The World Health Organization said the worst of the pandemic could come to an end this year if vaccine and medicine inequities are addressed quickly. The health agency has called the vast vaccination gaps between rich and poor countries a “catastrophic moral failure.”

As several countries continue to report surges in COVID-19 cases, Poland’s health officials said the country is in its fifth wave of the pandemic and are predicting daily infections to peak around mid-February. The country’s deputy health minister said that 300 out of the 377 deaths reported Tuesday were among unvaccinated people.

While the highly-contagious omicron variant causes less severe illness on average, COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. are soaring. Data models forecast that 50,000 to 300,000 more Americans could die from COVID-19 by the time the surge subsides around mid-March.

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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Novavax becomes Australia’s 5th approved COVID-19 vaccine

Novavax’s COVID-19 vaccine on Thursday became the fifth coronavirus vaccine approved for use in Australia.

The country has ordered 51 million doses of the U.S.-manufactured vaccine, supplied under the brand Nuvaxovid, for its population of 26 million. Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Moderna vaccines are already in use in Australia. Johnson and Johnson’s Janssen vaccine is also approved but the government has not bought any.

The Novavax vaccine will be available to unvaccinated Australians aged 18 years and older but will not be used as a booster for the 95% of the population aged 16 and older who have already received a vaccine.

Read the full story here.

—The Associated Press
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NBC will not send announcers to Beijing for Winter Games

NBC will not be sending its announcers and most hosts to the Beijing Olympics due to continued concerns about rising COVID-19 cases worldwide and China’s strict policy about those who test positive.

It will be the second straight Games for which the broadcast teams will work mostly out of NBC Sports headquarters in Stamford, Connecticut, rather than the host city.

“Something significant has changed virtually every day for the last three months, forcing us to adjust our plan numerous times. And I expect that to continue as well as the challenge of doing the Olympics,” said Molly Solomon, the head of NBC’s Olympics production unit.

Read the fully story here.

—Joe Reedy, The Associated Press

Biden says nation weary from COVID but rising with him in WH

President Joe Biden acknowledged Wednesday that the pandemic has left Americans exhausted and demoralized but insisted at a news conference marking his first year in office that he has “outperformed” expectations in dealing with it.

Facing sagging poll numbers and a stalled legislative agenda, Biden conceded he would likely have to pare back his “build back better” recovery package and instead settle for “big chunks” of his signature economic plan. He promised to further attack inflation and the pandemic and blamed Republicans for uniting in opposition to his proposals rather than offering ideas of their own.

This is a perilous time for Biden: The nation is gripped by a disruptive new surge of virus cases, and inflation is at a level not seen in a generation. Democrats are bracing for a potential midterm rout if he can’t turn things around.

Read the full story here.

—Josh Boak and Zeke Miller, The Associated Press

State health officials confirm 14,085 new coronavirus cases

The state Department of Health (DOH) reported 14,085 new coronavirus cases on Wednesday.

The update brings the state's totals to 1,119,228 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. Tuesday.

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 Wednesday's duplicate cases.

In addition, 50,331 people have been hospitalized in the state due to the virus — 391 new hospitalizations. In King County, the state's most populous, state health officials have confirmed a total of 290,923 COVID-19 diagnoses and 2,202 deaths.

Since vaccinations began in mid-December, the state and health care providers have administered 12,437,933 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 26,650 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
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US begins offering 1B free COVID tests, but many more needed

For the first time, people across the U.S. can log on to a government website and order free, at-home COVID-19 tests. But the White House push may do little to ease the omicron surge, and experts say Washington will have to do a lot more to fix the country’s long-troubled testing system.

The website, COVIDTests.gov, allows people to order four at-home tests per household, regardless of citizenship status, and have them delivered by mail. But the tests won’t arrive for seven to 12 days, after omicron cases are expected to peak in many parts of the country.

The White House also announced Wednesday that it will begin making 400 million N95 masks available for free at pharmacies and community health centers. Both initiatives represent the kind of mass government investments long seen in parts of Europe and Asia, but delayed in the U.S.

“Should we have done more testing earlier? Yes, but we’re doing more now,” President Joe Biden said Wednesday, recapping his first year in office.

