Editor’s note: This is a live account of COVID-19 updates from Tuesday, March 15, 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 It is no longer being updated.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.
Scientists across several European countries have recently reported a hybrid of omicron and delta, but officials said the hybrid is not a novel concern and does not seem to have grown or spread exponentially.
Meanwhile, Americans may need a fourth dose of the COVID-19 vaccine in order to keep hospitalization and deaths under control due to the waning effectiveness of existing vaccines on variants such as omicron, according to Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla.
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.
Pandemic preparedness bill moves ahead; funding still needed
A Senate committee on Tuesday approved a bipartisan blueprint to overhaul the nation’s public health system, applying the lessons of COVID-19 to future outbreaks through a new chain of command, a stronger medical supply chain, and clearer crisis communications.
The Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee approved the PREVENT Pandemics Act by a vote of 20-2.
But it’s only a first step. If the ambitious vision does eventually pass Congress, lawmakers must still deliver the tens of billions of dollars it will take to translate it into reality and maintain focus after the coronavirus recedes. Right now, Congress is even having trouble meeting a White House request for additional funds to keep COVID-19 at bay the rest of this year.
“We owe it to everyone who has worked so hard to address the challenges of this pandemic to make sure (that) we are never in a situation like this again,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chair of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
She and ranking Republican Richard Burr of North Carolina worked for over a year on the contours of the bill, which also calls for a national task force modeled on the 9/11 Commission to investigate what went wrong in the coronavirus response and make recommendations to the president and Congress.
“The central issue facing us today is how can we better anticipate what threat we will face next, and innovate quickly enough to rise to the challenge,” said Burr. “The future, unfortunately, is hard to predict.”
Finding tiny, high-quality masks for kids can be a challenge
The uberinfectious omicron Covid-19 variant has triggered a race among U.S. parents to locate high-quality kid-sized masks, a run on supplies that rivals the pandemic’s frantic early days.
Omicron swept the U.S. just as children returned to school after winter holidays, with many public-health experts urging them to toss cloth masks in favor of KN95s and KF94s, which better filter the aerosols that transmit the virus.
It’s hard enough to get kids to keep masks on, thanks to endless, natural impediments like run-of-the-mill runny noses and the need to consume peanut-butter sandwiches. Now, parents have to find gear that fits snugly around chubby cheeks and also meets top safety standards.
Aaron Collins, a Minneapolis parent who has amassed some 50,000 combined Twitter and YouTube followers reviewing masks online, said omicron is exposing a weakness in U.S. quality control. The National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health doesn’t regulate kids’ masks, leaving many parents to turn elsewhere for advice. That includes Collins’s own reviews, a situation that he said was “ridiculous.”
The turmoil is another anxious pandemic chapter for parents, thanks to a market that’s seen demand ebb and flow with the virus. The seven-day average of COVID-19 cases is running at more than twice the pace at the previous peak last winter. Meanwhile, research shows vaccines are reducing severe outcomes, but not helping nearly as much to prevent infection itself — especially among kids who received their shot more than five months ago and haven’t had a booster.
Emhoff tests positive for COVID-19, VP Harris still negative
Second gentleman Doug Emhoff has tested positive for COVID-19, the White House announced Tuesday. Vice President Kamala Harris tested negative, but is curtailing her schedule as a result of her husband’s positive test.
Harris spokesperson Sabrina Singh said Harris would not participate in a planned Equal Pay Day event on Tuesday evening at the White House with President Joe Biden “out of an abundance of caution.”
“The Vice President tested negative for COVID-19 today and will continue to test,” she said.
Biden and Harris appeared together Tuesday afternoon and mingled with lawmakers at an event marking the signing of a $1.5 trillion government funding measure.
US funeral assistance for COVID tops $2B, more eligible
The federal government has provided more than $2 billion to help cover funeral costs for more than 300,000 families of people who died from COVID-19, the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced Tuesday as it launches a new campaign to raise awareness about the aid to eligible families. More than 965,000 people have died in the U.S. from the virus.
The COVID-19 Funeral Assistance program provides up to $9,000 per funeral and covers COVID-19 related deaths since Jan. 20, 2020. The average amount awarded per death is $6,500, according to FEMA.
“FEMA’s COVID-19 Funeral Assistance program has helped provide over 300,000 people with critical financial relief during a time of such unexpected, unimaginable and widespread loss,” said FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell in a statement.
