Public health officials are urging caution over the omicron subvariant BA.2, which is reportedly 30% to 60% more contagious than the original omicron variant. While reported COVID-19 cases in the U.S. have been declining, the omicron subvariant may lead to a surge, officials warn.

The contagious subvariant has been fueling COVID-19 surges across Europe and Asia and was recently found in the wastewater of at least four Oregon communities. But the findings don’t necessarily guarantee a sharp surge in cases, according to the Oregon Health Authority’s medical director.

Meanwhile, China has reported over 56,000 COVID-19 cases since March 1 as officials battle the country’s worst COVID-19 outbreak driven by 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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Idaho Legislature passes a bill that seeks to protect the unvaccinated

The Idaho Legislature passed a bill last week that would prohibit businesses from requiring a COVID-19 vaccination for employment or service and prevent unvaccinated individuals from being “treated differently or discriminated against.”

The bill, which was supported by Republican legislators and known as the Coronavirus Pause Act, landed on Gov. Brad Little’s desk this week. Little, also a Republican, has not stated whether he will veto or sign it, and Marissa Morrison Hyer, a spokesperson for the governor, said in a statement Saturday that Little “does not comment on pending litigation.”

The bill states that the decision to receive a vaccine is “a very personal and individual decision” and one that should not be mandated by public or private entities.

Health officials have said that the vaccines approved in the U.S. are safe and effective at preventing serious illness and death.

Critics of the bill say the measure will further hurt businesses that have already struggled during the pandemic. Read the full story here.

– Eduardo Medina The New York Times

Miranda to miss Oscars after wife tests positive for COVID

Lin-Manuel Miranda, one of this year’s most prominent Oscar nominees, will sit out the ceremony in Los Angeles after his wife tested positive for COVID-19.

Miranda shared the unfortunate news on Twitter Saturday afternoon. He said that even though he has tested negative himself, he will stay away from Sunday’s ceremony out of caution.

“Made it to Hollywood,” Miranda, who gained fame as the creator of “Hamilton,” wrote. “This weekend, my wife tested + (positive) for COVID. She’s doing fine. Kids & I have tested – (negative) but out of caution, I won’t be going to the Oscars tomorrow night.”

The Oscar-nominated composer added he was “cheering for my TickTickBoom & Encanto families w my own family, alongside all of you, ALL of you.”

Miranda is up for an Oscar for best original song for “Dos Oruguitas” from the animated film “Encanto.” Should he win, he would attain rare EGOT status, meaning he’d be an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony winner. Read the full story here.

– The Associated Press

Public health catastrophe looms in Ukraine, experts warn

A convoy of five vans snaked slowly Friday from the battered Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, toward Chernihiv, in the northeast of the country. On board were generators, clothes, fuel — and medications needed to treat HIV.

With a main bridge decimated by shelling, the drivers crept along back roads, hoping to reach Chernihiv on Saturday and begin distributing the drugs to some of the 3,000 residents in desperate need of treatment.

Organizers of efforts like this one are rushing to prevent the war in Ukraine from morphing into a public health disaster. The conflict, they say, threatens to upend decades of progress against infectious diseases throughout the region, sparking new epidemics that will be nearly impossible to control.Ukraine has alarmingly high numbers of people living with HIV and hepatitis C and dangerously low levels of vaccination against measles, polio and COVID-19. Overcrowded and unsanitary living conditions for refugees are breeding grounds for cholera and other diarrheal diseases, not to mention respiratory plagues like COVID-19, pneumonia and tuberculosis. Read the full story here.

– Aproova Mandavilli The New York Times

Hawaii becomes last state to lift indoor mask mandate and travel restrictions

Hawaii became the final state in the nation Saturday to remove its indoor masking requirement as the omicron surge recedes.

The state also suspended its Safe Travels program, allowing American travelers to enter without submitting proof of vaccination or the results of an approved coronavirus test for the first time since the pandemic began.

In keeping with the national trend, Hawaii’s hospitalizations and deaths have subsided to a fraction of last winter’s peak. And the state outstrips many others in fully vaccinating at least 78% of its population.

