Editor’s note: This is a live account of COVID-19 updates from Tuesday, Jan. 26, 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 It is no longer being updated.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.

President Joe Biden continues to boost his goal for coronavirus vaccinations and suggested Monday the nation could soon be injecting an average of 1.5 million shots per day.

Meanwhile, Washington state health officials and hospital leaders say they’ve been overwhelmed by a flood of phone calls and hospital visits since the state decided to expand vaccine eligibility to those age 65 and over. As of Monday, at least 500,105 doses of vaccine had been administered in Washington.

Here’s how to get a COVID-19 vaccine in Seattle, King County and around the state.

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.

Gov. Jay Inslee will hold a press conference at 2:15 pm. today to give an update on the 2021 legislative session and the state’s response to the ongoing pandemic, including vaccination efforts.
Watch here:


Navigating the pandemic
(Jennifer Luxton / The Seattle Times)

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Walmart to build more robot-filled warehouses at stores

NEW YORK — Walmart is enlisting the help of robots to keep up with a surge in online orders.

The company said Wednesday that it plans to build warehouses at its stores where self-driving robots will fetch groceries and have them ready for shoppers to pick up in an hour or less. 

Walmart declined to say how many of the warehouses it will build, but construction has started at stores in Lewisville, Texas; Plano, Texas; American Fork, Utah; and Bentonville, Arkansas, where Walmart’s corporate offices are based. A test site was opened more than a year ago at a store in Salem, New Hampshire.

Walmart hopes the warehouses will speed up curbside pickups, where orders are brought outside to shoppers’ cars. Both options became increasingly popular as virus-weary shoppers avoid going inside stores. At the start of the pandemic last year, Walmart said delivery and pickup sales grew 300%.

—Associated Press
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Biden to reopen ‘Obamacare’ markets for COVID-19 relief

WASHINGTON — Fulfilling a campaign promise, President Joe Biden plans to reopen the HealthCare.gov insurance markets for a special sign-up opportunity geared to people needing coverage in the coronavirus pandemic. 

Biden is expected to sign an executive order Thursday, said two people familiar with the plan, whose details were still being finalized. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the pending order ahead of a formal announcement.

Although the number of uninsured Americans has grown because of job losses due to the economic hit of COVID-19, the Trump administration resisted calls to authorize a “special enrollment period” for people uninsured in the pandemic. Failure to repeal and replace “Obamacare” as he repeatedly vowed to do was one of former President Donald Trump’s most bitter disappointments. His administration continued trying to find ways to limit the program or unravel it entirely. A Supreme Court decision on Trump’s final legal challenge to the Affordable Care Act is expected this year.

The White House had no comment on Biden’s expected order, but the two individuals familiar with the plan said the new enrollment period would not go into effect immediately. 

—Associated Press

IOC, Tokyo Olympics to unveil rule book for beating pandemic

The Olympic rings are seen at the empty Odaiba waterfront in Tokyo, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021. The Tokyo Games, postponed in the midst of a pandemic, are scheduled to open on July 23. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)

TOKYO — Remember the word: Playbook. 

This is the rule book that the IOC and Tokyo organizers are set to roll out next week to explain how 15,400 Olympic and Paralympic athletes and tens of thousands of others will try to safely enter Japan when the Olympics open in just under six months.

Organizers and the International Olympic Committee are finally going public with their planning, hoping to push back against reports the Olympics will be canceled with Tokyo and much of Japan still under a state of emergency with COVID-19 cases rising.

The rollout at Olympic headquarters in Switzerland is planned for Feb. 4, with Tokyo likely to present on Feb. 5.

“We created four different scenarios, one that had travel restrictions, clusters — to one where the pandemic was nearly gone,” Lucia Montanarella, head of IOC media operations, explained Tuesday for a panel discussion held by the International Sports Press Association.

The playbook will be about creating safe bubbles in Tokyo, and will be updated with changing protocols as the July 23 opening gets closer. The Paralympics are schedule to open on Aug. 24.

—Associated Press

Special access to COVID-19 vaccine for Overlake Medical Center donors draws Inslee rebuke

Pat Milburn, Overlake Medical Center’s head of pharmacy, shows the ultra-cold storage freezer where COVID-19 vaccine doses will be stored. He’s wearing a cryogenic glove to protect his hand. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

Last Friday, Molly Stearns, chief development officer at Overlake Medical Center & Clinics, emailed about 110 donors who gave more than $10,000 to the Eastside hospital system, informing them that highly coveted vaccine slots were available. 

The email — and the appearance of favoritism that an Overlake leader acknowledged was a mistake — raised eyebrows. Overlake shut down online access to the invite-only clinic after getting a call from Gov. Jay Inslee’s staff.

Overlake says the vaccination slots were not offered exclusively to donors, but also to Overlake board members, some patients, volunteers, employees and retired health providers — some 4,000 people in all. All who registered were supposed to be eligible for the vaccine under current state rules, the email said. 

The invitation was a quick-fix solution after the hospital’s scheduling system failed, said Tom DeBord, the medical center’s chief operating officer.

The state’s glitchy effort to vaccinate millions of Washingtonians has relied heavily on hospital systems, who have been provided little logistical support, an unreliable supply of vaccine and fast-changing guidance on who qualifies and how to reach them. Now, after state officials expanded eligibility, a crush of seniors angling to book appointments has added to the strain for hospitals, which have been left to their own devices to manage the chaos.

Read the full story here.