On Tuesday, the agency is launching a new paid ad campaign in California, New York, Pennsylvania and Texas targeted at areas with large rates of COVID-19 deaths but lower rates of reimbursement requests to help connect people to available assistance. The agency is also reaching out to community groups and local media outlets to help publicize the program.
Dutch to drop last remaining COVID-19 restrictions next week
The Dutch government will drop its last remaining COVID-19 restrictions on March 23, despite a recent rise in infections, as the nation learns to live with coronavirus.
The country already has already ended a nationwide lockdown and scrapped most virus measures. As of March 23, wearing a face mask on public transport will no longer be obligatory. Facemasks will still have to be worn on airplanes and behind security screening at airports.
The government also is halting the use of a digital COVID pass to get into nightclubs and other large-scale events, the only place where they were still required.
As part of the latest easing, people flying to the Netherlands from the European Union or the Schengen passport-free zone will no longer have to to show a COVID-19 pass on arrival.
Pfizer and BioNTech to seek OK of 2nd coronavirus booster shot for people 65 and older
Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and its partner, BioNTech, will seek emergency authorization for a second booster shot of their coronavirus vaccine for people 65 and older, an effort to bolster waning immunity that occurs several months after the first booster, according to three people familiar with the situation.
The submission to the Food and Drug Administration, anticipated as soon as Tuesday, is expected to include “real world data” collected in Israel, one of the few countries that has authorized a second booster for older people, said the individuals, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the issue. The decision from the FDA could come relatively quickly, especially if officials conclude the data is straightforward and does not have to be reviewed by a panel of outside vaccine experts.
In a separate move aimed at answering longer-term questions about booster strategies, the FDA plans to convene its outside advisers in early April to consider whether there should be an October or November campaign to encourage some or all adults to get additional boosters and whether the shots should be the same as the current vaccine or retooled to counter new variants, according to a federal official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss administration plans.
The official said: “Would it make sense to have some kind of a booster campaign for all or a segment of the population in the fall to prevent a wave of infections” as the weather gets cold again?
Legal services nonprofits aid those struggling to keep homes
Elizabeth Vermillera, a retired pharmaceutical technician, spends her days handing out donated clothes and food to people in Baltimore. Since 1997, she has lived with a Shih Tzu and a fox terrier in a rowhouse that her dad gave her.
In 2021, the city notified Vermillera that she might lose her home due to unpaid property taxes. She panicked. Vermillera, who is disabled and unable to work, lives on a limited income.
She turned to the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service for help. Aja’ Mallory, a lawyer at the nonprofit, which helps people having financial difficulties, worked with Vermillera and the city to sort out the problem. She was able to keep her home.
Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service, Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, and other nonprofit groups in cities with high percentages of low-income homeowners have helped thousands at risk of losing their homes due to unpaid property taxes.
Legal nonprofits help homeowners by providing free legal assistance, helping them get tax credits to lower their taxes, and working to reduce taxes on properties that are assessed higher than they’re valued. Working with advocacy groups and governments, the legal groups also push for legislative and systemic changes to address a growing problem made worse during the Covid pandemic. Without the legal assistance, many low-income homeowners could lose their houses.
TSA fines for mask violations top $640K in 6 months
Over the past six months, the Transportation Security Administration ramped up civil citations to passengers, mostly aboard airplanes, who refused to comply with mask mandates, slapping them with more than $640,000 in proposed fines, according to a government report released Monday.
It was a stark increase compared with a six-month period from February to September of last year, when the TSA issued more than 2,000 warnings and fined just 10 passengers a total of $2,350, according to a news release in October.
In total, between Feb. 2, 2021, and March 7, 2022, the agency fined 922 people for violating mask mandates and issued 2,709 warnings, the report, by the Government Accountability Office, said.
The wearing of masks to stop the spread of the coronavirus became a divisive cultural flashpoint during the pandemic.
Flu vaccine was not very effective this season, CDC says
This season’s flu vaccine has offered little to no protection against getting a mild or moderate case of influenza, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said this week.
In a study of more than 3,600 Americans in seven states, the CDC said in a report that the vaccine was only around 16% effective, a rate that it said was “not statistically significant.”
