Editor’s note: This is a live account of COVID-19 updates from Wednesday, March 16, 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 It is no longer being updated.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.

A Senate committee approved a pandemic preparedness bill on Tuesday that aims to promote a stronger medical supply chain and clearer crisis communications in the face of a pandemic.

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.

As reported cases of the omicron variant subside, ticket sales for domestic flights last month exceeded the sales made during February 2019. The boost in sales is a first since the pandemic began placing restrictions on travel.

The airline industry is expecting a boost in ticket sales during the summer travel months as government leaders continue to ease or remove pandemic restrictions amid waning concerns over the omicron variant.

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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Irish leader tests positive for COVID during visit to DC

Irish Taoiseach Micheál Martin learned he had tested positive for COVID-19 Wednesday evening while attending an event with U.S. leaders, including President Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, according to a senior administration official.

Martin was attending the Ireland Funds 30th National Gala at the National Building Museum in Washington when he tested positive, ahead of planned St. Patrick’s Day celebrations Thursday with U.S. leaders.

The official was not authorized to talk about Martin’s condition and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

Biden, who spoke briefly at the event, was not deemed a close contact of Martin, White House spokesman Chris Meagher said. The COVID-19 close call came a day after second gentleman Doug Emhoff tested positive for the virus.

It was not immediately clear how Martin’s diagnosis would affect the scheduled St. Patrick’s Day events at the White House.

—Colleen Long and Zeke Miller, The Assocaited Press
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What’s WA’s COVID plan now? Expect details tomorrow from state

Washington health officials will soon unveil the state’s newest long-term pandemic plan, detailing how they intend to bolster strategies on living with COVID-19 in the coming months, the state’s secretary of health announced Wednesday.

The plan, which health officials are calling “WA Forward,” aims to focus on engaging families and communities in continued COVID education; preventing further spread through vaccines, testing and masks; and preparing health and data systems to monitor disease trends and hospital capacity, state Secretary of Health Dr. Umair A. Shah said during a Wednesday news briefing.

The plan will be released Thursday morning, he said.

“This is a long-term forward plan to keep people, families and communities safe, protected and healthy as we move to this next phase of the pandemic, while continuing to monitor COVID-19 across the country, the globe and certainly here in Washington,” Shah said. “… It will guide us to coexisting safely with COVID-19 for the foreseeable future.”

Read the full story here.

—Elise Takahama

Florida couple pleads guilty to $881K COVID-19 relief fraud

A Florida couple has pleaded guilty to stealing nearly $900,000 in COVID-19 relief funds.

Amber Bruey, 35, of Lehigh Acres, pleaded guilty Wednesday in Fort Myers federal court to conspiracy to commit wire fraud, wire fraud, conspiracy to commit money laundering and illegal monetary transactions, according court records. Her husband, Anthony Bruey, pleaded guilty to the same charges last month. A sentencing date wasn’t immediately set for the couple.

According to court documents, the Brueys conspired to submit a total of 26 fraudulent Paycheck Protection Program and Economic Injury Disaster Loan applications to the Small Business Administration, as well as approved lenders and loan processing companies, between April 2020 and June 2020. The applications contained numerous false and fraudulent representations, including the applicant’s dates of operation, payroll, gross revenues, total number of employees and the criminal histories of the applicants or business owners.

Lenders and the SBA approved 12 of the loans, allowing the Brueys to collect $881,058.35 in PPP and EIDL funds. The couple used the money to buy a $211,457 home in North Carolina, two vehicles and to make a $23,566 restitution payment in a previous criminal case for Amber Bruey.

Read the full story here.

—The Associated Press

N.Y. health agency under Cuomo ‘misled the public’ on COVID nursing home deaths

 The administration of former Gov. Andrew Cuomo failed to publicly account for the deaths of about 4,100 nursing home residents in New York during the pandemic, according to an audit released Tuesday by the state comptroller, Thomas DiNapoli.

