Editor’s note: This is a live account of COVID-19 updates from Thursday, Jan. 28, 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 It is no longer being updated.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 infection and hospitalization numbers gradually improve in parts of the country, states are loosening their coronavirus restrictions on many restaurants and businesses. But, despite rising vaccine distribution, concerns remain — federal health experts on Wednesday projected that as many as 90,000 more in the United States will die from the virus in the next four weeks.

The discovery of highly contagious virus variants also has public health experts worried, and they’re now urging Americans to upgrade our simple cloth masks and start either wearing two masks or donning a fabric mask over a surgical one.

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 2:30 p.m. today to give an update on the 2021 legislative session and the state’s response to the ongoing pandemic, including Healthy Washington – Roadmap to Recovery.

Sri Lanka vaccinates 1st health workers, troops

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lanka on Friday began inoculating frontline health workers, military troops and police officers against COVID-19 amid warnings about infections among medical workers.

Sri Lanka on Thursday received 500,000 doses of the AstraZeneca-Oxford University vaccine donated by India and manufactured by the Serum Institute of India.

The government says 150,000 frontline health workers and 115,000 selected military and police will be the first recipients.

The Indian Ocean island nation’s regulatory body approved the vaccine last week as doctors were warning that front-line health workers should be quickly inoculated to prevent the medical system from collapsing due to infections among medical staff.

—Associated Press

WHO team to begin face-to-face meetings with China experts

WUHAN, China — World Health Organization experts are to begin face-to-face meetings with their Chinese counterparts Friday in the central city of Wuhan at the start of the team’s long-awaited fact-finding mission into the origins of the coronavirus. 

Those meetings should be followed by the first field visits in and around the industrial and transport hub on Friday, WHO said on Twitter but did not give further details about the team’s agenda. 

It said the team had already requested “detailed underlying data” and planned to speak with early responders and some of the first COVID-19 patients.

“All hypotheses are on the table as the team follows the science in their work to understand the origins of the COVID19 virus,” WHO tweeted. “As members start their field visits on Friday, they should receive the support, access and the data they need.”

—Associated Press

Amazon algorithms promote vaccine misinformation, UW study says

As vaccine misinformation has prompted some to say they will refuse to be inoculated against the coronavirus, the world’s largest online retailer remains a hotbed for anti-vaccination conspiracy theories, according to a new study by University of Washington researchers.

Amazon’s search algorithm boosts books promoting false claims about vaccines over those that debunk health misinformation, the researchers found — and as customers engage with products espousing bogus science, Amazon’s recommendation algorithms point them to additional health misinformation.

Amazon is a “marketplace of multifaceted health misinformation,” wrote co-authors Prerna Juneja, a Ph.D. student at UW’s Information School, and professor of social computing Tanu Mitra in the new paper, which was posted as a preprint and has not yet been peer-reviewed.

In the context of the ongoing mass COVID-19 vaccination campaign, “battling against anti-vax misinformation has never been more important,” Juneja said in an interview Thursday. “This is the most urgent time.”

Read the full story here.

—Katherine K. Long

Most of the world’s pilots are no longer flying for a living

More than half of the world’s airline pilots are no longer flying for a living, according to a worldwide survey highlighting how the COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the profession.

The Pilot Survey 2021, by aviation recruitment firm Goose and publisher FlightGlobal, showed just 43% of pilots remain in their job. The October poll covered almost 2,600 flight crew worldwide.

While vaccinations remain aviation’s great hope for a recovery, infection flare-ups and mutant variants of the virus have dashed prospects for a steady return of scheduled services.

The International Air Transport Association has said flying may not return to pre-pandemic levels until 2024, putting a lengthy strain on the pilot profession.


Washington state schools chief set to announce vaccine plan for teachers, school staff

Washington’s top education official and Kaiser Permanente Washington are expected to announce a plan Friday to vaccinate the state’s teachers and school staff. 

Chris Reykdal, the state superintendent, and the insurance and medical care provider offered few details about the plan in a statement released late Thursday afternoon. But Katy Payne, spokesperson for the state’s education department, said the partnership would make it easier for school districts to set up vaccine clinics on school grounds.