The rollbacks have been widely applauded within Hawaii’s recovering tourism industry — the state’s largest economic driver — especially since many visitors from the U.S. mainland have become accustomed to more lax masking requirements at home.

Visitor arrivals to Hawaii remain significantly below pre-pandemic levels. Figures released by the state’s Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism this month show that the total number of visitors to Hawaii in 2021 was about 65% of the 2019 total and that month-by-month visitor spending has yet to return to pre-pandemic levels. Read the full story here.

– Meghan Miner Murray The New York Times

Yakima Valley Memorial closes COVID clinic amid declining case numbers

Yakima Valley Memorial Hospital closed its COVID assessment and treatment clinic due to declining patient numbers as the omicron surge fades.

In recent weeks, the clinic only saw a few patients each day, down significantly from earlier surges, according to a news release.

The clinic was the only location in Yakima County dedicated exclusively to COVID treatment and was one of the first places in the area to offer monoclonal antibody treatment during the delta surge, the release said. Clinic staff switched to an oral treatment for omicron cases called Paxlovid. Read the full story here.

—Vanessa Ontiveros, Yakima Herald-Republic
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Antibody drug restricted in Northeast as subvariant spreads

Federal health officials on Friday restricted use of a COVID monoclonal antibody drug in eight states in the Northeast and two territories, citing evidence that it is unlikely to be effective against the highly transmissible omicron subvariant known as BA.2 that is now dominant in those regions and quickly gaining ground across the country.

The federal government said it would immediately pause shipments of the infused treatment, known as sotrovimab, to the eight affected states, and Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The Food and Drug Administration said the drug is no longer authorized for use in those places. Read the full story here.

—Rebecca Robbins, The New York Times

The way we lose Black men never makes sense. Losing my father to COVID is another example

In 1988, my father, Gary Evans, earnestly wrote down on a large notecard in blue ballpoint ink “1988 Wishes and Dreams.”

Before tucking the card into the Bible his mother had given him, he listed his 12 hopes for the year. They included getting into law school, relocating from Brooklyn to Arizona with my mother and oldest brother, being popular with people, and the front of his hair growing back. But he also took pains to boldly underline one of his wishes: health for himself and his family.

That was 18 years before his first heart attack. It was 34 years before his heart stopped after complications with COVID-19 and pneumonia. He was 70. Read the full story here.

—Marissa Evans Los Angeles Times

Use of at-home coronavirus tests jumped during the omicron wave

The use of at-home coronavirus tests surged during the winter omicron wave in the United States, with white, high-income and highly educated people most likely to report using the tests, an online survey of U.S. adults suggests.

Between Dec. 19 and March 12, 20.1% of survey respondents who said they had symptoms consistent with COVID-19 reported using an at-home test, up from 5.7% between late August and early December, when delta was the predominant coronavirus variant in the United States.

The use of at-home tests increased over the course of the fall and early winter, the survey found, peaking in January, when 11% of respondents reported having used an at-home test in the previous 30 days. Read the full story here.

—Emily Anthese, The New York Times
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Tobacco ties hinder WHO authorization of Canada’s coronavirus vaccine

TORONTO – In October 2020, seven months into the coronavirus pandemic, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters he had recently spoken virtually to high school students in Ottawa. One of them asked when there would be a coronavirus vaccine. On that front, he said he had good news.

Canada was investing nearly $139 million in Medicago, a Quebec-based firm, to help produce the country’s first homegrown vaccine against the virus and build a production facility that would shore up domestic biomanufacturing capacity. Jean-Yves Duclos, now Canada’s health minister, said one word came to mind: Pride.

Health Canada gave the green light to domestic use of Medicago’s plant-based Covifenz vaccine last month. But its use around the world is in jeopardy: The World Health Organization is balking at the vaccine because of the manufacturer’s ties to tobacco giant Philip Morris International, which owns a roughly one-third equity stake in Medicago. Read the full story here.

—Amanda Coletta The Washington Post

As Washington, D.C., relaxes coronavirus mandates, another variant spreads

WASHINGTON – With mask mandates in the Washington region lifted for most settings and attitudes about social distancing more relaxed, health officials are cautiously monitoring the behavior of the latest subvariant of the coronavirus.