The audit found that Health Department officials at times underreported the full death toll by as much as 50% from April 2020 to February 2021, as Cuomo faced increasing scrutiny over whether his administration had intentionally concealed the actual number of deaths.

The 41-page report concluded that the Health Department often acquiesced to the narrative Cuomo and his top officials wanted to promote during the pandemic, sometimes failing to meet its “ethical” and “moral” imperatives to act transparently.

“Our audit findings are extremely troubling,” DiNapoli said in a statement. “The public was misled by those at the highest level of state government through distortion and suppression of the facts when New Yorkers deserved the truth.”

Health officials did not provide auditors with a breakdown by name of the nursing home residents who died from COVID, according to DiNapoli’s office, and the actual number of nursing home residents who died is still uncertain.

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Read the story here.

—Luis Ferré-Sadurní, The New York Times
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State health officials confirm new coronavirus cases, deaths

The state Department of Health (DOH) reported 1,215 new coronavirus cases on Monday and 1,157 on Tuesday. It also reported 54 more deaths over those days.

The update brings the state's totals to 1,442,947 cases and 12,273 deaths, meaning that 0.8% of people diagnosed in Washington have died, according to the DOH. The data is as of 11:59 p.m. Tuesday. New state data is reported on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

In addition, 58,692 people have been hospitalized in the state due to the virus — 83 new hospitalizations. In King County, the state's most populous, state health officials have confirmed a total of 370,042 COVID-19 diagnoses and 2,610 deaths.

Since vaccinations began in late 2020, the state and health care providers have administered 13,141,436 doses and 67.2% 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 5,463 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.

—Amanda Zhou

Diabetes & COVID-19: Scientists explore potential connection

When their 11-year-old son started losing weight and drinking lots of water, Tabitha and Bryan Balcitis chalked it up to a growth spurt and advice from his health class. But unusual crankiness and lethargy raised their concern, and tests showed his blood sugar levels were off the charts.

Just six months after a mild case of COVID-19, the Crown Point, Indiana, boy was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. His parents were floored — it didn’t run in the family, but autoimmune illness did and doctors said that could be a factor.

Could his diabetes also be linked with the coronavirus, wondered Nolan’s mom, a respiratory therapist. Turns out scientists in the U.S. and elsewhere are asking the same question and investigating whether any connection is more than a coincidence.

It’s clear that in those who already have diabetes, COVID-19 can worsen the condition and lead to severe complications. But there are other possible links

Emerging evidence shows that the coronavirus — like some other viruses — can attack insulin-producing cells in the pancreas — a process that might trigger at least temporary diabetes in susceptible people. Rising cases might also reflect circumstances involving pandemic restrictions, including delayed medical care for early signs of diabetes or unhealthy eating habits and inactivity in people already at risk for Type 2 diabetes.

Read the story here.

—Lindsey Tanner, The Associated Press

Canada to drop COVID tests for vaccinated visitors: official

Canada will no longer require a pre-arrival COVID-19 test for vaccinated travelers as of April 1.

A senior government official confirmed the change Wednesday, speaking on condition of anonymity due to lack of authorization to speak publicly ahead of the announcement this week.

Last month, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos announced that travelers coming to Canada would be able to present a negative rapid-antigen test at the border as an alternative to a more costly molecular test.

Read the story here.

—Rob Gillies, The Associated Press
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A COVID surge in Western Europe has U.S. bracing for another wave

A surge in coronavirus infections in Western Europe has experts and health authorities on alert for another wave of the pandemic in the United States even as most of the country has done away with restrictions after a sharp decline in cases.

Infectious-disease experts are closely watching the subvariant of omicron known as BA. 2, which appears to be more transmissible than the original strain, BA. 1, and is fueling the outbreak overseas.

Germany, a nation of 83 million people, saw more than 250,000 new cases and 249 deaths Friday, when Health Minister Karl Lauterbach called the nation’s situation “critical.” The country is allowing most coronavirus restrictions to end Sunday, despite the increase. The United Kingdom had a seven-day average of 65,894 cases and 79 deaths as of Sunday, according to the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Research Center. The Netherlands, home to fewer than 18 million people, was averaging more than 60,000 cases the same day.

