A Florida nursing home that diverted vaccines to rich donors has agreed to pay $1.75 million to settle claims it defrauded a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention program aimed at getting the limited doses to the most vulnerable.

Meanwhile, North Korea claimed the COVID-19 outbreak in the country resulted from people having contact with balloons flown from South Korea that distribute leaflets critical of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Global health experts say COVID-19 is spread by people in close proximity who inhale airborne droplets and transmission is more likely in poorly ventilated spaces than the outdoors.

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 the rest of our coronavirus coverage and here to see how we track the daily spread across Washington.

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Denmark’s leader apologizes for botched mink cull during pandemic

When Denmark ordered the culling of its entire population of mink in late 2020 over fears that a mutated version of the coronavirus that had infected mink could diminish the effectiveness of vaccines, millions of animals were killed and farmers were left reeling by a financial burden that Danish taxpayers ultimately will shoulder.

On Friday, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen of Denmark apologized to the country’s mink farmers after a damning report released this week blamed top officials for mishandling the cull and said that she had misled the public — the latest twist in a fiasco that has undermined the government’s popularity.

“I know you lost your life’s work, and I am truly sorry for the frustration and grief it has caused,” Frederiksen said, adding that the government would be taking seriously criticism of its handling of the situation.

But she maintained that the decision to cull the mink was “necessary” and rebutted calls for a legal investigation. “We had a responsibility for the health of the entire world,” she said, adding that officials had not misled the public over the issue.

Read the full story here.

— ISABELLA KWAI, Emma Bubola and Jasmina Nielsen, The New York Times
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New ultra-contagious omicron subvariants worsening California coronavirus wave

LOS ANGELES — The growing dominance of two new ultra-contagious omicron subvariants is prolonging a wave of coronavirus cases in California and sparking growing concerns from health officials that coming weeks could see significant spread and increased hospitalizations.

BA.4 and BA.5 are now believed to be responsible for most new infections nationwide. The strains are of particular concern because they are not only especially contagious but also capable of reinfecting those who have survived earlier omicron infection.

When it comes to BA.4 and BA.5, their “superpower is reinfection,” said Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, a UC San Francisco infectious-disease expert.

Additionally, “there’s strong evidence they can spread even faster than other subvariants,” said Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer.

“There also have been some concerning findings in laboratory studies, which found that BA.4 and BA.5 were better able to infect lung cells than the earlier BA.2 subvariant of omicron,” she said.

BA.4 and BA.5 are likely to affect countries and regions differently, depending on the overall level of immunity and the number of older and medically vulnerable people. But “all of the information to date points to the need for us to prepare for the likelihood of significant transmission in the upcoming weeks,” Ferrer said.

Read the full story here.

—Rong-Gong Lin II and Luke Money Los Angeles Times

Japan’s secret to taming the coronavirus: peer pressure

TOKYO — To understand how Japan has fared better than most of the world in containing the dire consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, consider Mika Yanagihara, who went shopping for flowers this past week in central Tokyo. Even when walking outside in temperatures in the mid-90s, she kept the lower half of her face fully covered.

“People will stare at you,” Yanagihara, 33, said, explaining why she did not dare take off her mask. “There is that pressure.”

Japan’s COVID death rate, just one-twelfth of that in the United States, is the lowest among the world’s wealthiest nations. With the world’s third-largest economy and 11th-largest populace, Japan also tops global rankings in vaccination and has consistently had one of the globe’s lowest infection rates.

Although no government authority has ever mandated masks or vaccinations or instituted lockdowns or mass surveillance, Japan’s residents have largely evaded the worst ravages of the virus. Instead, in many ways, Japan let peer pressure do a lot of the work.

Read the full story here.

—MOTOKO RICH and Ben Dooley The New York Times

CDC gives Tri-Cities a mixed COVID rating, but wastewater checks tell a different story

Data on COVID-19 for the Tri-Cities area was mixed over the past week, with wastewater sampling showing a sharp increase in the virus in the community but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reducing the community level rating for part of the area.

The CDC improved the rating of the community COVID-19 level for Benton County to “low” for COVID-19, but Franklin County remains rated “medium,” as both counties were a week ago.

Benton County was one of just seven counties in Washington state to have a rating of “low,” as of Friday. Seventeen were rated “medium” and 15, including Walla Walla County, were rated “high.”

