The White House announced efforts to increase access to tests and masks on Wednesday. President Joe Biden announced that 400 million N95 masks will be made available at pharmacies and community health centers. A new federal website has launched that allows people to order four at-home tests per household.

Washingtonian residents will also soon be able to order free rapid COVID tests through a new state website.

After the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Biden administration’s plan to require vaccines or regular testing at companies with more than 100 workers, Starbucks reversed its plan to require vaccines for its 228,000 employees.

The U.K. eased COVID restrictions, like mandatory masking and vaccine passports, as infection levels plateaued. The measures were originally instituted in December to slow the spread of the omicron variant.

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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Ontario to lift lockdown on dining rooms and gyms

Canada’s largest province is ending a lockdown of restaurant dining rooms, gyms and cinemas at the end of the month.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford said Thursday they will be allowed to reopen Jan. 31 with 50% capacity.

The province locked down again on Jan. 5, unlike U.S. cities and states. Like the U.S., Ontario saw record new infections.

Ford said hospitalizations are starting to slow and officials expect cases of the ultra-contagious omicron variant to peak this month.

“We can be confident the worst is behind us, Ford said. “We’re going to very cautiously open up.”

Read the story here.

—Rob Gillies, The Associated Press
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Police union lawyer: Suspect freed after positive COVID test

A domestic assault suspect was freed from jail after testing positive for COVID-19, despite being deemed dangerous enough that prosecutors wanted him held without a chance of bail, the attorney for the St. Louis Police Officers Association said.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that the 36-year-old man was released on Jan. 4 and has not been re-arrested. Police association lawyer Jane Dueker said the suspect was released according to a policy by Mayor Tishaura Jones’ administration to limit the spread of COVID-19 in the downtown jail by not admitting people with the virus.

Dueker said the policy is “demoralizing” to police officers.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

Judges didn’t consider ‘wisdom’ of deporting Novak Djokovic

Three Australian Federal Court judges on Thursday revealed their reasons for backing a government order to deport tennis star Novak Djokovic, explaining they did not consider the “merits or wisdom of the decision.”

The judges on Sunday unanimously endorsed Immigration Minister Alex Hawke’s decision to deport the 34-year-old Serb following an urgent court challenge on the eve of what was to be Djokovic’s first match in defense of his Australian Open title. Djokovic accepted the verdict and flew from Melbourne to the United Arab Emirates hours later.

Chief Justice James Allsop and Justices James Besanko and David O’Callaghan on Thursday released a 27-page explanation of why they rejected Djokovic’s challenge.

“The court does not consider the merits or wisdom of the decision,” the judges said. “The task of the court is to rule upon the lawfulness or legality of the decision.”

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

State health officials confirm 19,108 new coronavirus cases

The state Department of Health (DOH) reported 19,108 new coronavirus cases and 109 new deaths on Thursday.

The update brings the state's totals to 1,135,778 cases and 10,339 deaths, meaning that 0.9% of people diagnosed in Washington have died, according to the DOH. The data is as of 11:59 p.m. Wednesday.

In addition, 50,556 people have been hospitalized in the state due to the virus — 225 new hospitalizations. In King County, the state's most populous, state health officials have confirmed a total of 296,665 COVID-19 diagnoses and 2,227 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.

—Amanda Zhou
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100%: Chief medical officer says all US Olympians vaccinated

The U.S. Olympic top doctor says all of the 200-plus athletes heading to Beijing for the Olympics next month are fully vaccinated, and not a single one asked for a medical exemption.

Chief Medical Officer Jonathan Finnoff told The Associated Press the 21-day quarantine period the hosts are requiring for unvaccinated participants, combined with the education the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee provided “really resonated with the athletes.”

In September, the USOPC introduced a policy requiring U.S. athletes to be fully vaccinated by Dec. 1 unless they had a medical exemption.

Read the story here.

—Eddie Pells, The Associated Press

Kentucky congressman against mandates says he has COVID-19

A Kentucky congressman who has been critical of pandemic mask and vaccine mandates said he has tested positive for COVID-19.

Rep. Thomas Massie, a Republican from northern Kentucky, tweeted Thursday that he is not vaccinated but his symptoms have been mild and he believes he is “over it.”

