Editor’s note: This is a live account of COVID-19 updates from Saturday, May 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 It is no longer being updated.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.
Following the recent announcement about new federal mask guidelines, Americans are struggling to figure out when and where they must continue to mask up — especially since, as many business owners pointed out, there is no easy way to determine who has been vaccinated and who hasn’t.
In Washington, the pool of those ineligible for a COVID-19 vaccine continues to shrink after federal and state governments added 12- to 15-year-olds to the approved list. Here’s what families need to know now that younger teens are eligible for a COVID vaccine.
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.
Inside the Biden administration’s abrupt reversal on masks
WASHINGTON – During her opening statement before a Senate health committee Tuesday, Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was adamant that the Biden administration’s masking and social distancing policies remained sound.
“While we continue to have community transmission,” she told a bipartisan panel of senators who were respecting the social distancing rules of the moment as their masked staffers looked on, “we must also maintain public health measures we know will prevent the spread of this virus: mask hygiene, hand hygiene, and physical distancing.”
Even under hostile questioning from Republican senators, including Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-Louisiana, Walensky ticked off a series of statistics to support the CDC’s current guidance. She noted that only a third of the country was fully vaccinated, stressed the high rates of cases in many counties and ended with a vague comment that the agency works to review and update their formal advice.
Left unsaid by Walensky was that she had already made a decision the night before – approving a recommendation Monday from CDC officials to significantly overhaul its guidance to no longer require fully vaccinated individuals to wear masks or physically distance in most cases. More here.
China cancels Everest climbs over fears of virus from Nepal
BEIJING (AP) — China has canceled attempts to climb Mount Everest from its side of the world’s highest peak because of fears of importing COVID-19 cases from neighboring Nepal, state media reported.
The closure was confirmed in a notice Friday from China’s General Administration of Sport, the official Xinhua News Agency said.
The move reflects the abundance of caution China has taken in dealing with the pandemic. While China has mostly curbed domestic transmission of the coronavirus, Nepal is experiencing a surge with record numbers of new infections and deaths.
China had issued permits to 38 people, all Chinese citizens, to climb the 8,849-meter (29,032-foot) -high mountain this spring. Nepal has given permission to 408 people. Climbing was not allowed from either side last year because of the pandemic. More here.
Success story Taiwan faces its worst outbreak in pandemic
TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — The island of Taiwan, which has had enviable success in containing COVID-19, imposed new restrictions in its capital city on Saturday as it battled its worst outbreak since the pandemic began.
Authorities raised the alert level for Taipei, the capital, and the surrounding area of New Taipei city. The level 3 alert, which remains in effect for two weeks, requires people to wear a mask outdoors and limits indoor gatherings to five people and outdoor gatherings to 10 people.
Health authorities said that 180 new locally spread cases had been confirmed, the majority in Taipei and New Taipei. That’s more than the total of 164 cases previously confirmed for the entire pandemic period. The daily number of new cases rose steadily from single digits early this week to 29 before the triple-digit jump announced Saturday. More here.
National vaccination effort leaves ICE detainees behind
WASHINGTON — Weeks after COVID-19 vaccines became available to all U.S. adults and months after they were prioritized for high-risk groups, the virus continues to spread in Immigrations and Customs Enforcement detention facilities.
ICE was monitoring 2,043 positive COVID-19 cases within its detained population of 16,721, according to agency data posted Wednesday, indicating roughly 12% of its detainees currently have COVID-19. Vaccinations have begun in some facilities, but the pace is slow. And there’s no clear national plan to ensure that the detained population gets vaccinated.
In most states, individuals in congregate settings like jails became eligible for vaccination in the early phases of distribution. But the vaccine rollout in ICE facilities has been sluggish because the agency delegated responsibility to states, and some states may not have prioritized populations held in federal custody.
“The allotment for vaccines for detainees across the entire country is part of the individual state’s allotment,” acting ICE Director Tae Johnson said at a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing Thursday. “That is the current plan. … What priority level inmates and ICE detainees are varies significantly by state.”
Read the full story here.
Washington state health officials confirm 1,445 new coronavirus cases
The state Department of Health (DOH) reported 1,445 new coronavirus cases as of Saturday afternoon.
The update brings the state's totals to 422,665 cases and 5,622 deaths. The data is as of 3:04 p.m. Saturday.
In addition, 23,187 people have been hospitalized in the state due to the virus.
Since vaccinations began in mid-December, 36% of Washingtonians have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Vaccination data is updated on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Providers are currently giving an average of about 44,080 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.
