Editor’s note: This is a live account of COVID-19 updates from Thursday, February 3, 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 It is no longer being updated.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 peer-reviewed study published in a top medical journal assessed pandemic preparedness across 177 countries and territories and found that the public’s trust in government leaders was key to maintaining low rates of COVID-19 infections and deaths.
An author of the study said they did not find any links between COVID-19 outcomes and democracy, populism, government effectiveness, universal health care, any preparedness metrics, economic inequality or even trust in science. Instead, better outcomes appear to have gone hand in hand with high levels of trust in government and other citizens.
Meanwhile, U.S. Army officials announced they will begin discharging soldiers who refused to get the mandatory COVID-19 vaccine. Over 3,300 soldiers have refused to comply with the mandate and about 3,000 have already received official written reprimands.
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 2:30 p.m. to discuss the state’s ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Aid reaching disaster-hit Tonga brings first virus outbreak
For more than two years, the isolation of the Pacific archipelago nation of Tonga helped keep COVID-19 at bay.
But last month’s volcanic eruption and tsunami brought outside deliveries of desperately needed fresh water and medicine — and brought the virus.
Tonga is only one of several Pacific island countries to experience their first outbreaks over the past month. There is growing concern that their precarious health care systems might quickly become overburdened, and that the remoteness that once protected them may now make them difficult to help.
“Clearly when you’ve got countries that have already got a very stretched, and fragile health system, when you have an emergency or a disaster and then you have the potential introduction of the virus, that’s going to make an already serious situation immeasurably worse,” said John Fleming, the Asia-Pacific head of health for the Red Cross.
Medicare opens up access to free at-home COVID-19 tests
The Biden administration, seeking to fill a frustrating gap in coverage for COVID-19 tests, Thursday announced that people with Medicare will be able to get free over-the-counter tests much more easily in the coming weeks.
The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services said Medicare will cover up to eight free tests per month, starting in early spring. The tests will be handed out at participating pharmacies and other locations. They’ll be available to people who have Medicare’s “Part B” outpatient benefit, which about 9 in 10 enrollees sign up for.
Last month, the administration directed private insurers to cover up to eight at-home tests a month free of charge to people on their plans. Officials said at the time they were still trying to figure out what to do about Medicare, which covers more than 60 million people, most of them age 65 or older and more vulnerable to severe illness from coronavirus infection.
Medicare benefits are governed by a host of arcane laws and regulations, and officials said Thursday they were able to arrange for coverage of over-the-counter COVID-19 tests by using the program’s legal authority to conduct demonstration programs on innovative ways to deliver health care. This is the first time Medicare has covered an over-the-counter test at no cost to recipients.
Trudeau: Military response not in cards for ongoing COVID protests
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Thursday a military response to the ongoing Ottawa protest against COVID-19 measures is “not in the cards right now.”
Ottawa police Chief Peter Sloly said this week that all options are on the table, including calling in the military, to end the ongoing demonstration that was being called an “occupation” by some on the city council.
Thousands of protesters railing against vaccine mandates and other COVID-19 restrictions descended on the capital last weekend, deliberately blocking traffic around Parliament Hill. Police estimate about 250 remain.
Trudeau said one must be “very, very cautious” about deploying troops on Canadian soil, adding there has been no such request to the federal government. He said any formal requests for assistance from the City of Ottawa or Ontario will be considered.
In New York City sewage, a mysterious coronavirus signal
Last January, a team of researchers searching for the coronavirus in New York City’s wastewater spotted something strange in their samples. The viral fragments they found had a unique constellation of mutations that had never been reported before in human patients — a potential sign of a new, previously undetected variant.
For the past year, these oddball sequences, or what the scientists call “cryptic lineages,” have continued to pop up in the city’s wastewater.
There is no evidence that the lineages, which have been circulating for at least a year without overtaking delta or omicron, pose an elevated health risk to humans. But the researchers, whose findings were to be published in Nature Communications on Thursday, still have no idea where they came from.
