flexibility on hiring as coronavirus exposures, illness and quarantines add to strains on schools that also have been tapping librarians, custodians and support staff to help cover classrooms during the pandemic.

The measures have kept schools from having to revert to the waves of remote learning that disrupted homes and left many students behind earlier in the pandemic. Supporters say it’s better to have students in school, where they are supervised and have access to food and services, even if the solutions fall short academically.

Read the story here.

—Carolyn Thompson, The Associated Press

King County homeless shelters left to deal with omicron mostly on their own

The process to enter and exit The Salvation Army’s COVID-19 care wing at its Sodo shelter is serious. People entering through the plastic drapes have to put on hand sanitizer, gown, gloves, N95, surgical mask, face shield. Leaving is a carefully choreographed dance, so the skin doesn’t touch the outside of the gown or gloves: remove the shield first, then gown, and finally gloves.

But inside, the vibe feels less serious.

People lounge on beds and look at their phones. It’s silent except for the hum of the HVAC system in the pipes above. Gowned and shielded staff — who are required to be vaccinated in this wing — sit at computers or walk around checking on everyone every 30 minutes.

While every patient inside has tested positive for the coronavirus, none is symptomatic, and if someone begins consistently coughing, staff members call an off-site nurse.

During previous surges, sick shelter residents had the option to stay at a King County isolation and quarantine hotel with nurses on-site. But as the omicron variant drives infection rates in Seattle and nationwide higher than ever before, shelter providers like The Salvation Army have been dealing with outbreaks mostly on their own. 

Read the story here.

—Scott Greenstone

It’s Day 6 of COVID, and you test positive again. Why you should stay home

What does it mean if a person’s rapid antigen test result comes back positive after five days of isolation due to COVID-19? According to the experts, that person is most likely still carrying a viral load high enough to infect others.

“Anytime you’re positive by one of these rapid at-home COVID tests, it means that you’ve still got a really high level of the viral protein, and most experts are interpreting that as a high level of virus present in your nasal passage,” said Matthew Binnicker, director of clinical virology at the Mayo Clinic and president of the Pan American Society for Clinical Virology.

Recently revised federal guidelines shortened the isolation period to five days after symptoms started or a positive test, followed by five days of masking.

But CDC public affairs specialist Jasmine Reed said the best approach is to use an antigen test toward the end of the five-day isolation period if the person’s symptoms have improved. “If your test result is positive, you should continue to isolate until Day 10,” she said.

Read the story here.

—Rae Ellen Bichell, Kaiser Health News
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Putin: ‘Life goes on’ despite ‘difficult’ COVID-19 situation

Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday that “life goes on” despite a “difficult” COVID-19 situation in the country that has seen infection records for two weeks straight.

The Kremlin continues to hold off from imposing nationwide restrictions even as the state coronavirus task force reported 141,883 news infections on Wednesday – a massive spike from the daily 15,000 cases recorded in early January.

Putin appealed for “solidarity” and “mutual assistance” to help the country pull through the renewed surge.

A subset of the omicron variant, BA.2, has been also discovered in Russia. The BA.2 subset is widely considered stealthier than the original version and some scientists worry it could also be more contagious.

With only one six-week-long lockdown in 2020, Russia has avoided imposing nationwide COVID-19 restrictions on its citizens, leaving these decisions up to the local governments in its regions.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

‘Significant element’ from U.S. involved in vaccine protest in Canada, official says

Ottawa police said Wednesday that a “significant element” from the United States has been involved in the participation, funding and organization of a self-described “Freedom Convoy” that has for several days jammed streets in the capital to protest public health measures and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

“They have converged in our city, and there are plans for more to come,” said Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloly. He said that the participants, who also include locals and other Canadians, are “putting our city and our residents, our partners and our officers at great risk.”

The number of protesters has declined substantially from the thousands on Parliament Hill over the weekend. But a determined core group remains, officials say. With trucks noisily blocking streets, businesses shut down and residents frustrated for the sixth day, pressure has mounted on police to bring a resolution to the disruption.

“We are trying to be responsible, lawful, ethical and measured,” Sloly said. “The longer this goes on, the more I am convinced there may not be a police solution in this demonstration.”

Read the story here.

—Amanda Coletta and Annabelle Timsit, The Washington Post

‘Take back life’: More nations ease coronavirus restrictions

Late-night partying at clubs. Elbow-to-elbow seating in movie theaters. Going without masks in public, especially in Europe and North America: Step by step, many countries are easing their COVID-19 restrictions amid hopes the omicron wave may have passed its peak.

The early moves to relax precautions, based on declining or flattening case counts in recent days, represent what could be another turning point in a nearly two-year pandemic that has been full of them.

