Editor’s note: This is a live account of COVID-19 updates from Thursday, January 6, 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 It is no longer being updated.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.

U.S. hospitals are facing serious staff shortages amid a surge in omicron cases. The shortages are in large part due to health care workers becoming ill with the highly contagious variant.

While many current patients aren’t as sick as people hospitalized earlier in the pandemic, other pressures including high demand for testing are prompting hospitals to scale back non-emergency surgeries and close wards.

As several states across the country, including Washington, report shortages of COVID-19 tests, Gov. Jay Inslee announced plans on Wednesday to distribute millions of at-home tests and masks, and to expand vaccination clinics. Inslee expressed concerns about overwhelmed hospital systems as the state continues to report record-breaking daily COVID-19 cases.

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.

Gov. Jay Inslee has set a press conference today at 2:30 p.m. to discuss the state’s ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Canadian passengers stranded after party flight to Mexico

Passengers who filmed themselves partying without masks aboard a chartered flight from Montreal to Mexico face being stranded after three airlines refused to fly them home to Canada.

Sunwing Airlines cancelled the return charter flight from Cancun that had been scheduled for Wednesday and Air Transat and Air Canada also both said they will refuse to carry the passengers.

Adding insult to injury, they were branded “idiots” Wednesday by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Videos of the Dec. 30 flight shared on social media show unmasked passengers in close proximity while singing and dancing in the aisle and on seats. In one video, a large bottle of vodka appears to be passed among passengers and a woman appears to be smoking an electronic cigarette.

Read the full story here.

—The Associated Press
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Orthodox observe Christmas amid virus concerns

Orthodox Christians in Russia, Serbia and other countries began Christmas observances Thursday amid restrictions aimed at dampening the spread of the coronavirus, but few worshipers appeared concerned as they streamed into churches.

The majority of Orthodox believers celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7, with midnight services especially popular. The churches in Romania, Bulgaria, Cyprus and Greece mark it on Dec. 25 along with other Christian denominations.

The Russian Orthodox Church, the largest Orthodox congregation, said celebrants must wear masks and observe social distancing at services. But a live broadcast of the service from Moscow’s huge Christ The Savior Cathedral indicated about half those attending had no masks or pulled them to their chins as they watched the pageantry of gold-robed priests, including church leader Patriarch Kirill, chant prayers and wave smoking containers of incense.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, also without a mask, attended a service at the Church of the Image of the Saviour Made Without Hands in Novo-Ogaryovo, outside Moscow.

Read the full story here.

—Jim Heintz, The Associated Press

More than 2,000 flights canceled Thursday after two weeks of disruption

Thursday brought more frustrating news for airlines and their customers with more than 2,000 U.S. flight cancellations as carriers continued efforts to restore flight networks hobbled by bad weather and staffing shortages brought on by coronavirus infections.

Southwest Airlines, United Airlines and regional carrier SkyWest Airlines continued to be among the hardest-hit, according to data provided by FlightAware, a website focused on aviation data. The elevated number of cancellations showed no signs of easing two weeks after emerging on Christmas Eve.

Southwest had canceled 637 flights, about 21% of scheduled departures. United, which had shown improvement in recent days, canceled 236 flights, about 11% of the carrier’s scheduled departures. SkyWest canceled 248 flights, about 10% of flights scheduled for the day. The Utah-based carrier, which partners with United, Delta Air Lines and American Airlines to carry passengers on smaller routes, has struggled for days.

Friday already is shaping up to be another difficult day. By early evening Thursday, airlines already had canceled more than 1,500 U.S. flights.

Read the full story here.

— Lori Aratani, The Washington Post

Alaska Airlines cuts flights by 10% because of staffing shortages

Alaska Airlines will cut the number of flights by 10% through the end of January, the Sea-Tac-based company announced Thursday.

Airline industrywide staffing shortages driven by the resurgent coronavirus pandemic had forced Alaska to cancel or delay hundreds of flights in recent weeks. Those shortages were compounded by heavy snows that hit Western Washington in the last week of December, amid the holiday rush.

“We’re at our  best when we are safe, reliable and caring,” Alaska spokesperson Bobbie Egan said in a statement. “And right now, we need to build more reliability back into our operation as we deal with the impacts of omicron and during a time when guests generally fly less.”