The researchers themselves are torn about the lineages’ origins. Some lean toward the explanation that the virus is coming from people whose infections aren’t being captured by sequencing. But others suspect that the lineages may be coming from virus-infected animals, possibly the city’s enormous population of rats. Even then, the favored theory can change from day to day or hour to hour.
Answers remain elusive. “I think it’s really important that we find the source, and we have not been able to pin that down,” said John Dennehy, a virologist at Queens College and an author of the paper.
What ‘live with the virus’ means may depend on where you live
It’s becoming the mantra of 2022, the most optimistic formulation of the end of the pandemic, less ambitious than “stop COVID” but more than “flatten the curve.” The world, we are told, must learn to “live with the virus.”
But what “live with the virus” means may depend on where you live.
In Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been talking about a “long-term strategy for living with COVID-19” that would “protect our liberty and avoid restrictions in future by relying instead on medical advances — especially the vaccines, which have already saved so many lives.”
In Spain, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez is encouraging people to start thinking about “the evolution of COVID from pandemic to an endemic illness … It’s not going to be from one day to the next. And it won’t be immediately. But it will come.”
Health experts have warned against declaring that moment too soon. But many countries in Europe, where vaccination rates are high and hospitalizations through the omicron wave have been manageable, think they will get there before the United States. Already this week, Denmark became the first European Union country to lift almost all its remaining restrictions, concluding that COVID-19 no longer poses a “critical threat” to society. Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said she looked forward to “an open Denmark with hugs, parties and festivals.”
Yet while people the world over are eager for a return to normal, there’s intense debate about what that should look like. Should people have to stay home if they’re infected? How should we track cases? How long do mass public health campaigns make sense?
Russia mulls loosening restrictions amid record virus surge
The Russian president says his government is considering loosening some coronavirus restrictions, even as the country is facing a record-breaking surge of infections because of the highly contagious omicron variant.
Vladimir Putin on Thursday held an online meeting with Russia’s top business association, Business Russia, and assured its members that the authorities are not planning any lockdowns or other additional restrictions because of the surge. Moreover, the government is considering lifting restrictions for those who come into contact with COVID-19 patients.
Existing regulations mandate that people in that position must self-isolate for seven days.
Putin’s remarks come as Russia registers daily records in new COVID-19 cases in the pandemic. On Thursday, the country’s state coronavirus task force reported 155,768 new infections, a daily tally 10 times higher than a month ago, when about 15,000 new cases were recorded each day. The task force also reported 667 deaths.
Upper house of Austrian parliament approves vaccine mandate
Austria’s planned COVID-19 vaccine mandate was approved by the upper house of parliament Thursday evening, clearing one of the final hurdles before it can take effect.
The chamber voted overwhelmingly in favor of the mandate, 47 to 12, following a vote in the lower chamber of parliament on Jan. 20. It will now be sent to President Alexander van der Bellen for signing.
Under the law, the first of its kind in Europe, all adults aged 18 and older will be required to be fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. Once the mandate goes into effect, authorities will write to every household to inform them of the new rules.
Palestinians confront winter COVID surge fueled by omicron
Palestinians are facing a winter coronavirus surge driven by the omicron variant, placing stress on the medical system even though vaccines are widely available.
The Palestinian Authority’s Health Ministry reported over 70,000 active cases in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, annexed east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip on Thursday, more than twice the number at the height of previous surges.
The real figure is likely much higher, as omicron tends to cause milder symptoms, especially in vaccinated patients, and many people are testing at home.
How New Zealand plans to reopen after nearly 2 years of COVID restrictions
New Zealand will ease its COVID border restrictions starting this month, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Thursday.
The country will first allow in New Zealand citizens, residents and some visa holders who are fully vaccinated and coming from Australia, without requiring them to undergo a minimum 10-day quarantine at government-managed facilities, starting Feb. 27. But they must self-quarantine elsewhere and must have been in Australia for 14 days before arrival.
