Editor’s note: This is a live account of COVID-19 updates from Tuesday, March 2, 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 It is no longer being updated.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.

While states eager to reopen for business are easing coronavirus restrictions following news that a third vaccine has been approved in the U.S., a senior World Health Organization official said Monday it was “premature” and “unrealistic” to think the pandemic might be stopped by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, the Senate prepares to move forward on President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill, and Biden on Monday launched a lobbying effort targeting fellow Democrats to unify them on the legislation.

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 and the world.

Gov. Jay Inslee will hold a ceremony to sign House Bill 1121 relating to the waiver of certain high school graduation requirements during COVID, and House Bill No. 1131 relating to the emergency waiver of instructional hours and days at private schools.
Watch here:

(Jennifer Luxton / The Seattle Times)


More contagious Brazilian virus variant emerges in Oregon

SALEM, Ore. — A coronavirus variant that was first detected in Brazil has emerged in Oregon, the first known case of the new variant on the contiguous U.S. West Coast, medical authorities said Tuesday.

The sample was sent to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at the end of January by medical officials in Douglas County, Oregon. They said they received the results back on Monday night, which showed the P.1 variant.

“The P.1 variant … appears to be related to business travel outside the United States to and from Brazil,” the Douglas County COVID-19 Response Team said in a statement Tuesday.

The variant, which was first found in Manaus, Brazil, appears to be more contagious than other COVID-19 strains. It can potentially be contracted by someone who was already infected or who has been vaccinated.

The Oregon Health Authority said the unidentified person who contracted the Brazilian variant has been working closely with the local health department and has been self-isolating.

—Associated Press

Paper Source files for bankruptcy; stores to stay open while greeting card retailer pursues sale

Paper Source, a Chicago-based retailer of greeting cards and gifts that had been expanding rapidly before the COVID-19 pandemic, filed for bankruptcy Tuesday.

It’s the latest retailer to seek bankruptcy protection during a pandemic that left brick-and-mortar stores closed for months. The company filed under Chapter 11 with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, which means it will continue operating while reorganizing its debt.

All stores are expected to remain open, other than 11 that closed during the pandemic. In the Seattle area, the retailer has stores at the Pacific Place shopping center in downtown Seattle, Queen Anne, University Village and Bellevue Square.

The company, which started as a shop in Chicago in 1983, grew to more than 160 stores by last spring after buying 27 leases from its bankrupt rival Papyrus. At the time, CEO Winnie Park said the company had never closed a single store. Weeks later, all were forced to close during the pandemic.

—Chicago Tribune

Inslee signs bill allowing COVID-19-related waivers of some graduation requirements

Struggling Washington state high school seniors are getting a hand in fulfilling their graduation requirements, as Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law on Tuesday a measure to aid students whose education has been interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.

Roughly 70% of Washington students are still learning remotely. With online learning and a constantly changing situation, many high schoolers who were on track to graduate have fallen behind.

“This bill will help students succeed in their life’s ambitions. Our students have demonstrated significant resilience in the face of our recent hardship,” Inslee said at the bill signing.

After being fast-tracked by the Legislature, HB 1121 takes effect immediately.

The new law allows for individual students to waive credit or testing requirements if their ability to complete them was disrupted by the pandemic. Schools are still expected to help students meet requirements as normal before falling back on the emergency waiver as a last resort.

Read the full story here.

—Maya Leshikar

Iraq launches vaccine program after arrival of China doses

BAGHDAD — Iraq launched its coronavirus inoculation program Tuesday just hours after the first doses of vaccine arrived from China, a Health Ministry spokesman said, amid a spike in infections across the country.

The program kicked off as Iraq comes to grips with a second wave of the coronavirus, and got underway days before a much-anticipated visit by Pope Francis. It will be his first foreign trip since the pandemic erupted last year.

At dawn, a C-130 military plane arrived in Baghdad with 50,000 Sinopharm vaccine doses gifted by China. More were expected as Iraq’s government has allocated funds to secure 1.5 million vaccines from Pfizer and signed a contract for 2 million more from AstraZeneca.

China’s vaccine diplomacy campaign has been a surprising success targeting low- and middle-income countries for doses, and Iraq is the latest country to receive them.

Health Minister Hasan al-Tamimi was the first to receive the vaccine. He was followed by other ministry staff and essential frontline health care workers, said ministry spokesman Saif al-Badr.

