Editor’s note: This is a live account of COVID-19 updates from Friday, February 4, 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 It is no longer being updated.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.

Many U.S. hospitals are looking to hire health care workers from outside the country as they find themselves facing serious shortages in nursing staff amid a surge in COVID-19 cases.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration announced that people with Medicare should be able to get free over-the-counter tests with more ease in the following weeks.

Medicare insurance will cover up to eight free tests each month beginning in early spring. Last month, the administration instructed private insurers to cover up to eight at-home tests a month.

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.
Watch here:

Researchers: COVID hospitalizations in Oregon are peaking

The number of people hospitalized for COVID-19 in Oregon will peak this weekend near current levels and then steadily recede to pre-omicron levels by the end of March, Oregon Health & Science University said in this week’s forecast.

“The way Oregon handled omicron is almost as good as you’re going to see,” said Peter Graven, director of the OHSU Office of Advanced Analytics. “Oregon pushed out booster shots, Oregonians modified their behavior early, before omicron fully arrived here, and we kept our masking rates relatively high compared with other states.”

Meanwhile, the percentage of tests for COVID-19 that were positive for the virus dropped this week to 19% from an all-time high the previous week of 24.5%, according to Oregon Health Authority data.

In Oregon, the number of hospitalized patients with COVID-19 dipped slightly by 17 to 1,087, the OHA reported Thursday night. The number of COVID-19 patients in ICU beds also dropped to 183, 10 fewer than the previous day.

Read the full story here.

—The Associated Press
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When Asian-American seniors are too scared to leave home, getting food is a struggle

Asian-American seniors like Derek Tang, a 68-year-old refugee from Cambodia, typically go to Homecrest Community Services in Brooklyn to socialize, have lunch and maybe play mahjong. But now Homecrest is also offering safety webinars and distributing panic alarms so Tang and other patrons can feel more secure stepping out of their homes.

Tang hasn’t been employed since suffering a heart attack in 2006. His wife was working in an Asian grocery store, but the shop closed during the pandemic. That makes the meals served by Homecrest a vital lifeline. So he still needs to get himself there, despite concerns about safety. One member of the center, an 89-year-old Chinese-American woman, was lit on fire near her home in Brooklyn in the summer of 2020. Tang, a genocide survivor, took Homecrest’s online class and studied pamphlets. He’s vigilant when he leaves home.

“Always be careful,” Tang said.

A surge in anti-Asian hate crime across the U.S. has made the most vulnerable in the community, especially seniors, more afraid to leave their homes. For the low income, that can translate to worsening hunger. Adults in Asian households were twice as likely as their white counterparts to report not having enough to eat because of fear of going out, a government analysis showed last year.

Read the full story here.

—Amy Yee, Bloomberg

CDC report measures how much better N95, KN95 masks are at preventing COVID

Wearing any kind of mask indoors is associated with significantly better protection from the coronavirus, with high-quality N95 and KN95 masks providing the best chance of avoiding infection, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Friday.

In indoor public settings, surgical masks reduce the chances of testing positive by 66%, the CDC estimated. Top-of-the-line N95 and KN95 masks, the tightfitting face coverings often worn by health-care workers, cut the odds of infection by 83%, the health agency said.

Wearing a cloth mask appeared to lower the odds of testing positive by 56%, but the findings were not statistically significant.

“These data from real-world settings reinforce the importance of consistently wearing face masks or respirators to reduce the risk of acquisition of SARS-CoV-2 infection among the general public in indoor community settings,” the CDC said in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Read the full story here.

—Frances Stead Sellers and Lenny Bernstein, The Washington Post

Judge halts VA governor’s opt-out school mask order, for now

A judge on Friday temporarily halted Republican Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s executive order that sought to allow parents to opt out of classroom mask mandates for their children but had been met with resistance from some school districts.

