Editor’s note: This is a live account of COVID-19 updates from Monday, Jan. 25, 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 It is no longer being updated.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.

As health officials say a highly contagious variant of COVID-19 has arrived in Pierce and Snohomish counties, variants of the virus are threatening to undo the progress that’s been made toward ending the pandemic.

One question is how effective the current vaccines will be against these altered versions of the virus. Some appear to be more contagious than the original version, and all are little understood.

That has prompted a warning from Dr. Anthony Fauci: Assume the worst about the strain found here.

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.

Taiwan quarantines 5,000 after hospital cluster

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Health authorities in Taiwan are quarantining 5,000 people while looking for the source of two new coronavirus cases linked to a hospital.

Officials said on Monday that they have not been able to identify how the husband and wife became infected after a brief hospital stay in the Taoyuan General Hospital, located in the city of Taoyuan just outside Taiwan’s capital city. The man had stayed at the hospital for three days for health problems unrelated to COVID-19, while his wife looked after him.

Those asked to quarantine include patients who were discharged from the hospital between Jan. 6-19, and their caregivers.

Taiwan is on higher alert after the latest domestic cluster, which has now seen 15 cases from the hospital in Taoyuan.

Taiwan has been applauded for its swift and sustained efforts to contain COVID-19, with just seven deaths and fewer than 900 confirmed cases, despite its close proximity to China, where the pandemic began.

—Associated Press

Sorority accused of making UW students pay housing for empty Greek Row house during pandemic

Washington state’s attorney general alleges a sorority charged University of Washington students for housing on Greek Row — even as they could not live in the house because of the pandemic.

The sorority violated the state’s emergency housing rules when it charged UW members $6,250 in housing fees last fall when members were not staying in the sorority house, Attorney General Bob Ferguson wrote in a complaint filed Monday in King County Superior Court.

To students who failed to pay, the sorority allegedly warned the debt could be sent to collections.

Ferguson’s complaint alleges the costs violate an emergency rule barring rent charges when tenants can’t access their housing because of the pandemic. 

The Tennessee-based sorority, Alpha Omicron Pi, or AOII, did not immediately return a request for comment.

Read the full story here.

—Heidi Groover

California reveals data used to lift stay-at-home order

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California’s health department on Monday released to the public previously secret data points used to determine future hospital intensive care unit capacity, the key metric for lifting the state’s coronavirus stay-at-home order. 

However, state officials did not provide an explanation for how per capita virus cases and transmission rates are combined at the regional level to project how much ICU space will be available in four weeks. 

Last week, state health officials told The Associated Press they were keeping all the data secret because it is complicated and might mislead the public. The release of the data points came after coronavirus experts, joined by a public access organization and a business group, said the information should be public, and as Gov. Gavin Newsom’s political opponents decried the secrecy. 

Dr. George Rutherford, an epidemiologist and infectious-diseases control expert at University of California, San Francisco, was among the critics. He applauded the state for being more open. He said it’s “not utterly transparent, but I have a better idea of what’s going on.”

California Health and Human Services on Monday released a chart showing projections for regional ICU capacity, along with per capita cases and transmission rates. The capacity takes into account not only coronavirus patients but those who would need intensive care for other reasons even if there were no pandemic.

—Associated Press

Seattle City Council approves $4 per hour mandatory pay boost for grocery workers during COVID-19 pandemic

Grocery store workers in Seattle should soon get an extra $4 an hour for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic, as the Seattle City Council approved legislation Monday requiring large grocers to immediately start offering hazard pay.

The legislation, introduced just last week, passed 8-0 Monday, clearing a requirement that it receive a three-quarter supermajority in order to go into effect immediately. Mayor Jenny Durkan called the policy “a strong step forward in Seattle’s recovery.”

The new requirement applies to grocery companies with more than 500 employees worldwide and to stores larger than 10,000 square feet. It does not apply to convenience stores or farmers markets.

Covered businesses will have to pay their retail employees $4 an hour on top of the pay they currently receive as long as the city’s coronavirus civil emergency, first declared in early March of last year, remains in effect. The legislation says the City Council intends to reconsider the policy after four months, but that is nonbinding.

Read the full story here.

—David Gutman

Demand for COVID-19 vaccines floods Seattle-area health systems as federal supply remains limited

The state’s decision last week to expand vaccine eligibility to those age 65 and over touched off an overwhelming flood of phone calls and hospital visits from people seeking vaccine appointments, hospital leaders say.