The five-term congressman has been outspoken about his opposition to mandates for masking and vaccinations since early in the pandemic.

Last week, he wrote on social media that his congressional office would “not comply” with Washington D.C.’s vaccine mandate for restaurants.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

California’s COVID gun store shutdowns ruled illegal

Two California counties violated the Constitution’s right to keep and bear arms when they shut down gun and ammunition stores in 2020 as nonessential businesses during the coronavirus pandemic, a federal appeals court ruled Thursday.

Officials in Los Angeles and Ventura counties had separately won lower court decisions saying gun stores were not exempt from broader shutdown orders aimed at limiting the spread of the coronavirus early in the pandemic.

A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected both lower court rulings.

The Second Amendment “means nothing if the government can prohibit all persons from acquiring any firearm or ammunition. But that’s what happened in this case,” Judge Lawrence VanDyke wrote.

Read the story here.

—Don Thompson, The Associated Press
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Germany expects COVID-19 cases to peak in mid-February

Germany’s health minister expects the number of coronavirus infections in the country to keep rising for several weeks before peaking next month.

Karl Lauterbach told German public broadcaster ZDF late Wednesday that “the wave will reach its peak roughly in mid-February.”

Lauterbach warned that while hospitalization rates are currently low, clinics could see a severe strain in the coming weeks, noting that the share of people over age 50 who aren’t vaccinated is significantly higher in Germany than in other European countries, such as Italy and Britain.

Germany’s disease control agency reported 133,536 newly confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the past 24 hours, and 234 deaths.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

1 million French get 1st vaccine shot ahead of new virus law

France’s government spokesman said Thursday that more than 1 million adults got their first COVID-19 vaccine shot over the past month, after the government announced a plan to exclude unvaccinated people from all restaurants, sports arenas and other venues.

The French parliament approved the new law over the weekend and the measure is expected to enter into force in the coming days, after the Constitutional Council releases its assessment on Friday.

The so-called vaccine pass “is a new step in our strategy to encourage (vaccination) and ensure maximum protection. It is already producing its effects,” government spokesman Gabriel Attal said.

About 92% of French adults — over 48 million people — are already fully vaccinated, and 94% have received at least one shot.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

Austrian parliament to vote on universal vaccine mandate

Austria’s parliament is due to vote Thursday on introducing a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for adults, the first of its kind in Europe.

The mandate drawn up by the government would apply to all residents of Austria age 18 and over, with exemptions for pregnant women, individuals who for medical reasons can’t be vaccinated, and people who have recovered from a coronavirus infection in the past six months.

It appears assured of approval. Chancellor Karl Nehammer’s governing coalition, made up of his conservative Austrian People’s Party and the Greens, worked with two of the three opposition parties in parliament on the plan. The other opposition party, the far-right Freedom Party, vehemently opposes it.

The plan is for the vaccine mandate to become law at the beginning of February. To start with, authorities will write to every household to inform them of the new rules.

From mid-March, police will start checking people’s vaccination status during routine checks; people who can’t produce proof of vaccination will be asked in writing to do so, and will be fined up to 600 euros ($685) if they don’t.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press
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EXPLAINER: What does it mean for COVID-19 to be endemic?

Some European countries such as Spain are making tentative plans for when they might start treating COVID-19 as an “endemic” disease, but the World Health Organization and other officials have warned that the world is nowhere close to declaring the pandemic over. A look at what endemic means and the implications for the future.

Diseases are endemic when they occur regularly in certain areas according to established patterns, while a pandemic refers to a global outbreak that causes unpredictable waves of illness.

The World Health Organization has said that redefining the coronavirus as an endemic disease is still “a ways off,” according to Catherine Smallwood, an infectious diseases expert in the agency’s European headquarters in Copenhagen, Denmark. “We still have a huge amount of uncertainty and a virus that is evolving quickly,” she said earlier this month.

For many countries, designating a disease as endemic means that fewer resources will be available to combat it, since it will likely no longer be considered a public health emergency.

Read the story here.

—Maria Cheng, The Associated Press

London-bound jet turns back because of maskless passenger

An American Airlines flight to London returned to Miami after a passenger refused to follow the federal requirement to wear a face mask, according to the airline.

