While Congress considers a $1.9 trillion coronavirus stimulus plan from President Joe Biden, Washington state lawmakers Friday afternoon released the outline of a new COVID-19 relief bill aimed at boosting vaccine distribution and aiding schools, renters and small businesses.

Our state is also planning to partner with local health care systems to open four mass vaccination sites in Clark, Benton, Chelan and Spokane counties next week. The announcement came three days after Gov. Jay Inslee expanded eligibility for vaccination and set a goal of vaccinating 45,000 people a day.

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 and the world.

State health officials confirm 1,987 new coronavirus cases

The state Department of Health (DOH) reported 1,987 new coronavirus cases on Saturday.

The update brings the state's totals to 300,198 cases and 4,114 deaths, meaning that 1.4% of people diagnosed in Washington have died, according to the DOH. The data is as of 11:59 p.m. Friday, though the state does not report new death data on weekends or update its data dashboard on Sundays. 

The new cases may include up to 650 duplicates, according to DOH.

In addition, 17,129 people have been hospitalized in the state due to the virus — 92 new hospitalizations. In King County, the state's most populous, state health officials have confirmed a total of 75,433 COVID-19 diagnoses and 1,203 deaths.

On Dec. 16, DOH’s case, hospitalization and death counts started including both confirmed cases and probable cases in its total count. According to DOH, probable cases refer to people who received a positive antigen test result but not a positive molecular test result, while confirmed cases refer to those who have received a positive molecular test result.

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.

—Taylor Blatchford

Highly contagious U.K. COVID-19 strain found in Snohomish County

Two cases of a new COVID-19 variant, first identified in the United Kingdom, have been detected in specimens from two Snohomish County residents, health authorities announced Saturday afternoon.

This strain of coronavirus spreads more easily and quickly than the original variant, the Snohomish Health District said.

“We thought this variant of concern was here and now we know it’s here. It was a huge team effort by the UW Medicine Virology Lab and required development of several new rapid tests to detect and confirm it,” said Dr. Alex Greninger, assistant director of the UW Medicine Clinical Virology Lab, in a statement. The lab identified the strain through genome sequencing.

As of Friday, there were 195 detections of this version in 22 states, including Oregon.

Read the full story here.

—Mike Lindblom

Kitsap Public Health opens COVID-19 vaccine clinic Tuesday

Kitsap Public Health and partners will open a COVID-19 vaccine clinic for people eligible to receive inoculations through the state's Phase 1a and Phase 1b, tier 1.

Registration begins at 10 a.m. Monday for appointments on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Patients must make advance reservations and no walk-ins are allowed. Registration details will be posted Monday at www.kcowa.us/vaccine.

The clinic will be in East Bremerton at the former St. Michael Hospital, organized by the health district with Virginia Mason Franciscan Health, and a potential 600 volunteers.

"It truly feels like a turning point in our fight against this pandemic," said a statement by county Health Officer Dr. Gig Morrow. Kitsap Public Health received 2,000 doses of Moderna vaccine, and appointments are expected to fill quickly. Additional clinic days will be announced as more vaccine arrives, county officials said.

Those eligible are people age 65 or older; people 50 or older in multigenerational households; health care workers; emergency responders; and people who live or work in long-term care facilities, such as nursing homes.

—Mike Lindblom

University forces professors back into the classroom despite COVID-19, but students get to choose

Faculty and staff at the University of Florida say they are under pressure to return to the classroom, despite concerns over COVID-19 risks, even as students are allowed to choose whether to attend class in-person or virtually.

Instructors are troubled that the school's administrators could be more concerned about appeasing students who want in-person classes than about potential health risks. Adding to concerns is a new feature on the campus’s safety app that lets students report an instructor for not showing up to class.

Jason Crider, 30, a doctoral candidate in the English department, said that in many ways, he feels like he “has a gun” to his head when it comes to choosing between working and prioritizing his and his wife’s health.