Arlington Circuit Court Judge Louise DiMatteo ruled in favor of seven school boards that filed a lawsuit challenging the governor’s order, one of the first actions Youngkin took after his inauguration Jan. 15. Her temporary restraining order means mask mandates put in place by school boards may remain, at least for now.

The judge found that the single issue before the court was whether Youngkin, through his emergency powers, can override the decision of local school boards delegated to them under a 2021 state law that required boards to provide in-person instruction in a way that adheres to federal COVID-19 mitigation strategies “to the maximum extent practicable.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends universal masking, regardless of vaccination status.

“On this pivotal point, the Court concludes that the Governor cannot” override local school officials, the judge wrote in her ruling.

Read the full story here.

—Denise Lavoie and Sarah Rankin, The Associated Press
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CDC to expand wastewater monitoring to help track coronavirus trends

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention plans to expand a system that detects the coronavirus in wastewater to better predict surges and declines of COVID-19 and, eventually, wants to harness the network’s early-warning power to find other deadly pathogens and control foodborne disease outbreaks.

Research suggests that 40 to 80% of people infected with the coronavirus shed viral genetic material in their feces even if they don’t have symptoms. It’s one of the first signs of an infection.

Increases in wastewater virus levels generally take place four to six days before health officials see a corresponding rise in case counts or hospitalizations.

“These data are uniquely powerful because they capture the presence of infections from people with and without symptoms and are not affected by access to health care or availability of clinical testing,” Amy Kirby, who leads the agency’s wastewater surveillance system, said during a briefing Friday.

Read the full story here.

—Lena H. Sun, The Washington Post

State health officials confirm new coronavirus cases, deaths

The state Department of Health (DOH) reported 9,487 new coronavirus cases on Wednesday and 7,813 on Thursday. It also reported 122 more deaths over those days.

The update brings the state's totals to 1,367,769 cases and 10,967 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. Thursday. New state data is reported on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

In addition, 55,319 people have been hospitalized in the state due to the virus — 675 new hospitalizations. In King County, the state's most populous, state health officials have confirmed a total of 351,573 COVID-19 diagnoses and 2,335 deaths.

Since vaccinations began in late 2020, the state and health care providers have administered 12,774,305 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 19,473 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

Expert panel backs Moderna shots — after full U.S. approval

A federal advisory panel voted unanimously Friday to continue to endorse Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine for adults, now that U.S. regulators have given the shots their full approval.

The decision has little practical effect. Tens of millions of Americans have already gotten Moderna shots, following its emergency authorization by the Food and Drug Administration more than a year ago.

Earlier this week, the FDA gave the product full licensure, following the kind of rigorous, time-consuming review given to other vaccines.

While the FDA licenses vaccines, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention makes recommendations to doctors and patients about how they should be used. So the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices took up the matter on Friday.

Read the story here.

—Mike Stobbe, The Associated Press
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Emboldened China opens Olympics, with lockdown and boycotts

China, which used its first Olympics to amplify its international aspirations, invited the world back Friday — sort of — for the pandemic era’s second Games, this time as an emboldened and more powerful nation whose government’s authoritarian turn provoked some countries’ leaders into staying home.

Chinese President Xi Jinping declared the Games open during a ceremony heavy on ice-blue tones and winter imagery, held in the same lattice-encased Bird’s Nest stadium that hosted the inaugural event of the 2008 Summer Olympics.

With the flame lit, Beijing became the first city to host both winter and summer Games. And while some are staying away from the second pandemic Olympics in six months, many other world leaders attended the opening ceremony. Most notable: Russian President Vladimir Putin, who met privately with Xi earlier in the day as a dangerous standoff unfolded at Russia’s border with Ukraine.

The pandemic weighs heavily on this year’s Games, just as it did last summer in Tokyo. More than two years after the first COVID-19 cases were identified in China’s Hubei province, some 700 miles (1,100 km) south of Beijing, nearly 6 million human beings have died and hundreds of millions more around the world have been sickened.

