The first large U.S. studies released Friday showed evidence that COVID-19 vaccines and boosters are standing up to the omicron variant. The papers echo previous studies from South Africa and Germany that state that while vaccines are less effective against omicron, booster doses increase the chance of avoiding a symptomatic infection.

In an effort to increase access to rapid tests, the U.S. Postal Service is becoming the agent of one of the largest disaster-relief mobilization efforts in the organization’s 247-year history, experts say. The agency has hired thousand of seasonal workers and converted more than 40 facilities into fulfillment centers.

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.

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Court battle over a ventilator takes a COVID patient from Minnesota to Texas

Scott Quiner, an operations manager at a transportation company in Minnesota, became sick with COVID-19 in October.

Quiner, 55, who was unvaccinated, was hospitalized the next month, and his case became so severe that he had to be placed on a ventilator, according to court records. For weeks, he remained on the ventilator at Mercy Hospital in Coon Rapids, Minnesota, a city of 62,000 people about 16 miles north of Minneapolis.

Then, on Jan. 11, hospital officials told Quiner’s wife, Anne, that they would be removing him from the ventilator in two days, over her objections.

What followed was a legal case that raised questions over who has the right to make wrenching life-or-death decisions when patients cannot speak for themselves. It also underscored the tensions between people who refuse the coronavirus vaccine and the hospitals that have been filled with patients sick with the virus, a majority of them unvaccinated.

Read the full story here.

—The New York Times
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Different masks for different exercises as workouts evolve with the pandemic

With the rapid spread of the omicron variant, mask mandates have once again returned to many gyms, along with this dilemma: Should gym goers wear a N95 or KN95 mask, which offer more protection than a cloth mask but can be uncomfortable?

Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describe N95s and KN95s as offering the most protection – as long as they are not counterfeit – but stop short of suggesting people abandon fabric masks entirely, believing that wearing any mask is better than not wearing any one at all.

“I don’t want to tell anyone not to wear an N95 to exercise,” says Melanie McNeal, physical and occupational therapy manager in the Baylor College of Medicine’s orthopedic surgery department. “Bring it. Wear it. But have another one in your bag, so when one gets sweaty or uncomfortable, you can replace it with one that’s fresh and clean.” 

As the pandemic enters its third year, guidance on how to safely exercise, especially indoors, keeps changing along with the virus.

Read the full story here.

—The Washington Post

Anti-vaccine activists, reveling in their pandemic successes, will rally in D.C. against mandates

As anti-vaccine activists from across the country prepare to gather on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Sunday, they are hoping their rally will mark a once-fringe movement’s arrival as a lasting force in American society.

That hope, some public health experts fear, is justified.

Almost two years into the coronavirus pandemic, the movement to challenge vaccines’ safety – and reject vaccine mandates – has never been stronger. An ideology whose most notable adherents were once religious fundamentalists and minor celebrities is now firmly entrenched among tens of millions of Americans.

Baseless fears of vaccines have been a driving force among the approximately 20% of U.S. adults who have refused some of the most effective medicines in human history: the mRNA vaccines developed against the coronavirus by Pfizer, with German partner BioNTech, and Moderna. The nation that produced Jonas Salk has exported anti-vaccine propaganda around the globe, wreaking havoc on public-health campaigns from Germany to Kenya.

That propaganda has also found its way into many reaches of American life

—Ellie Silverman and Peter Jamison, The Washington Post

Vaccine passport protests in Europe draw thousands of people

HELSINKI (AP) — Thousands of people gathered in European capitals Saturday to protest vaccine passports and other requirements governments have imposed in hopes of ending the coronavirus pandemic.

Demonstrations took place in Helsinki, London, Paris and Stockholm.

In Sweden, where vaccine certificates are required to attend indoor events with more than 50 people, some 3,000 demonstrators marched though central Stockholm and assembled in a main square for a protest organized by the Frihetsrorelsen – or Freedom Movement.

Swedish media reported that representatives from the neo-Nazi Nordic Resistance Movement attended the action with a banner. Police closely monitor the group, which has been associated with violent behavior at demonstrations.

Swedish security police had warned that right-wing extremists might take part in Saturday’s protest. No major incidents or clashes were reported by late afternoon.