Alaska’s announcement came on a day in which more than 1,800 U.S. flights were canceled by afternoon on the East Coast, according to FlightAware. The tracking service said that equaled about 8% of the day’s scheduled flights, and it was the 12th straight day of 1,000-plus cancellations, which airlines blamed on the COVID-19 surge and winter weather.

Read the full story here.

— Levi Pulkkinen, Assistant Business Editor
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Edmonds College will continue remotely through March 18 as officials receive 45 reports of COVID-19

Edmonds College in Lynnwood will continue to operate remotely through the end of winter quarter on March 18 as a preemptive measure to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on campus, according to a news release from college officials.

Some classes with on-hands components may be held in person, the release said. Officials initially moved to hold online classes during the first week of winter quarter on January 3 to reduce exposure and mitigate cases due to holiday gatherings and travel.

The college has received 45 reports of COVID-19 symptoms since the beginning of the winter quarter, the release said.

"This is an alarmingly high number for us," said Edmonds College President Amit Singh. "My guiding principle has always been safety first for our students, faculty and staff."

—Daisy Zavala

Lifesaving COVID treatments face rationing as virus surges again in U.S.

At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, scarce ventilators and protective equipment faced strict rationing. Today, as the pandemic rages into its third year, another precious category of products is coming under tight controls: treatments to stave off severe COVID-19.

There is a greater menu of COVID pills and infusions now than at any point in the pandemic. The problem is that the supplies of those that work against the omicron variant are extremely limited.

That has forced state health officials and doctors nationwide into the fraught position of deciding which patients get potentially lifesaving treatments and which don’t. Some people at high risk of severe COVID are being turned away because they are vaccinated.

Some hospitals have run out of certain drugs; others report having only a few dozen treatment courses on hand. Staff are dispensing vitamins in lieu of authorized drugs. Others are scrambling to develop algorithms to decide who gets treatments.

Read the full story here.

—Noah Weiland, Christina Jewett and Rebecca Robbins The New York Times

State health officials confirm 15,157 new coronavirus cases

The state Department of Health (DOH) reported 15,157 new coronavirus cases and 65 new deaths on Thursday.

The update brings the state's totals to 913,980 cases and 9,974 deaths, meaning that 1.1% of people diagnosed in Washington have died, according to the DOH. The data is as of 11:59 p.m. Wednesday.

Due to a technical issue the total case count may include up to 600 duplicates, DOH said on Wednesday.

In addition, 46,752 people have been hospitalized in the state due to the virus — 224 new hospitalizations. In King County, the state's most populous, state health officials have confirmed a total of 222,392 COVID-19 diagnoses and 2,158 deaths.

Since vaccinations began in mid-December, the state and health care providers have administered 12,024,466 doses and 62.8% of Washingtonians have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to vaccination data, which the state updates on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Providers are currently giving an average of about 19,125 vaccine shots per day.

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. State health officials recommend reviewing the dashboard's epidemiologic curves tab for the most accurate representation of the state's COVID-19 spread.

—Daisy Zavala
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Austria tightens virus measures to slow down omicron spread

Austria’s government announced new measures Thursday to slow down the spread of the omicron coronavirus variant in the Alpine country.

“We have to adjust to a new situation with omicron, we have to adjust to the fact that the infection numbers will increase quickly,” Chancellor Karl Nehammer told reporters in Vienna.

Existing measures such as banning the unvaccinated from many stores and cultural venues will be more strictly implemented as of next week, and the use of masks — FFP2 or K95 types — outdoors will be made mandatory if a distance from other people of at least two meters (6.5 feet) cannot be met. The government also called on Austrians to keep working from home if possible. At the same time it will reduce the quarantine period to five days if a negative test result can be presented.

Nehammer called on those who have not been vaccinated to get their shots quickly to avoid another lockdown. Austria went into a lockdown for several weeks at the end of last year to fight an infection surge. Case numbers went down then, but have been increasing again recently. On Thursday, the country recorded 8,853 new cases.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

Omicron surge vexes parents of children too young for shots

Afternoons with Grammy. Birthday parties. Meeting other toddlers at the park. Parents of children too young to be vaccinated are facing difficult choices as an omicron variant-fueled surge in COVID-19 cases makes every encounter seem risky.

For Maine business owner Erin Connolly, the most wrenching decision involves Madeleine, her 3-year-old daughter, and Connolly’s mother, who cares for the girl on the one day a week she isn’t in preschool.