“We have stopped scheduling additional appointments right now,” said Brian Ivie, CEO of the Skagit Regional Health system, during a Monday news conference hosted by the Washington State Hospital Association. 

The health system booked about 5,000 appointments — slightly more than the number of doses the system has available —  before shutting down registrations on Friday. 

State officials say Washington is now using about as many doses as it receives each week. At least 500,105 doses of vaccine had been administered in Washington as of Monday afternoon. That represents more than 59% of the doses delivered to the vaccine providers in the state, according to the health department’s vaccination dashboard. 

Hospitals, local health departments and businesses are ramping up mass vaccination clinics to meet the needs of those eligible to make appointments. But federal supply of first doses has not expanded significantly, and until it does, those clinics are gearing up as much in anticipation as in action. 

Read the full story here.

—Evan Bush

After 37 years, Budweiser to sit out Super Bowl

Budweiser, the beer giant whose commercials featuring Clydesdale horses, croaking frogs and winsome puppies made it one of the most beloved Super Bowl advertisers, is opting out of the game-time broadcast this year for the first time in 37 years to focus on raising awareness for the COVID-19 vaccine.

Budweiser, an Anheuser-Busch company, said Monday that it would donate portions of its advertising budget this year to the Ad Council, a nonprofit marketing group at the helm of a $50 million ad blitz to fight coronavirus vaccine skepticism. Instead of debuting a splashy big-game commercial, as Super Bowl advertisers often do in the weeks leading up to the Feb. 7 match, the beer company released its 90-second online vaccination ad, titled “Bigger Picture.” (Anheuser-Busch will still feature prominently during the game, with ads for several of its other beer brands.)

Other Super Bowl stalwarts, including Coca-Cola, Hyundai and Pepsi, will also be missing on screen. As the pandemic disrupted the sports industry, many companies hesitated to pay CBS roughly $5.5 million for a 30-second slot during a game that some worried could be delayed or even canceled.

—The New York Times

As virus grows stealthier, vaccine makers reconsider battle plans

As the coronavirus assumes contagious new forms around the world, two drugmakers reported Monday that their vaccines, while still effective, offer less protection against one variant and began revising plans to turn back a shape-shifting pathogen that has killed more than 2 million people. 

The news underscored a realization by scientific experts that the virus is changing more quickly than once thought, and may well continue to develop in ways that help it elude the vaccines being deployed worldwide. Governments are locked in a deadly race, rushing to dispense vaccines needed to head off an enemy showing signs that it, too, has picked up the pace.

The announcements arrived even as President Joe Biden banned travel to the United States from South Africa, in hopes of stanching the spread of one variant. And Merck, a leading drug company, on Monday abandoned two experimental coronavirus vaccines altogether, saying they did not produce a strong enough immune response against the original version of the virus.

The vaccines made by Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech are both effective against new variants of the coronavirus discovered in Britain and South Africa, the companies reported. But they are slightly less protective against the variant in South Africa, which may be more adept at dodging antibodies in the bloodstream.

The vaccines are the only ones authorized for emergency use in the United States.

—The New York Times

State reports 947 new coronavirus cases, and 34 new deaths

The state Department of Health (DOH) reported 947 new coronavirus cases and 34 new deaths on Monday.

The update brings the state's totals to 302,141 cases and 4,148 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. Sunday. Tallies may be higher earlier in the week because new state data isn’t reported on Sundays and COVID-related deaths aren’t reported on the weekends.

In addition, 17,259 people have been hospitalized in the state due to the virus — 130 new hospitalizations. In King County, the state's most populous, state health officials have confirmed a total of 75,903 COVID-19 diagnoses and 1,219 deaths.

The number of vaccines crossed a half-million over the weekend; as of Sunday, 500,105 people had been vaccinated, 108,910 more than last reported.

The agency noted that total case counts were incomplete “due to an interruption in DOH’s data processes,” and that negative test results data from Nov. 21-30, 2020, and January 5 through Monday were incomplete.

“Thus, negative test results and percent positivity and case counts should be interpreted with caution,” the agency said.

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.

—Nicole Brodeur

Biden more bullish on vaccines, open to 1.5M daily shot goal

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Monday appeared to boost his goal for coronavirus vaccinations in his first 100 days in office, suggesting the nation could soon be injecting 1.5 million shots on an average per day.

Biden signaled his increasing bullishness on the pace of vaccinations after signing an executive order to boost government purchases from U.S. manufacturers. It was among a flurry of moves by Biden during his first full week to show he’s taking swift action to heal an ailing economy as talks with Congress over a $1.9 trillion stimulus package showed few signs of progress.