BA.2, the more contagious cousin of the omicron variant that has spread through Europe and other parts of the world, now represents about 30% of new infections in the Mid-Atlantic region that includes the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s tracker for variants.

Public health experts say BA.2 will likely become the dominant strain in the Washington region over the next several weeks, driving another uptick in new infections after a steady decline since the peak of the omicron surge in early January. Read the full story here.

—Antonio Olivo, Erin Cox and Rebecca Tan The Washington Post

Tri-Cities business accused of COVID loan fraud at Hanford site. It will pay $3 million

A Hanford contractor based in Kennewick and its owners will pay nearly $3 million after being accused of fraud related to a loan from a federal program to help small businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“These funds were intended to help small and local businesses and keep the communities of Eastern Washington safe and strong, not to line the pockets of millionaire owners,” U.S. Attorney Vanessa Waldref, said in a statement.

Read the full story here.

—Annette Cary, Tri-City Herald (Kennewick, Wash.)
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Supreme Court: COVID vaccination status can have part in military deployment decisions

The Supreme Court on Friday allowed the Biden administration to take into account whether members of the military, including elite Navy SEALs, are vaccinated against the coronavirus when making deployment decisions.

Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Neil M. Gorsuch dissented from the short, unsigned order.

Writing for himself, Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh said “the President of the United States, not any federal judge, is the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces.” He added there was “no basis in this case for employing the judicial power in a manner that military commanders believe would impair the military of the United States as it defends the American people.” Read the full story here.

—Robert Barnes, The Washington Post

The pandemic wrecked millions of careers. These 6 people built new ones.

When the pandemic struck in 2020, entire industries were decimated overnight, leaving workers to survive on unemployment benefits. But for some, the COVID-19 crisis presented an opportunity to change course; indeed, the post-lockdown job market faces a shortage of workers even as it recovers.

These are the stories of six people who transformed their careers during the past two years. For some, it was a financial imperative. For others, lockdowns became a chance to rethink their path. For each, it was a big risk on a new future. Read the full story here.

—Emma Goldberg and Gillian Friedman, The New York Times

How open spots at a Bellevue alternative school reflect a broken youth mental health system

BELLEVUE — Ever get gum stuck in your hair? Peanut butter is one way to get it out, science teacher Jeffrey Britcher tells a handful of students on a recent Monday morning at Eastside Academy in Bellevue.

“Can it be anything oily or does it or does it have to be peanut butter?” a student asks.

Anything oily works, and any nonpolar solvent — meaning the electrons don’t create a positive and negative charge at the ends — can do the trick, Britcher explains.

Then, another student asks to speak with the school’s executive director, who he sees standing in the hallway. “Come by later,” she responds.

The classroom, equipped with lab tables, science equipment, and an emergency eyewash and safety shower, could fit in any traditional high school. But it’s that request for personal time with administrators that officials at Eastside Academy say makes the school stand out as an alternative option for kids with behavioral health needs.

Eastside Academy is a private, Christian-based, alternative school that serves students who have experienced challenges in larger, public school settings. 

The school treats mental health as a core curriculum subject. In addition to traditional instruction, Eastside students attend peer counseling daily and receive one-on-one counseling once or twice per week from on-site trained clinicians and interns. 

But while the nation and Puget Sound area face a youth mental health crisis, enrollment at the 20-year-old school, which gets most of its students from referrals by other schools or local counselors, is down. Read the full story here.

—Michelle Baruchman
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Biden administration likely to offer older Americans second booster shots

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration is moving ahead with a plan to give at least everyone 65 and older — and possibly some younger adults as well — the option of a second booster of the Pfizer or Moderna coronavirus vaccine without recommending outright that they get one, according to several people familiar with the planning.

Major uncertainties have complicated the decision, including how long the protection from a second booster would last, how to explain the plan to the public and even whether the overall goal is to shield whoever is deemed eligible only from severe disease or from less serious infections as well. Read the full story here.

—Sharon LaFraniere, The New York Times