—Evan Bush, Mike Reicher and Sydney Brownstone
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135 workers test positive for coronavirus at Trident Seafoods Alaska plant

The Trident Seafoods plant on the remote island of Akutan is one of the largest fish and crab processing facilities in North America. It is the site of a COVID-19 outbreak among workers. (Courtesy of Trident Seafoods)

Initial testing has found 135 positive coronavirus cases among workers at a Trident Seafoods processing plant in Akutan — a remote Aleutian Islands hub for processing pollock, cod and crab.

Alaska state health officials, who reported the test results Tuesday, said testing and other medical supplies have been sent to the plant. Evacuations by ship have been carried out for some employees most at risk should they get infected as well as emergency air evacuations of five sick workers, some of whom had illnesses other than COVID-19.

“Right now, the company is taking all appropriate measures to limit further spread of the virus within their workforce,” said Thomas Koloski, an Alaska state emergency management official. 

Currently, Seattle-based Trident has some 700 workers based at the Akutan plant to process pollock, cod and crab, and had planned to bring in some 700 additional workers for the peak winter harvest season. As of Tuesday afternoon, 307 workers at the plant had been tested, and the 135 infections represented a positive rate of almost 44%.

Testing is expected to be completed in the days ahead. Trident officials, who did not comment on the partial test results, say they will fully disclose all results once they are complete.

Read the full story here.

—Hal Bernton

Mexico near approving Russian vaccine, with little data

MEXICO CITY — Mexico said Tuesday it is close to granting approval for Russia’s Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine, with lots of spy drama but little public data available. 

The approval process described by Hugo López-Gatell, Mexico’s assistant health secretary, sounded like a Cold War spy thriller, and may not foment confidence in the shot. 

López-Gatell said a Mexican technical committee on new medications has recommended approving the vaccine, adding only “some details” were lacking for COFEPRIS, the government medical safety commission, to give the final go-ahead. 

“The technical part, the main part of COFEPRIS, particularly the committee on new medications, has given a favorable recommendation to authorize, that is to say, the crucial part has been solved,” López-Gatell said. 

But he also said that despite weeks of conversations with Russian officials, he could not get his hands on the results of Phase 3 trials, which are normally published in international medical journals and indicate how effective the vaccine is.

—Associated Press

South Korea adds 559 cases, highest in 10 days

SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea has reported 559 new cases of coronavirus infection, its highest daily increase in 10 days, as health workers scramble to slow transmissions at religious facilities, which have been a major source of infections throughout the pandemic.

The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency said 112 of the new cases came from the southwestern city of Gwangju, where more than 100 infections have so far been linked to a missionary training school. An affiliated facility in the central city of Daejeon has been tied to more than 170 infections.

Nearly 300 of the new cases came from the Seoul metropolitan area, home to half of the country’s 51 million people, where infections have been tied to various places, including churches, restaurants, schools and offices.

The country 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 last spring.

—Associated Press
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Mona Lisa is alone, but still smiling

Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” in an empty gallery at the Louvre in Paris on Dec. 4, 2020. With the Louvre closed because of the coronavirus pandemic, museum officials are pushing ahead on a grand restoration and cleanup. (Dmitry Kostyukov/The New York Times)

PARIS — From her bulletproof case in the Louvre Museum, Mona Lisa’s smile met an unfamiliar sight the other morning: emptiness. The gallery where throngs of visitors swarmed to ogle her day after day was a void, deserted under France’s latest coronavirus confinement.

Around the corner, the Winged Victory of Samothrace floated quietly above a marble staircase, majestic in the absence of selfie-sticks and tour groups. In the Louvre’s medieval basement, the Great Sphinx of Tanis loomed in the dark like a granite ghost from behind bars.

The world’s most visited museum — a record 10 million in 2019, mostly from overseas — is grappling with its longest closure since World War II, as pandemic restrictions keep its treasures under lock and key. But without crowds that can swell to as many as 40,000 people a day, museum officials are seizing a golden opportunity to finesse a grand refurbishment for when visitors return.

A small army of around 250 artisans has been working since France’s latest lockdown went into effect Oct. 30. Instead of waiting until Tuesdays — the sole day that the Louvre used to close — curators, restorers, conservationists and other experts are pressing ahead five days a week to complete major renovations that had started before the pandemic and introduce new beautifications that they hope to finish by mid-February.

—Associated Press

Maduro’s ‘miracle’ treatment for COVID-19 draws skeptics

CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro appears to be counting on yet another “miracle” to save his citizens from COVID-19, promoting a secretive solution with no published scientific evidence he claims will conquer the new coronavirus.

“Ten drops under the tongue every four hours and the miracle is done,” Maduro said in a televised appearance on Sunday. “It’s a powerful antiviral, very powerful, that neutralizes the coronavirus.”

But his government has released no evidence. He even kept secret the name of the “brilliant Venezuelan mind” behind it, saying he needed to protect them. Scientists at home and abroad remained skeptical. The local National Academy of Medicine said it appeared be derived from the common herb thyme.

It’s not the first time the Venezuelan leader has promoted a cure. In October, he notified the Pan American Health Organization that Venezuelan scientists discovered a molecule that nullifies the replication capacity of the new coronavirus. He hasn’t spoken of that development since. He’s also promoted a special herbal tea he claims can fend off the virus and other ailments.

—Associated Press

Pharmacist charged in COVID-19 vaccine case to plead guilty

MILWAUKEE — A Wisconsin pharmacist accused of trying to spoil dozens of vials of COVID-19 vaccine is facing 20 years in prison after he agreed Tuesday to plead guilty in federal court, prosecutors said.