Experts say the plan to distribute 1 billion tests is a good first step, but it must become a regular part of the pandemic response. In the same way that it has made vaccines free and plentiful, the government must use its purchasing power to assure a steady test supply, they say.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

Sotomayor says she did not ask Gorsuch to wear a mask on the Supreme Court bench

Justice Sonia Sotomayor said in a statement Wednesday that she did not ask Justice Neil Gorsuch to wear a mask on Supreme Court bench, and Chief Justice John Roberts followed up by saying he did not make such a request of their other colleagues either.

The rare statements from the justices seemed aimed at knocking down reporting that Sotomayor, who has health reasons to be especially worried about contracting covid-19, was participating remotely in oral arguments because Gorsuch was not wearing a mask.

The statements did not directly address that, but did refute some elements of an NPR report that raised the issue.

“Reporting that Justice Sotomayor asked Justice Gorsuch to wear a mask surprised us. It is false. While we may sometimes disagree about the law, we are warm colleagues and friends,” said a joint statement from Sotomayor, one of the court’s most liberal members, and Gorsuch, one of its most conservative.

But the report from longtime Supreme Court correspondent Nina Totenberg did not say Sotomayor had made the request. It said that the chief justice, “in some form or other asked the other justices to mask up.” It said Gorsuch’s “continued refusal since then has also meant that Sotomayor has not attended the justices’ weekly conference in person, joining instead by telephone.”

Read the story here.

—Robert Barnes, The Washington Post

Is it better to wear an N95 or cloth mask right now?

Is it better to wear an N95 or cloth mask right now?

Health experts suggest stepping up protection against the highly contagious omicron variant with stronger masks such as N95s or KN95s.

It’s especially important now with health care systems under strain, and with people in higher-risk situations such as crowded, indoor settings for extended periods, says Linsey Marr, who studies viruses at Virginia Tech.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently updated its guidance to recommend the kinds of masks used by health care workers, but also noted it’s important to pick a mask that fits well and that you’ll wear consistently.

Read the story here.

—Emma H. Tobin, The Associated Press
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Hungary opposition leader tests positive for COVID-19

The leader of Hungary’s political opposition said Wednesday that he has tested positive for COVID-19 amid a surge in cases fueled by the highly transmissible omicron variant.

Peter Marki-Zay, an independent conservative who will represent a six-party opposition coalition in the parliamentary election in April, said on his Facebook page that he had received a positive test after exhibiting mild COVID-19 symptoms following a television appearance Tuesday evening.

Marki-Zay’s announcement came on the same day that Hungary reported 14,890 new cases, the highest number of daily cases of COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic.

Marki-Zay is representing six opposition parties as their joint prime ministerial candidate to face off against right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

Read the story here.

—Justin Spike, The Associated Press

Starbucks nixes vaccine mandate after Supreme Court ruling

Starbucks is no longer requiring its U.S. workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19, reversing a policy it announced earlier this month.

In a memo sent Tuesday to employees, the Seattle coffee giant said it was responding to last week’s ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court. In a 6-3 vote, the court rejected the Biden administration’s plan to require vaccines or regular COVID testing at companies with more than 100 workers.

Starbucks’ reversal is among the most high-profile corporate actions in response to the Supreme Court ruling. Many other big companies, including Target, have been mum on their plans.

On Jan. 3, Starbucks said it would require all employees to be vaccinated by Feb. 9 or face a weekly COVID test requirement. At the time, Culver said it was the responsibility of Starbucks’ leadership “to do whatever we can to help keep you safe and create the safest work environment possible.”

Read the story here.

—Dee-Ann Durbin, The Associated Press

AP photo gallery: Vaccine workers trek in Kashmir’s snowy mountains

In a Himalayan village in the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir, young health worker Masrat Farid packed her bag with vaccines on a frigid morning in January as strong winds swept snow through the air.

She is part of a team of health workers undertaking a door-to-door campaign in the region to deliver vaccine shots to teens and boosters to old people in remote mountain villages.

Bone-chilling cold and inhospitable terrain are not their only obstacles as winning the trust of some vaccine resistant residents is more difficult than braving the Himalayan winter.

Read the story here.