—Associated Press

Vatican defends pope’s Iraq trip amid virus as ‘act of love’

VATICAN CITY — The Vatican defended Pope Francis’ decision to go ahead with his trip to Iraq this weekend despite rising coronavirus infections there, saying Tuesday all health care precautions have been taken and that the trip is an “act of love for this land, for its people and for its Christians.”

Francis is due to visit Iraq Friday-Monday in his first foreign trip since the pandemic erupted last year. Planning for the trip went into high gear after infections fell, but cases have spiked in the past month and infectious disease experts say a papal trip to a country with a fragile health care system simply is not a good idea.

The Vatican has taken its own precautions, with the 84-year-old pope, his 20-member Vatican entourage and the 70-plus journalists on the papal plane all vaccinated. Iraq, however, only began its vaccination campaign Tuesday and most Iraqis who come to see the pope won’t be inoculated.

Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni was asked how the Vatican could justify exposing Iraqis to such a risk of infection when the Vatican itself has been on a modified lockdown for months, with no public audiences, and why the trip couldn’t be postponed for even a few months.

—Associated Press

Biden plan to distribute virus aid irks some governors

LINCOLN, Neb. — The Biden administration’s plan to funnel more coronavirus aid into states with greater unemployment has irked governors with lower jobless rates, even though many have economies that weren’t hit as hard by the pandemic.

The $1.9 trillion relief bill working its way through Congress allocates extra money to larger, mostly Democratic-run states with higher unemployment rates, while rural Midwestern and Southern states that tend to have Republican governors and better jobless numbers would benefit less.

“You’re penalizing people who have done the right thing,” said Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, a Republican whose state has reported the nation’s lowest unemployment rate over the last several months. “That’s not the way you want to approach any sort of government program.”

Ricketts was one of 22 governors — 21 Republicans and one Democrat — who have criticized the change in the pandemic relief proposal.

Many of the Republican-led states have taken a more hands-off approach to the pandemic to try to keep businesses open, while Democratic states argued that tighter mandates were necessary to save lives and help their economies over the long term.

The White House defended President Joe Biden’s distribution plan, saying it targets money to areas where it will have the biggest impact.

—Associated Press

Trader Joe’s employee called for stronger coronavirus measures, then got fired

The Trader Joe’s employee appealed directly to the CEO.

In a letter citing a medical journal and experts who study respiratory transmission of the coronavirus, Ben Bonnema called on the grocery chain’s head, Dan Bane, to adopt more-stringent safety protocols. Among his requests: improving filtration, requiring masks without exception, and adopting a “three-strikes” policy for removing uncooperative customers from stores.

“We put our lives on the line everyday by showing up to work,” wrote Bonnema, who is a “crew member” at a New York location. “Please, show up for us by adopting these policies.”

The company responded soon after, he says. It fired him.

Bonnema’s story went viral over the weekend after he posted about it on Twitter, prompting outrage and threats to boycott the chain.

Some of the experts to whom his letter referred, who last month wrote to the Biden administration urging that steps be taken to combat airborne transmission in workplaces, said it reinforced the need for action.

—The Washington Post

Russian Sputnik V vaccine splits Slovakia ruling coalition

PRAGUE — Slovakia was thrown into a political crisis Tuesday over a secret deal to acquire Russia’s Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine orchestrated by the country’s prime minister despite disagreement among his coalition partners.

Prime Minister Igor Matovic defended the move, saying it was made in the public interest amid a surge of infections in one of the hardest hit European Union countries.

Matovic said it wasn’t the point where the vaccine is from but that “it saves lives.”

Slovakia is only the second European Union country to use the vaccine, which hasn’t been approved by the European Medicines Agency, after Hungary.

—Associated Press

Abortion concerns prompt archdiocese warning on vaccine

NEW ORLEANS — Roman Catholic leaders in St. Louis and New Orleans are advising Catholics that the COVID-19 vaccine from Johnson & Johnson, newly approved for use in the U.S., is “morally compromised” because it is produced using a cell line derived from an aborted fetus.

The New Orleans archdiocese says the decision to receive a vaccine is one of individual conscience. In its statement late last week, it stopped short of advising Catholics not to take the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, but adds that Catholics should choose coronavirus vaccines made by Moderna or Pfizer — if they are available.

While not disputing the church officials’ contention that an abortion-derived cell line is used in the production, Johnson & Johnson issued a statement Tuesday stressing that there is no fetal tissue in its vaccine.

Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine is made using a harmless cold virus, called an adenovirus, the same technology it used to produce a successful Ebola vaccine. The adenovirus is grown using what’s called an immortalized cell line, and the virus then is pulled out and purified.

Several types of cell lines created decades ago using fetal tissue exist and are widely used in medical manufacturing but the cells in them today are clones of the early cells, not the original tissue.

—Associated Press

Ukraine’s leader gets vaccine shot to dispel public doubts

KYIV, Ukraine — Ukraine’s president received a coronavirus vaccine shot Tuesday in a bid to dispel widespread public skepticism about vaccination.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy got the AstraZeneca vaccine as he visited the military near the area of the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine.

“Vaccine will let us live without restrictions again,” he wrote on Twitter.

Zelenskiy got the shot even though he had the coronavirus in November. His move comes as many medical experts, who have priority to get the vaccine, refuse to receive it.

Ukraine began the immunization effort last week after receiving the first 500,000 doses of AstraZeneca vaccine from India. It plans to give the shots to 14.4 million people, or about a third of its population.

Overall in the pandemic, Ukraine has recorded more than 1.3 million infections and 26,212 deaths.

—Associated Press

State health officials confirm 746 new coronavirus cases

The state Department of Health (DOH) reported 746 new coronavirus cases and 19 new deaths on Tuesday.

The update brings the state's totals to 341,441 cases and 4,988 deaths, meaning that 1.5% of people diagnosed in Washington have died, according to the DOH. The data is as of 11:59 p.m. Monday. Tallies may be higher earlier in the week because new state data isn’t reported on Sundays and COVID-related deaths aren’t reported on the weekends.

In addition, 19,433 people have been hospitalized in the state due to the virus — 61 new hospitalizations. In King County, the state's most populous, state health officials have confirmed a total of 84,326 COVID-19 diagnoses and 1,397 deaths.

On Dec. 16, DOH’s case, hospitalization and death counts started including both confirmed cases and probable cases in its total count. According to DOH, probable cases refer to people who received a positive antigen test result but not a positive molecular test result, while confirmed cases refer to those who have received a positive molecular test result.

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.

—Elise Takahama

Washington state teachers, child care workers can now get COVID-19 vaccine, Gov. Inslee says

Gov. Jay Inslee on Tuesday afternoon said teachers and licensed child care workers could seek doses of COVID-19 vaccines immediately, assenting to new directions from the federal government.

“… Educators and licensed child care workers can schedule with providers right away,” Inslee said in a statement.

President Joe Biden on Tuesday had directed governors to open access to educators and child care workers. He also announced that federal supply of vaccines would expand, with doses available to all adult Americans by the end of May.

The presidential announcement promises to accelerate the pace of Washington state’s vaccine rollout — which of late, has been constrained primarily laggard federal supply of doses. It will also help open schools. But the decision also shifts state vaccination priorities and leaves some workers among the most at risk watching as educators jump ahead in line.

“We will continue the current state plans and goals to focus on those most at risk, including older adults and those facing the greatest equity gaps,” Inslee said.

Read the full story here.

—Evan Bush, Dahlia Bazzaz, Hal Bernton and Hannah Furfaro

Biden moves to get all teachers a vaccine shot by April

President Joe Biden said Tuesday that he would use federal authority to offer coronavirus vaccinations to K-12 teachers and child-care workers, with the aim of getting at least the first shot administered to all educators by the end of March.

The goal is to remove one of the major barriers to reopening schools — an urgent step for parents and children alike — but one that has been enormously controversial and complicated. Teachers, who have resisted going back in many communities, have said they would be much more willing to return to school buildings if they are vaccinated first.

“Today I’m using the full authority of the federal government, I’m directing every state to do the same,” Biden said. “My challenge to all states, territories and the District of Columbia is this: We want every educator, school staff member, child-care worker to receive at least one shot by the end of the month of March.”

Read the story here.

—Laura Meckler, The Washington Post

San Francisco leaders cheer reopening as COVID-19 cases fall

People visit Pier 39 in June during the coronavirus outbreak in San Francisco. San Francisco is poised to allow indoor dining, movie theaters and gyms with reduced capacity as the rate of coronavirus cases and deaths improve, allowing more of California’s economy throughout the state to open back up for business. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, file)

San Francisco will begin reopening more parts of its economy starting Wednesday, including indoor dining, movie theaters and gyms, an upbeat Mayor London Breed announced as California gave seven counties the go-ahead thanks to declining rates of coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

The announcement came nearly a year after the San Francisco Bay Area imposed the nation’s first lockdown, shuttering thousands of businesses and forcing residents indoors.

