Editor’s note: This is a live account of COVID-19 updates from Wednesday, July 20, 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 It is no longer being updated.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.

The number of reported COVID-19 cases tripled across Europe while hospitalizations doubled in the span of six weeks, according to the World Health Organization. Europe’s case count accounts for nearly half of global infections.

Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stopped reporting coronavirus levels on cruise ships traveling in U.S. waters.

The health agency on Tuesday recommended that U.S. adults who remain unvaccinated consider getting Novavax’s protein-based vaccine, which received authorization last week.

We’re updating this page with the latest news about COVID-19 pandemic and its effects on the Seattle area, Washington state 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.

Audit critical of Oklahoma’s use of education relief funds

A federal audit report sharply criticizes Oklahoma officials for a lack of transparency, oversight and accountability in the use of coronavirus relief funds that were intended for education.

The state, which received nearly $40 million in pandemic assistance for the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief, or GEER, Fund, has already returned more than $919,000 that was unspent from the program.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General report dated Monday recommends the state return nearly $653,000 more that was spent on non-education related items such as televisions and Xbox gaming systems by families that received grants. The document also calls for the state to audit another $5.4 million for possible refund of misspent funds, and develop better management and internal controls of the spending.

“Oklahoma could not support its stated processes for awarding funds to eligible entities that were either most significantly impacted by the coronavirus, as determined by the State, or deemed essential for carrying out emergency educational services, providing childcare and early childhood education, providing social and emotional support, or protecting education-related jobs,” according to the report.

Read the full story here.

—Ken Miller, The Associated Press
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Oregon urges residents to mask up against COVID as hospitals face another crisis

Oregon health officials on Wednesday urged Oregonians in the 21 counties with high COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations to mask up, warning that the state’s hospital system is again under extreme strain.

COVID-19 hospitalizations are significantly lower than at the peaks of past surges. But a combination of staff shortages due to burnout and summer vacations; a high volume of patients who delayed care for other conditions earlier in the pandemic, and elevated coronavirus infections likely due to the highly transmissible BA.5 subvariant has substantially reduced hospital systems’ capacity to care for current patients.

“No area of the state is spared,” Oregon Health Authority epidemiologist Dr. Dean Sidelinger said during a news briefing Wednesday.

Read the full story here.

—Fedor Zarkhin, oregonlive.com

COVID-19 vaccine boosters protect against ‘severe disease’ from Omicron, UW-led study finds

While Omicron subvariants have evolved to evade antibody responses from the primary COVID-19 vaccine series, a new laboratory study led by researchers at UW Medicine suggests boosters may offer some protection against serious disease.

An international research team analyzed plasma samples from people who had been infected with COVID-19 before vaccines were available, from those who had completed only a primary vaccine series, and from others who had been boosted with currently available vaccines.

The research team assessed seven of the world’s primary vaccines as well as immunity acquired through previous infection.

The study, published Tuesday in Science, found a marked improvement in Omicron-neutralizing activity in the plasma of boosted individuals. The authors said this highlights the importance of vaccine boosters in improving antibody responses against Omicron strains, including BA.5.

Read the story here.

—Christine Clarridge

Pandemic recovery that goes beyond ‘back to normal’

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s common to hear people express a desire to get “back to normal.” But there’s one major problem: the old “normal” wasn’t always a friendly environment for marginalized communities. The pandemic simultaneously exacerbated and shined a light on inequities these communities have been facing for decades.

As we rebuild, there’s an opportunity to change the systems that make it difficult for many people to access quality education, housing and economic security and support success for all.

Read the story here.

—Seattle Foundation, Produced by ST Content Studio
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Remote work fueled U.S. productivity growth during pandemic, study says

U.S. economic productivity during the pandemic was driven entirely by firms with remote work capacity, according to a new study.

Productivity in work-from-home services businesses, which includes information and finance, grew 3.3% between the beginning of 2020 and early 2022. In the meantime, growth in the goods sector, in jobs like construction and mining, was unchanged and services industries that required in-person contact contracted by 2.6%, according to a working paper by Northwestern University’s Robert Gordon and Princeton University’s Hassan Sayed.

“WFH respondents assess their own productivity as substantially higher than their expectations, which may provide a comparison between productivity of WFH activity compared to the productivity of the same individuals in their previous office environments,” the authors wrote in a paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, citing a recent survey.

Read the story here.

—Olivia Rockeman, Bloomberg News

Amazon’s Bellevue tower pause may be a sign we’re entering an era of ‘untransit’

The evidence that remote work is here to stay just got serious.

As serious as empty skyscrapers in Bellevue.

We’ve been casually debating when workers will finally return to their office cubicles after the dislocations of the pandemic. I think most people, me included, figured workers would dribble back eventually because … that’s the way we’ve always done it. And the offices with their Aeron chairs and coffee carts are all sitting there waiting for us!

But in the past few weeks, the region’s two biggest employers have signaled that “Build it and they will come,” the old normal, is no longer operative.

First Microsoft announced it’s ending its lease on a 550,000-square foot building in Bellevue along Interstate 90.

Then Amazon said it is pausing construction on five Bellevue office towers, as well as mothballing a sixth. For the ones already started, the company will complete the “core and shell” and then stop work for an unknown period of time. The six towers would total roughly half the company’s planned Bellevue footprint.

Amazon told the Puget Sound Business Journal it still intends to hire 15,000 more workers affiliated with its Bellevue operations (for an eventual total of 25,000). But it isn’t sure yet how often those workers will be at the physical office towers. So it doesn’t know how to configure the towers for the coming hybrid working world.

Read the story here.

—Danny Westneat

Scientists try to keep up with faster coronavirus evolution

The rapid evolution of the coronavirus into an alphabet soup of subvariants presents a vexing challenge to health officials: They must make far-reaching policy decisions based on little biological certainty of which viral variants will be dominant this fall or winter.

In just eight weeks, the subvariant known as BA.5 has gone from a blip in U.S. case counts to the dominant version of the virus, now making up more than three-quarters of new cases. Perhaps the most transmissible subvariant yet, it is pushing up positive tests, hospitalizations and intensive care admissions across the country,

There is no evidence that BA.5 causes more severe disease, but the latest metrics certainly bust the myth that the virus will become milder as it evolves.

“None of us has a crystal ball, and we are trying to use every last ounce of what we can from predictive modeling and from the data that we have to try to get ahead of a virus that has been very crafty,” Dr. Peter Marks, a top vaccine regulator at the FDA, said after an advisory committee recommended that the agency prioritize vaccines specific to the omicron subvariants. “For something that’s only nanometers in size, it’s pretty darn crafty. We’re trying to make our best judgment here.”

Read the story here.

—Adeel Hassan, The New York Times
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Micronesia last of bigger nations to have COVID-19 outbreak

Micronesia has likely become the final nation in the world with a population of more than 100,000 to experience an outbreak of COVID-19.

For more than two-and-a-half years, the Pacific archipelago managed to avoid any outbreaks thanks to its geographic isolation and border controls. Those people who flew into the country with the disease didn’t spread it because all new arrivals were required to quarantine.

But as has been the case in several other Pacific nations this year, those defenses couldn’t keep out the more transmissible omicron variant forever.

On Tuesday, the government announced it had become aware of multiple cases across two of the nation’s four states.

Authorities said that in Kosrae State, 25 people tested positive after showing up at a local hospital. An additional 10 people from a family of 11 tested positive after a medical team visited them.

Authorities said they had also found seven community cases in the state of Pohnpei. State leaders there have asked all residents to avoid public gatherings and to wear masks at all times.

Read the story here.

—Nick Perry, The Associated Press