It’s a treasured time of making cookies, going to the library, or just hanging out. But the spirited little girl resists wearing a mask, and with the highly contagious variant spreading at a furious pace, Connolly says she’s wondering how long that can continue “and when does it feel too unsafe.’’

Connolly, of West Bath, said she worries less about Madeleine and her 6-year-old vaccinated son getting the virus than about the impact illness and separation would have on the grandparents. But she’s also concerned about her vaccinated parents contracting breakthrough cases.

Although health experts say omicron appears to cause less severe disease and lead to fewer hospitalizations, its rapid spread indicates that it is much more contagious than other variants. Nearly 718,000 COVID cases were reported Tuesday, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Omicron is currently the culprit in more than 90% of U.S. cases, a dizzying rise from less than 10% two weeks ago.

“The sheer volume of infections because of its profound transmissibility will mean that many more children will get infected,’’ Dr. Anthony Fauci said Wednesday at a White House briefing.

Read the story here.

—Lindsey Tanner, The Associated Press

Chicago schools shut for 2nd day over virus safety protocols

Thousands of Chicago students remained out of school for a second straight day Thursday after leaders of the nation’s third-largest school district failed to resolve a deepening clash with the influential teachers union over COVID-19 safety protocols.

The Chicago Teachers Union, which voted to revert to online instruction, told teachers to stay home Wednesday during the latest COVID-19 surge while both sides negotiate.

The move just two days after students returned from winter break prompted district officials to cancel classes. Chicago Public Schools, like most other districts, has rejected a return to remote learning, saying it worsens racial inequities and is detrimental to academic performance, mental health and attendance. District officials insist schools can safely remain open with protocols in place.

There has been little sign that either side is softening — the district and union both filed labor complaints with the state this week.

Read the story here.

—Sophia Tareen, The Associated Press
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Schools sticking with in-person learning scramble for subs

Principals, superintendents and counselors are filling in as substitutes in classrooms as the surge in coronavirus infections further strains schools that already had been struggling with staffing shortages.

In Cincinnati, dozens of employees from the central office were dispatched this week to schools that were at risk of having to close because of low staffing. The superintendent of Boston schools, Brenda Cassellius, tweeted Wednesday she was filling in for a fifth grade teacher. San Francisco’s school system asked any employees with teaching credentials to be available for classroom assignments.

Staff absences and the omicron variant-driven surge have led some big districts including Atlanta, Detroit and Milwaukee to switch temporarily to virtual learning. Where schools are holding the line on in-person learning, getting through the day has required an all-hands-on-deck approach.

“It’s absolutely exhausting,” said history teacher Deborah Schmidt, who was covering other classes during her planning period at McKinley Classical Leadership Academy in St. Louis. On Thursday, she was covering a physics class.

Read the story here.

—Michael Melia, The Associated Press

COVID hospitalizations surge in King County, push hospitals toward ‘crisis point’

A wave of COVID-19 hospitalizations is pushing health care systems in Washington state “closer than they’ve ever been” to a crisis point, hospital leaders said Thursday.

So far, King County and Western Washington have faced the brunt of the omicron variant’s spike, but the rest of the state isn’t far behind, health officials said in a Thursday news briefing.

There are early signs that these new infections are causing less severe illness compared to previous waves. Yet at UW Medicine’s four campuses — three in Seattle and one in Renton — COVID hospitalizations are higher than they’ve been at any other point in the pandemic, said Dr. John Lynch, medical director of Harborview Medical Center’s infection control program.

As of Thursday, King County was averaging about 31 COVID hospitalizations per day, a 76% increase in the past week. Infections also still have yet to peak, averaging about 2,700 new cases per day. And while deaths have been on the decline in the county for weeks, signs of another rise are beginning to emerge. In the past 24 hours, King County confirmed eight new COVID deaths, according to data from Public Health — Seattle & King County.

“Throughout (the pandemic) we’ve been able to respond to pretty much every twist and turn, but right now we’re closer to a crisis situation than we’ve ever been,” Lynch said.

Read the story here.

—Elise Takahama

Portugal adds virus booster jab incentives, cuts isolation

Portugal’s government announced Thursday further incentives for people to get COVID-19 booster shots and said new rules will require people to isolate only if they live with someone who tests positive.

People who had a booster jab two weeks previously will from next Monday no longer need to show a negative coronavirus test result to attend events and enter places where it otherwise would be required, Prime Minister António Costa said.