—The Associated Press
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Biden plan to ship 500 million coronavirus test kits transforms Postal Service to relief agency

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Postal Service’s mission to deliver 500 million coronavirus test kits has cast it in an unprecedented role in the nation’s pandemic response just as COVID-19 infections have peaked within its own ranks and its network is under immense strain.

Online orders began rolling in this week for the free rapid tests, which are scheduled to ship by the end of the month. The agency has hired thousands of seasonal workers and converted more than 40 facilities into ad hoc fulfillment centers in what experts have called the largest disaster-relief mobilization in its 247-year history.

The stakes for country — and Postal Service — could hardly be higher.

—Jacob Bogage, The Washington Post

First flights leave Chinese city Xi’an as travel curbs ease

BEIJING (AP) — The first commercial airline flights in one month took off Saturday from Xi’an in western China as the government eased travel curbs imposed after a coronavirus outbreak ahead of next month’s Winter Olympics in Beijing.

Seven planes took off, according to the website of Xi’an Xianyang International Airport. It said four were due to arrive Sunday.

Access to Xi’an, a city of 13 million people about 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) southwest of Beijing, was suspended Dec. 22 following an outbreak attributed to the coronavirus’s delta variant.

The ruling Communist Party has stepped up enforcement of its “zero tolerance” strategy that aims to keep the virus out of China by finding and isolating every infected person. It suspended access to Xi’an and other cities after outbreaks were found.

—The Associated Press

COVID hospitalizations plateau in some parts of the U.S., while a crisis remains in others

Fewer people in the United States are being admitted to hospitals with the coronavirus than a week ago, suggesting that the record-breaking surge in hospitalizations driven by the omicron variant could soon decline, following recent case trends. But the country remains far from the end of the omicron wave, and in many areas it could be weeks before the strain on hospitals subsides.

The number of people hospitalized with the virus nationwide and those sick enough to require intensive care remain at or near record levels. In much of the West, in parts of the Midwest and in more rural areas of the country, where omicron surges have hit later, cases and hospitalizations are still growing significantly.

Indeed, most of the decrease in new hospital admissions has so far been in areas that experienced omicron outbreaks earliest. Omicron reached many metropolitan areas in the eastern half of the country before it became the dominant variant nationwide, and hospitalizations jumped quickly in the Northeast and the South before the new year. Now, hospitalizations are beginning to level off in the Northeast in particular.

Hospitalizations in the Midwest are also plateauing, but the region still has high numbers of people in intensive care. That is in part because Midwestern hospitals were already stretched thin by the delta variant surge when omicron arrived in early December.

In Southern states, hospitalizations and intensive-care-unit rates were among the lowest in the country just before omicron, but they have sharply risen with the latest wave.

—Lauren Leatherby and Albert Sun The New York Times
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So you think you’re a COVID expert (but are you?)

Lauren Terry, 23, thought she would know what to do if she contracted COVID-19. After all, she manages a lab in Tucson, Arizona, that processes COVID tests.

But when she developed symptoms on Christmas Eve, she quickly realized she had no inside information.

“I first tried to take whatever rapid tests I could get my hands on,” Terry said. “I bought some over the counter. I got a free kit from my county library. A friend gave me a box. I think I tried five different brands.” When they all turned up negative, she took a PCR test, but that too, was negative.

With clear symptoms, she didn’t believe the results. So she turned to Twitter. “I was searching for the omicron rapid test efficacy and trying to figure out what brand works on this variant and what doesn’t and how long they take to produce results,” she said. (The Food and Drug Administration has said that rapid antigen tests may be less sensitive to the omicron variant but has not identified any specific tests that outright fail to detect it.) “I started seeing people on Twitter say they were having symptoms and only testing positive days later. I decided not to see anybody for the holidays when I read that.”

She kept testing, and a few days after Christmas she received the result she had expected all along.

Though it’s been almost two years since the onset of the pandemic, this phase can feel more confusing than its start, in March 2020. Even PCR tests, the gold standard, don’t always detect every case, especially early in the course of infection, and there is some doubt among scientists about whether rapid antigen tests perform as well with omicron. And, the need for a 10-day isolation period was thrown into question after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that some people could leave their homes after only five days.

“The information is more confusing because the threat itself is more confusing,” said David Abramson, who directs the Center for Public Health Disaster Science at the NYU School of Global Public Health. Read more here.