Biden reiterated that he believes the country is in a precarious spot and and that relief is urgently needed, even as he dismissed the possibility of embracing a scaled-down bill to secure passage faster. Among the features of the stimulus plan are a national vaccination program, aid to reopen schools, direct payments of $1,400 to individuals and financial relief for state and local governments.

“Time is of the essence,” Biden said. “I am reluctant to cherry-pick and take out one or two items here.”

Biden’s new vaccination target comes after he and his aides faced criticism for the 100 million goal in his first 100 days in office. The U.S. has exceeded a pace of 1 million doses per day over the last week.

Read the full story here.

—Josh Boak and Zeke Miller, The Associated Press

US Supreme Court won’t hear Nevada church’s COVID-19 case

RENO, Nev. — The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday refused a rural Nevada church’s request to enter a legal battle over the government’s authority to limit the size of religious gatherings amid the COVID-19 pandemic — after the church won an appeals court ruling last month that found Nevada’s restrictions unconstitutional.

Attorneys general from 19 other states had recently joined in support of the unusual request from Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley east of Reno.

They were urging the Supreme Court to rule on the merits of the Nevada case to help bring uniformity to various standards courts across the country have used to balance the interests of public safety and freedom of religion.

The church’s lawyers said in a court filing last Thursday they wanted the high court to “clarify for all that the First Amendment does not allow government officials to use COVID-19 as an excuse to treat churches and their worshippers worse than secular establishments and their patrons.”

In a 5-4 decision in June, the Supreme Court refused Calvary Chapel’s request for an emergency injunction blocking enforcement of Nevada’s attendance limit at houses of worship.

But the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled in favor of the church last month, finding it was unconstitutional for Nevada to treat casinos and other businesses more favorably than churches.

Read the full story here.

—Scott Sonner, The Associated Press

How to get a COVID-19 vaccine in Seattle, King County and Washington state

Last week, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced a public-private partnership intended to speed up coronavirus vaccine distribution with a goal of adminstering 45,000 vaccines a day.

At the same time, Inslee acknowledges the state is implementing its new strategy before it has enough vaccine to keep up with that pace.

The state is in vaccination Tier 1 of Phase 1B, which allows people 65 and older — and those 50 and older in multigenerational households — to receive the vaccine. That’s in addition to people in Phase 1A, including health care workers, high-risk first responders and long-term care residents.

The result so far has been mass confusion and seemingly endless searches for information from people desperate to get their loved ones, or themselves, vaccinated.

We will continue to update this page with the most current guidance on how to receive a coronavirus vaccine in the Seattle area.

Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to get a vaccine in Seattle, King County and Washington state:

Before you start

Before you begin your vaccination process, the top thing to know right now is that you’ll need plenty of patience.

The vaccine rollout has encountered all sorts of snags and slowdowns, and even if with clear messaging, the supply of vaccines still wouldn’t be enough to cover everyone.

Inslee said the state is shifting its strategy to create the infrastructure for mass vaccination without waiting for the volume of doses to match.

Read the full story here.

—Alex Iniguez

First U.S. case of highly transmissible Brazil coronavirus variant identified in Minnesota

Minnesota officials announced Monday that the state has identified a person infected with a highly transmissible variant of the coronavirus that has been spreading at alarming rates in recent weeks in Brazil. This is the first report in the United States of the so-called P.1 variant.

The Minnesota Department of Health said the case involved “a Minnesota resident with recent travel history to Brazil” and was detected through random surveillance of blood samples.

“This isn’t surprising. It’s a very difficult development, but at the same time not unexpected,” Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota and an adviser to President Joe Biden’s coronavirus response team, said in an interview.

All viruses mutate, and there are countless variants in circulation. The Brazil variant is one of three that have drawn particular global attention. The other two were first identified in the United Kingdom and South Africa. There is some overlap in the mutations in the three variants, but they arose independently and, along with other variants under review, provide a vivid reminder that the coronavirus is not a static target for vaccines and the human immune system.

Read the full story here.

—Joel Achebach, The Washington Post

Polish president backs lockdown despite business frustration

Poland’s president on Monday expressed understanding for the “despair” of people who are opening their businesses in defiance of the anti-COVID-19 lockdown, but said they still must be punished for breaking government-ordered restrictions.

In comments published Monday, Andrzej Duda was reacting to the swelling nationwide #OtwieraMY (We Are Opening) movement of thousands of business owners opening their restaurants, hotels, ski lifts, fitness centers and similar businesses to avoid going under as a result of the prolonged social distancing and lockdown, recently extended through January.