San Francisco, with a population of 900,000 before the pandemic, has among the lowest case and death rates in the country, with more than 34,000 cases since the start of the pandemic and 422 deaths.

Read the story here.

—Janie Har, The Associated Press

Virus variant races through Italy, especially among children

Italian Health Minister Roberto Speranza meets the media to illustrate the government’s new measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 in Rome, Tuesday, March 2, 2021. The first anti-pandemic decree from Italy’s new premier, Mario Draghi, tightens measures governing school attendance while easing restrictions on museums, theaters and cinemas. (Roberto Monaldo/LaPresse via AP)

The variant of the coronavirus discovered in Britain is prevalent among Italy’s infected schoolchildren and is helping to fuel a “robust” uptick in the curve of COVID-19 contagion in the country, the health minister said Tuesday.

Roberto Speranza told reporters that the variant, associated with higher transmission rates, has shown pervasiveness “among the youngest age group” of the population.

In recent weeks, Italy’s incidence of new cases among young people has now eclipsed incidence among the older population, a reversal of how COVID-19 afflicted residents in the first months of the pandemic.

Italy, a nation of 60 million people where COVID-19 first erupted in the West in February 2020, has registered nearly 3 million confirmed cases.

Read the story here.

—Frances D'Emilio, The Associated Press

Biden vows enough vaccine for all US adults by end of May

President Joe Biden speaks about efforts to combat COVID-19, in the State Dining Room of the White House, Tuesday, March 2, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

President Joe Biden said Tuesday that the U.S. expects to take delivery of enough coronavirus vaccines for all adults by the end of May, two months earlier than anticipated, as his administration announced that drugmaker Merck & Co. will help produce rival Johnson & Johnson’s newly approved shot.

With the bolstered supply, Biden also announced he would be using the powers of the federal government to direct all states to prioritize vaccinating teachers, and said the federal government would provide the doses directly through its pharmacy program. He challenged states to administer at least one dose of the vaccine to all educators by the end of March as part of his administration’s efforts to reopen more schools across the nation.

“We’re now on track to have enough vaccine supply for every adult in America by the end of May,” said Biden, who likened the partnership between the two drug companies to the spirit of national cooperation during World War II.

Read the story here.

— Jonathan Lemire, Linda A. Johnson and Zeke Miller, The Associated Press

First COVAX vaccines arrive in Cambodia from India

Cambodia on Tuesday received its first batch of 324,000 coronavirus vaccine doses from India that are part of the World Health Organization’s COVAX initiative, as the country expands its immunization program with the goal of inoculating a majority of its population this year.

Health Minister Mam Bunheng was at the airport to receive the shipment of the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covishield vaccine. Prime Minister Hun Sen will be given the first dose on Thursday.

Cambodia, which has yet to report any virus deaths, received its first shipment of 600,000 doses of a Chinese-produced vaccine on Feb. 7, part of 1 million doses Beijing is donating.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

We may not have to wear masks on planes forever. But should we?

Sarah Greaves-Gabbadon remembers flying back to the United States from Belize on March 10 last year and seeing a fellow passenger wearing gloves and a mask cleaning her tray table. She rolled her eyes at what seemed like an overreaction.

“Of course by later that week, everything had changed,” she said. “I wasn’t one of those people, but I have turned into one of those people.”

Greaves-Gabbadon, a Miami-based travel writer and on-screen host who goes by “JetSetSarah,” has taken several flights for work since late last year and now wears two masks and a face shield that goes “higher than my hairline to underneath my chin.”

Once the pandemic is over, she said, she expects to keep her in-flight mask habit.

Read the story here.

— Hannah Sampson, The Washington Post

Algerian students restart weekly protests cut off by virus

Algerian students demonstrate, one with a poster reading “The right to defend our rights” in Algiers, Tuesday, March 2, 2021. Protesters took to the streets of Algiers and other cities around Algeria last Friday in a bid to restart weekly pro-democracy demonstrations that were paused due to the pandemic. (AP Photo/Fateh Guidoum)

Hundreds of students restarted their weekly Tuesday protest marches that were called off last spring because of the coronavirus.