The announcement came hours after Gov. Jay Inslee said in an interview that he didn’t have immediate plans to speed delivery of available vaccines to K-12 employees.

The push to get the state’s approximately 153,000 public school employees vaccinated has moved in fits and starts. A few weeks ago, state health officials outlined a plan to vaccinate about 40% of the state’s school workforce — those ages 50 and older — beginning in February. That plan put younger employees further down the vaccine priority list; they wouldn’t qualify until April.

Read the full story here.

—Hannah Furfaro

Mariners’ Mitch Haniger ‘able to get more’ out of his body after recovering from surgeries

At varying points of the offseason, both general manager Jerry Dipoto and manager Scott Servais were asked about the health status of All-Star outfielder Mitch Haniger and where he was at in his recovery from the two most recent of three surgeries he underwent in the span of seven months.

Each time, they referenced videos from Haniger’s various social media accounts as indicators of progress in his recovery.

Haniger’s activity on social media is minimal compared to top prospect Julio Rodriguez or even Marco Gonzales. Most of his Instagram pics and videos center around his boxer named Hazel or his hobby of grilling and smoking various meats, while his tweets are usually about UFC fights or retweets and quote tweets about baseball, clothing and some politics.

But there were a few videos that proved useful. And the Mariners Twitter account pulled the video from one of Haniger’s Instagram stories, featuring him crushing a pitch in the cage with that explosive, body-contorting swing.

But on Thursday, Haniger offered his own health status update in a video conference with local media during the Mariners’ Virtual Baseball Bash.

Read the full story here.

—Ryan Divish

Anchorage eases restrictions on businesses beginning Monday

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — A decrease in the rate of COVID-19 infections buoyed by vaccinations has led Alaska’s largest city to relax restrictions placed on businesses to combat the pandemic, officials said Thursday. 

The municipality will double the occupancy rate to 50 percent for bars, restaurants, storefront businesses, gyms, bingo halls and theaters as of Monday, acting Mayor Austin Quinn-Davidson said. Last call will also be moved back an hour, with alcohol service ending at midnight.

Anchorage is averaging about 60 new COVID-19 cases a day, said Dr. Janet Johnston, the epidemiologist for the Anchorage Health Department. While that’s still considered high, it’s a level not seen since last October. 

“We’re heading in the right direction, and we need to keep it that way,” Quinn-Davidson said.

This week, an Anchorage resident was confirmed to be the state’s first case of the COVID-19 variant from the United Kingdom. Two cases of another variant from South Africa were confirmed Thursday in the U.S., in South Carolina.

—Associated Press

Second Brazil wave strains hospitals in Sao Paulo’s interior

Just as Brazil has a glimmer of hope with the start of vaccination, it is facing a dizzying second COVID-19 wave that is straining facilities’ ability to attend to patients.

Intensive-care units in public hospitals have been maxed out in several states and municipalities across the country, including two state capitals in the remote Amazon and even some cities like Jau in Sao Paulo, the nation’s wealthiest state. 

“This is perhaps the most difficult moment of the entire pandemic,” said Leonardo de Avila Lins, who leads the hospital’s intensive-care ward.

Sao Paulo has seen a daily average of some 11,000 cases over the past two weeks, more than were confirmed during the state’s 2020 peak, according to official data. The 14-day average of some 230 daily deaths is a few dozen shy of the toll reached last year.

At Santa Casa de Jau, arriving patients are either placed in a temporary unit, created in mid-January when intensive-care space ran out, or sent to other hospitals. Pressure is increasing by the day, said Scila Carretero, the hospital’s administrative manager.

—Associated Press

State health officials confirm 2,584 new coronavirus cases

The state Department of Health (DOH) reported 2,584 new coronavirus cases and 32 new deaths on Thursday.

The update brings the state's totals to 307,809 cases and 4,243 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. Wednesday.

The new cases may include up to 690 duplicates, according to DOH.

In addition, 17,517 people have been hospitalized in the state due to the virus — 68 new hospitalizations. In King County, the state's most populous, state health officials have confirmed a total of 77,067 COVID-19 diagnoses and 1,233 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

State lawmakers are pushing to curb governors’ virus powers

Irritated by the sweeping use of executive orders during the COVID-19 crisis, state lawmakers around the U.S. are moving to curb the authority of governors and top health officials to impose emergency restrictions such as mask rules and business shutdowns.