Steven Brandenburg, 46, of Grafton, is charged with two counts of attempting to tamper with consumer products, which is described in the plea deal as showing ”reckless disregard for the risk that another person will be placed in danger of death or bodily injury.”

Brandenburg faces a maximum sentence of 10 years and a $250,000 fine on each count. He had originally been charged with attempted misdemeanor property damage but prosecutors warned more serious charges could follow if tests showed the doses were ruined.

“Tampering with vaccine doses in the midst of a global health crisis calls for a strong response, as reflected by the serious charges the United States has brought today,” Acting Assistant Attorney General Brian Boynton of the Department of Justice’s Civil Division said in a statement.

—Associated Press
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Cutting off stimulus checks to Americans earning over $75,000 could be wise, new data suggests

WASHINGTON — As President Joe Biden pushes for another round of stimulus payments for most Americans, calls are escalating to target the aid solely to low- and moderate-income families, and new data suggests that it would provide the most needed and effective boost for the economy.

Families earning under about $75,000 typically spend the money quickly, according to a new analysis of how Americans are using the $600 payments this month, a study by Opportunity Insights, a nonprofit research organization. Families earning above that threshold typically save the stimulus payment, which provides little help to the overall economy and signals that the money was not as urgently needed.

Lawmakers from both major political parties lobbied the White House over the weekend for a less costly relief package that would only send stimulus payments to the most needy. Under Biden’s proposal, most U.S. households would receive $1,400 payments.

The initial round of $1,200 stimulus checks in the spring saw some increase in spending across all income levels, experts say, but this second stimulus is revealing a wide gap. That’s probably because the recession is largely over for the rich, while poorer households are still deep in it. The Federal Reserve says unemployment for low-wage workers is still about 20% — a near depression-like state.

—The Washington Post

Alaska detects first known case of coronavirus variant

JUNEAU, Alaska — Alaska has detected the state’s first known case of the coronavirus variant identified last year in the United Kingdom, officials said Tuesday.

The infected person is an Anchorage resident who had traveled to a state where the variant had already been detected, the Alaska health department said. The person first experienced symptoms on Dec. 17, was tested three days later and received a positive result on Dec. 22.

The resident lived with another person in Anchorage, who also became ill. Both isolated and have since recovered, officials said. 

It was not yet clear if the second person also was infected with the variant. 

Dr. Joe McLaughlin, the state epidemiologist, said in a news release that the discovery of the variant is not surprising because viruses “constantly change through mutation.”

—Associated Press

Bellevue school district and teachers union reach deal on reopening; K-2 will return to buildings

Second-graders in Bellevue were back in buildings and teachers resumed live virtual classes on Tuesday after a week of public feuding between the school district and union over in-person learning. 

The Bellevue School District and its teachers union, the Bellevue Education Association, reached an agreement that allowed kindergartners through second-graders to return as the district previously planned, but with some additional protocols in place that neither side has discussed in detail. School was canceled for everyone on Monday as management and labor sought a resolution. 

Early last week, the union had voted to halt live instruction to protest the district’s plan to expand in-person learning before all educators had access to a vaccine. On the first day second-graders showed up to school buildings, last Thursday, many students were taught by substitutes. The district filed a lawsuit in response, unsuccessfully seeking immediate court intervention on the grounds that the union’s actions constituted a breach of contract. 

The battle in Bellevue, the largest school district in King County to expand in-person learning, is emblematic of the stress the virus has put on relationships among districts, unions and families.

Read the full story here.

—Dahlia Bazzaz
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State health officials confirm 1,352 new coronavirus cases

The state Department of Health (DOH) reported 1,352 new coronavirus cases and 19 new deaths on Tuesday.

The update brings the state's totals to 303,482 cases and 4,167 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. Monday. Tallies may be higher earlier in the week because new state data isn’t reported on Sundays and COVID-19-related deaths aren’t reported on the weekends.

In addition, 17,354 people have been hospitalized in the state due to the virus — 95 new hospitalizations. In King County, the state's most populous, state health officials have confirmed a total of 76,146 COVID-19 diagnoses and 1,220 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.

—Elise Takahama

More vaccines coming to Washington state

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said Tuesday that the state will be receiving more vaccines than before from the federal government. (Ted S. Warren / The Associated Press)

Gov. Jay Inslee Tuesday announced that the federal government is increasing the weekly allotment of COVID-19 vaccines to Washington by 16% for the coming weeks.

“This is really great news that in such short order the Biden administration has been able to increase the supply,” said the governor in a news conference on the pandemic.

President Joe Biden announced Tuesday the purchase of 200 million doses of vaccine and an increased distribution to states next week.

Additionally, the governor announced the state will be receiving the higher-efficiency syringes that can pull an extra dose out of the vaccine vials.

“Instead of five doses a vial, we will have six,” said Inslee.

Early on in the distribution, Washington state struggled to quickly get vaccines into the arms of vulnerable people: health care workers and long-term care residents.

Inslee on Tuesday touted recent progress on getting vaccines distributed, saying the daily number of vaccines given out across the state have recently increased.

—Joseph O’Sullivan

Lebanon surpasses record daily virus deaths amid protests

Lebanon hit a new daily record for COVID-19 fatalities Tuesday, registering 73 deaths as protesters took to the streets for a second day to denounce strict lockdown measures put in place to curb an exhausting surge in infections.

The health ministry said the number of virus-related deaths, which in a day climbed above 60 for the first time, reached nearly 2,500 in the small country.

Daily infections have soared in recent weeks and hospitals have struggled with COVID-19 patients, reporting near full occupancy in ICU beds. Nearly 286,000 infections have been recorded since last February.