The march came eight days after the Hirak pro-democracy movement reappeared in streets around the country to mark its second anniversary and days after the weekly Friday marches restarted.

Hirak’s peaceful protests helped force long-time President Abdelaziz Bouteflika from office in 2019. His successor, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, has promised reform of the system marked by corruption under Bouteflika and with the shadow of the army ever-present.

“Civilian state and not a military state,” one group of students cried out, hoisting high a banner reading “We don’t go home until the demands of Hirak are met.”

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

Bosnia receives jabs from Serbia amid COVAX dispute

Bosnia on Tuesday received 10,000 vaccines from neighboring Serbia amid a dispute with the international COVAX mechanism over a delay in planned shipments.

The Balkan nation has threatened to sue the program unless the vaccines arrive as agreed. It has asked for 1.2 million vaccines that would cover about one third of its population.

Serbia’s populist president, Aleksandar Vucic, flew to Bosnian capital Sarajevo to deliver the AstraZeneca vaccines to the authorities there. The delivery is enough for 5,000 people to receive both required doses.

Vucic described the move as an act of solidarity and urged closer cooperation among the Balkan countries.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

Texas becomes biggest US state to lift COVID-19 mask mandate

A mask required sign is displayed on the entrance to a business  March 2 in Dallas. (LM Otero / The Associated Press)

Texas is lifting its mask mandate, Gov. Greg Abbott said Tuesday, making it the largest state to end an order intended to prevent the spread of the coronavirus that has killed more than 42,000 Texans.

The Republican governor has faced sharp criticism from his party over the mandate, which was imposed eight months ago, and other COVID-19 restrictions. Texas will also do away with limits on the number of diners that businesses can serve indoors, said Abbott.

The decision comes as governors across the U.S. have been easing coronavirus restrictions, despite warnings from health experts that the pandemic is far from over. Like the rest of the country, Texas has seen the number of cases and deaths plunge. Hospitalizations are at the lowest levels since October, and the seven-day rolling average of positive tests has dropped to about 7,600 cases, down from more than 10,000 in mid-February.

Read the story here.

—Paul J. Weber, The Associated Press

Floral hearts comfort grieving families of pandemic dead

From left, Michelle Pepe, Jill Federman and Lisa Post Mazerolle place photos of their fathers onto an array of heart-shaped roses, Monday, March 1, 2021, in Lynnfield, Mass. When artist Kristina Libby started the Floral Heart Project to give the survivors of COVID-19 victims places to mourn, she was thinking of people like these three woman who lost their fathers in April, 2020 and who were unable to see them in their last moments or have proper funerals. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

When artist Kristina Libby started the Floral Heart Project to give the survivors of COVID-19 victims places to mourn, she was thinking of people like Michelle Pepe.

The last time Pepe saw her father was just before she went into quarantine after contracting the coronavirus — and unwittingly infecting both parents. Her last goodbye to him came by phone.

Family members were unable to visit him at the hospital, nor could they hold a funeral service for him after he died in Delray Beach, Florida. Instead, they held a socially distanced, 15-minute graveside burial in Boston. Pepe watched via video conference call as she continued to care for her mother, who has multiple sclerosis and was recovering from COVID-19.

“We never had any closure. … He was treated, as they were back then, as diseased,” she said, “a body that nobody wanted to touch.”

Living in New York in the early days of pandemic, Libby was saddened that the families of the 500,000 lost to the disease had no public memorials, so she decided to act.

Each week she would construct and lay large floral hearts around New York City.

“I would watch people kneel down and pray. I would watch people sort of kiss their fingers and then kiss the heart,” Libby said. “It was allowing them to feel like it was OK to admit our sadness in this moment.”

Libby expanded her efforts outside of New York with the help of volunteers and donations from large floral companies like 1-800-Flowers and Bloom Studios. So, on Monday, floral hearts were laid in 75 locations nationwide in remembrance of the victims of COVID-19.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

Dutch bar owners, sex workers protest against virus lockdown

Bar owners and sex workers are among those protesting amid growing lockdown fatigue not only in the Netherlands but across the European Union, where 531,000 people have died in the pandemic and governments are still attempting to rein in new infections while slowly ramping up the pace of vaccinations.