“I can understand the impatience and often even the despair of people, who see the work of their entire lives falling apart,” Duda said in an interview for the conservative weekly “Sieci.”

“Punishing people who are desperate is a terrible must,” Duda said, but added, however, that the regulations “have to be enforced.”

He appealed “to all for endurance and common sense.”

The government has warned those planning to or breaking the lockdown that they will be cut from the financial aid and exemptions from various dues it is offering if they go ahead with their action. Sanitary authorities are also fining unlocked businesses.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

Allen Family Foundation boosts COVID-19-related funding for hard-hit areas in Washington state

The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation is boosting its pandemic-related funding, with an additional $1.4 million focused on food security, child care and stability for communities across Washington state.

The new donation brings the foundation’s giving to address the impacts of COVID-19 to $12 million.

The new money will go to a range of nonprofits and community groups across the region, many aimed at supporting Black, Indigenous and LGBTQ+ communities. (LGBTQ+ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning, with the + denoting everything along the gender and sexuality spectrum.)

Read the story here.

—Sandi Doughton

U.S. to boost surveillance of virus variants, CDC head says

The U.S. government, including the Pentagon, is stepping up surveillance of coronavirus variants to monitor their impact on COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics, the new head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

“We are now scaling up both our surveillance of these and our study of these,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said on “Fox News Sunday.” The agency is working with others, including the Defense Department and the Food and Drug Administration, to monitor the variants, she said.

Vivek Murthy, President Joe Biden’s nominee for surgeon general, said achieving broad immunity against the coronavirus by the start of the school year in September is “an ambitious goal,” and that new strains of the disease will require continued masking, social distancing and better government tracking.

“It is going to take a lot of work,” Murthy said on ABC’s “This Week.” Many schools don’t have resources to reopen just now, he said. “I do think we can get on a path toward opening schools more safely.”

Murthy said variant strains of the virus that are starting to show up “are likely to be more transmissible.”

“We still need more data” on deaths, he said, adding the larger lesson is that “the virus is basically telling us it is going to continue to change and we got to be ready for it.”

That plan requires better genomic surveillance, he said, and doubling down on masking and social distancing.

“We’ve got to invest a lot more in testing and in contact tracing,” Murthy said. “We are in a race against these variants, the virus is going to change, and it is up to us to adapt and make sure that we are staying ahead.”

Click here to read more.

—By Craig Torres and Tony Czuczka, Bloomberg

EU proposes more travel restrictions to stop virus variants

BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union’s executive body proposed Monday that the bloc’s 27 nations impose more travel restrictions to counter the worrying spread of new coronavirus variants but make sure to keep goods and workers moving across EU borders.

Amid concerns related to the production and delivery of COVID-19 vaccines, the European Commission urged EU nations to reinforce testing and quarantine measures for travelers as virus mutations that are more transmissible threaten to overwhelm European hospitals with new cases.

More than 400,000 EU citizens have already died from the virus since the pandemic first hit Europe last year.

“The start of the EU vaccination campaign kicked off the beginning of the end of the pandemic,” EU Justice commissioner Didier Reynders said. “At the same time, new, more transmissible variants of the virus have surfaced. There is currently a very high number of new infections across many member states. And there is an urgent need to reduce the risk of travel-related infections to lessen the burden on overstretched healthcare systems.”

Click here to read the full story.

—By Samuel Petrequin, The Associated Press

North Carolina field hospital helps fight coronavirus surge

Chris Rutledge peels an N-95 mask off her tired face, revealing the silhouette it leaves behind. Her name and a tiny heart are drawn on the face covering in black marker so her patients know who she is.

“I look terrible when it comes off,” she jokes as she takes a break during her ninth straight day of 12-hour shifts inside a temporary field hospital in Lenoir, North Carolina.

Rutledge, a 60-year-old retired nurse from Lisbon, Iowa, is one of dozens of health care workers who have been treating coronavirus patients inside 11 massive white medical tents set up in the parking lot of Caldwell Memorial Hospital.

The tents became necessary in late December when the virus began surging through this rural community in the Carolina foothills, overwhelming the hospital’s capacity.

The tents and care givers have been provided by Samaritan’s Purse, an international Christian relief charity led by evangelist the Rev. Franklin Graham that is based in Boone, North Carolina. Four other hospitals besides Caldwell are sending patients here so they can use hospital beds for more serious cases.