The push is underway in such states as Arizona, Michigan, Ohio, Maryland, Kentucky, Indiana and Pennsylvania, where legislators are seeking a constitutional amendment to strip the governor of many of his emergency powers.

Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Wayne Langerholc said the amendment would “make it unequivocally clear that our General Assembly is a co-equal branch … that we are not a monarchy and that our voices matter.”

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and some of his counterparts around the country have argued that they need authority to act quickly and decisively against the fast-changing threat.

The coronavirus has killed an estimated 430,000 Americans and is going through its most lethal phase yet, despite the rollout of vaccines, with new and more contagious variants from abroad turning up in the U.S.

State legislatures generally took on lesser roles after the pandemic hit, with many suspending work or adjourning. It has been governors or their top health officials who have set many of the policies — imposing mask mandates, limiting public gatherings and shutting down dine-in restaurants, gyms, hair salons and other businesses.

Read the full story here.

—David A. Lieb, The Associated Press

Novavax vaccine protects against coronavirus in variant hot spots but proved less effective against strain in South Africa

A coronavirus vaccine made by Maryland biotech company Novavax proved effective at stopping coronavirus infections in global hot spots where concerning variants are dominant, the company announced Thursday. But in one of those trial sites, South Africa, the vaccine’s degree of protection was markedly lower against a worrisome mutant first detected there.

The data, presented by company news release, provides the first highly anticipated evidence of how well a vaccine performs against variants that have drawn global alarm as they spread.

In a United Kingdom trial, where the B.1.1.7 variant has become dominant, the vaccine was 89% effective, and about half the infections were with the variant. In a smaller and less definitive South African trial where nearly all the participants were infected with the variant, the vaccine was 49% effective, although the company underscored that when looking only at people not infected with HIV, the efficacy was 60%.

Laboratory tests had suggested that the immune response elicited by vaccines would be diminished against the variant first identified in South Africa, and the Novavax results bear that out. Novavax is one of the vaccines supported by the American government, including $1.6 billion for clinical development and a pre-purchase of 100 million doses. A large phase 3 trial is ongoing in North America.

“The 60 percent reduced risk against COVID-19 illness in vaccinated individuals in South Africans underscores the value of this vaccine to prevent illness from the highly worrisome variant currently circulating in South Africa, and which is spreading globally,” said Shabir Maddi, executive director of the Vaccines and Infectious Diseases Analytics Research Unit at Wits University and a principal investigator in the Novavax coronavirus vaccine trial in South Africa.

“This is the first COVID-19 vaccine for which we now have objective evidence that it protects against the variant dominating in South Africa,” Maddi said in a statement.

Read the full story here.

—Carolyn Y. Johnson, The Washington Post

Inslee: King, Pierce and Snohomish counties can restart restaurant dining and fitness centers under new Washington COVID-19 metrics

King, Pierce, Snohomish, Thurston and three other counties will be able to relax some COVID-19 restrictions on businesses starting Monday, Gov. Jay Inslee has announced.

That change will allow for restaurants in those counties to reopen indoor service at restaurants 25% capacity through 11 p.m. Indoor fitness centers and live entertainment venues — including museums, bowling alleys and concert halls — can also reopen to 25% capacity. Bars that don’t serve food, however, must remain closed.

In a news conference Thursday, Inslee announced he was loosening the restrictions in his Healthy Washington plan.

“We are getting closer to finding our way out of this mess, but we aren’t there yet,” Inslee said during a news conference. “We have sacrificed too much to let our frustrations get the best of us now when the finish line is in sight, however distant that may seem in our field of vision.”

Implemented on Jan. 11, the latest plan divided Washington into eight regions and set four public-health benchmarks that each had to meet in order to relax some restrictions. No region, however, has yet met those four benchmarks.

Read the full story here.

—Joseph O'Sullivan

Yellowstone visitation remained high despite virus closure

BILLINGS, Mont. — Park officials reported more than 3.8 million people visited Yellowstone National Park last year despite the closures related to the coronavirus pandemic, down only 5% compared to 2019.