“They told the students that they were welcome to attend virtually if they didn’t feel safe or sign up for the face-to-face option,” he said. “But they told faculty members and staff they had to be there.”

Read the full story here

—The Washington Post

U.S. coronavirus cases are falling, but variants could erase progress

Health officials in the United States are increasingly concerned that quickly circulating variants of the coronavirus could cause new surges of cases faster than the country is managing to distribute COVID-19 vaccines.

Public health experts likened the situation to a race between vaccination and the virus’s new variants — and the winner will determine whether the United States is approaching a turning point in its battle against the coronavirus, now entering a second year.

In recent days, coronavirus cases have been dropping steadily across the United States, with hospitalizations falling in concert.

“We’re definitely on a downward slope, but I’m worried that the new variants will throw us a curveball in late February or March,” said Caitlin M. Rivers, a public health researcher at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Read the story here

—The New York Times

Oregon’s lower-division college basketball teams ask why Division I play is deemed safer amid coronavirus pandemic

Even as Oregon’s four Division I basketball programs have been granted exceptions to compete during the pandemic, the same isn't true for the state's lower-division programs, which remain grounded, their sport deemed a “high-risk activity” and unsafe to play as coronavirus cases soar across the United States.

“It’s been so frustrating,” said Aspen Slifka, a sophomore on the women’s basketball team at Eugene's Bushnell University, an NAIA Division II school that hasn't been able to play even as nearby University of Oregon is still competing.

“We’re right across the street from UO, literally less than a mile away, and it’s been hard to watch them practice and play," Slifka said. “It feels like we are being discriminated against because we’re a small school. And that’s really tough. It’s like our coach says: ‘If it’s safe for some, it’s safe for all.’”

For months, Bushnell administrators and players have been pushing Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) for the same rights as their peers at Oregon, Oregon State, Portland State and the University of Portland. But return-to-play proposals submitted in October have been rebuffed or ignored, even though they include regular coronavirus testing and other enhanced safety measures, and that likely won’t change anytime soon.

“Oregon’s exception for collegiate sports currently applies only to NCAA Division I schools,” Charles Boyle, Brown’s deputy communications director, told The Oregonian/OregonLive in a statement. “No other collegiate institutions are eligible to submit protocols to OHA for review at this time.”

Read the full story here

—Joe Freeman oregonlive.com

As Washington state aims to vaccinate millions against COVID-19, thousands sign up to help

As the state begins its unprecedented push to vaccinate millions of its residents, an army is being assembled to help get the job done.

This week, Gov. Jay Inslee announced that the state hopes to soon administer 45,000 vaccines a day — three times the state’s currently daily average, according to the state Department of Health. Officials say 45,000 doses a day would cover about 70% of the population eligible for vaccines by June.

The Swedish clinic at Seattle University and its corps of health workers and volunteers offers a blueprint for mass-vaccination sites, and shows firsthand the staffing required as the state works toward an ambitious goal of vaccinating residents at a much larger scale.

“One could argue this is the biggest logistical problem to solve in the world,” said Kevin Brooks, chief operating officer for Swedish Health Services. “This is an amazing effort.”

Read the full story here.

—Paige Cornwell

Catch up on the past 24 hours

What to do if you think you qualify for a vaccine: Our Q&A outlines the steps to take, starting with using the state's online tool and ending with what you should do after your shot.

Washington state lawmakers propose a $2.2 billion COVID-19 relief package: Washington state lawmakers Friday afternoon released the outline of a new COVID-19 relief bill aimed at boosting vaccine distribution and contact tracing, and aiding schools, renters and small businesses amid the pandemic.

The $2.2 billion measure is funded largely by federal aid dollars from the pandemic-relief packages passed by Congress last spring and in December. It also uses about $440 million from the state’s budget reserves.