—Alyson Krueger, The New York Times

When my mom got COVID, I went searching for Pfizer’s pills

Just after 1 p.m. Jan. 11, my phone buzzed with a text message from my mother: “Well, came down with cold, aches, cough etc over wknd.” She had taken an at-home coronavirus test. It was positive.

Having spent the past year writing about COVID-19 vaccines and treatments for The New York Times, I knew a lot about the options available to people like my mother. Yet I was about to go on a seven-hour odyssey that would show me there was a lot I didn’t grasp.

My mother, Mary Ann Neilsen, is fully vaccinated, including a booster shot, which sharply reduced the odds that she would become seriously ill from the virus. But she has several risk factors that worried me. She’s 73. She has twice beaten breast cancer.

Her age and cancer history made her eligible to receive the latest treatments that have been shown to stave off the worst outcomes from COVID. The trouble, as I knew from my reporting, was that these treatments — including monoclonal antibody infusions and antiviral pills — are hard to come by.

Demand for the drugs is surging as the omicron variant of the coronavirus infects record numbers of Americans. But supplies are scarce. The two most widely used antibody brands don’t appear to work against omicron, and the antiviral pills are so new and were developed so quickly that not many have reached hospitals and pharmacies.

I set out to track down one of two treatments: GlaxoSmithKline’s antibody infusion or Pfizer’s antiviral pills, known as Paxlovid. Read the full story here.

—Rebecca Robbins, The New York Times

In quest to keep schools open, Oregon cuts back quarantines, contact tracing

New quarantine and contact tracing guidelines issued by the state are intended to dramatically reduce the number of Oregon students and staff absent from more than 1,400 public schools during the omicron surge, local and state officials say.

The Oregon Health Authority announced the game-changing set of new guidelines late last week in an enigmatic news release that didn’t clearly state most students and staff will no longer need to quarantine, and that families should no longer expect to be told when their children come into close contact with a person infected with the coronavirus.

The state guidance on Jan. 14 clashes with more stringent recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But Dr. Dean Sidelinger, Oregon’s state epidemiologist, said this is an area where he believes it’s OK to deviate because of the many layers of precautions Oregon schools have taken, including an indoor mask mandate. Oregon is one of only a dozen states to require masks in schools.

Sidelinger concedes Oregon doesn’t have data on the frequency at which the omicron variant – which is far more contagious than any previous variant of COVID-19 – is spreading in schools. But he believes with current precautions schools are preventing infections much like they were during the delta variant’s dominance. Read more here.

—Aimee Green, oregonlive.com
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‘The most dangerous time we’ve had’ as omicron wave batters Idaho

The omicron variant is blazing through Idaho communities, with state health data showing the highest case and positive test numbers for the entire pandemic.

Since last Friday, the state recorded the highest number of cases in a weeklong period since the pandemic began, according to Idaho Statesman research, with 16,422 added to the state dashboard. And even that figure is likely well below the actual number, because local public health districts are struggling with a backlog of more than 35,000 tests over the last two-week period.

Another indicator, the test positivity rate, has gone off the charts. On Thursday, the Department of Health and Welfare had to adjust its online graph in order to fit in the new data point: a test positivity rate of 34.1% for the week of Jan. 9, the most recent data available.

Prior to the omicron surge, the highest test positivity rate the state had seen was 19.1% for the week of Nov. 15, 2020.

“Extremely high, unprecedented community spread,” Dr. Ted Epperly, president and CEO of the Family Medicine Residency of Idaho, told the Idaho Statesman by phone.

Public health officials say a test positivity rate of 5% or less indicates that spread of a respiratory virus is under control. The state’s rate is seven times that.

“It’s the most dangerous time we’ve had,” Epperly said. Read more here.

—Ian Max Stevenson, The Idaho Statesman

Washington state at-home COVID tests out of stock shortly after website launch

Less than a day after the Washington State Department of Health launched a website where residents could order free, rapid coronavirus tests to be sent to their homes, those tests were out of stock.

The state said its inventory of testing kits ran out around 6 p.m. Friday.

Residents in need of at-home COVID-19 tests can still order them through the federal website at CovidTests.gov or at a local pharmacy (if they’re in stock). For PCR tests, the state maintains a list of testing locations on the Department of Health website. Public Health — Seattle & King County also maintains a list.