To respond to the crisis, the government imposed a nearly month-long nationwide lockdown, the strictest since the virus hit Lebanon.

On Tuesday, dozens of protesters took to the streets in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city and most impoverished, for the second straight day demanding an end to the lockdown and questioning the government’s management of what some called a contrived health crisis.

Read the story here.

—Sarah El Deeb, The Associated Press
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U.S. to buy 200 million more vaccine doses to be distributed through summer

The Biden administration said Tuesday that it will seek to buy another 200 million doses of the two coronavirus vaccines that have been authorized for emergency use in the United States.

The purchases would increase available supply by 50%, bringing the total to 600 million doses by this summer.

Because both products — one developed by Pfizer and German company BioNTech and the other by Moderna — are two-dose regimens, that would be enough to fully vaccinate 300 million people. An estimated 260 million people in the United States are considered eligible to receive a coronavirus vaccine, though Pfizer and Moderna have initiated trials for children as young as 12, the results of which could expand the pool.

Read the full story.

—Laurie Mcginley, Isaac Stanley-Becker and Christopher Rowland, The Washington Post

Teachers, students march in France for more virus support

 Schoolteachers and university students marched together in protests or went on strike Tuesday around France to demand more government support amid the pandemic.

Protestors march during a demonstration in Paris, Tuesday Jan.26, 2021. Schoolteachers and university students marched together in protests or went on strike Tuesday around France to demand more government support amid the pandemic. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

“No virus protocol, no school!” read posters carried by schoolteachers, demanding better virus protections at their schools, which have remained open since September because of the government’s concern over learning gaps.

“Sick of Zoom!” chanted university students, frustrated that they’ve been barred from campuses since October.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

Poland’s population rapidly shrinking under pandemic

Statistics for 2020 show deaths spiked in Poland to a level unseen since World War II and births sharply declined, trends attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic and described by some as a demographic crisis.

The data reported Tuesday by the daily newspaper Dziennik Gazeta Prawna came from a state register that includes weekly births and deaths.

Poland, a nation with a population of more than 38 million, registered 357,400 births last year, the lowest number since 2005, and some 486,200 deaths from various causes, the highest number registered since the war, in which Poland lost millions of citizens.

The overall data showed a population loss of some 129,000 people in 2020, compared with a decline of some 36,400 the year before.

The low birth rate surprised observers because some experts predicted the lockdown measures lead to a baby boom. Demography expert Piotr Szukalski said he thinks that deep concerns about the spread of the coronavirus are to blame.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press
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Merkel: pandemic shows German digital weaknesses, need to cooperate

German Chancellor Angela Merkel conceded that the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted significant shortcomings in her country as she told the World Economic Forum on Tuesday that it has underlined the need for international cooperation on issues such as vaccines.

Germany had a relatively successful first phase of the pandemic, but saw infections shoot up during the winter months and recently passed the threshold of 50,000 deaths, Europe’s fifth-highest toll. A lengthy second lockdown has slowly brought down the number of new cases in recent weeks.

In Germany, “the speed of our action leaves a lot to be desired,” Merkel said in a speech to the forum. “Processes have often become very bureaucratic and take a long time, so we have to work on that.”

Germany’s solid public finances allowed it to give considerable support to the economy in the pandemic and years of investment in research have paid off, Merkel said.

But “where we didn’t look good, and that is still being seen today, is the lack of digitization in our society — that begins with the interlinking of health offices, it’s seen in the digitization of administration and in the digitization of our education system, when we talk about distance teaching and distance studying.”

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

Judge refuses to toss case against defiant Louisiana pastor

A judge has refused to toss out six criminal complaints filed against a Louisiana pastor charged with violating coronavirus gathering capacity rules put in place during the early days of the pandemic.

Nineteenth Judicial District Judge Eboni Johnson-Rose on Monday dismissed pastor Tony Spell’s motion to have the case against him dropped, news outlets reported.

The judge’s ruling sided with a special assistant to the District Attorney who argued that when the charges were filed in the early days of the outbreak, New Orleans was a national coronavirus hotspot and Louisiana was under a declared emergency, The Advocate reported.

Prosecutors alleged Spell violated public gathering capacity limits by continuing to host worship services at his Life Tabernacle Church in Baton Rouge with hundreds in attendance.

The pastor did not attend his hearing Monday because he refused to wear a mask inside the courthouse.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

Relative of virus victim asks to meet WHO experts in Wuhan

Zhang Hai holds up one of the last images of his father taken in a hospital during an interview in Shenzhen in southern China’s Guangdong province on Friday, Oct. 16, 2020. Zhang is demanding to meet a visiting World Health Organization expert team, saying it should speak with affected families who allege they are being muffled by the Chinese government.(AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

A relative of a coronavirus victim in China is demanding to meet a visiting World Health Organization expert team, saying it should speak with affected families who allege they are being muffled by the Chinese government.

China approved the visit by researchers under the auspices of the U.N. agency only after months of negotiations. It has not indicated whether they will be allowed to gather evidence or talk to families, saying only that the team can exchange views with Chinese scientists.

“I hope the WHO experts don’t become a tool to spread lies,” said Zhang Hai, whose father died of COVID-19 on Feb. 1, 2020, after traveling to the Chinese city of Wuhan and getting infected. “We’ve been searching for the truth relentlessly. This was a criminal act, and I don’t want the WHO to be coming to China to cover up these crimes.”