This is not the first time Samaritan’s Purse has provided aid during the pandemic. The organization, which has partnerships in more than 100 countries, opened its first COVID-19 field hospital on March 16, 2020, in Cremona, Italy, when the virus first began to surge in the U.S. and around the world. Two weeks later, Samaritan’s Purse tents were pitched in New York City’s Central Park.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

CDC publishes paper on NFL’s efforts to play 2020 season

The Centers for Disease Control published a scientific paper jointly authored with the NFL on Monday detailing efforts the league made to get through the pandemic-altered 2020 season.

The paper references what the league did in terms of limiting the spread of COVID-19 among its 32 teams. The study says elements can be applicable beyond the NFL to limit the spread of the virus, including “to settings such as long-term care facilities, schools, and high-density environments.”

The NFL was able to complete its regular season and the playoffs on time with only the Super Bowl remaining. The defending champion Kansas City Chiefs and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will play for the title on Feb. 7 in Tampa, Fla. A limited crowd of about 22,000 fans will be allowed at the game.

The NFL found that transmission of the virus occurred in less than 15 minutes of cumulative interaction between individuals, the timeframe initially used in the CDC’s definition of “close contact.”

Click here to read more.

—By The Associated Press

Cactus League, Arizona mayors want MLB to postpone spring training amid COVID-19 surge

The situation surrounding the start time of spring training for the 2021 baseball season has seemed tenuous at best and impossible at worst.

With pitchers and catchers scheduled to report to their respective teams Feb. 16-17 and the position players to follow five days later, and COVID-19 raging in Arizona, the premise of maintaining safety for the players and staff has been fairly questioned.

On Monday, the Cactus League and the mayors of the respective Arizona municipalities where teams have spring training facilities sent a letter to Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred, asking for the start of spring training to be delayed due to Arizona’s struggles with controlling the spread of COVID.

Click here to read the letter and more.

—By Ryan Divish

More cancellations for Carnival amid jumbled vaccine rollout

Carnival Cruise Line is cancelling and delaying more U.S. trips with new cases of COVID-19 averaging about 170,000 per day in the country amid a jumbled rollout of vaccines.

Carnival’s planned seasonal service out of San Diego has been suspended until further notice, and cruises scheduled through April 2023 were cancelled. Some trips from California to Hawaii will continue, but will sail from Long Beach instead, the company said.

Carnival began warning travelers of cancellations on Friday.

Trips that were planned on three ships, the Magic, Paradise and Valor, are being delayed until November, the cruise line said.

Click here to read the full story.

—By Dee-Ann Durbin, The Associated Press

Biden to reinstate COVID-19 travel rules, add South Africa

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden will sign executive action reinstating COVID-19 travel restrictions on non-U.S. travelers from Brazil, Ireland, the United Kingdom and 26 other European countries that allow travel across open borders, the White House announced Monday.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki also confirmed that South Africa would be added to the restricted list because of concerns about a variant of the virus that has spread beyond that nation.

“This isn’t the time to be lifting restrictions on international travel,” Psaki said.

Top U.S. infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci called Biden’s decision “prudent” in a round of television interviews Monday.

“We have concern about the mutation that’s in South Africa,” Fauci told “CBS This Morning.” “We’re looking at it very actively. It is clearly a different and more ominous than the one in the U.K., and I think it’s very prudent to restrict travel of noncitizens.”

Click here to read more.

—By Aamer Madhani and Zeke Miller, The Associated Press

437 new infections at S. Korean missionary school

South Korea has reported another new 437 infections of the coronavirus as officials raised alarm over an outbreak at a missionary training school. Around 130 students and teachers were found infected so far at the church-run academy in the central city of Daejeon.

Prime Minster Chung Sye-kyun during a virus meeting called for health officials to deal swiftly with the outbreak at the Daejeon school and prevent transmissions from spreading further

. South Korea throughout the pandemic has repeatedly seen huge infection clusters emerge from religious groups, including more than 5,000 infections tied to the secretive Shincheonji Church of Jesus that drove a major outbreak in the southeastern region in spring last year.

“We cannot let that situation repeat,” Chung said. The numbers released by the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency on Monday brought the national caseload to 75,521, including 11 deaths.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

China tackles pandemic with mass construction once again

 A sprawling quarantine center with more than 4,000 rooms is being thrown up in northern China in response to a COVID-19 outbreak in Shijiazhuang, a city of more than 10 million people in Hebei province.

Satellite images from the European Space Agency show dramatic changes over 10 days in an area where there had been only flat land before construction started on Jan. 13.