The park closed March 24 to help limit the spread of COVID-19 and was closed all of April, The Billings Gazette reported. The two entrances in Wyoming reopened on May 18 and the three entrances in Montana reopened June 1.

Visitation in September and October were the busiest on record with more than 837,000 people in September and more than 359,000 people in October, officials said.

The park continued drawing visitors despite numerous facility closures, restrictions, bus shutdowns and limitations on places to stay, eat and learn more about the region. Employees at the park were handling increased duties with smaller staff to avoid the spread of the virus.

In comparison, visitation at Yellowstone reached 4 million in 2019, 4.11 million in 2018 and 2017 and 4.25 million in 2016, officials said.

Park officials continue to urge visitors to recreate responsibility and avoid traveling.

Read the full story here.

—The Associated Press

Portugal scrambles for virus beds; health system threatened

At Lisbon’s Military Hospital, hundreds of troops have spent frantic weeks rushing to turn every available space into makeshift COVID-19 wards, as Portugal scrambles to cope with a sudden deluge of cases engulfing its public health system.

The hospital’s waiting rooms, consulting rooms and atriums have been filled with beds. This week, the canteen is being sacrificed. It’s the last space left.

“In the first nine months (of the pandemic), we tripled our capacity” of beds, said Brigadier General Rui Sousa, a 20-year army doctor who heads the Military Hospital. In January, “we’ve had to triple that tripled capacity,” he told The Associated Press.

A January pandemic surge has stretched medical services in Portugal to a breaking point. By size of population, Portugal has been the worst-hit country in the world for more than a week in terms of daily new cases and deaths, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

Read the story here.

—Barry Hatton, The Associated Press

Wisconsin Assembly to vote on repealing statewide mask order

The Republican-controlled Wisconsin Assembly was poised Thursday to repeal Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ mask mandate, a move that would jeopardize more than $49 million in federal food assistance, brush aside warnings from health experts and make Wisconsin one of only 10 states without a statewide order.

The Assembly is scheduled to vote on a resolution doing away with the mandate. The Senate approved the resolution Tuesday. State law gives the Legislature the power to overturn emergency orders without the governor’s signature, making Thursday’s vote final.

Repealing the governor’s emergency health order will undo the mask mandate but also put in jeopardy more than $49 million in federal food assistance for low-income people. The COVID-19 aid bill passed by Congress last year gives states the federal money but only if they have emergency health orders in effect, a memo from the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau said.

This month alone, nearly 243,000 Wisconsin households received $49.3 million in federal assistance, the memo said.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

EXPLAINER: How experts will hunt for COVID origins in China

BEIJING — After a two-week quarantine, the real work can begin. Maybe.

A World Health Organization team of researchers emerged from their hotel Thursday for the first time since their arrival in the central Chinese city of Wuhan to start searching for clues into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The visit has been shrouded in secrecy: Details of their itinerary have not been released, and it’s unknown how much access China will give the researchers to the sites they want to visit and the people they want to talk to.


Scientists hope that information on the earliest known cases of the new coronavirus — which was first identified in Wuhan — will help them better understand where it came from and prevent similar pandemics in the future.

Researchers around the world are eager for access to samples taken from the Huanan Seafood Market, which had an early outbreak, and Wuhan hospital records.

The team may visit the market itself as well as the locations of other early cases.

Read the full story here.

—Sam McNeil, The Associated Press

WHO team in Wuhan departs quarantine for COVID origins study

WUHAN, China (AP) — A World Health Organization team emerged from quarantine in the Chinese city of Wuhan on Thursday to start field work in a fact-finding mission on the origins of the virus that caused the COVID-19 pandemic.

The researchers, who were required to isolate for 14 days after arriving in China, left their quarantine hotel with their luggage — including at least four yoga mats — in the midafternoon and headed to another hotel.

The mission has become politically charged, as China seeks to avoid blame for alleged missteps in its early response to the outbreak. A major question is where the Chinese side will allow the researchers to go and whom they will be able to talk to.

Yellow barriers blocked the entrance to the hotel, keeping the media at a distance. Before the researchers boarded their bus, workers wearing protective outfits and face shields could be seen loading their luggage, including two musical instruments and a dumbbell.