Scientists had warned in 2020 that the flu season, if it was severe, could converge with COVID-19 to create a dreaded “twindemic.” But coronavirus restrictions — including working from home and the use of masks — along with a high flu vaccine rate may have helped reduce caseloads the past few seasons, during which, the CDC said, cases have been at a record low.
This season, the agency said, “influenza activity” declined in December and January, during the worst of the omicron surge, but increased in early February.
Still, even a mild flu season can be devastating. The CDC estimated that during the 2019-20 flu season, around 22,000 people in the country had died and 400,000 had been hospitalized.
U.S. sewer data warns of a new bump in COVID cases after lull
A wastewater network that monitors for COVID-19 trends is warning that cases are once again rising in many parts of the U.S., according to an analysis of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data by Bloomberg.
More than a third of the CDC’s wastewater sample sites across the U.S. showed rising COVID-19 trends March 1 to March 10, though reported cases have stayed near a recent low. The number of sites with rising signals of COVID-19 cases is nearly twice what it was during the Feb. 1 to Feb. 10 period, when the wave of omicron-variant cases was fading rapidly.
It’s not clear how many new infections the signs in the sewage represent and if they will turn into a new wave, or will be just a brief bump on the way down from the last one. In many parts of the country, people are returning back to offices and mask rules have been loosened — factors that can raise transmission. At the same time, warmer weather is allowing people to spend more time outside, and many people have recently been infected, which may offer at least temporary protection against getting sick again — factors that would keep cases down.
“While wastewater levels are generally very low across the board, we are seeing an uptick of sites reporting an increase,” Amy Kirby, the head of the CDC’s wastewater monitoring program, said in an email to Bloomberg. “These bumps may simply reflect minor increases from very low levels to still low levels. Some communities, though, may be starting to see an increase in COVID-19 infections, as prevention strategies in many states have changed in recent weeks.”
Bloomberg reviewed data for more than 530 sewage monitoring sites, looking at the most recent data reported during the 10-day window from March 1 to March 10. Out of those sites, 59% showed falling COVID-19 trends, 5% were roughly stable, and 36% were increasing. Rises or declines are measured over a 15-day period.
South Korea reports record deaths amid omicron surge
South Korea had its deadliest day yet of the pandemic on Tuesday, with 293 deaths reported in the latest 24 hours, as the country grapples with a record surge in coronavirus infections driven by the fast-moving omicron variant.
The 1,196 virus patients in serious or critical conditions were also a new high. Health officials said the country’s medical response remains stable following efforts to expand resources, with more than 30% of intensive care units designated for COVID-19 treatment still available. But the strain on the hospital system is expected to increase in coming weeks, considering the time lags between infections, hospitalizations and deaths.
South Korea has reported a daily average of around 337,000 new cases in the past seven days, including 362,283 on Tuesday, representing more than an 80-fold increase from levels seen in mid-January, when omicron emerged as the dominant strain. The country’s caseload is now over 7.2 million, with 6.4 million added since February.
Chinese virus cases climb, raise threat of trade disruption
Chinese authorities on Tuesday tightened anti-virus controls at ports, raising the risk of trade disruptions after some auto and electronics factories shut down as the government fights coronavirus outbreaks.
Stock prices in China and Hong Kong sank for a second day following the shutdown on Monday of Shenzhen, a tech and finance hub adjacent to Hong Kong in the south, and Changchun, an auto center in the northeast. Bus service to Shanghai, China’s business capital and biggest city, was suspended.
China’s case numbers are low compared with other major countries. But authorities are enforcing a “zero tolerance” strategy that aims to keep out the virus. It has temporarily shut down major cities to find every infected person.
The restrictions come at a time when the global economy is under pressure from Russia’s war on Ukraine, surging oil prices and weak consumer demand.
Catch up on the past 24 hours
"It's OK if you're scared or excited." The switch to optional mask-wearing in Washington's schools is rattling some students and teachers. Here's how the first day went yesterday.
Schools did far less to contain COVID-19 in one Colorado district, and many of its students flourished. A mom who moved there from Washington state is explaining how this played out for her teen.
If your Amazon or Walmart package is late, it might be because of COVID in China. Lockdowns have halted manufacturing, and there's no restart in sight after new cases yesterday more than doubled from the previous day. The fast-spreading variant known as "stealth omicron" is driving China's biggest outbreak since early in the pandemic.
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