Rows of prefabricated houses can be seen. The official People’s Daily newspaper said more than 600 rooms were ready by Jan. 19. Another 3,600 are to be added by the time of completion.

Last year, two hospitals, Huoshenshan and Leishenshan, were built within days to treat COVID-19 patients in the city of Wuhan, where the coronavirus was first detected.

China has largely curbed the domestic spread of the virus, but is battling outbreaks this winter in its frigid north. The National Health Commission on Monday reported 145 new cases in the latest 24-hour period, including 11 in Hubei province.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

UN chief: World faces ‘existential threats,’ fragilities

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned global leaders Monday that the world is not only facing a COVID-19 emergency and the worst economic crisis in nearly a century, but also “existential threats” to the climate and biodiversity — and the possibility of the largest economies, the United States and China, splitting the world in two.

In a wide-ranging speech to the World Economic Forum’s virtual Davos Agenda meeting, the U.N. chief said humanity doesn’t want to repeat 2020’s “tragedy and crisis.” However, he pointed to the many fragilities in today’s world, also including lack of consensus on using cyberspace and the growing risks of nuclear and chemical proliferation.

On COVID-19, he warned that rich developed nations “are wrong” to think they will be safe if they vaccinate their own people and neglect the developing world.

“Vaccines must be seen as global public goods — people’s vaccines,” he said, and vaccine production must be massively scaled up around the world at affordable prices.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

US virus numbers drop, but race against new strains heats up

Coronavirus deaths and cases per day in the U.S. dropped markedly over the past couple of weeks but are still running at alarmingly high levels, and the effort to snuff out COVID-19 is becoming an ever more urgent race between the vaccine and the mutating virus.

The government’s top infectious-disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said the improvement in numbers around the country appears to be the result of “natural peaking and then plateauing” after a holiday surge, rather than an effect of the rollout of vaccines that began in mid-December.

Deaths are running at an average of just under 3,100 a day, down from more than 3,350 less than two weeks ago. New cases are averaging about 170,000 a day after peaking at almost 250,000 on Jan. 11. The number of COVID-19 patients in the hospital in the U.S. has fallen to about 110,000 from a high of 132,000 on Jan. 7.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

China pushes conspiracy theories on COVID origin, vaccines

Chinese state media have stoked concerns about Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, despite rigorous trials indicating it is safe. A government spokesperson has raised the unsubstantiated theory that the coronavirus could have emerged from a U.S. military lab, giving it more credence in China.

As the ruling Communist Party faces growing questioning about China’s vaccines and renewed criticism of its early COVID-19 response, it is hitting back by encouraging conspiracy theories that some experts say could cause harm.

State media and officials are sowing doubts about Western vaccines and the origin of the coronavirus in an apparent bid to deflect the attacks. Both issues are in the spotlight because of the rollout of vaccines globally and the recent arrival of a World Health Organization team in Wuhan, China, to investigate the origins of the virus.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

In ambulances, an unseen, unwelcome passenger: COVID-19

 It’s crowded in the back of the ambulance.

Two emergency medical technicians, the patient, the gurney — and an unseen and unwelcome passenger lurking in the air.

For EMTs Thomas Hoang and Joshua Hammond, the coronavirus is constantly close. COVID-19 has become their biggest fear during 24-hour shifts in California’s Orange County, riding with them from 911 call to 911 call, from patient to patient.

They and other EMTs, paramedics and 911 dispatchers in Southern California have been thrust into the front lines of the national epicenter of the pandemic. They are scrambling to help those in need as hospitals burst with a surge of patients after the holidays, ambulances are stuck waiting outside hospitals for hours until beds become available, oxygen tanks are in alarmingly short supply and the vaccine rollout has been slow.

EMTs and paramedics have always dealt with life and death — they make split-second decisions about patient care, which hospital to race to, the best and fastest way to save someone — and now they’re just a breath away from becoming the patient themselves.

They gown up, mask up and glove up, “but you can only be so safe,” Hammond said. “We don’t have the luxury of being 6 feet apart from the patient.”

Statistics on COVID-19 cases and deaths among EMTs and paramedics — especially ones employed by private companies — are hard to find. They are considered essential health care workers but rarely receive the pay and protections given to doctors and nurses.

Hammond and Hoang work for Emergency Ambulance Service Inc., a private ambulance company in Southern California. They, like so many others, have long fostered goals of becoming first responders to serve their communities.

Yet as COVID-19 infections surge and the risks increase, they wonder: Is it worth risking your life — and the lives of your loved ones at home — for a small paycheck and a dream?