The airline called Miami police, and officers escorted a woman off the plane at Miami International Airport Wednesday evening without incident. A spokesperson for the Miami-Dade Police Department said American Airlines staff dealt “administratively” with the passenger.

The woman was put on American’s internal no-fly list pending further investigation, an airline spokesman said.

Airlines reported nearly 6,000 incidents involving unruly passengers last year and 151 in the first two weeks of this year, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Most of them involved passengers who refused to wear masks.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

Vaccines to Africa must have good shelf lives, says expert

At least 2.8 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines donated to African countries have expired, the Africa Centers for Disease Control said Thursday, citing short shelf lives as the major reason.

Donors of vaccines to the continent should send them with a realistic shelf life of about “three months to six months” before their expiration, Africa CDC director John Nkengasong told an online briefing. More African nations are now refusing to accept donations of vaccines that have only one or two months before their expiration, he said.

Although the number of expired doses is only about 0.5% of the total number donated to Africa, Nkengasong said he is unhappy to see any become invalid.

“Any dose of vaccine that expired pains me because that is a life that can potentially be saved,” Nkengasong said.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press
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In sewage, clues to omicron’s surge

As the highly contagious omicron variant pushes national coronavirus case numbers to record highs and sends hospitals across the country into crisis mode, public health officials are eagerly searching for an indication of how long this surge might last.

The clues are emerging from an unlikely source: sewage.

People who contract the coronavirus shed the virus in their stool, and the virus levels in local wastewater provide a strong, independent signal of how much is circulating in a given community.

Read the full story here.

—Emily Anthes and Sabrina Imbler, The New York Times

New Zealand says it won’t use lockdowns when omicron spreads

New Zealand is among the few remaining countries to have avoided any outbreaks of the omicron variant — but Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Thursday an outbreak was inevitable and the nation would tighten restrictions as soon as one was detected.

But she also said that New Zealand would not impose the lockdowns that it has used previously, including for the delta variant.

Ardern said that within 24 to 48 hours of omicron being detected in the community, the nation would move into its “red” setting. That would allow businesses to remain open and domestic travel to continue, but would require schoolchildren to wear masks and limit crowds to 100 people.

Currently most of New Zealand is at the “orange” setting, which requires some mask wearing and proof of vaccination but doesn’t limit crowd sizes.

Read the story here.

—Nick Perry, The Associated Press

Europe considers new COVID-19 strategy: accepting the virus

When the coronavirus pandemic was first declared, Spaniards were ordered to stay home for more than three months. For weeks, they were not allowed outside even for exercise. Children were banned from playgrounds, and the economy virtually stopped.

But officials credited the draconian measures with preventing a full collapse of the health system. Lives were saved, they argued.

Now, almost two years later, Spain is preparing to adopt a different COVID-19 playbook. With one of Europe’s highest vaccination rates and its most pandemic-battered economies, the government is laying the groundwork to treat the next infection surge not as an emergency but an illness that is here to stay. Similar steps are under consideration in neighboring Portugal and in Britain.

Read the story here.

—Aritz Parra, The Associated Press
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Catch up on the past 24 hours

Hospitalizations have “exploded” at UW Medicine over the past three weeks. Statewide, hospitals are seeing a big difference from previous COVID-19 waves: The omicron surge is hitting acute-care units, which generally treat less-severe illness, harder than ICUs. But the impact is still dangerous as hospitals edge closer to facing unprecedented decisions.

Washingtonians will soon be able to order free rapid COVID tests through a new state website. That's in addition to the free federal tests and N95 masks you can order.

Seattle school-district leaders want weekly COVID testing, but it hasn’t happened. One key sticking point: a request that some teachers call "outrageous" at an overwhelming time in which they can't even get bathroom breaks.

If you had breakthrough COVID, can you start living like it’s 2019? The good news is that an infection on top of a vaccine does boost your immunity. The bad news: It doesn't give you a magical force field. Here's how doctors advise approaching your daily decisions about risk.

Can omicron cause long COVID in vaccinated people? A mild initial illness doesn't necessarily mean the answer is no, scientists caution. With no clear answer yet, these are the clues they have so far.

When they came for the hamsters, it was the last straw. After one "zero COVID" city announced plans to kill 2,000 of the rodents amid fears that they could carry the virus, resistance fighters and hamster vigilantes are mobilizing in secret.

—Kris Higginson