Two weeks later, the country aims to welcome New Zealanders from anywhere in the world, as well as skilled workers. In gradual steps, the country is set to lift all of its pandemic travel restrictions by October.
The plan marks the first time since early 2020 that New Zealand will open its borders to travelers without requiring them to undergo quarantine at government-managed facilities, minus a short-lived quarantine-free travel corridor with Australia. Officials had recently suspended new bookings into the country’s mandatory quarantine system for returning citizens, worried the virus would leak out into the community from those government-run facilities.
WHO: Europe entering ‘plausible endgame’ to COVID pandemic
The director of the World Health Organization’s Europe office said Thursday the continent is now entering a “plausible endgame” to the pandemic and that the number of coronavirus deaths is starting to plateau.
Dr. Hans Kluge said at a media briefing that there is a “singular opportunity” for countries across Europe to take control of COVID-19 transmission due to three factors: high levels of immunization due to vaccination and natural infection, the virus’s tendency to spread less in warmer weather and the lower severity of the omicron variant.
“This period of higher protection should be seen as a cease-fire that could bring us enduring peace,” he said.
As the winter subsides in much of Europe in the coming weeks, when the virus’s transmission naturally drops, Kluge said the upcoming spring “leaves us with the possibility for a long period of tranquility and a much higher level of population defense against any resurgence in transmission.”
Even if another variant emerges, Kluge said, health authorities in Europe should be able to keep it in check, provided immunization and boosting efforts continue, along with other public health interventions.
COVID inequity: In Africa, at-home tests are scarce, costly
After learning that a friend tested positive for COVID-19, Thembi Ndlovu went to a health clinic in Zimbabwe’s capital in search of a free coronavirus test. But there were none left that day, leaving the 34-year-old hairdresser unsure if she needed to take precautions to protect clients.
“I wish we could just walk into a pharmacy and buy a cheap self-testing kit like we do with pregnancy or HIV,” she said as she left the clinic in a working-class township of Harare. “It would be much easier.”
For millions of people in rich countries, COVID-19 self-tests have at times been abundant and free, including in Britain, Canada, France and Germany. But most people across Africa have limited access to them.
Some health officials say the discrepancy between rich and poor countries is discriminatory and has denied poor countries a chance to stem the spread of the coronavirus in the absence of vaccines. And unlike the massive global effort to share vaccines, little has been done to roll out more tests of any kind across much of Africa.
Sweden joins others in announcing end of virus restrictions
Sweden on Thursday joined other European nations in saying it will remove coronavirus restrictions.
“It is time to open Sweden again,” said Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson, announcing the restrictions would be removed from Feb. 9.
Among the measures and recommendations that will be lifted, Sweden will allow people to return to restaurants with no limitation on how many people can be there, how much space there should be or opening hours. Requirements for vaccine certificates and wearing face masks on public transportation will also be removed, as well as the recommendation to limit social contacts.
On Tuesday, neighboring Denmark took the lead among European Union members by scrapping most restrictions. Hours later, Norway lifted its ban on serving alcohol after 11 p.m. and the cap on private gatherings of no more than 10 people.
Strained US hospitals seek foreign nurses amid visa windfall
With American hospitals facing a dire shortage of nurses amid a slogging pandemic, many are looking abroad for health care workers.
And it could be just in time.
There’s an unusually high number of green cards available this year for foreign professionals, including nurses, who want to move to the United States — twice as many as just a few years ago. That’s because U.S. consulates shut down during the coronavirus pandemic weren’t issuing visas to relatives of American citizens, and, by law, these unused slots now get transferred to eligible workers.
Amy L. Erlbacher-Anderson, an immigration attorney in Omaha, Nebraska, said she has seen more demand for foreign nurses in two years than the rest of her 18-year career. And this year, she said, it’s more likely they’ll get approved to come, so long as U.S. consular offices can process all the applications.
