Editor’s note: This is a live account of COVID-19 updates from Tuesday, January 18, 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 It is no longer being updated.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.

Seattle is one of the most vaccinated major metro areas in the nation, with more than 90% of the adult population in King, Pierce and Snohomish Counties having received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine.

Even so, that leaves a fairly large number of people — about 216,000 in all — unvaccinated in Washington’s three most populous counties. But that number’s probably not coming down more much at this point, FYI Guy writes.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s ongoing Household Pulse Survey, most of the Seattle area’s unvaccinated adults — about 53% of them — are firmly entrenched in their opposition to receiving the vaccine, saying that they will “definitely not” get vaccinated. Another 15% said they would “probably not” get the jab.

Meanwhile, COVID-19’s highly transmissible omicron variant continues to spread across the globe, with China’s capital city of Beijing recording its first case on Saturday. The lone case of omicron led the nation to shut down public ticket sales for the 2022 Winter Olympics and sparked mass testing of residents.

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 previous days’ live updates and all our other coronavirus coverage, and here to see how we track the daily spread across Washington.

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An island nation covered in ash now worries about a COVID intrusion

A cleanup and evacuation operation has begun in Tonga, where the island nation’s government, after days of silence, said Tuesday night that an epic volcanic eruption and the tsunami and ash clouds that followed were an “unprecedented disaster.”

International efforts to deliver aid have been complicated not just by the ash and by damaged communication lines, but also by concerns that an island nation that has managed to ward off the coronavirus may be overcome should it allow in aid workers who might be carrying it.

At a news conference Tuesday, Jonathan Veitch, UNICEF’S resident coordinator for the Pacific Islands, said relief efforts would be conducted to get badly needed supplies into Tonga without direct contact.

“We won’t be doing anything to threaten the safety of the population,” he said, speaking to reporters remotely from Fiji.

Read the full story here.

—Damien Cave, Eric Nagourney and Isabella Kwai The New York Times
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Florida man gets 3 years, 6 months for COVID-19 relief fraud

A Florida man has been sentenced to three years and six months in prison for fraudulently collecting over $800,000 in COVID-19 relief funds.

Louis Thornton III, 63, of St. Petersburg, was sentenced Friday in Tampa federal court, according to court records. He pleaded guilty in September to wire fraud. He must also pay back the money he received.

According to court documents, Thornton submitted fraudulent applications in 2020 for Economic Injury Disaster Loan and Paycheck Protection Program loans through the Small Business Administration on behalf of several defunct companies.

The documents said Thornton’s applications fraudulently claimed the companies were operational and had suffered economic injury from the pandemic. Thornton obtained a total of $814,632.50 and used the money to invest in stocks, futures and commodities, the documents said.

Read the full story here.

—The Associated Press

Confusion, lawsuit follow Virginia governor’s order on masks

Virginia’s new Republican governor was facing pushback from Democratic lawmakers, school districts and a group of parents who sued him Tuesday over an executive order that aims to create an opt-out for classroom mask mandates.

The order issued Saturday and set to take effect Monday was among Glenn Youngkin’s first acts after he was sworn in as Virginia’s 74th governor. The move both fulfilled a campaign pledge and inserted Youngkin, a political newcomer working with a divided legislature, into a divisive issue that’s generated controversy and legal challenges in other states around the country.

Youngkin’s order said the parents of any child in elementary or secondary schools or a school-based early childcare or educational program “may elect for their children not to be subject to any mask mandate.”

In part because of a state law passed last year on a bipartisan basis dealing with classrooms and pandemic policies, school districts in many of the state’s most populous localities have since told parents they planned to keep existing mask mandates in place, at least temporarily.

Read the full story here.

—Sarah Rankin, The Associated Press

Florida suspends health official in probe over vaccine law

A health official who has helped lead central Florida’s response to the pandemic has been put on administrative leave as state officials investigate whether he tried to compel employees to get vaccinated for COVID-19 in violation of state law.

The state health agency is conducting an inquiry into Raul Pino, director of the Florida Department of Health in Orange County, “to determine if any laws were broken in this case,” Florida Department of Health press secretary Jeremy Redfern said in an email.

A measure Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law last fall prohibits government agencies from implementing vaccine mandates and restricts private businesses from having vaccine requirements unless they allow workers to opt out for medical reasons, religious beliefs, immunity based on a previous infection, regular testing or an agreement to wear protective gear.

“The Department is committed to upholding all laws, including the ban on vaccine mandates for government employees and will take appropriate action once additional information is known,” Redfern said in the email. He didn’t offer further details.

Read the full story here.

—The Associated Press
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State health officials confirm 7,802 new coronavirus cases

The state Department of Health (DOH) reported 7,802 new coronavirus cases and 34 new deaths on Tuesday.