‘COVID Zero’ havens find reopening harder than taming virus
A smattering of places, mainly across the Asia Pacific region, have seen breathtaking victories in the battle against COVID-19 by effectively wiping it out within their borders. Now they face a fresh test: rejoining the rest of the world, which is still awash in the pathogen.
In some ways, the success of “Covid Zero” locations is becoming a straitjacket. As cities like New York and London return to in-person dealmaking and business as usual — tolerating hundreds of daily cases as vaccination gathers pace — financial hubs like Singapore and Hong Kong risk being left behind as they maintain stringent border curbs and try to stamp out single-digit flareups.
After a brutal 18 months that claimed 3.3 million lives worldwide, nations like China, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand have suffered fewer deaths during the entire pandemic than many countries, even highly vaccinated ones, continue to log in a matter of days.
That achievement has allowed people to have largely normal lives for much of the past year. Some haven’t even had to wear masks. But sustaining this vaunted status has also required stop-start lockdown cycles, near-blanket bans on international travel and strict quarantine policies. The few travelers permitted to enter have had to spend weeks in total confinement, unable to leave a hotel room.
Experts and residents are starting to question whether walling off from COVID is worth the trade-off, if implemented long-term. Read the full story here.
There’s no hidden U.S. vaccine stockpile ready to send abroad
Why isn’t the U.S. sharing its extra vaccine doses with the rest of the world?
America led the world in buying up the messenger RNA vaccines that have proven most effective against Covid-19. It’s now starting to lead the world in not using them.
Across the U.S., there are more than 27 million unused Moderna Inc. doses and 35 million from Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE, according to data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s led to calls by prominent public health voices to pack America’s surplus in dry ice and ship it to places like India, where the outbreak is still raging.
“You’re seeing supply exceed demand here and you just know there are excess doses,” said Monica Gandhi, a physician and professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, who authored a letter with more than two dozen colleagues calling on the U.S. to ship spare Moderna doses to India.
As American vaccinations slow and doses accumulate, the U.S. is at a health, ethical and diplomatic crossroads. China is exporting more doses than any other country, lifting its international profile and adding to its influence. Should the U.S. continue to buy and distribute millions of mRNA vaccines a week, targeting them at people who are in no hurry to be vaccinated or who are lower-risk? Or should it pare back its orders and free up drugmakers to send more doses to other countries in need?
Read the full story here.
New Beginnings church provides vaccines to all, but focuses on Black, Kent area residents
KENT — Visitors exiting the New Beginnings Christian Fellowship were met with a round of applause and cheers from volunteers stationed throughout the building last week.
Minutes before, they had received their second COVID-19 vaccine inside of the church’s spacious gym, which had been transformed into a standing vaccine clinic. Volunteer medical professionals, many of whom are members of the church, injected patients in a partitioned-off area in the back. Near the gym’s basketball hoop, dozens of people sat at least 6 feet apart to be observed for allergic reactions after receiving their vaccine.
“We like to congratulate people after they get their second shot,” Medical director Joycelyn Thomas, a church member who helps lead the vaccination clinic, said.
In a ZIP code where the Black and Latino populations are the least likely ethnicities to be vaccinated, exaltation may be in order. Throughout King County, COVID-19 continues to disproportionately impact communities of color. While the Black population makes up 6.4% of county residents, they represent 11.3% of COVID-19 cases, according to recent Public Health — Seattle & King County statistics. Latino residents are 10% of the county’s population, yet represent 23.5% of cases.
Read more here about how the Kent church is closing the vaccine equity gap.
In Harlem, the choirs rejoice again
NEW YORK — At Bethel Gospel Assembly, a Pentecostal church in Harlem, Sundays once typically began with handshakes, hugs and kisses. The pastor welcomed parishioners from the pulpit to the 2,000-seat sanctuary — his greeting simultaneously relayed in French, Spanish and Italian by translators to the mostly European tourists crowded into the church’s balcony to hear the choirs sing.
In Harlem, a neighborhood with hundreds of churches — one of which, Elmendorf Reformed Church, dates to 1660 — choirs aren’t relegated to backing up the pastor. They are a primary attraction for church members and tourists alike. Many of the local gospel choirs are well known internationally — the topic of must-see travel lists — and before the pandemic they drew hundreds of visitors each week.
That changed the week of March 20, 2020, as pandemic closures went into effect.
Read more here about what happened to church choirs as services went online — and creatives ways they reunited to sing in person together.