Hotel staff waved goodbye to the researchers, who were wearing face masks. The bus driver wore a full-body white protective suit. They drove about 30 minutes to a lakeside Hilton resort-like hotel.

Former WHO official Keiji Fukuda, who is not part of the team in Wuhan, has cautioned against expecting any breakthroughs, saying it may take years before any firm conclusions can be made about the virus’s origin.

Read the full story here.

—Emily Wang Fojiyama, The Associated Press

Tampa’s mayor issues outdoor mask order for Super Bowl

Anyone visiting Tampa’s popular outdoor destinations for the Super Bowl will be required to wear a mask to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor signed an executive order Wednesday saying masks must be worn outside while downtown, in neighborhoods around Raymond James Stadium — where the Super Bowl will be held — and in other tourist hotspots.

The order says those who are not wearing a mask can be cited with a “nominal civil infraction” that carries a penalty up to a $500 fine. It will remain in place until Feb. 13 — nearly a week after the Super Bowl ends.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

Germany's vaccine committee recommends AstraZeneca only for those under 65

A draft recommendation from Germany’s vaccination advisory committee calls for offering the AstraZeneca vaccine only to people aged 18-64 for now, citing what it says is insufficient data to judge its effectiveness for older people.

The European Medicines Agency is expected to approve the AstraZeneca vaccine for use in the 27-nation European Union on Friday. It would be the third cleared for use in the EU after the BioNTech-Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

In a draft recommendation released on Thursday ahead of that decision, Germany’s permanent vaccination commission said that “there currently is not sufficient data to assess the vaccination effectiveness from 65 years.”

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

9 retired nuns in Michigan die of COVID-19 in January

Nine Roman Catholic nuns in southern Michigan have died in January due to a COVID-19 outbreak at their retirement home, Adrian Dominican Sisters near Detroit.

A spokesperson for the religious group said 12 Adrian Dominican nuns have died since Jan. 9, including nine because of COVID-19. The women ranged in age from 79 to 97. 

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

In virus-struck Europe, jabs trigger intense political fight

There was little effort to mask the gloating, just one month after Britain’s full — and, at times, tempestuous — divorce from the European Union.

In big bold type, the vaccination table produced by Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative party showed that the U.K. had administered more jabs than the EU’s four biggest countries combined. The implication was clear: Britain had been right to make the momentous decision of leaving the bloc.

It also indicated how the pandemic is also an intense political fight.

One guiding principle runs through most of the debate. The crisis, that’s already killed well over half a million Europeans, and the solution, with vaccines far too scarce, are such that nations say: We need to take care of our own people first, whatever the consequences.

“This is obviously sort of what’s being called vaccine nationalism. And you know — this is big politics,” said Robert Yates, director of the global health program at the Chatham House think tank in London.

Read the story here.

—Raf Casert, The Associated Press

Morocco’s king kicks off country’s virus vaccination drive

 Morocco’s King Mohammed VI received a shot against the coronavirus Thursday to officially kick off his country’s COVID-19 vaccination campaign, which initially will primarily target health care workers, security forces and people over age 75, according to Moroccan authorities.

The monarch took the shot at the royal palace in the city of Fez, Morocco’s official MAP news agency reported. The king, who normally appears in public wearing a robe, was pictured in a dark T-shirt and with a surgical mask on his face as he got jabbed in the arm.

The North African kingdom received its first shipments of vaccine doses in recent days from China’s Sinopharm and Anglo-Swedish AstraZeneca.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

Democratic lawmakers push for race data in vaccinations

Democratic lawmakers are urging federal health officials to address racial disparity in vaccine access nationwide, as data from some states show hard-hit nonwhite Americans who are eligible to receive it are not getting COVID-19 vaccinations in proportion to their share of the population.

In a letter Thursday to acting Health and Human Services Secretary Norris Cochran IV, the lawmakers said the agency must work with states, municipalities and private labs to collect and publish demographic data of vaccine recipients.

Without that information, policymakers and health workers cannot efficiently identify vaccine disparities in the hardest-hit communities, said the letter, signed by Rep. Ayanna Pressley and Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey, all from Massachusetts.