The update brings the state's totals to 1,105,622 cases and 10,230 deaths, meaning that .9% of people diagnosed in Washington have died, according to the DOH. The data is as of 11:59 p.m. Monday. Tallies may be higher earlier in the week because new state data isn’t reported on weekends.

The DOH data systems are experiencing substantial slowdowns due to the current surge in cases causing delays in reporting cases, hospitalizations and deaths. The agency said it didn't have an estimate for Tuesday's duplicate cases.

In addition, 49,940 people have been hospitalized in the state due to the virus — 1,078 new hospitalizations. In King County, the state's most populous, state health officials have confirmed a total of 286,617 COVID-19 diagnoses and 2,202 deaths.

Since vaccinations began in mid-December, the state and health care providers have administered 12,420,470 doses and 63.2% 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 30,185 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

China cites coronavirus on packaging, despite doubts abroad

Chinese state media say parcels mailed from overseas may have spread the omicron variant of the coronavirus in Beijing and elsewhere, despite doubts among overseas health experts that the virus can be transmitted via packaging.

The State Post Bureau said it has ordered stronger measures to ventilate and disinfect sites where items mailed from overseas are handled. Postal workers must wear protective equipment, receive booster shots and undergo regular testing, it said on its website. International packages must be isolated, cleaned and held for a waiting period to ensure they are free from the virus, it said.

Global health experts say the virus mainly spreads through respiratory droplets when infected people breathe, speak, cough and sneeze.

The World Health Organization says coronaviruses “need a live animal or human host to multiply and survive and cannot multiply on the surface of food packages.”

However, China has repeatedly emphasized what it calls the danger of infections from packaging, despite only trace amounts of the virus being found on such items, and has boosted testing of frozen food and other items shipped from overseas.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

COVID-19 health emergency could be over this year, WHO says

The worst of the coronavirus pandemic — deaths, hospitalizations and lockdowns — could be over this year if huge inequities in vaccinations and medicines are addressed quickly, the head of emergencies at the World Health Organization said Tuesday.

Dr. Michael Ryan, speaking during a panel discussion on vaccine inequity hosted by the World Economic Forum, said “we may never end the virus” because such pandemic viruses “end up becoming part of the ecosystem.”

WHO has slammed the imbalance in COVID-19 vaccinations between rich and poor countries as a catastrophic moral failure. Fewer than 10% of people in lower-income countries have received even one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Read the story here.

—Jamey Keaten, The Associated Press
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Vatican No. 2 and deputy both positive for COVID

The Vatican secretary of state and his deputy have both tested positive for the coronavirus, Vatican officials said Tuesday.

Cardinal Pietro Parolin, who serves as the Vatican’s secretary of state and the pope’s No. 2, has “very light” symptoms, while Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra is asymptomatic, officials said.

There was no immediate comment on their last contact with Pope Francis. These are the first cases of COVID-19 confirmed so high up in the Vatican hierarchy since the pandemic began.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

Some bosses want workers back in the office despite COVID. Here’s why

Bosses are recommitting to their company offices even as omicron is extending the remote working trend that has kept many of their workers laboring at home since COVID-19 erupted in early 2020.

In a sign that leaders still put a priority on togetherness, office leasing, in Los Angeles and elsewhere, finished the year in positive territory after falling during most of the pandemic.

The shift suggests that executives are bullish on the future of their businesses and have decided that offices are important to have even if their employees keep working remotely some of the time.

Working in the office with your peers is a boon for your state of mind, asserts Elizabeth Brink, a regional managing principal in the workplace consulting practice at architecture firm Gensler.

“I firmly believe the overall mental health of employees is improved by coming in some of the time,” Brink said. “Interaction is really critical to mental health.”

Read the story here.

—Roger Vincent, Los Angeles Times

They relied on rapid COVID tests to gather safely; now some wish they hadn’t

Rona MacInnes, 54, was determined to do everything possible to protect her elderly mother as her family prepared to gather for Christmas in Pennington, N.J.

With her son returning from study in Dublin, MacInnes hoped serial at-home coronavirus tests would catch a coronavirus infection he might bring home. The college junior would take six rapid tests before the holiday, all of which returned negative results. But it would become clear only later — after he had spent time with his grandmother — that he had been infected the whole time. Several days after gathering for Christmas, he got a positive result back from the first available lab-based PCR test he was able to book.

The promise of at-home tests to tell people whether they are infectious has been undercut not just by anecdotal reports like MacInnes’s, but by preliminary data that suggest some of the rapid tests may be less sensitive to the now-dominant omicron variant.

A small preprint study that has not yet been peer-reviewed found the rapid tests failed to detect the virus on day zero and day one after infection for 30 individuals in New York and San Francisco. In 28 of those cases, PCR tests indicated that the patients’ virus levels were high enough on those days to make them infectious.

Read the story here.