Read the story here.

—Sarah DiLorenzo, The Associated Press

WA state Senate doubles number of members allowed on floor

As COVID-19 cases continue to drop across the state, the Washington Senate will double the number of senators allowed on the chamber floor from 15 to 30 starting next week.

The Democratic-majority Senate Facilities and Operations Committee met via Zoom on Friday morning to discuss updating the COVID-19 protocols as they near the halfway mark of the 60-day session that began Jan. 10.

Under the plan unanimously approved by the committee, floor action will continue to be mostly conducted in a hybrid format with a majority of the chamber’s 49 members participating in-person, and some members participating remotely. The maximum number of lawmakers allowed on the floor will be 30: 16 Democrats and 14 Republicans.

Read the story here.

—Rachel La Corte, The Associated Press

Where have all the flowers gone? There’s an ‘abrupt halt in the entire floral world’

The photographs of trashed flowers still haunt florists. In 2020, when much of the world went into lockdown because of the pandemic, many flower farms’ crops were discarded. Since no one knew what was going to happen, new crops were not planted as usual.

Now, because of pandemic-related supply chain challenges, labor shortages and poor weather conditions in major growing areas, there is a global shortage of fresh flowers, especially the kinds grown for events like weddings.

“It was never a problem before, but now everything is a problem,” said Bob Conti, a partner at Ed Libby Events, a floral design company in Hackensack, New Jersey. “We’ll find out there are no white flowers, or the specialty rose is just not available. There is no way to get it. People can’t get containers, floral tape, supplies or even colored candles. No one can promise things. It’s been crazy. Just nuts.”

Conti has worked in the floral industry, with a focus on events, for 30 years and said he has never seen such a scarcity of materials. Many florists across the country said they were seeing the same thing.

Read the story here.

—Stephanie Cain, The New York Times
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COVID falling in 49 of 50 states as deaths near 900,000

With the brutal omicron wave rapidly loosening its grip, new cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. are falling in 49 of 50 states, even as the nation’s death toll closes in on another bleak round number: 900,000.

The number of lives lost to the pandemic in the U.S. stood at over 897,000 as of midday Friday, with deaths running at an average of more than 2,400 a day, back up to where they were last winter, when the vaccine drive was still getting started.

New cases per day have tanked by almost a half-million nationwide since mid-January, the curve trending downward in every state but Maine. And the number of Americans in the hospital with COVID-19 has fallen 15% over that period to about 124,000.

Deaths are still on the rise in at least 35 states, reflecting the lag time between when victims become infected and when they succumb.

But the trends are giving public health officials hope that the worst of omicron is coming to an end, though they caution that things could still go bad again and dangerous new variants could emerge.

Read the story here.

—Ken Sweet, The Associated Press

Ottawa police expect COVID protest to ramp up again

Police in Canada’s capital said Friday about they will have 150 extra police officers will be deployed to central areas of Ottawa paralyzed by the protest against COVID-19 mandates that has been going on for days.

Embattled Police Chief Peter Sloly gave no indication when the protest would end and police expect it to ramp up again this weekend. Protests are also planned for Toronto and Quebec City this weekend.

Sloly acknowledged “trust has been impacted” as Ottawa residents are furious with the blaring horns, traffic gridlock and harassment they’ve faced. Many complain police have done little and they call it an occupation.

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 but Bell said they expect 300 to 400 more trucks this weekend and more than 1,000 protesters on foot. He said up to 1,000 counter protesters are expected as well.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

Recapture your time by taking longer breaks during normal work hours

The “always on” work culture was already a problem before the pandemic. It started with the advent of email, accelerated with smartphones and exploded during the pandemic. Particularly for those with jobs that allow working from home, 8-5 isn’t even a guideline anymore. Emails, texts and Slack messages come in at all hours, making it hard to ever truly unplug from work.