State health officials open 4 mass vaccination sites in Washington:
Four mass COVID-19 vaccination sites are expected to open next week in Clark, Benton, Chelan and Spokane counties, the state Department of Health (DOH) said Thursday. The announcement comes after Gov. Jay Inslee expanded eligibility for vaccination and set a goal of vaccinating 45,000 people a day, up from an average of 15,500 doses each day.

UK chief scientist says new virus variant may be more deadly: There is some evidence that a new coronavirus variant first identified in southeast England carries a higher risk of death than the original strain, the British government’s chief scientific adviser said Friday — though he stressed that the data is uncertain.

Biden orders stopgap help as talks start on big aid plan: President Joe Biden said he would take executive action Friday to provide a stopgap measure of financial relief to millions of Americans while Congress begins to consider his much larger $1.9 trillion package to help those affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

Seattle grocery workers could get $4 per hour pandemic boost: The Seattle City Council, citing the increased risk that grocery workers have faced during the coronavirus pandemic, is seeking to give them a $4 per hour pay boost for the remainder of the pandemic. The legislation, which the council could vote on as soon as Monday, would require large grocery stores to pay the extra wages to retail workers already covered by Seattle’s minimum wage law as long as the city remains in a civil emergency due to the pandemic.

Redmond entrepreneur accused of peddling unauthorized coronavirus vaccine: A Redmond entrepreneur faces federal charges after allegedly marketing and administering an unauthorized coronavirus vaccine — even after receiving multiple warnings from state and federal officials to stop, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Seattle.

Ohio legislator who questioned Black hygiene to lead state's health panel: A Republican lawmaker and doctor who questioned whether members of “the colored population” were disproportionately contracting the coronavirus because of their hygiene is drawing new criticism from Black lawmakers after his appointment to lead the Ohio Senate Health Committee.

UK doctors seek review of 12-week gap between vaccine doses: A major British doctors' group says the U.K. government should “urgently review” its decision to give people a second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine up to 12 weeks after the first, rather than the shorter gap recommended by the manufacturer and the World Health Organization.

CDC quietly says virus patients can be switched to another vaccine for 2nd dose in 'exceptional' cases: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has quietly changed its recommendations for coronavirus immunizations to allow patients to switch the authorized vaccines between the first and second doses in “exceptional situations,” and to extend the interval between doses to six weeks, even though such changes have not been studied in large clinical trials.

U.S. coronavirus cases are falling, but variants could erase progress: Public health experts likened the situation to a race between vaccination and the virus’s new variants — and the winner will determine whether the United States is approaching a turning point in its battle against the coronavirus, now entering a second year.

German virus death toll tops 50,000 even as infections sink: The death toll from the coronavirus in Germany has passed 50,000, a number that has risen swiftly over recent weeks even as infection figures are finally declining. Germany had a comparatively small number of deaths in the pandemic’s first phase and was able to lift many restrictions quickly.

Venezuela power struggle impedes delivery of COVID vaccine: The socialist government of Nicolás Maduro and the U.S.-backed opposition are accusing each other of playing politics with proposals to finance United Nations-supplied vaccines — so far blocking any option from going ahead.

Coronavirus guidelines now the rule at White House: While the Trump administration was known for flouting safety recommendations, the Biden team has made a point of abiding by the same strict guidelines they’re urging Americans to follow to stem the spread of the virus.

Greece to reopen high schools but stay in lockdown: Authorities in Greece say high schools will reopen on Feb. 1 for the first time since mid-November, but that nationwide lockdown measures will remain in effect. Greece has seen a steep decline in pandemic-related deaths in recent weeks, but authorities say tough restrictions will remain in place through the winter.

—Paul Roberts

How is the pandemic affecting you?

What has changed about your daily life? What kinds of discussions are you having with family members and friends? Are you a health care worker who's on the front lines of the response? Are you a COVID-19 patient or do you know one? Whoever you are, we want to hear from you so our news coverage is as complete, accurate and useful as possible. If you're using a mobile device and can't see the form on this page, click here.