Along with Hispanic and Native American people, Black Americans are dying from COVID-19 at nearly three times the rate of white Americans.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

NY nursing home virus deaths were undercounted, AG says

New York may have undercounted COVID-19 deaths of nursing home residents by as much as 50%, the state’s attorney general said in a report released Thursday.

Attorney General Letitia James has, for months, been examining discrepancies between the number of deaths being reported by the state’s Department of Health, and the number of deaths reported by the homes themselves.

Her investigators looked at a sample of 62 of the state’s roughly 600 nursing homes. They reported 1,914 deaths of residents from COVID-19, while the state Department of Health logged only 1,229 deaths at those same facilities.

If that same pattern exists statewide, James’ report said, it would mean the state is underreporting deaths by nearly 56%.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

Biden to reopen federal ACA insurance marketplace for three months

President Joe Biden plans to sign an executive order Thursday to reopen the Affordable Care Act’s federal insurance marketplaces for three months to give Americans who need coverage during the coronavirus pandemic an extended chance to buy health plans.

A Biden White House official said Thursday morning that consumers will be allowed to sign up from Feb. 15 to May 15 through HealthCare.gov, the online federal insurance exchange for people who cannot get affordable health benefits through a job.

The actions represent the first steps the new administration is taking to fulfill a major part of the president’s campaign agenda to make health insurance and health care more accessible and affordable — goals that have taken on more urgency as 25 million have been infected with the coronavirus and millions of others have lost jobs.

Read the story here.

—Amy Goldstein, The Washington Post

Africa secures another 400 million COVID-19 vaccine doses

Another 400 million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca-19 vaccine have been secured for the African continent through the Serum Institute of India, the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday.

With the new doses, on top of the 270 million doses announced earlier this month from Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson, “I think we’re beginning to make very good progress,” Africa CDC director John Nkengasong said.

Parts of the African continent are seeing a strong resurgence in coronavirus infections, which Nkengasong called “very aggressive.” He warned that the wave has not yet peaked.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

Virus variant from South Africa detected in US for 1st time

 A new coronavirus variant identified in South Africa has been found in the United States for the first time, with two cases diagnosed in South Carolina, state health officials said Thursday.

The two cases don’t appear to be connected, nor do the people have a history of recent travel, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control said.

“That’s frightening,” because it means there could be more undetected cases within the state, said Dr. Krutika Kuppalli, an infectious diseases physician at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. “It’s probably more widespread.”

The arrival of this variant now surging in other countries shows that “the fight against this deadly virus is far from over,” Dr. Brannon Traxler, DHEC Interim Public Health Director, said in a statement. “While more COVID-19 vaccines are on the way, supplies are still limited. Every one of us must recommit to the fight by recognizing that we are all on the front lines now. We are all in this together.”

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

Coronavirus variant sweeps South Africa, exhibiting ‘terrifying’ dominance

South Africa was already one of the countries worst hit by the coronavirus, but in the six weeks since a new, more transmissible variant was first publicly announced here, an enormous spike of new cases and deaths has far surpassed previous waves of the pandemic.

The variant has now been found in at least 31 countries, sparking fears its unmitigated spread could usher in new waves of contagion just as the long slog of global vaccine rollout gets underway.

“Of the cases we’ve [DNA-]sequenced in South Africa, more than 90 percent are the new variant,” said Richard Lessells, a lead researcher at the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform. “It’s amazing and terrifying how quickly it came to dominate, and it does feel like we’re in the beginning stages of watching this variant, and the other new ones, become more dominant around the world.”

American vaccine producer Moderna has said the antibodies its vaccine creates were less effective at neutralizing it than previously dominant coronavirus variants but it's working on a booster shot against the variant.

Read the story here.

—Max Bearak and Lesley Wroughton, The Washington Post

How many variants of the coronavirus are there?

How many variants of the coronavirus are there?

There are many circulating around the world, but health experts are primarily concerned with the emergence of three.

One of the three main variants experts are watching was discovered in the United Kingdom late last year and has been detected in dozens of countries since. Other concerning variants were first detected in South Africa and in Brazil.

All three are more contagious than the original -- with the South African variant sweeping the globe. It was identified for the first time in the U.S. on Thursday.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

Inslee expected to announce ‘additional flexibility’ for COVID-19 reopenings

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee is set Thursday to announce adjustments to public-health metrics that will allow some reopening amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig said Wednesday night.