Across the nation 45% of counties have “low” community levels of COVID-19, 35% have “medium” levels and 19% have “high” levels, according to the CDC.

The most recent Washington State Department of Health data shows that 82% of new cases in the state are the BA.2 and BA.2.12.1 variants.

But the newer BA.5 and BA.4 omicron subvariants now account for the remaining 18% of new cases. They are more contagious than previous subvariants.

Read the full story here.

—Annette Cary, Tri-City Herald
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CDC recommends 6 Washington counties should wear masks again

People in six Washington counties should begin wearing masks indoors in public and on public transportation again, according to recommendations from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The latest information from the CDC shows that Lewis County, Pacific County, Thurston County, Grays Harbor County, Garfield County and Spokane County all have COVID-19 community levels rated “high,” meaning they have had 200 or more new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people in the last seven days, or they’ve had more than 20 new COVID-19 hospital admissions per 100,000 people within a seven-day period.

KOIN-TV reported the counties range from Pacific County’s 418 cases per 100,000 people to Spokane County’s 207 cases per 100,000 people.

These community levels were calculated June 23.

The CDC said anyone at risk for severe illness in those six counties should consider taking additional precautions besides simply wearing a mask, like staying 6 feet away from others, avoiding crowds and poorly ventilated spaces, and washing their hands often.

—The Associated Press

Holiday getaway pushes US airport traffic to pandemic high

The Fourth of July holiday weekend is jamming U.S. airports with their biggest crowds since the pandemic began in 2020.

About 2.49 million passengers went through security checkpoints at U.S. airports Friday, surpassing the previous pandemic-era record of 2.46 million reached earlier in the week, according to figures released Saturday by the Transportation Security Administration.

The escalating numbers show leisure travelers aren’t being deterred from flying by rising fares, the ongoing spread of COVID-19 or worries about recurring flight delays and cancellations.

Friday’s passenger volume marked a 13% increase from July 1 last year, which fell on the Thursday before Fourth of July. This year’s number of passengers going through U.S. airports also eclipsed the 2.35 million screened at security checkpoints on the Friday before the Fourth of July in 2019, but that was nearly a week ahead of Independence Day.

In a more telling sign of how close U.S. air travel is reverting to pre-pandemic conditions, an average of 2.33 million passengers have passed through security checkpoints at domestic airports during the seven days ending July 1. That was close to the seven-day average of roughly 2.38 million passengers during the same 2019 period, according to the TSA.

Read the full story here.

—Michael Liedtke, Associated Press

California’s COVID levels appear as high as ever: ‘The sewage never lies’

As COVID-19 testing rates have plummeted, one tool is becoming increasingly important for understanding the state of the pandemic: sewage surveillance.

Regional wastewater paints a stark picture of a pandemic that is far from over. While the state’s testing program shows coronavirus case rates to be dropping across much of Northern California, wastewater analysis indicates that in many places, viral spread this month rivals or even exceeds the original omicron surge that swept through the country in January, creating record infections.

According to data from the Sewer Coronavirus Alert Network — a wastewater analysis program based at Stanford University — the concentration of COVID-19 in the wastewater in areas of Northern California such as Davis and western San Francisco have this June exceeded the levels they were in the original omicron surge that occurred in January.

In Sacramento, the numbers are slightly milder, with wastewater COVID-19 levels peaking this June at just over half of what they were in January.

This wastewater analysis stands in stark contrast to metrics often cited when measuring virus spread, such as case rate per 100,000 residents. Looking at case rates reported by the California Department of Public Health, it seems that Sacramento County’s June surge was only 17% of what it saw in January. Yolo County and San Francisco — both of which, according to wastewater analysis, have seen COVID spread at just as high or higher levels as January — reported case rates peak this month at just 20% and 23% of the January surge, respectively.

But public health officials agree that sewage, rather than testing numbers, is telling the true story of the state of COVID-19.

Read the full story here.

—Amelia Davidson, The Sacramento Bee
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New York City ends its coronavirus alert system as cases hit high levels

New York City suddenly removed its color-coded coronavirus alert system Thursday just as newer omicron subvariants are fueling another rise in cases and hospitalizations.

Mayor Eric Adams and health officials quietly took down the city’s high profile alert system that warned New Yorkers when they were at a greater risk of catching the virus and should consider taking more precautions.