China’s Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press
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U.S. states ease coronavirus restrictions just as variants take hold

Diners Susan and Hank Gill of Loves Park eat inside at Nunzio’s Restaurant on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021, in Loves Park, Ill. Tables are spaced out for indoor dining. As Illinois’ coronavirus test positivity rate falls, state officials have announced the further loosening of coronavirus restrictions. State officials announced Monday that dozens of counties in northwestern Illinois will be allowed to offer limited indoor bar service and increase indoor dining capacity.  (Scott P. Yates/Rockford Register Star via AP)

California and other large states are loosening coronavirus restrictions just as scientists warn that more-contagious variants of the virus are beginning to take hold in the U.S. and the vaccine rollout struggles.

With a two-month spike in cases beginning to subside, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, D, is lifting the state’s stay-at-home order. New York, Illinois, Michigan and Massachusetts also are easing restrictions.

The shift comes as new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are declining. Still, the new variants — including one in the U.K., another in California and a Brazilian one first identified in the U.S. on Monday in Minnesota — are setting off alarms, and may be more transmissible. The U.S. has administered only about 23.4 million vaccines for a population of about 331 million.

“We’re just asking to go backwards by easing restrictions without focusing on achieving herd immunity with vaccination,” said Sadiya Khan, an epidemiologist at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago. “It’s very fragile.”

After almost a year of grueling lockdown, and losses both human and economic, governors and mayors are under intense pressure to balance safety and the desires of many constituents to open.

Read the story here.

—Christopher Palmeri and Emma Court, Bloomberg

UN group says Sri Lanka virus cremation rule violates rights

Pro-government Sri Lankan Buddhist monks hold placards during a protest outside president’s office asking the government not to review the policy for mandatory cremation of Muslim COVID-19 victims, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Monday, Dec. 28, 2020. Sri Lanka’s minority Muslim community has started a campaign against the policy announced by the government in March and are demanding burial rights for Muslims who die of the disease. (Eranga Jayawardena / The Associated Press)

A group of U.N experts has criticized Sri Lanka’s requirement that those who die of COVID-19 be cremated, even it goes against a family’s religious beliefs, and warned that decisions based on “discrimination and aggressive nationalism” could incite hatred and violence.

The experts, who are part of the Special Procedures of the U.N Human Rights Council, said in a statement Monday that rule amounts to a human rights violation.

“We deplore the implementation of such public health decisions based on discrimination, aggressive nationalism and ethnocentrism amounting to persecution of Muslims and other minorities in the country,” the experts said. “Such hostility against the minorities exacerbates existing prejudices, intercommunal tensions, and religious intolerance, sowing fear and distrust while inciting further hatred and violence.”

Sri Lanka introduced the rule in March, saying there was a risk that bodies with the coronavirus could contaminate the ground water if they were buried. The WHO as well as Sri Lankan medical groups have said that burial of those who died of COVID-19 is safe.

More than 70% of Sri Lankans are Buddhist, a faith in which cremation is common. But 9% of people in Sri Lanka are Muslims and many say cremation goes against their religious beliefs.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

EU demands that vaccine makers honor their commitments

The European Union on Tuesday warned pharmaceutical companies that have developed coronavirus vaccines with EU aid that it must get its shots on schedule, a day after the bloc threatened to impose export controls on vaccines produced within its borders.

The EU made it very clear that it is bent on getting all doses as quickly as their contracts provide for at a time when infections are surging, many hospitals are overwhelmed, and many of the 27 members states are struggling to get their vaccine rollout going at top speed.

The hardening of its position came days after it accused AstraZeneca of failing to guarantee the delivery of coronavirus vaccines without a valid explanation. It also had expressed displeasure over vaccine delivery delays from Pfizer-BioNTech. The Pfizer vaccine is already being rolled out in the EU, and the AstraZeneca one is expected to be approved this week.

“Europe invested billions to help develop the world’s first COVID-19 vaccines,” EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told the World Economic Forum’s virtual event in Switzerland. “And now, the companies must deliver. They must honor their obligations.”

The EU, which invested 2.7 billion euros in vaccine research and production for the drug companies, “means business,” she added, reflecting the heavy pressure EU nations are under to roll out vaccines.

The EU has committed to buying 300 million AstraZeneca doses with option on 100 million extra shots. Late last week, the company said it was planning to reduce a first contingent of 80 million to 31 million. Pfizer has said it was delaying deliveries to Europe and Canada while it upgrades its plant in Belgium to increase production capacity.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press
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‘Paramedic of the Year’ accused of helping to steal vaccine

A Florida man who had been recently named “Paramedic of the Year” helped a supervisor steal COVID-19 vaccines meant for first responders, sheriff’s officials said.

Joshua Colon, 31, forged the vaccine screening and consent forms to help cover up the theft of three vials containing 10 doses each of the Moderna vaccine, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said in a news conference Tuesday. Colon said a fire department captain asked him to procure doses for his mother and threatened him if he did not.

Colon was arrested on Monday, days after his resignation from Polk County Fire Rescue, Chief Robert Weech said; the captain will also be arrested when he returns home from a work assignment in California.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

Dutch justice minister vows prosecution of lockdown rioters

In this grab taken from video on Monday, Jan, 25, 2021, rioters throw stones at police, in Haarlem, Netherlands. Groups of youths have confronted police in several Dutch cities defying the country’s coronavirus curfew and throwing fireworks. Police in the port city of Rotterdam used a water cannon and tear gas in an attempt to disperse a crowd of rioters Monday night. (Mizzle Media via AP)

People arrested during three nights of rioting sparked by the Netherlands’ new coronavirus curfew will face swift prosecution, the Dutch justice minister said Tuesday as the nation faced its worst civil unrest in years.