A permanent culture of remote or hybrid work has its pros and cons when it comes to this new concept of “office hours.” We may not ever go back to a world where workers are truly free from Friday evening until Monday morning.

So to avoid burnout, workers should push to reclaim some of the inevitable lulls during the workweek for personal time, such as Friday brunches. It’s not about turning a five-day workweek into a stealth four-day one, but acknowledging that we already have a stealth seven-day workweek and trying to bring some life balance to it.

Read the story here.

—Conor Sen, Bloomberg
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U.S. jobs report set to be a doozy, thanks to omicron

Omicron. Revisions. Big seasonal factors. Friday’s U.S. jobs report for January is poised to be a doozy.

Nonfarm payrolls forecasts — analysts’ guesses at how many American jobs were lost or gained — range from a 400,000 monthly decline in January to a 250,000 advance, and the confluence of crosscurrents will likely make the report a bit baffling. So much so that White House officials have already warned the report could be confusing or even misleading.

“This is going to be a particularly tricky one,” said Nick Bunker, director of economic research at Indeed. “It is reflective of a really disruptive period during this pandemic.”

A report Wednesday showed U.S. companies shed 301,000 employees from payrolls in January, the most since April 2020, as the coronavirus omicron variant registered a swift blow to the nation’s labor market, according to ADP Research Institute.

Read the story here.

—Reade Pickert and Olivia Rockeman, Bloomberg

Spain to drop masks outdoors as omicron surge decelerates

Spain will end a mandate to wear masks outdoors next week, reversing a late December order against an unprecedented surge of coronavirus infections fueled by a highly contagious mutation, Health Minister Carolina Darias said.

After confirming that contagion levels have peaked, the Spanish Cabinet will end the mandate next Tuesday and the government expects the changes to be adopted from Thursday, Feb. 10, Darias told Cadena SER radio on Friday.

Mask wearing will remain mandatory in indoor public spaces, including public transportation, and outdoors whenever citizens can’t keep a safe distance of 1.5 meters between them.

The outdoor mandate, adopted on Dec. 22 as many were preparing to reunite with loved ones on Christmas, was the government’s main response to the spread of omicron.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

Austria vaccine mandate to take effect, but few emulating it

Austria is about to become the first country in Europe to require most adults to get vaccinated against COVID-19, but few other nations appear likely to join it as many turn their attention to loosening restrictions.

The mandate for people 18 and over take effect on Saturday, 2 1/2 months after the plan was first announced amid a surge of delta-variant cases that sent the country into a since-lifted lockdown.

It comes into force as nations across Europe and beyond have seen infections reach unprecedented levels because of the omicron variant, which is highly contagious but generally causes milder illness and already appears to be leveling off or dropping in some places.

Read the story here.

—Geir Moulson and Emily Schultheis, The Associated Press
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Hong Kong ramps up COVID-19 testing amid outbreak

Hong Kong’s leader on Friday vowed to maintain its “zero” COVID-19 policy as it plans to ramp up virus testing, amid record daily infections.

Carrie Lam said during a news conference that the city would raise its testing quota to 200,000 daily, and eventually aim for 300,000.

She added that its so-called “COVID-zero” strategy is still “the best policy” for Hong Kong, which has aligned itself with China’s policy to stamp out local transmission in the country, even as most of the world has moved toward living with the virus.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

Catch up on the past 24 hours

The world must learn to live with the virus, we keep hearing. But what that means may depend on where you live. As residents of some places joyfully unmask and resume "hugs, parties and festivals," scientists are deeply divided over what's wise. Track the spread of the virus in Washington state with these interactive graphics.

Detectives are trying to crack a COVID mystery deep under New York City: a unique constellation of virus mutations not reported before in humans, potentially signaling a new variant is lurking. Is it coming from rats? Residents? “We will know eventually,” the sewage sleuths vow.

You can go to Bali again, but be prepared: It won't be the carefree resort experience it once was, after the island inched its doors back open with new rules yesterday.

—Kris Higginson