Billig, a Democrat from Spokane, made the remarks Wednesday night in a virtual town hall streamed on Facebook.

“For those that are on this call, you’re going to get a little special early news, which is there is going to be an announcement tomorrow by the governor to adjust the metrics,” said Billig during the town hall. “And there will be some additional flexibility.”

Billig didn’t discuss any of the details, saying he thinks Inslee is still working on the adjustments.

“But I think for those that are looking for just a little bit more opening, and to do it safely, I think you’ll be glad with what you hear tomorrow,” he said later.

Read the story here.

—Joseph O'Sullivan

Oregon health workers, stuck in snow, administer COVID-19 vaccine to stranded drivers

The public health workers were driving back from a vaccination site in rural Cave Junction, Oregon, on Tuesday when they got stuck in a snowstorm on the highway.

They knew they had only six hours to get the remaining doses of coronavirus vaccine back to people who were waiting for their shots in Grants Pass, about 30 miles away. Normally, the trip takes about 45 minutes.

But with a jackknifed tractor-trailer ahead of them, the crew realized they could be stuck for hours and the doses would expire.

So the workers made the decision to walk from car to car asking stranded drivers if they wanted to be vaccinated, right there on the spot.

“We had one individual who was so happy, he took his shirt off and jumped out of the car,” said Michael Weber, the public health director in Josephine County.

Read the story here.

—Michael Levenson, The New York Times

French police face sanction for Macarena party amid virus

At least two dozen French police officials are facing internal punishment for holding a party inside a police station where they were filmed dancing the Macarena and violating multiple virus protection rules.

A police headquarters spokesperson said Thursday that those involved in the party in the Paris suburb of Aubervilliers were ordered to file reports on their actions and that “sanctions are planned.” He wouldn’t detail the planned punishments.

Parties and other “convivial gatherings” are banned in all police facilities, while masks and social distancing are required and the number of people allowed in any room is limited to keep the virus at bay, the spokesperson said.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

Time to double mask or upgrade masks as coronavirus variants emerge, experts say

Wear your mask is becoming wear your masks.

The discovery of highly contagious coronavirus variants in the United States has public health experts urging Americans to upgrade the simple cloth masks that have become a staple shield during the pandemic.

The change can be as simple as slapping a second mask over the one you already wear, or better yet, donning a fabric mask on top of a surgical mask. Some experts say it’s time to buy the highest-quality KN95 or N95 masks that officials have long discouraged Americans from purchasing to reserve supply for health care workers.

As with other parts of the pandemic response, the U.S. lags behind other parts of the world when it comes to masks. Several Asian countries, including Singapore and South Korea, have mass-produced high quality masks to send directly to residents. In recent weeks, European countries have begun mandating medical grade masks in public settings as the B.1.1.7 strain first identified in the United Kingdom threatens to ravage communities; British scientists estimate it could be as much as 70% more transmissible.

“The existence of more transmissible viruses emphasizes the important of us upping our game and doing not more of the same, but better of the same,” said Tom Frieden, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Frieden has called for people to wear higher quality masks. “Yes, that is confusing to people, but the key is to share what we know when we know it and be frank about what we don’t know.”

Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, touted double masking during a Monday appearance on the “Today” show, saying two layers “just makes common sense that it likely would be more effective.”

Click here to read the full story.

—By Fenit Nirappil, The Washington Post

Ford Motor Company, local nonprofits to distribute free disposable face masks in Washington on Thursday

Ford Motor Company is teaming up with local nonprofits to distribute nearly 550,000 face masks to residents throughout the state Thursday, according to the auto company.

The Thursday event is part of a regional initiative that will also deliver hundreds of thousands of masks to neighborhoods in Oregon, Alaska, Idaho and Montana, said Ford spokesperson Kristin Ford. In our state, masks will be available from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at food-assistance nonprofit Emergency Feeding Program in Renton (851 Houser Way N., Suite A) and at 19 Ford dealerships throughout Washington including Everett, Issaquah, Kirkland, Tacoma, Olympia and Spokane. Click here for a full list.

Click here to read more about the event.

—By Elise Takahama, The Seattle Times

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