—Dar Yasin, The Associated Press
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Pfizer chief Albert Bourla wins $1 million Genesis Prize

Albert Bourla, chairman and chief executive of global pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc., was awarded on Wednesday the prestigious Genesis Prize for his efforts in leading the development of a COVID-19 vaccine.

The $1 million award is granted each year to a person for their professional achievements, contributions to humanity and commitment to Jewish values. The Genesis Prize Foundation said Bourla had received the largest number of votes in an online campaign in which some 200,000 people in 71 countries participated.

It commended him for his “leadership, determination, and especially for his willingness to assume great risks.” It cited Pfizer’s decision to turn down U.S. government funding early in the pandemic, a decision that helped the company reduce bureaucracy and expedite development of the vaccine.

Its partner, BioNTech, received funding from the German government, and Pfizer later signed a large supply contract with the United States. The strategy put Pfizer at the forefront of global efforts to fight the coronavirus, with its vaccine the first to be authorized for use in the U.S. and Europe.

The Greek-born Bourla, the son of Holocaust survivors, plans to donate his prize to projects aimed at preserving the memory of Holocaust victims, especially in Greece, the foundation said. Bourla’s parents were among the few survivors of Thessaloniki’s Jewish community, which was all but wiped out by the Nazis during World War II.

In a statement issued by the foundation, Bourla said he was accepting the prize “humbly and on behalf of all my Pfizer colleagues who answered the urgent call of history.”

Read the story here.

—Josef Federman, The Associated Press

German police see surge in fake vaccine certificates

Police in Germany are investigating thousands of cases of suspected forgery of coronavirus vaccine certificates, the dpa news agency reported Wednesday.

It cited figures obtained from the country’s 16 states showing more than 12,000 police investigations have been opened nationwide.

Dpa reported that the number of probes surged in December, after authorities announced new restrictions that largely locked unvaccinated people out of public life.

Those who supply or use fake certificates could face severe penalties, from fines and suspended prison sentences to losing their jobs.

Prosecutors have opened a manslaughter investigation in one case after a woman used a fake vaccine certificate to continue working at a nursing home, despite having family members ill with COVID-19 at home.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

Suspended professor threatens to sue if he’s not reinstated

A Michigan professor who was suspended after making a profanity-filled video for his students is threatening to file a lawsuit if Ferris State University doesn’t quickly lift the sanction.

Barry Mehler’s 14-minute YouTube video at the start of a new term was peppered with profanities and unusual remarks about grades, plagiarism and classroom attendance during the COVID-19 pandemic. He included commentary about an old Camel cigarette TV ad — “turning death into profit” — and a clip from the HBO series “Deadwood.”

Ferris State President David Eisler said he was “shocked and appalled” by the video, but Mehler said the video was a humorous performance intended to get his students’ “juices flowing.”

Mehler believes the president is upset over his mocking of the school’s COVID-19 policies. Vaccinations aren’t required at the Big Rapids school, 155 miles (250 kilometers) northwest of Detroit.

Mehler called students “vectors of disease” and said they didn’t need to appear in person to take his class.

“I will not take questions in class because I’m wearing this … helmet in order to stay alive,” he said in the video, a reference to a $300 astronaut-style helmet with air filters.

Read the story here.

—Ed White, The Associated Press
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Life, death and ‘hugs and prayers’: A story of COVID in rural Michigan

The conversation at the card table inside the Lewiston 50 Plus Club turned one recent afternoon to the coronavirus pandemic, as it had so many times the past two years.

Just days earlier, the club’s president — and one of its most devoted euchre players, Danny Burtch — died of the virus after a weeks-long battle.

Burtch was the 40th person claimed by COVID-19 in sparsely populated Montmorency County, in the backwoods of northern Michigan. The grief has hit particularly hard at the 50 Plus Club, knocked down in so many ways during the pandemic.

As health care leaders pleaded with Michigan residents to take the virus seriously and to get vaccinated, Burtch was among several thousand mostly unvaccinated patients who flooded the state’s hospital wards during the fall and early winter. For weeks, Michigan led the country in COVID-19 deaths, and the 71-year-old retired electrician, with no major health complications before contracting the virus, was among them.