Read more here.

—Heidi Groover

Preteens can get vaxxed without parent under California bill

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California would allow children age 12 and up to be vaccinated without their parents’ consent under a proposal introduced Friday by a state senator who said youngsters “deserve the right to protect themselves” against infectious disease.

Currently in California, minors ages 12 to 17 cannot be vaccinated without permission from their parents or guardians, unless the vaccine is specifically to prevent a sexually transmitted disease. Parental consent laws for vaccinations vary by state and region, and a few places such as Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., allow kids 11 and up, and in San Francisco 12 and older, to consent to their own COVID-19 vaccines.

The bill by Democratic Sen. Scott Wiener would lift the parental requirement for that age group for any vaccine that has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If the bill passes, California would allow the youngest age of any state to be vaccinated without parental permission.

—Don Thompson, The Associated Press
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Omicron wave leaves US food banks scrambling for volunteers

WASHINGTON (AP) — Food banks across the country are experiencing a critical shortage of volunteers as the omicron variant frightens people away from their usual shifts, and companies and schools that regularly supply large groups of volunteers are canceling their participation over virus fears.

The end result in many cases has been a serious increase in spending by the food banks at a time when they are already dealing with higher food costs due to inflation and supply chain issues.

“Food banks rely on volunteers. That’s how we keep the costs low,” said Shirley Schofield, CEO of the Food Bank of North Alabama. “The work still gets done but at a much higher expense.”

The extent of the problem was highlighted this past week during the national holiday for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, when many food banks have traditionally organized mass volunteer drives as part of a day of service.

Michael Altfest, director of community engagement for the Alameda County Community Food Bank in Oakland, California, called it “without fail, our biggest volunteer event of the year.”

But many food banks chose to cancel their plans this year or continued with radically lower numbers than pre-pandemic years.

—Ashraf Khalil, The Associated Press

Samoa goes into lockdown after 15 Australians test positive

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — The prime minister of Samoa has placed the small Pacific nation into a 48-hour lockdown after 15 passengers on a flight from Australia tested positive for COVID-19.

The infected passengers were among 73 who arrived from Brisbane on Wednesday.

Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata’afa also said Saturday the government may cancel further flights from Australia. A scheduled flight from New Zealand on Saturday has already been postponed, according to Radio New Zealand.

All the passengers were reportedly fully vaccinated and had tested negative for COVID-19 before departure.

—The Associated Press

China’s success taming virus could make exiting the pandemic harder

TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — The sweeping “zero-tolerance” strategy that China has used to keep COVID-19 case numbers low and its economy functioning may, paradoxically, make it harder for the country to exit the pandemic.

Most experts say the coronavirus around the world isn’t going away and believe it could eventually become, like the flu, a persistent but generally manageable threat if enough people gain immunity through infections and vaccines.

In countries like Britain and the U.S., which have had comparatively light restrictions against the omicron wave, there is a glimmer of hope that the process might be underway. Cases skyrocketed in recent weeks but have since dropped in Britain and may have leveled off in the U.S., perhaps because the extremely contagious variant is running out of people to infect. Some places already are talking about easing COVID-19 precautions.

China, which will be in the international spotlight when the Beijing Winter Olympics begin in two weeks, is not seeing the same dynamic.

—Aniruddha Ghosal and Huizhong Wu, The Associated Press
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White House official says U.S. is moving toward a time when ‘COVID won’t be a constant crisis’

The official in charge of President Joe Biden’s coronavirus response team expressed optimism Friday about the future of the pandemic, saying the nation is “moving toward a time when COVID won’t disrupt our daily lives, where COVID won’t be a constant crisis but something we protect against and treat.”

The official, Jeff Zients, made the remark at a White House news conference as the national coronavirus caseload was on a slight downward trajectory, largely because of declines in major cities in the hard-hit Northeast. That trend also prompted Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to sound an upbeat note.

“We are starting to see steep declines in areas that were first peaking, so areas of the Northeast — New York, Rhode Island, Connecticut — are really starting to come down,” Walensky said at the same briefing, calling it “an optimistic trend.”

Still, the coronavirus caseload in the United States, fueled by the highly transmissible omicron variant, remains far higher than at any prior point in the pandemic. The daily average of cases exceeds 700,000.

—Sheryl Gay Stolberg, The New York Times