In all, about a dozen nations are seeing spikes in coronavirus infections caused by BA. 2, a cousin of the BA. 1 form of virus that tore through the United States over the past three months.

Read the story here.

—Joel Achenbach and Lenny Bernstein, The Washington Post

In impasse over new COVID relief aid, neither side is willing to bend

Prospects looked bleak Tuesday for congressional approval of billions of dollars in new emergency aid to fight COVID-19, and White House officials said they had already scaled back plans to purchase treatments and reimburse doctors who care for uninsured COVID patients because pandemic relief money has run out.

Neither side, though, seemed willing to bend. Zients said the administration was focused on securing emergency funding with “no offsets.” But Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said a spending bill would be a “much heavier lift” if the administration did not come up with some way to pay for it by repurposing existing funds.

Biden has been seeking $22.5 billion in COVID relief money for treatments, tests, vaccines and research; senior administration officials, speaking on a conference call with reporters, reiterated that request Tuesday. Congress slashed the amount to $15.6 billion and was poised to pass the measure as part of a broader spending package adopted last week.

But Speaker Nancy Pelosi stripped the COVID money from the broader bill in response to pushback from governors and rank-and-file Democrats. Pelosi has discussed voting on a stand-alone bill this week but is unlikely to do so without assurance it will pass the Senate.

Read the story here.

—Sheryl Gay Stolberg, The New York Times

Japan to fully lift COVID-19 restrictions as infections slow

Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Wednesday announced plans to fully lift coronavirus restrictions on March 21 as new infections driven by the highly contagious omicron variant slow.

The COVID-19 restrictions currently in place in 18 prefectures, including the Tokyo area, will end on Monday as planned, Kishida said at a news conference on Wednesday, as his government seeks to cautiously expand consumer activity to help the badly hurt economy get back on track.

It will be the first time Japan has been free of virus restrictions since early January. The plan will be formally adopted after an experts’ panel endorses it on Thursday.

Daily caseloads have steadily declined in Japan in recent weeks after surging to new highs exceeding 100,000 in early February. New cases have fallen by about half.

Read the story here.

—Mari Yamaguchi, The Associated Press
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UK easing COVID-19 testing, monitoring despite case uptick

After dropping nearly all coronavirus restrictions last month, Britain is now ending some of its most widespread COVID-19 testing and monitoring programs, a move some scientists fear will complicate efforts to track the virus and detect worrisome new variants.

Officials have largely dismissed those concerns, despite a recent uptick in cases across Europe, insisting that high immunization rates will help dampen future waves of disease.

Based on how quickly new variants have arisen, some experts suggest the next one could arrive as early as May. They warn that U.K. authorities should be using the time to prepare, rather than winding down their pandemic defenses.

Mark Woolhouse, an epidemiologist at the University of Edinburgh, called it “an unfortunate pattern” that has been seen repeatedly throughout the outbreak.

Read the story here.

—Maria Cheng, The Associated Press

Pandemic postcard: COVID outbreak leaves Hong Kong in limbo

As a COVID-19 outbreak overwhelms Hong Kong, it’s hard for its 7.4 million residents to know what’s next.

Uncertainty is the only certainty as store shelves are stripped of goods, mainland Chinese companies throw up sprawling isolation and testing centers and the government sends mixed messages on whether it will lock down the population for a citywide mass testing.

Pandemic restrictions have sucked much of the energy out of a cosmopolitan city known for its neon lights and dense crowds. The latest closure, announced Wednesday, is public beaches. An overburdened health system means those who get infected often have to fend for themselves. And the death toll, particularly among the elderly, keeps rising.

“It’s a helpless situation,” said Wong Wing-tsang, a single mother who spent days trying to get a doctor’s appointment for her 10-year-old daughter who tested positive earlier this month. “We can only count on ourselves.”