In Delfshaven, bar owner Peter Bender placed a cup of coffee and slice of apple pie in front of one of his white inflatable dummy guests as part of a protest that saw an unknown number of cafes across the country symbolically open their terraces in opposition to the lockdown from hard-hit businesses.

Elsewhere, stores in one eastern village opened briefly in the morning and a group of sex workers staged a demonstration and set up a peep show outside parliament in the afternoon.

“We also have to pay rent just like any other person who works so why can everybody work except us,” said a sex worker from Arnhem who identified herself as Melissa.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

Israeli attorney general slams Netanyahu’s vaccine diplomacy

Israel’s attorney general has warned Benjamin Netanyahu that he cannot single-handedly share the country’s surplus vaccines with far-flung allies in Africa, Europe and Latin America, and that such an important decision cannot be made by the prime minister alone.

In an official letter, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit argues that Netanyahu should have consulted the Cabinet for such a plan. The justice ministry released the letter, addressed to the national security adviser, Meir Ben Shabbat, on Monday.

Netanyahu’s announcement last week of his decision to share some of Israel’s vaccine stockpile had caused an uproar and was later frozen, due to legal questions in Israel, but not before thousands of vaccine doses were shipped to Honduras and reportedly the Czech Republic as well.

Israel has immunized over half of its population against the coronavirus in one of the world’s most successful vaccination drives since late December.

Read the story here.

—Ilan Ben Zion, The Associated Press

Hong Kong probes death of man who received COVID-19 vaccine

People line up to receive China’s Sinovac COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine at a community vaccination center in Hong Kong on Feb. 26, 2021. Hong Kong authorities on Tuesday, March 2 reported the death of a chronically ill man, two days after he received a COVID-19 vaccine and said that it is too early to conclude whether the vaccine was related to his death. (Kin Cheung / AP)

Hong Kong authorities are investigating the death of a chronically ill man who died two days after he received a COVID-19 vaccine but said that it is too early to conclude whether the vaccine was related to his death.

The 63-year-old man was inoculated with the COVID-19 vaccine on Feb. 26 and developed shortness of breath two days later and died.

Hong Kong currently only uses shots from Chinese biopharmaceutical company Sinovac. Over 40,000 people in Hong Kong have received the vaccine since Friday, when the vaccination drive began.

Read the story here.

—Zen Soo, The Associated Press

In North Carolina, a pandemic partnership between schools and scientists. What can Washington learn?

Monique Felder, Superintendent of Orange County Schools in North Carolina, chats with kindergartener James Humphries at New Hope Elementary School in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Orange County Schools are among 50 or so districts in North Carolina working together to perfect pandemic safety protocols. (Ted Richardson / Special to The Seattle Times)

Before the pandemic, lunchtime in the school cafeteria was among the most unremarkable of moments in the average school day.

But now, mindful of the risk of spreading the coronavirus during lunch, some schools in North Carolina — aided by careful work from researchers and physicians — are choreographing the lunch hour down to the smallest detail. It’s work that’s being watched closely by schools and scientists here in Washington, too. 

So long as the temperature is above freezing, children head outside for lunch. With masks on, and at least 6 feet from friends, they cut crusts off sandwiches. Straws plunge into milk cartons. Oranges peel open, chip bags pop. And then, when every child is prepped and ready, their teacher says the magic words. 

Time to take off your mask.

“Then a timer goes on. And they’re not allowed to talk,” said Monique Felder, superintendent of Orange County Schools in North Carolina. “They’ve got 15 minutes to consume their food, and it’s amazing how much kids will eat when they’re not socializing.” 

Time’s up, mask on. Wash your hands. Head to class.

Orange County Schools are among 50 or so districts in North Carolina working together to perfect pandemic safety protocols. Like Washington and states across the U.S., many North Carolina schools began the year remotely. But in this state, a team of researchers and physicians teamed up to help schools draft detailed safety strategies for nearly every moment of the school day and adapt to the evolving nature of the pandemic. 

Read the story here.

—Hannah Furfaro

Austria, Denmark look beyond EU to Israel for future vaccine

Austria and Denmark have further dented the European Union’s already fragile coronavirus vaccine solidarity by announcing plans to team up with Israel to produce second-generation vaccines against COVID-19 variants.

Chancellor Sebastian Kurz plans to visit Israel with Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen later this week and confer with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on vaccine research and production cooperation. Kurz said Tuesday that his country and Denmark intend to stop relying solely on the European Union for coronavirus vaccines.