—Katie Shepherd, The Washington Post
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How to Find a Quality Mask (and Avoid Counterfeits)

The fast-spread of the infectious omicron variant has prompted many people to try to upgrade to a higher-quality medical mask. But that’s easier said than done.

Anyone who has shopped for a mask online or in stores has discovered a dizzying array in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors. Knowing which mask to pick and making sure it’s not a counterfeit requires the sleuthing skills of a forensic investigator. And once you choose one, it’s still a gamble; many people discover they’ve ordered a mask that’s too big or too small for their face or just doesn’t fit right.

“No one has made this easy, that’s for sure,” said Bill Taubner, president of Bona Fide Masks, the exclusive distributor in the United States for both Powecom and Harley KN95 masks, which are from China. “A lot of people end up doing a lot of research.”

Read the full story here.

—Tara Parker-Pope, The New York Times

What to know about the new website to order free COVID tests

The Biden administration on Tuesday launched without fanfare its website for Americans to request four free at-home COVID-19 tests per household, one day before it was scheduled to go live.

On Tuesday, COVIDTests.gov appeared to be running smoothly. Clicking the button to order tests sends you to the United States Postal Service site, where you can fill in your name and address to request four tests.

THE WEBSITE

Order free COVID tests online

The tests are rapid antigen at-home tests, not PCR tests, that can be taken anywhere and give results in 30 minutes, according to the site. They do not have to be taken to a lab, and they can be used whether you have symptoms or not and regardless of whether you’ve had a vaccine.

Read the story here.

—Christine Clarridge

US faces wave of omicron deaths in coming weeks, models say

The fast-moving omicron variant may cause less severe disease on average, but COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. are climbing and modelers forecast 50,000 to 300,000 more Americans could die by the time the wave subsides in mid-March.

The seven-day rolling average for daily new COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. has been trending upward since mid-November, reaching nearly 1,700 on Jan. 17 — still below the peak of 3,300 in January 2021. COVID-19 deaths among nursing home residents started rising slightly two weeks ago, although still at a rate 10 times less than last year before most residents were vaccinated.

Despite signs omicron causes milder disease on average, the unprecedented level of infection spreading through the country, with cases still soaring in many states, means many vulnerable people will become severely sick. If the higher end of projections comes to pass, that would push total U.S. deaths from COVID-19 over 1 million by early spring.

“A lot of people are still going to die because of how transmissible omicron has been,” said University of South Florida epidemiologist Jason Salemi. “It unfortunately is going to get worse before it gets better.”

Read the story here.

—Carla K. Johnson, The Associated Press
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White House soft-launches COVID-19 test request website

The Biden administration on Tuesday quietly launched its website for Americans to request free at-home COVID-19 tests, a day before the site was scheduled to officially go online.

The website, COVIDTests.gov, now includes a link for Americans to access an order form run by the U.S. Postal Service. People can order four at-home tests per residential address, to be delivered by the Postal Service. It marks the latest step by President Joe Biden to address criticism of low inventory and long lines for testing during a nationwide surge in COVID-19 cases due to the omicron variant.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the website was in “beta testing” and operating at a “limited capacity” ahead of its official launch. The website will officially launch mid-morning Wednesday, Psaki said.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

Mexico's president returns to his morning news conference after week of isolation for 2nd coronavirus infection

Mexico President Andrés Manuel López Obrador returned to his morning news conference Monday following a week of isolation for his second coronavirus infection.

The president used his relatively speedy recovery to remark on the lighter symptoms of the omicron variant, which has quickly become dominant in the region, though he had not said explicitly that was the variant he had.

“It is demonstrable that this variant does not have the same seriousness as the earlier, the delta,” López Obrador said. “In symptoms and also in recuperation time.”

López Obrador was infected the first time in January of last year. 

Read the full story here.

—The Associated Press

Omicron wave may cut future severity of coronavirus, study shows

A strong wave of coronavirus infections driven by the omicron variant could hasten the end of pandemic disruptions as it appears to cause less severe illness and provides protection against the delta variant, South Africa-based researchers said.

A laboratory study that used samples from 23 people infected with the omicron variant in November and December showed that while those who previously caught the delta variant can contract omicron, those who get the omicron strain can’t be infected with delta, the researchers said.

While omicron is significantly more infectious than delta, hospital and mortality data in countries including South Africa — the first country to experience a wave of omicron infections — appears to show that it causes less severe disease. The study shows that omicron can displace delta, the researchers led by Alex Sigal of the Africa Health Research Institute said.

Read the story here.

—Antony Sguazzin, Bloomberg
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Israel study: 4th vaccine shows limited results with omicron

An Israeli hospital on Monday said preliminary research indicates a fourth dose of the coronavirus vaccine provides only limited defense against the omicron variant that is raging around the world.