Also, anyone who has had a booster shot will be exempt from isolating, unless they live with an infected person. That means about 270,000 people of the around 400,000 currently in isolation will be allowed out, Costa said.

“This is an incentive … to get a booster,” he said.

Read the story here.

—Barry Hatton, The Associated Press
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Serbia in shock over Australia’s refusal to let Djokovic in

Serbia is nervously awaiting the outcome of what increasingly looks like a soap opera with the country’s most famous sports idol in the lead role.

The world’s top-ranked men’s tennis player, Novak Djokovic, faces the prospect of deportation from Australia. Djokovic had hoped to win his 21st Grand Slam title at this month’s Australian Open, which would set the men’s record for major championship victories.

The 34-year-old Serb’s ability to compete in Melbourne and overtake rivals Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer has been in limbo since the Australian Border Force canceled Djokovic’s visa because he failed to meet requirements for a COVID-19 vaccination exemption. A court hearing on his case has been set for Monday.

Populist Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said, “I’m afraid that this overkill will continue,” Vucic said. “When you can’t defeat someone on the court, then you do such things.”

Most of Djokovic’s fans at home agree, reflecting the anti-Serb conspiracy theories that are pervasive in the Balkans.

“It is historically evident that the world has something against the Serbs,” said Darko Ikonic, a Belgrade resident.

“I’m not saying that Serbs are heavenly people or anything similar, that is a nonsense,” he added. “But it is obvious that they do not want him to be the best tennis player in history because they like other tennis players, such as Nadal or Federer, better.”

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

Spike in California virus cases hitting hospitals, schools

California is struggling to staff hospitals and classrooms as an astonishing spike in coronavirus infections sweeps through the state.

The fast-spreading omicron variant of COVID-19 is sidelining exposed or infected health care workers even as hospital beds fill with patients and “some facilities are going to be strapped,” Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said Wednesday.

Some 40% of hospitals are expecting to face critical staff shortages and some are reporting as much as one quarter of their staff out for virus-related reasons, said Kiyomi Burchill of the California Hospital Association.

In Fresno County, more than 300 workers at area hospitals were either isolating because of exposure or recovering, said Dan Lynch, the county’s emergency medical services director.

The Los Angeles County Fire Department is driving patients to hospitals in fire trucks rather than ambulances because 450 firefighters are absent after testing positive, acting Assistant Chief Brian Bennett told the Carson City Council on Tuesday, according the Los Angeles Daily News.

Going forward, the county Fire Department will only be sent on medical calls when absolutely necessary, officials said.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

Djokovic in limbo as he fights deportation from Australia

Locked in a dispute over his COVID-19 vaccination status, Novak Djokovic was confined to an immigration detention hotel in Australia on Thursday as the No. 1 men’s tennis player in the world awaited a court ruling on whether he can compete in the Australian Open later this month.

Djokovic, a vocal skeptic of vaccines, had traveled to Australia after Victoria state authorities granted him an exemption to the country’s strict vaccination rules. But when he arrived late Wednesday, the Australian Border Force rejected his exemption as invalid and barred him from entering the country.

A court hearing on his bid to stave off deportation was set for Monday, while the 34-year-old Serbian and defending Australian Open champion was forced to wait it out in Melbourne at a secure hotel used by immigration officials to house asylum seekers and refugees.

The tournament begins on Jan. 17.

Read the full story here.

—John Pye, The Associated Press
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Xi’an hospital punished for refusing entry to pregnant woman

Hospital officials in the northern Chinese city of Xi’an have been punished after a pregnant woman miscarried after being refused entry, reportedly for not having current COVID-19 test results.

The city government announced Thursday that Gaoxin Hospital General Manager Fan Yuhui has been suspended and the heads of the outpatient department and medical department sacked.

A government statement said the incident “caused widespread concern in society and caused a severe social impact.”

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

For CDC’s Walensky, a steep learning curve on messaging

WASHINGTON — Two days before Christmas, with the omicron variant driving a near-vertical rise in new coronavirus cases, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention alerted the White House that she planned to recommend that people infected with the virus isolate for five days instead of 10.

The director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, had faced previous criticism for issuing recommendations that confused the public and in some cases caught the White House off guard. Determined to avoid that this time, she briefed other top Biden health officials on her proposal so they would all be on the same page, according to two people familiar with her actions.