Now the city’s website reads: “We are re-evaluating the city’s COVID Alert system. Check back here for updates in the coming weeks.”

The city was at the medium risk level Tuesday, and the city’s website now says “there are currently high transmission levels of COVID-19 throughout the city.” Virus cases have started to rise in the city again after dropping last month and the seven-day test positivity rate increased to 10.3% citywide, the highest level since January, according to city data.

Read the full story here.

—Emma G. Fitzsimmons, New York Times

Vladimir Zelenko, who promoted an unfounded COVID treatment, dies at 48

Vladimir Zelenko, a self-described “simple country doctor” from upstate New York who rocketed to prominence in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic when his controversial treatment for the coronavirus gained White House support, died Thursday in Dallas. He was 48.

His wife, Rinat, said he died of lung cancer at a hospital where he was receiving treatment.

Until early 2020, Zelenko, who was also known by his Hebrew name, Zev, spent his days caring for patients in and around Kiryas Joel, a village of about 35,000 Hasidic Jews roughly an hour northwest of New York City.

Like many health care providers, he scrambled when the coronavirus began to appear in his community. Within weeks, he had landed on what he insisted was an effective cure: a three-drug cocktail of the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine, the antibiotic azithromycin and zinc sulfate.

He was not the first physician to promote hydroxychloroquine. But he began to draw national attention on March 21, 2020 — two days after President Donald Trump first mentioned the drug in a press briefing — when Zelenko posted a video to YouTube and Facebook in which he claimed a 100% success rate with the treatment. He implored Trump to adopt it.

Read the full story here.

—Clay Risen, New York Times

With hospitalizations up, France weighs return to masks

Tourism is booming again in France — and so is COVID-19. French officials have “invited” or “recommended” people to go back to using face masks but stopped short of renewing restrictions that would scare visitors away or revive antigovernment protests.

From Paris commuters to tourists on the French Riviera, many people seem to welcome the government’s light touch, while some worry that required prevention measures may be needed.

Virus-related hospitalizations rose quickly in France over the past two weeks, with nearly 1,000 patients with COVID-19 hospitalized per day, according to government data. Infections are also rising across Europe and the United States, but France has an exceptionally high proportion of people in the hospital, according to Our World in Data estimates.

French government spokesperson Olivia Gregoire has said there are no plans to reintroduce national regulations that limit or set conditions for gathering indoors and other activities.

“The French people are sick of restrictions,” she said Wednesday on channel BFMTV. “We are confident that people will behave responsibly.”

Read the full story here.

—Barbara Surk and Jade Le Deley, Associated Press
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COVID levels ‘high’ across most of Oregon; federal guidelines urge masks indoors

Most Oregonians should wear masks to protect themselves and others from the coronavirus, according to federal health guidance, with 24 counties now seeing “high” levels of COVID-19, as determined by occupied hospital beds, admissions and total cases.

At that risk level, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urges everyone to wear masks in indoor public places and get tested for COVID-19 if they experience symptoms. Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties are among those the CDC says have high levels of COVID-19.

Oregon’s other 12 counties are seeing medium community levels of COVID-19, according the CDC. The Oregon Health Authority has previously recommended masks be worn in indoor public places in counties at that risk level, too.

The Oregon Health Authority recommends people in the high-level counties wear masks regardless of vaccination status, but does not plan to reinstate a public indoor mask mandate, a spokesperson for the agency said in an email.

Read the full story here.

—Fedor Zarkhin, oregonlive.com

For now, wary US treads water with transformed COVID-19

The fast-changing coronavirus has kicked off summer in the U.S. with lots of infections but relatively few deaths compared to its prior incarnations.

COVID-19 is still killing hundreds of Americans each day, but is not nearly as dangerous as it was last fall and winter.

“It’s going to be a good summer and we deserve this break,” said Ali Mokdad, a professor of health metrics sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle.

With more Americans shielded from severe illness through vaccination and infection, COVID-19 has transformed — for now at least — into an unpleasant, inconvenient nuisance for many.

“It feels cautiously good right now,” said Dr. Dan Kaul, an infectious diseases specialist at the University of Michigan Medical Center in Ann Arbor. “For the first time that I can remember, pretty much since it started, we don’t have any (COVID-19) patients in the ICU.”

Read the full story here.

—Carla K. Johnson, Associated Press