Sheba Hospital last month began administering a fourth vaccine to more than 270 medical workers — 154 who received a Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine and 120 others who received Moderna’s. All had previously been vaccinated three times with the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine.

The clinical trial found that both groups showed increases in antibodies “slightly higher” than following the third vaccine last year. But it said the increased antibodies did not prevent the spread of omicron.

“Despite increased antibody levels, the fourth vaccine only offers a partial defense against the virus,” said Dr. Gili Regev-Yochay, director of the hospital’s infection disease unit. “The vaccines, which were more effective against previous variants, offer less protection versus omicron.”

The preliminary results raised questions about Israel’s decision to offer a second booster shot — and fourth overall — to its over-60 population. The government says over 500,000 people have received the second booster in recent weeks.

Read the full story here.

—Josef Federman, The Associated Press

Poland expects highest infection rate so far in new wave

Poland’s health officials say that the country has entered a new, fifth wave, in the coronavirus pandemic, predicting that it it will peak in mid-February at about 60,000 new infections per day or even more.

Waldemar Kraska, the deputy health minister, said Tuesday that the highly transmissible omicron variant now accounts for 19% of the samples nationwide that have been sequenced, though 50% are in the Pomerania province along the Baltic coast in the country’s north.

If the Health Ministry’s predictions prove correct, the rate of infection in the coming wave would be more than double that of the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of 2021.

On Tuesday, Poland recorded 19,652 new cases of COVID-19 and 377 deaths.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

China halts Winter Olympics ticket sales as omicron arrives in Beijing

China announced tickets to the Winter Olympics will no longer be sold to the general public, as the country’s capital recorded its first case of the highly transmissible omicron variant.

Last fall, Beijing had already limited tickets to the Games to domestic spectators. On Monday, Beijing’s Winter Olympics Organizing Committee said this would be further restricted: Only certain approved groups will be allowed to watch the Olympics in person, after undergoing strict measures to prevent transmission of coronavirus.

“Given the current situation of the COVID-19 pandemic, in order to ensure the safety of all participants and spectators, it has been decided that tickets should not be sold anymore but be part of an adapted program that will invite groups of spectators to be present on site during the Games,” the International Olympic Committee said in a statement.

The lone case of omicron registered on Saturday in Beijing sparked mass testing of 13,000 residents who might have crossed paths with the patient, whom authorities said visited several restaurants and malls before testing positive. It also led Beijing to bar entry to anyone who has visited any Chinese city that recorded even a single case of the coronavirus in the past 14 days.

Read the full story here.

—Eva Dou and Pei Lin Wu, The Washington Post
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Australia has record COVID-19 deaths, hospitals under stress

Australia reported a record high of COVID-19 deaths Tuesday, and its second-largest state declared an emergency in hospitals to cope with surging patient admissions and a staffing shortage due to the coronavirus.

The 74 deaths occurred in its three most populous states. New South Wales reported 36, Victoria reported 22 and Queensland 16. The previous daily record was 59 coronavirus-related deaths on Sept. 4, 2020.

Victoria declared an emergency for hospitals in its state capital, Melbourne, and several regional hospitals from midday Wednesday because of staff shortages and a surge in patient admissions. About 5,000 staff are absent because they are either infected or close contacts.

Read the story here.

—Rod McGuirk, The Associated Press

Hong Kong to cull thousands of hamsters after COVID cases in pet shop

Hong Kong will cull more than 2,000 hamsters and ban the import of small animals after a pet shop worker, a customer and at least 11 hamsters tested positive for the delta variant of the coronavirus.

Officials said Tuesday that it was not clear that the virus had been transmitted to humans from imported hamsters. But they called on residents to surrender hamsters imported since Dec. 22 to be tested and euthanized to prevent any further spread.

“They’re excreting the virus, and the virus can infect other animals, other hamsters and also human beings,” said Thomas Sit, assistant director of Hong Kong’s Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation department. “We don’t want to cull all the animals, but we have to protect public health and animal health. We have no choice — we have to make a firm decision.”

Read the story here.

—Austin Ramzy, The New York Times

Catch up on the past 24 hours

They relied on rapid coronavirus tests to gather safely, and now some wish they hadn’t. But rapid tests that do better at detecting omicron are coming this month, researchers say. For now, know the different types of tests and when to use them.

Many workers would rather quit than go back into the office, a recent survey indicates. But some bosses, pointing to mental health benefits, have decided offices are important to have despite COVID-19. How many people will be comfortable hugging their co-workers hello when they reunite? It turns out there's a wardrobe accessory for that.

Will omicron end the pandemic? It depends on new variants, Dr. Anthony Fauci said yesterday, adding that the world is still in the first of what he considers to be the five phases of the pandemic.

The Joint Chiefs chairman and the Marine Corps' commandant both have COVID-19.

—Kris Higginson