“It’s really hard to justify it beyond ‘I really want to help people,’” said Hammond, 25. “Is that worth the risk?”

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

Vaccine protects against variants, Moderna says, but it’s working on a booster

The coronavirus vaccine developed by Moderna triggers an immune response that protected against two variants of the virus first detected in Britain and South Africa in laboratory tests, the company said Monday.

But the reassuring news that vaccine-elicited antibodies remained effective against concerning new variants was tempered by an ominous finding. Those antibodies were less efficient at neutralizing the South African variant in a laboratory dish — a sixfold reduction in response foreshadowed by a small, but mounting body of evidence that has trickled out recently showing that the variant may have the potential to elude parts of the immune response.

As a precaution, Moderna announced it will launch two new studies. The company will test adding a third shot of its current vaccine to boost its two-dose regimen. Scientists have already designed an all-new vaccine specific to the South African variant that could be used as a booster to prime the immune system to the new strain, and plan to test it in the coming months.

“The virus is changing its stripes, and we will change to make sure we can beat the virus where it’s going,” Stephen Hoge, president of Moderna, said in an interview. “The unknown is would we feel it’s necessary to do that, would public health officials want this at that point or would they still be comfortable? What we’re trying to do is create an option.”

Read the story here.

—Carolyn Y. Johnson, The Washington Post

EU pressures AstraZeneca to deliver vaccines as promised

The European Union is pressuring the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca to deliver more coronavirus vaccine doses to the bloc and to stick to its initial promises once the jab gets EU approval, especially since the bloc has already invested in enhancing production capacity.

Already facing criticism for a slow vaccine rollout around the 27 member nations, the European Commission also wants a transparency register to record and approve all export of vaccines out of EU nations to third countries.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen held urgent talks Monday with company chief Pascal Soriot, and EU nations are also meeting with AstraZeneca to encourage the British-Swedish company to ramp up its vaccine production and meet its contractual targets.

The EU, with the economic and political clout of the biggest trading bloc in the world, is lagging badly behind countries like Israel and Britain in the rollout of vaccines for its most vulnerable population and health care workers.

The European Medicines Agency is scheduled to review the Oxford-AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine Friday and its approval is hotly anticipated.

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—The Associated Press

California lifts virus stay-at-home orders, curfew statewide

California Gov. Gavin Newsom lifted regional stay-at-home orders on Monday and announce the state is returning to a system of county-by-county restrictions intended to stem the spread of the coronavirus, two administration officials with knowledge said.

The decision comes with improving trends in the rate of infections, hospitalizations and intensive care unit capacity as well as vaccinations. The order had been in place in the San Francisco Bay Area, San Joaquin Valley and Southern California. The change will allow businesses such as restaurants to resume outdoor operations in many areas.

During the weekend, San Francisco Bay Area ICU capacity surged to 23% while the San Joaquin Valley increased to 1.3%, its first time above zero. The huge Southern California region, the most populous, remains at zero ICU capacity.

The change is based on projections, but the state has not disclosed the data behind the forecasts.

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—The Associated Press

Merck ends development of two potential COVID-19 vaccines

Merck is giving up on two potential COVID-19 vaccines following poor results in early-stage studies.

The drugmaker said Monday that it will focus instead on studying two possible treatments for the virus that also have yet to be approved by regulators. The company said its potential vaccines were well tolerated by patients, but they generated an inferior immune system response compared with other vaccines.

Merck was developing one of the potential vaccines with France’s Pasteur Institute based on an existing measles vaccine. The French institute said it will keep working on two other vaccine projects using different methods.

Merck entered the race to fight COVID-19 later than other top drugmakers.

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—The Associated Press

Chaos mars over-80s vaccine start in major German state

Thousands of elderly Germans faced online error messages and jammed up hotlines Monday as technical problems marred the start of the coronavirus vaccine campaign for over-80s in the country’s most populous state.

North Rhine-Westphalia state, whose population of almost 18 million is bigger than those of many European countries, began administering shots to nursing home residents and staff last month.

But people over 80 who are still living at their homes have been left waiting for appointments to get their first shots at vast vaccine centers, and many will likely have to wait even longer.

The technical problems were an embarrassment for state governor Armin Laschet, who was just elected the new head of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union party.

North Rhine-Westphalia, an industrial powerhouse that is home to cities such as Cologne, Duesseldorf and Dortmund, currently languishes far down the per capita vaccine league tables in Germany, with about 1.6% of the population having received their first shot.