On a recent Saturday morning outside Munson Medical Center in Traverse City, Michigan, Janice Burtch sat in a car holding a can of Diet Coke in one hand, a pack of Marlboros in the other. Snow was falling, the blacktop was wet, and she had just watched her husband of 29 years take his last breath.

“I literally watched that man die in front of my eyes,” Janice, 60, said.

Unlike Janice, who was fully vaccinated and boosted, Danny had refused to get the shot, something his wife attributes to a long-standing distrust in government and a heavy diet of Fox News.

Read the story here.

—Kayla Ruble, The Washington Post

Slovakia imposes COVID restrictions to get ready for omicron

Slovakia on Wednesday limited access to what the government considers the most risky events and public gatherings as the country gets ready for the highly infectious omicron coronavirus variant.

To attend weddings, parties, discotheques and other venues like wellness and swimming centers, people need to receive a booster shot, or be vaccinated with two shots and additionally get tested for or be recovered from COVID-19.

The number of people at those events and venues will be limited. All bars, restaurants and various services will also have to be closed between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m.

Omicron spreads even more easily than other coronavirus strains, and has already become dominant in many countries. It also more easily infects those who have been vaccinated or had previously been infected by prior versions of the virus.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

WHO counts 18 million virus cases last week as omicron slows

The number of new coronavirus cases globally rose by 20% last week to more than 18 million, marking a slowdown in the surge caused by the omicron variant’s spread, according to the World Health Organization.

In its weekly report on the pandemic, the U.N. health agency said the number of new COVID-19 infections increased in every world region except for Africa, where cases fell by nearly a third. The number of deaths globally remained similar to the previous week, at about 45,000.

Confirmed COVID-19 cases jumped by about 50% the week before last, and earlier this month, WHO reported the biggest single-week increase in cases of the pandemic.

WHO said in its report issued late Tuesday that Southeast Asia had the biggest rise in coronavirus cases last week, with the number of newly infected people spiking by 145%. The Middle East saw a 68% weekly rise.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press
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Japan widens virus curbs, including in Tokyo, as cases surge

Tokyo and a dozen other areas in Japan will face new COVID-19 restrictions effective Friday, with local leaders shortening hours for restaurants, as omicron cases hit a record high in the capital.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced that the areas will be placed under a three-week restraint through Feb. 13 following endorsement by experts and the parliament.

Tokyo logged 7,377 new cases on Wednesday, its highest number since its previous record of 5,908 on Aug. 13. But the soaring cases are not yet straining the city’s hospitals. Only about one-quarter of available beds have been filled in Tokyo and serious cases account for just 2% of all hospitalizations, according to the city government.

Read the story here.

—Mari Yamaguchi, The Associated Press

UK lifts COVID restrictions, says omicron wave ‘has peaked’

Face masks will no longer be mandatory in public places and schools in England and COVID-19 passports will be dropped for large events as infections level off in large parts of the country, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Wednesday.

Johnson told lawmakers that the restrictions were being eased because government scientists believed it was likely that the surge of infections prompted by the highly contagious omicron variant “has now peaked nationally.”

The restrictions were introduced in December to slow the rapid spread of omicron variant and buy time for the population to get their booster vaccine shot but now more than 90% of those over 60 in the U.K. have had their booster shot.

Official figures showed that COVID-19 infections have dropped in most parts of the U.K. for the first time since early December, with 94,432 new positive cases recorded on Tuesday.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

Catch up on the past 24 hours

New ways of getting COVID-19 tests have arrived. Seattle is expanding testing, adding a new site today, and debuting rapid PCR tests at several other sites. Plus, you can order free rapid COVID-19 tests now from the U.S. government. Our Q&A explains how this works. Know the types of tests and how to get the timing right.

The U.S. will give away three N95 masks per person, starting next week, the White House announced today. The CDC recommends these instead of cloth masks. Our visual guide to the different mask types shows how to pick the best one and maximize your protection with it.

Up to 300,000 more Americans could die by mid-March, pushing the U.S. death total from COVID-19 past 1 million, models predict. Yet the worst of the pandemic could be over this year, if the right actions are taken, a World Health Organization official says.

Carhartt said vaccination remains mandatory for its workers, even after the Supreme Court decided large companies don't need to require workers to get shots. A conservative backlash ensued.

—Kris Higginson