The World Health Organization this week said some countries can now consider carefully relaxing the rules if they have high immunity rates, their health care systems are strong and the epidemiological trends are going in the right direction.

The most pronounced pullbacks in restrictions are in Europe, for many months the world’s epicenter of the pandemic, as well as in South Africa — where omicron was first announced publicly — and the United States. In Britain and the U.S., like South Africa before them, COVID-19 cases skyrocketed at first but are now coming down rapidly.

Read the story here.

—Jamey Keaten, The Associated Press
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Is it time to accept COVID is here to stay? Most Americans agree, new poll shows

Do you accept life with COVID-19 as the new normal?

Most Americans think it’s time to, according to a new poll, as 2022 marks another year dealing with the virus’s spread and its potential to mutate into new variants such as delta and omicron.

Specifically, 70% of Americans agree that “it’s time we accept that COVID is here to stay and we just need to get on with our lives,” according to a new poll released Jan. 31 by Monmouth University in New Jersey.

Answers varied along partisan lines. While 89% of Republicans say they agree with the statement, 71% of independents and 47% of Democrats say the same, the poll found.

Read the story here.

—Julia Marnin, McClatchy Washington Bureau

Researchers asked why some nations were better prepared for COVID. One surprising answer: Trust

Before 2020, Vietnam looked particularly vulnerable to a pandemic. The Southeast Asian country, a single-party state with nearly 100 million people, scored low on international assessments of universal health coverage and had relatively few hospital beds for its population, as well as a closed-off political system.

Instead, Vietnam emerged as an early pandemic success story. Long after the coronavirus began to spread in neighboring China, Vietnam maintained low levels of infections and fatalities even as wealthy countries with more robust health systems, including the United States and much of Europe, struggled.

A new study of pandemic preparedness across 177 countries and territories appears to have found a key element in Vietnam’s success: trust.

Thomas Bollyky, one of the study’s authors, said Vietnam should have failed in the fight against the coronavirus, according to traditional tenets of preparedness.

“What Vietnam does have, that seems to potentially explain what has happened, is that they have very high trust in government – among the highest in the world,” said Bollyky, who is a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank.

Read the story here.

—Adam Taylor, The Washington Post

U.S. has far higher COVID-19 death rate than other wealthy nations

Two years into the pandemic, the coronavirus is killing Americans at far higher rates than people in other wealthy nations, a sobering distinction to bear as the country charts a course through the next stages of the pandemic.

The ballooning death toll has defied the hopes of many Americans that the less severe omicron variant would spare the United States the pain of past waves. Deaths have now surpassed the worst days of the autumn surge of the delta variant, and are more than two-thirds as high as the record tolls of last winter, when vaccines were largely unavailable.

With American lawmakers desperate to turn the page on the pandemic, as some European leaders have already begun to, the number of dead has clouded a sense of optimism, even as omicron cases recede. And it has laid bare weaknesses in the country’s response, scientists said.

“Death rates are so high in the States — eye-wateringly high,” said Devi Sridhar, head of the global public health program at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, who has supported loosening coronavirus rules in parts of Britain. “The United States is lagging.”

Read the full story here.

— Benjamin Mueller and Eleanor Lutz, The New York Times
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Beijing says COVID-19 situation ‘controllable,’ ‘safe’

Beijing reported three new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday as officials said the virus situation was under control with the Olympic Games set to open later in the week.

The three cases reported in the 24-hour period from Tuesday to Wednesday all involved people under some sort of quarantine.

“The current pandemic situation in the capital is overall controllable and it’s headed in a good direction,” said Xu Hejian, a spokesman for the city government, at a daily press briefing. “Beijing is safe.”

The Chinese capital has been on high-alert as it prepares to host the Winter Olympics starting Friday.

Since Jan. 15, Beijing has reported a total of 115 locally transmitted cases of COVID-19, including six cases of the highly contagious omicron variant. In response, the city has mass tested millions of people and sealed off several neighborhoods in different parts of the city while avoiding a strict lockdown for the entire capital.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

Catch up on the past 24 hours

Omicron is sweeping through King County's homeless population, and shelters have been left to deal with it on their own after the county largely threw up its hands. Yet at county isolation and quarantine hotels, scores of rooms sit empty.

A woman refused to wear a mask, then pointed a gun at a Bellevue gas-station worker and threatened to kill him, prosecutors say. She's been charged with a felony.

It’s Day 6 of COVID-19. You've done your five days of isolation, but a rapid test comes back positive. Virologists are explaining why you should stay home.

COVID is killing Americans at a far higher rate than other wealthy nations are experiencing, and these charts help illustrate why. Many of those other countries are now easing their restrictions at what looks like a turning point. So why were some of them better prepared for COVID? Researchers found a key element in a study of 177 countries and territories. 

—Kris Higginson