It did not work out that way. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, and Dr. Vivek Murthy, the surgeon general, were concerned that the new guidance did not urge people to get a negative COVID test before ending their isolation. After the new recommendation became public, they both took issue with it on national television, saying they expected the CDC to clarify its advice.

Read the full story here.

—Sheryl Gay Stolberg, Sharon LaFraniere and Noah Weiland, The New York Times

WHO: Record weekly jump in COVID-19 cases but fewer deaths

The World Health Organization said Thursday a record 9.5 million cases of COVID-19 were tallied around the world over the last week, noting a 71% surge in the weekly count of infections amounting to a “tsunami” as the new omicron variant sweeps worldwide.

However, the number of recorded deaths fell, with 41,178 recorded last week compared to 44 680 in the week before that.

“Last week, the highest number of COVID-19 cases were reported so far in the pandemic,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said. He said the WHO was certain that was an underestimate because of a backlog in testing around the year-end holidays.

The U.N. health agency, in its weekly report on the pandemic, said the weekly count amounted to 9,520,488 new cases.

While omicron appears to be less severe than the delta variant, especially among people who have been vaccinated, the WHO chief said: “It does not mean it should be categorized as mild. Just like previous variants, omicron is hospitalizing people, and it’s killing people.”

“In fact, the tsunami of cases is so huge and quick that it is overwhelming health systems around the world,” the WHO chief told a regular news briefing.

Read the story here.

—Jamey Keaten, The Associated Press
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Will your at-home COVID test detect omicron? New data raises concerns

A small, new real-world study suggests that two widely used at-home antigen tests, the Abbott BinaxNOW and Quidel QuickVue, may fail to detect some omicron infections even when people are carrying high levels of the coronavirus.

The study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, focused on 30 people infected with the virus at five workplaces that experienced what were most likely outbreaks of the omicron variant in December. The people received both saliva-based PCR tests and rapid antigen tests using nasal swabs.

It took three days, on average, for people to test positive on a rapid antigen test after their first positive PCR result. In four cases, people transmitted the virus to others while the rapid test showed the negative result, according to the study, which was conducted by several members of the COVID-19 Sports and Society Working Group.

It is not clear whether the infections were missed because the antigen tests are inherently less sensitive to omicron or because saliva tests may be better at detecting the new variant.

But the results are consistent with other preliminary evidence that the at-home tests that many Americans have come to rely on — at least as currently administered, with a nasal swab — may fail to detect some omicron cases in the first days of infection.

Read the full story here.

—Emily Anthes and Christina Jewett, The New York Times

Japan asks US forces to stay on base as COVID-19 cases jump

apanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi on Thursday asked that the U.S. military in Japan stay inside its bases to prevent the further spread of COVID-19.

Hayashi said he spoke on the phone with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and was promised utmost efforts to ensure people’s health. It was not immediately clear if a base curfew would be issued.

Maj. Thomas R. Barger, a U.S. Forces in Japan spokesperson, said he could not comment on the request, but that a team was carefully monitoring cases and trends.

Read the story here.

—Yuri Kageyama, The Associated Press

CDC urges ‘up to date’ shots; no ‘fully vaccinated’ change

U.S. health officials said Wednesday they are not changing the qualifications for being “fully vaccinated” against COVID-19, but they are urging Americans to stay “up to date” on their protection against the virus by getting booster shots when eligible.

The move to keep the existing definition of fully vaccinated — either two doses of the mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna or a single dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine — comes as health officials warned of waning protections from the initial doses. They are encouraging Americans to get additional doses to stave off serious illness and death from the delta and omicron variants.

The decision to keep the initial definition, established more than a year ago when the vaccines first rolled out, means that federal vaccination mandates for travel or employment won’t require a booster dose.

Read the story here.

—Mike Stobbe and Zeke Miller, The Associated Press
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Catch up on the past 24 hours

Washington plans to hand out millions of at-home COVID tests and masks, as well as expanding vaccination clinics, Gov. Jay Inslee announced yesterday. Here's what to expect.

Two widely used at-home tests may fail to detect some omicron infections even when people are carrying high levels of the virus, according to a small study that adds to researchers' concerns. But "the message is not that we should stop using these tests," one says.

Oh dear, now there's "flurona" — the flu and coronavirus at the same time. This is what we know about symptoms and vaccines.

Hospitals are seeing a different kind of COVID surge this time, and that's both good and bad.

—Kris Higginson