Minister Ferd Grapperhaus said rioters would be quickly brought before the courts by public prosecutors and will face possible prison terms if convicted.

“They won’t get away with it,” he told reporters in The Hague.

The rioting, initially triggered by anger over the country’s tough coronavirus lockdown, has been increasingly fueled by calls for rioting swirling on social media. The violence has stretched the police and led at times to the deployment of military police.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

COVID-19 variant brings new dimension to Europe’s pandemic

FILE – In this Jan. 22, 2021, file photo, ambulance personnel stand waiting as more than a dozen ambulances queue waiting to hand over their COVID-19 patients to medics at the Santa Maria hospital in Lisbon. In its fight against COVID-19, Portugal lifted restrictions on gatherings and movements for four days over Christmas so that people could spend the festive season with family and friends. Soon after the holiday, the pandemic quickly got out of hand. (AP Photo/Armando Franca, File)

In the first week of December, Portugal’s prime minister gave his pandemic-weary people an early Christmas gift: restrictions on gatherings and travel due to COVID-19 would be lifted from Dec. 23-26 so they could spend the holiday season with family and friends.

Soon after those visits, the pandemic quickly got out of hand.

By Jan. 6, Portugal’s number of new daily COVID-19 cases surged past 10,000 for the first time. In mid-January, with alarm bells ringing as each day brought new records of infections and deaths, the government ordered a lockdown for at least a month and a week later shut the country’s schools.

But it was too little, too late. Portugal has for almost a week had the most daily cases and deaths per 100,000 people in the world, according to statistics compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

Outside the country’s overloaded hospitals now, long lines of ambulances wait for hours to deliver their COVID-19 patients.

Portugal’s problems illustrate the risk of letting down pandemic guards when a new, fast-spreading variant is lurking unseen.

The pandemic’s spread across Europe is increasingly being powered by an especially contagious virus mutation first detected last year in southeast England, health experts say. The threat is prompting governments to introduce harsh new lockdowns and curfews.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press
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CDC finds scant spread of coronavirus in schools that take proper precautions

Schools operating in person have seen scant transmission of the coronavirus, particularly when masks and distancing are employed, but indoor athletics have led to infections and should be curtailed if schools want to operate safely, researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded in papers published Tuesday.

Kindergarten teacher Sherri Shober doles out hand sanitizer to students Jan. 19, 2021, at Park Brook Elementary School in Brooklyn Park, Minn. Prekindergarten through second grade students returned for in-person learning during the pandemic. (Christine T. Nguyen / Minnesota Public Radio via The Associated Press)

The CDC team reviewed data from studies in the United States and abroad and found the experience in schools different from nursing homes and high-density worksites where rapid spread has occurred.

“The preponderance of available evidence from the fall school semester has been reassuring,” wrote three CDC researchers in a viewpoint piece published online Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association. “There has been little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission.”

The review, which echoes the conclusions of other researchers, comes as many schools districts continue to wrestle with whether and how to reopen schools and as President Joe Biden makes a return to in-person learning one of his top pandemic-related priorities.

Read the story here.

—Laura Meckler, The Washington Post

Indonesia’s confirmed coronavirus cases exceed 1 million

A woman walks past a coronavirus-themed mural honoring health workers in Tangerang, Indonesia, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021. Indonesia has reported more cases of the virus than any other countries in Southeast Asia. (AP Photo/Tatan Syuflana)

 Indonesia’s confirmed coronavirus infections since the pandemic began crossed 1 million on Tuesday and hospitals in some hard-hit areas were near capacity.

Indonesia’s Health Ministry announced that new daily infections rose by 13,094 on Tuesday to bring the country’s total to 1,012,350, the most in Southeast Asia. The total number of deaths reached 28,468.

The milestone comes just weeks after Indonesian launched a massive campaign to inoculate two-thirds of the country’s 270 million people, with President Joko Widodo receiving the first shot of a Chinese-made vaccine. Health care workers, military, police, teachers and other at-risk populations are being prioritized for the vaccine in the world’s fourth most populous country.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

UK’s ‘tsunami’ of grief as coronavirus deaths pass 100,000

For nine months, Gordon Bonner has been in the “hinterlands of despair and desolation” after losing his wife of 63 years to the coronavirus pandemic that has now taken the lives of more than 100,000 people in the United Kingdom.

Gordon Bonner holds one of his favorite photographs of him with his late wife Muriel who, in April 2020 died of COVID-19, at his home in Leeds, England, Saturday Jan. 23, 2021. Bonner, 86, is just one of many hundreds of thousands of Britons toiling with grief because of the pandemic. (AP Photo/Jon Super)

Only recently did Bonner think he might be able to move on — after sensing the spirit of his wife, Muriel, near him on what would have been her 84th birthday.

“I suddenly understood I had to change my attitude, that memories are not shackles, they are garlands and one should wear them like garlands around your shoulders and use them to communicate between the quick and the dead,” the retired Army major said in an interview from his home in the northern city of Leeds. “Grief is the price we pay for love.”

Bonner, 86, is just one of many hundreds of thousands of Britons toiling with grief because of the pandemic. With more than 2 million dead worldwide, people the world over are mourning loved ones, but the U.K.’s toll weighs particularly heavily: It is the smallest nation to pass the 100,000 mark.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press
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White House to tell governors that they will get more coronavirus vaccine starting next week

Federal allocations of coronavirus vaccine to states and other jurisdictions are expected to increase by about 16% next week, easing shortages that have intensified nationwide without fully alleviating supply problems.