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—The Associated Press

Alaska has nation’s highest coronavirus vaccination rate

Alaska held the enviable position of having the highest rate of coronavirus vaccinations per capita in the nation as of last week, the state’s top health official said.

Alaska Chief Medical Officer Anne Zink said last Thursday that the progress was the result of community efforts to quickly distribute vaccinations and additional allotments for federal agencies within the state, KTOO-FM reported.

Zink told the Greater Juneau Chamber of Commerce that Alaska receives more doses of vaccine because of allowances above the state’s share for the Department of Defense, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Indian Health Service.

“We have the highest veterans per capita population. We have a large military presence. And we have a large Indigenous population with over 229 sovereign tribes,” Zink said. “And so, because of those reasons, we did get some additional vaccine in the state via those federal partnerships.”

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—The Associated Press

Dutch politicians condemn weekend rioting as curfew started

Politicians and local leaders on Monday condemned rioters who clashed with police in about 10 towns and cities across the Netherlands a day earlier, on the second night of a coronavirus curfew.

“It is unacceptable,” Prime Minister Mark Rutte said. “This has nothing to do with protesting, this is criminal violence and that’s how we’ll treat it.”

Worst hit was Eindhoven, where police clashed with hundreds of rioters who torched a car, threw rocks and fireworks at officers, smashed windows and looted a supermarket at the southern city’s railway station.

“My city is crying, and so am I,” Eindhoven Mayor John Jorritsma told media Sunday night. In an emotional impromptu press conference, he called the rioters “the scum of the earth” and added “I am afraid that if we continue down this path, we’re on our way to civil war.”

The rioting coincided with the first weekend of the new national coronavirus 9 p.m. to 4:30 a.m. curfew, but mayors stressed that the violence was not the work of citizens concerned about their civil liberties.

“These demonstrations are being hijacked by people who only want one thing and that is to riot,” Hubert Bruls, mayor of the city of Nijmegen and leader of a group of local security organizations, told news talk show Op1 on Sunday night.

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—The Associated Press

Increased testing sends new Thai coronavirus cases soaring

 Thailand on Monday discovered a record 914 new cases of the coronavirus, all in Samut Sakhon province near Bangkok where a major outbreak began in December. The new cases shot the national total past 14,000.

The previous high was on Jan. 4, when 745 cases were reported, mostly in Samut Sakhon among migrant workers from Myanmar. The province is a center for fishing and industry. The first case reported in the recent surge was detected there in mid-December at a major seafood market, which has been closed.

Any new cases in other provinces will be announced in Tuesday. National totals are announced the day after test results, but Samut Sakhon health officials officials released local results on Monday, the same day they began mass proactive testing in the province, targeting up to 10,000 people a day for a week.

They said 844 new cases were detected Monday through pro-active testing and 70 discovered in hospitals. Thai nationals accounted for 119 cases and migrant workers for 795.

Earlier Monday, Health Ministry officials had announced 187 new cases nationwide, bringing the total to 13,687.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

Catch up on the past 24 hours

A highly contagious variant of COVID-19 has arrived in Pierce and Snohomish counties, health officials say. Variants are threatening to undo the progress that's been made toward ending the pandemic, prompting a warning from Dr. Anthony Fauci: Assume the worst about the strain found here.

Many of the earliest COVID-19 "long-haulers" are still not back to normal. COVID-19 plunged Seattle's Kelly Hickman, 37, into a cycle of crushing fatigue and brain fog so impenetrable she couldn’t read a book. Hickman is one of the first "long-haulers," who have lost their health, their jobs and their once-normal lives. "Is this my life now? I don’t know and the doctors don’t know,” Hickman says as Seattle researchers try to find the answer.

Should Washington state require schools to reopen if their counties hit certain coronavirus numbers? Lawmakers are considering this controversial question and other pandemic-era education issues.

President-elect Joe Biden today will impose COVID-19 restrictions on travelers from at least 30 nations.

• Fauci is talking about what working for Trump was really like, from the most frightening moments to the ones where he was the stubborn "skunk at the picnic." Why did he never quit? He still has unfinished business. Dr. Deborah Birx, too, is describing her inside view of how misinformation shaped crucial White House statements about the pandemic.

Ambulances have an unseen passenger: COVID-19. Thomas Hoang and Joshua Hammond have always dealt with life and death as EMTs in California, but now that they're just a breath away from becoming patients themselves, this is how their harrowing 24-hour ambulance shift goes.

A would-be traveler got COVID-19 and canceled his trip, but will Airbnb ever let him book again? Travel Troubleshooter had to step in.

—Kris Higginson