As part of its strategy, the EU has six contracts for more than 2 billion doses of vaccines, with Moderna, AstraZeneca, Sanofi-GSK, Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer-BioNTech and CureVac. It is in negotiations with two other manufacturers, but only three vaccines have been approved for use so far in the bloc.

According to the EU, almost 33 million doses of vaccine have been given so far, but only 11 million Europeans have been fully vaccinated. Israel, a country of 9.3 million people, has immunized over half of its population since late December.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

Victims of anti-Asian attacks reflect a year into pandemic

Nearly a year after they were almost stabbed to death inside a Midland, Texas, Sam’s Club, Bawi Cung and his two sons all have visible scars.

It’s the unseen ones though that are harder to get over. Cung can’t walk through any store without constantly looking in all directions. His 6-year-old son, who now can’t move one eyebrow, is afraid to sleep alone.

This undated photo provided by Bawi Cung, shows Bawi Cung, right, seated with his children at home, before he and his two sons were stabbed in an anti-Asian attack last March 2020 at Sam’s Club in Midland, Texas. Asian Americans have been facing a dangerous climate since the coronavirus entered the U.S. a year ago. A rash of crimes victimizing elderly Asian Americans in the last two months has renewed outcry for more attention from politicians and the media. (Bawi Cung via AP)

On a Saturday evening in March, when COVID-19 panic shopping gripped the nation, Cung was in search of rice at a cheaper price. The family was in the Sam’s Club meat section when Cung suddenly felt a punch to the back of his head. A man he didn’t know then slashed his face with a knife. The assailant left but soon returned to stab the boys. He wounded the 3-year-old in the back and slashed the 6-year-old from his right eye to a couple of inches past his right ear.

The grisly encounter brought home the dangerous climate Asian Americans have faced since the coronavirus entered the U.S., with racially motivated harassment and assaults occurring from coast to coast.

Now, just over a year and thousands of incidents later, some of the early victims find moving forward has been difficult or, at best, bittersweet. A recent wave of attacks on elderly Asian Americans — including the death of an 84-year-old San Francisco man — has fueled worries that hostilities have only worsened.

Read the story here.

—Terry Tang, The Associated Press

As COVID-19 outbreaks hit gyms, CDC urges stricter precautions

A person in a protective mask exercises in a 24 Hour Fitness gym in San Francisco on Sept. 15, 2020. (Bloomberg photo by David Paul Morris).

Public health officials on Wednesday urged gymgoers to wear masks when they work out and to remain 6 feet apart, as new research described the rapid spread of coronavirus infections during high-intensity exercise classes at gyms in Honolulu and Chicago.

Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised fitness centers to take a variety of measures to prevent outbreaks, including enforcing proper mask use and reminding gym and staff members to stay home if they have symptoms of illness or have tested positive for the virus.

Heavy breathing during intense physical activity in confined indoor spaces increases chances of transmission, and fitness teachers who shouted exercise instructions to members may also have contributed to the spread, the CDC research found. Exercising outdoors or taking virtual fitness classes could help reduce infection risk, the authors noted.

Read the story here.

—Rony Caryn Rabin, The New York Times

Alarm grows in Serbia over virus surge; lockdown urged

People wait in line for a COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination center in Belgrade, Serbia, Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021. Serbia, a country of 7 million, has so far vaccinated some 1 million people, mainly with the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine and Russian Sputnik V, and to a lesser extent with the Pfizer jab. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

Serbian health experts urged the government on Tuesday to introduce a state of emergency and a strict lockdown to halt a surge in coronavirus infections that they say threaten the Balkan nation’s health care system.

The numbers of daily new infections have been rising sharply in the nation of 7 million despite a mass inoculation campaign that so far has seen nearly 1 million people receive a first vaccine shot. That rate of vaccinations has made Serbia, a non-European Union nation, one of the best in Europe when it comes to delivering vaccines to its citizens.

Still, the demand for a state of emergency is unlikely to win support from the conservative government, which is hoping that its program of trying to get vaccines from the West, China and Russia will pull Serbia out of the pandemic’s devastating economic and social undertow.

Chief epidemiologist Predrag Kon of the government-appointed coronavirus crisis team told the state RTS television network on Tuesday that there is “no alternative” to ordering a lockdown.

“We must ban contacts or we will break. And then we will realize what it means when the health system collapses,” he said.

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—The Associated Press

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