Jeff Zients, coordinator of the White House’s COVID-19 response, is expected to inform governors of the increase on a call Tuesday afternoon, according to two people familiar with the situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss it.

The weekly allocation is forecast to go from about 8.6 million doses to about 10 million doses. The vaccine is distributed on a population basis among 64 jurisdictions, including 50 states, eight territories and six major cities.

Zients is expected to stipulate that the increased supply will come from releasing more doses of Moderna’s vaccine — one of two authorized for emergency use in the United States. 

Read the story here.

—Isaac Stanley-Becker The Washington Post

IMF: Vaccines will power 5.5% global economic growth in 2021

The spread of COVID-19 vaccines will power a stronger global economic recovery in 2021, the International Monetary Fund forecast Tuesday.

Empty retail space is available for lease in the Empire State Building, Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020, in New York. The spread of COVID-19 vaccines will power a stronger global economic recovery in 2021, the International Monetary Fund forecast Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

After sinking 3.5% in 2020, the worst year since World War II, the global economy will grow 5.5% this year, the 190-country lending organization predicted. The new figure for 2021 is an upgrade from the 5.2% expansion the IMF forecast in October and would mark the fastest year of global growth since the 2010 snapback from the financial crisis.

The vaccines should contain the spread of the virus and allow governments around the world to ease lockdowns and encourage a return to normal economic activity. The world economy also got a boost from government stimulus programs late last year in the United States and Japan.

But the IMF also says economies worldwide will need support from their governments to offset the damage from the pandemic and warns that coronavirus mutations could cloud the outlook for global health and economic growth.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

South African Muslim group safely buries its virus dead

 Not even the full protective gear can mask the respect with which the men wash the body of a newly deceased member of their Muslim community.

“To Allah we belong. Unto him shall we return. Ghusal Room 1,” reads a sign, referring to ghusal, the Muslim cleansing ritual, at the entrance to a room designated for victims of COVID-19.

The body is shrouded, placed in a coffin and buried in a nearby cemetery in Lenasia, a community of about 100,000 people on the outskirts of Johannesburg.

Paramedics from the Saaberie Chishty ambulance service enter the house of a COVID-19 patient in Lenasia, South Africa, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021. For more than 30 years, the Saaberie Chishty ambulance service has responded to medical emergencies in a tight-knit Muslim community in Johannesburg. Now, as COVID-19 sweeps through, the service has greatly expanded to offer oxygen and home care. Confronted by an increased number of deaths, it also provides safe body preparation and burial to assure that people are still buried according to Muslim tradition. (AP Photo/Bram Janssen)

For more than 30 years the Saaberie Chishty ambulance service, funded by community donations, has responded to medical emergencies. Now the service has greatly expanded to offer oxygen and home care for those with mild COVID-19 cases, and transport to the hospital for those with more severe illness.

Confronted by a growing number of deaths, the organization now provides safe body preparation and burial. Its teams carry out many burials within 12 hours and all within the 24 hours required by Islamic tradition.

Around the world, the pandemic has challenged Muslim communities to bury their dead according to tradition. In South Africa, the charity consulted medical experts on how to safely wash and prepare bodies for burials.

“We found that we could follow our rituals, but stay with science to do so safely,” Sayed said. “Volunteers were trained by our imams. It was a passing of the baton to the younger generation because they were not as much at risk as our older generation.”

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press
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Vaccine appointments canceled amid confusion over supply

People who had appointments to get COVID-19 vaccinations talk to New York City health care workers, Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021, outside a closed vaccine hub in the Brooklyn borough of New York after they were told to come back in a week due to a shortage of vaccines. An increasing number of COVID-19 vaccination sites around the U.S. are canceling appointments because of vaccine shortages in a rollout so rife with confusion and unexplained bottlenecks. (Kathy Willens / The Associated Press)

An increasing number of COVID-19 vaccination sites around the U.S. are canceling appointments because of vaccine shortages in a rollout so rife with confusion that even the new CDC director admitted she doesn’t know exactly how many shots are in the pipeline.

States were expected to find out their latest weekly allocation of vaccines on Tuesday amid complaints from governors and top health officials about inadequate supplies and the need for earlier and more reliable estimates of how much is on the way so that they can plan accordingly.

President Joe Biden suggested Monday that he hopes the country can soon ramp up to 1.5 million shots dispensed per day. His administration has also promised more openness and said it will hold news briefings three times a week about the outbreak that has killed over 420,000 Americans.

But for now, the setup inherited from the Trump administration has been marked by frustration, miscommunication and unexplained bottlenecks, with shortages reported in some places even as vaccine doses remain on the shelf.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

UK eyes quarantine hotels for travelers to curb variants

People in the arrivals area at Heathrow Airport in London, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021, during England’s third national lockdown since the coronavirus outbreak began. The British government are on Tuesday expected to discuss whether to force some travellers arriving in the UK to quarantine in hotels to try to curb the spread of coronavirus. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

Britain appears ready to order some travelers arriving from abroad to isolate in hotels at their own expense in an attempt by the government to stop the importation of new virus variants.

Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi said there would be an announcement Tuesday on plans for tighter border measures. The BBC reported that U.K. citizens and residents arriving from most of southern Africa and South America, as well as Portugal, will have to self-isolate in a hotel for 10 days at their own expense.

Quarantine hotels have been used to limit virus transmissions in countries including Australia, New Zealand, China, India and Singapore but the practice has not been widely adopted in Europe.