After keeping the virus mostly at bay for nearly two years, Hong Kong authorities have been unable to bring under control an outbreak driven by the highly transmissible omicron variant. So many people have been infected that there aren’t enough drivers for the city buses and subways or clerks to keep some stores open.

China has responded by sending experts, medical staff and construction crews, expanding capacity but also raising fears that Hong Kong might adopt tough mainland-style restrictions, notably its lockdowns of entire cities.

Read the story here.

—Alice Fung and Zen Soo

Airline ticket sales exceed a pre-pandemic milestone for the first time

Rising fuel prices may present an obstacle, but the airline recovery in the United States appears to be on track for now.

With the omicron coronavirus variant receding and pandemic restrictions being eased, the airline industry turned a corner last month, according to an analysis by the Adobe Digital Economy Index, which draws on online sales from six of the top 10 U.S. airlines. According to the analysis, ticket sales for domestic flights in February exceeded those for the same month in 2019, a first since the pandemic began two years ago.

“We’re seeing things open up in terms of people’s thinking about travel,” said Vivek Pandya, who led the analysis. “The question now becomes: How much can that momentum continue to push forward?”

Travelers spent an estimated $6.6 billion on domestic flights in February, about 6% more than three years earlier, according to the analysis. The number of tickets sold was up 4%, while fares were up about 5%, lagging overall inflation. Early data indicates that the trends are holding up this month, too.

Read the full story here.

— Niraj Chokshi, The New York Times
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How omicron fueled an unprecedented wave of breakthrough infections in WA

When the first COVID-19 vaccines began to arrive in Washington more than a year ago, the jubilation was evident. People traveled far at first to find a hard-to-come-by shot, with a hope that the end of the pandemic, or at least its deadliness, was near.

For those inoculated against the coronavirus, it was fairly uncommon to later test positive.

Then the variants hit.

These so-called “breakthrough” infections started popping up throughout the country last summer. As vaccination rates climbed and infections persisted, concern grew. At the time, the delta variant was overwhelming the region’s health care systems. Then the highly infectious omicron variant landed in the state and breakthrough cases nearly doubled.

Read the story here.

—Alison Saldanha and Elise Takahama

At least nine House Democrats, one from WA, test positive after party retreat and late-night voting

At least nine House Democrats have announced in the past five days that they tested positive for the coronavirus, with more than half of those cases emerging after lawmakers attended a party retreat last week in Philadelphia.

It is unclear what drove the wave of cases or where the representatives had been infected. But members of the House spent hours on the floor without masks for votes that stretched late into the night last Wednesday before Democrats boarded buses to travel to their gathering.

The infections offered a jarring reminder that, even as top officials seek to pivot away from strict restrictions and encourage Americans to learn to live with the coronavirus, the pandemic rages on.

Even as reports of the infections circulated on Capitol Hill and cases continued to spike globally, there was little indication that officials at the White House or in Congress would reimpose a series of precautions that they have just begun to roll back. It reflects decisions across the country, where leaders are dropping pandemic-era restrictions and mandates.

Read the full story here.

—Emily Cochrane and Anushka Patil, The New York Times

Catch up on the past 24 hours

Graphics tell the story of how omicron fueled a massive wave of breakthrough infections in Washington. Cases in vaccinated residents nearly doubled when the variant arrived, and they were much more common among certain age groups, these charts show. Reinfections also rose exponentially. “But this does not mean the vaccines are not working,” King County’s health officer explains.

And the evidence that it's not over yet is under our feet. Researchers who looked in U.S. sewers are warning of a new bump in COVID-19 cases. The data raises plenty of questions.

Nine U.S. House Democrats, including one from Washington, have tested positive after lawmakers went to a retreat and spent hours without masks for votes that stretched late into the night. And VP Kamala Harris is limiting her schedule after her husband tested positive.

You can finally unlock your iPhone with a mask on. Here's how to do it, and the other new Apple features you should know about.

—Kris Higginson