“We have double the number of visas we’ve had available for decades,” she said. “That is kind of temporarily creating a very open situation.”
Jobless claims fall for second straight week
After three consecutive weeks of unemployment claims that appeared to rise in tandem with omicron, fewer Americans applied for unemployment benefits for the second week in a row.
Jobless claims fell by 23,000 to 238,000 last week, from 261,000 the previous week, the Labor Department reported Thursday.
The four-week average for claims, which compensates for weekly volatility, rose by nearly 8,000 to 255,000. It was the fifth straight week of increases for the average, mirroring a surge in COVID-19 cases in parts of the country.
In Washington state, new initial claims for unemployment benefits rose just under 1% to 4,976 for the week that ended Jan. 29, from 4,931 the prior week, according to data from the federal Department of Labor.
The Washington state Employment Security Department reports its own figures later Thursday; those often differ slightly from the federal numbers.
Ottawa’s top cop: Police likely can’t end vaccine protests
The police chief of Canada’s capital said Wednesday there is likely no policing solution to end a protest against vaccine mandates and other pandemic restrictions that has snarled traffic around Parliament.
He also said there is a “significant element” of the protest’s funding and organization coming from the United States.
Thousands of protesters descended on Ottawa over the weekend, deliberately blocking traffic around Parliament Hill. Police estimate the protest involved 8,000 to 15,000 people Saturday, but has since dwindled to several hundred. But trucks were still blocking traffic.
“We are now aware of a significant element from the United States that have been involved in the funding, the organizing and the demonstrating. They have converged on our city and there are plans for more to come,” Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloly said.
Organizers, including one who has espoused white supremacist views, raised millions for the cross-Canada “freedom truck convoy” against vaccine mandates.
Amid scrambles for teachers, some fear worse shortages ahead
As schools scramble to find enough substitute teachers to keep classrooms running through the latest surge of the coronavirus, some experts warn there are longer-term problems with the teacher pipeline that cannot be solved with emergency substitutes, bonuses and loosened qualifications.
For years, some states have been issuing fewer teaching licenses, and many districts have had trouble filling vacancies, particularly in poorer areas. Shortages are being felt much more widely due to absences during a pandemic that is testing educators like no other stretch of their careers, raising fears of many more leaving the profession.
To address the problem, states are raising salaries, seeking more teachers outside formal training programs, and pursuing other strategies to develop more educators.
School administrators hope it will be enough.
Officials urge mask-wearing for fans attending Super Bowl
Three days after being photographed without a face mask at the NFC championship game, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti joined other officials Wednesday to urge fans headed for the Super Bowl to strictly adhere to pandemic safety protocols that include staying masked, except while eating or drinking.
The Los Angeles area continues to see high levels of COVID-19 infections, and ticket holders ages 5 and older must show proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID-19 test to enter. Under a Los Angeles County health order, masks are required at all times, with limited exceptions.
The biggest challenge at the Super Bowl might not be on the field, with officials acknowledging there was no way to constantly police 70,000 people. At the championship game Sunday at SoFi Stadium near Los Angeles, where the Super Bowl will be played, thousands of fans openly disregarded the mask mandate.
“You can’t force everybody to wear a mask all the time,” said James Butts, mayor of Inglewood, where the stadium is located. “In the end, it’s the responsibility of the people to take care of themselves, their families and their friends. And that’s the simplest way I can put it.”
But flagrant violators might get a reminder.
Catch up on the past 24 hours
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What to do with your at-home COVID test results: Even if you test negative, more steps may be needed. Here's our guide to understanding and acting on your test results.
The COVID vaccine we need next may not be a shot, according to vaccine makers who are working on a potential game-changer.
New Zealand has a plan to reopen to the world after nearly two years of border restrictions. And Europe may be entering the pandemic's endgame, a world health official said as he urged countries to seize the chance for a virus "cease-fire that could bring us enduring peace."