Zahawi did not give details of the planned the announcement but said tightening border rules was “the right thing to do, because … as we vaccinate more of the adult population, if there are new variants like the South African or the Brazilian variants, we need to be very careful.”

Read the story here.

—Jill Lawless, The Associated Press

Citing pandemic, Greece bans protests for a week

University students gather during a rally against educational reforms in Athens, Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021. About 1,500 students took part in two separate protests against government’s plans to set up a state security division at university campuses and time limits set for the completion of degree courses. (Thanassis Stavrakis / The Associated Press)

Greece’s center-right government on Tuesday imposed a weeklong ban on public protests attended by more than 100 people, angering left-wing political opponents.

The decision announced by the police as part of a campaign to contain the coronavirus pandemic carries fines of up to $3,650 for individuals involved in organizing the rallies and $6,070 for protest groups.

The ban follows student demonstrations against plans by the government to police university campuses.

Pandemic-related deaths have dropped sharply in January from a spike in late 2020, but the government says it will maintain lockdown restrictions through the winter. The protest ban ends Feb. 1.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

Quarantine corner: Delicious edition to get you through the day

Eat dessert first: In this Year of the Snacks, teen chef Sadie's decadent fudgy toffee bars are calling.

Then vegetables: Hearty winter veggies are at the root of this red wine chicken stew.

Cooking for one? Six tips can help you keep things practical, flexible and fun

—Kris Higginson

The high-risk group left out of the vaccine rollout

When New York announced new vaccine eligibility guidelines two weeks ago covering millions of additional state residents, one particularly hard-hit group remained unmentioned: the nearly 50,000 people incarcerated in the state’s prisons and jails.

Now, with state supplies dwindling and no clear plan for vaccinating incarcerated people, the virus that tore through the state’s correctional facilities in the spring is roaring back behind bars. At least 5,100 people living and working in New York’s prisons have tested positive and 12 have died in recent weeks, outpacing even the early days of the pandemic.

But how and when to vaccinate incarcerated people as millions around the state wait has raised legal, logistical and ethical questions that the state has so far struggled to answer.

Across the country, the arrival of a vaccine was hailed as a harbinger of the pandemic’s eventual end. But administering the limited supply has proved challenging, and correctional facilities — where more than half a million people have tested positive for the virus since the start of the pandemic — present additional complications.

Read the story here.

—Troy Closson, The New York Times

Flight attendants face mask fights and a ‘mob mentality’

One flight attendant needed medical attention for a crippling migraine brought on by confronting a passenger who refused to wear a mask.

The day after the siege on Capitol Hill, passengers on a shuttle bus with a Black flight attendant assailed her with racial slurs, according to a union for flight attendants.

An American Airlines flight attendant hands out snack bags aboard a Boeing 737 Max jet before taking off from Dallas Fort Worth airport in Grapevine, Texas, Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

Aviation safety officials have received dozens of confidential complaints in the past year from attendants trying to enforce mask safety rules. The reports, filed in the Aviation Safety Reporting System database, at times describe a chaotic, unhinged workplace where passengers regularly abuse airline employees.

“I felt like if this man is bold enough to scream ‘SHUT UP’ at me in the cabin, there is no limits,” a flight attendant said in one report.

The coronavirus pandemic and political divisions of the past year have caused fear, economic pain, and social and family rifts around the country, but for airline workers, and flight attendants in particular, the unease and tension have often converged in a tiny cabin space.

The tension is at a level flight attendants have not seen before, said Paul Hartshorn Jr., a veteran attendant and a spokesperson for the Association of Professional Flight Attendants union.

“I think we’re pretty well trained on how to handle a disruptive passenger,” said Hartshorn, 46. “What we’re not trained to do and what we shouldn’t be dealing with is large groups of passengers inciting a riot with another group of passengers.”

“It’s insane,” he added.

Read the story here.

—Maria Cramer, The New York Times

Colombia’s defense minister dies from COVID-19 at age 69

Colombian Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo, one of the country’s most recognized conservative politicians, has died from complications of COVID-19. He was 69.

President Ivan Duque said in a televised address that Trujillo died early Tuesday.

In a statement, Colombia’s government said that Trujillo fell ill during a visit to the coastal city of Barranquilla, where he was taken to a hospital on Jan 11. The defense minister was transferred to a military hospital in Bogota two days later and was placed in an intensive care unit and spent several days in an induced coma before dying.

Colombia has recorded more than 50,000 deaths from COVID-19 and more than 2 million cases. Vaccination still hasn’t begun in Colombia, which has a population of about 50 million people and is the largest country in Latin America so far without the life-saving shots. Government officials have said that they hope to start vaccinations in February.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

Catch up on the past 24 hours

How to get your COVID-19 vaccine: If you're eligible for a vaccine but haven't been able to find one, you're not alone. Overwhelming demand is flooding Washington's health systems, with the lack of supply shutting down at least one clinic and threatening to force others to cancel appointments. Here's our step-by-step guide on how to get a vaccine. If it's not your turn yet, bookmark that story, because it will update often.

The good news: Coronavirus cases and deaths have dropped markedly in the U.S. (You can see that trend reflected in Washington state in these graphics.) The bad news: The numbers are still alarmingly high, and the race against the mutating virus is growing more urgent. The new variants are already a game-changer in Europe.

California has lifted its stay-home orders as conditions improve. But will residents ease up too much?

A multimillionaire couple is accused of chartering a plane to the Yukon and taking vaccines meant for vulnerable Indigenous elders. But locals spotted the "despicable, disgusting" act, and consequences were swift.

—Kris Higginson

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.