Alaska lawmakers make masks at state Capitol optional
JUNEAU, Alaska — Alaska legislative leaders voted Friday to make mask-wearing optional at the state Capitol and then shed their own face coverings after the vote.
The decision by the Legislative Council followed new guidelines the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for people who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. The council is composed of House and Senate leaders.
Under the new policy, masks are optional in legislative facilities, with some exceptions. For example, lawmakers can require masks in their respective offices. Read more about the policy here.
Explainer: Why did Yankees test positive after vaccination?
NEW YORK — A New York Yankees player and several team staffers tested positive for the coronavirus although they were vaccinated, the baseball club said this week, underscoring that it’s possible to get an infection even after the shots.
A brief look at the cases:
What happened with the team?
Player Gleyber Torres, three coaches and four staff member have tested positive for the virus since Sunday. All eight had gotten the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine in March or April, the Yankees said. With the J&J shot, people are considered fully protected two weeks later. Seven of the eight did not develop any symptoms; a coach had symptoms that have since gone away, the team said.
Why did this happen?
No vaccine works 100% of the time — infections and illnesses can still happen. Studies have shown the two-dose Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are about 95% effective at preventing illness, while the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is 72% effective, though direct comparisons of the vaccines are difficult. So sometimes vaccinated people pick up an infection or get sick. Experts say vaccination could help make any illnesses less severe.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes newer versions of the coronavirus could be a factor in what’s known as “breakthrough” cases, though evidence so far indicates the vaccines in the U.S. protect against these variants.
Read more about New York Yankees "breakthrough" cases here.
The new mask guidance relies on an honor system. Do we trust each other enough to make it work?
As soon as Michelle Garrett verified that the new federal mask guidelines were real, she turned to her 14-year-old daughter, who just became eligible for vaccination against the coronavirus this week.
“Do you still need to wear your mask to school tomorrow?” she asked.
Garrett, a writer and communications consultant in Columbus, Ohio, almost didn’t believe the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s pronouncement Thursday that immunized people no longer need to wear face coverings in most situations. She said she wondered whether unvaccinated people would rip off their masks, putting her daughter at risk before she could get her shots. With no system to track whether people in public spaces have been inoculated, Garrett figured she couldn’t know for sure.
Her conundrum is common. In an intensely polarized nation, many people have little faith that their maskless fellow Americans have actually been vaccinated. That lack of trust, fueled by the ongoing politicization of the pandemic, tears at the fabric of a public-health strategy built on the assumption that other people will do the right thing.
Read more about the vaccine honor system here.
Variant first detected in India Is forcing the U.K. to rethink Its approach
LONDON — Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain said Friday that vaccination protocols would be changed to swiftly deliver second doses to people over 50 years old to combat the spread of a coronavirus variant first detected in India, a warning sign for countries that are easing restrictions even though their own vaccination campaigns are incomplete.
“We believe this variant is more transmissible than the previous ones,” Johnson said. What remained unclear, he said, was by how much. The infectiousness of the variant first detected in India remains the subject of intense study and some leading experts have said it is too early to assess its transmissibility.
If it proves significantly more transmissible, he said, “we face some hard choices.” He added that there was no evidence that the variant was more likely to cause serious illness and death, and there was no evidence to suggest vaccines were less effective against the variant in preventing serious illness and death.
While he said the country would not delay plans to ease restrictions on Monday, he warned that the spread of the variant could force the government to change course.
“This new variant could pose a serious disruption to our progress,” he said at a news conference on Friday.
Read the full story here.
Hugs are coming back. Not everyone is thrilled.
When Stevi Stephens was 5 years old, her grandmother bent down for a hug, and Stephens wondered if stepping on her foot would make her stop.
As a baby, her mother told her, Stephens cried when anyone held her; later, as a married woman, she used to get up and change sides of the bed multiple times each night when her husband would scoot over in his sleep to put an arm around her. “He was like a heat-seeking missile,” she says.
Don’t misunderstand: “I had a great sex life,” Stephens, now 76, clarifies. But Stephens’s attitude toward being hugged hasn’t changed. With another person wrapped around her, she feels restrained, uncomfortable.
Ever since coronavirus vaccines became widely available to the general population, it’s been evident in parks, restaurants and homes throughout America: Arms across your back are back. Grandparents are hugging grandkids again. Friends are hugging friends. Even epidemiologists, a notably cautious bunch, are hugging. For many, the return of hugs has been a welcome step toward the return of normalcy.
Others, though, have been dreading this moment for a long time.
Read more here about people who hope social distancing habits stick.
Call center in Vancouver shuttered due to COVID outbreak
Public health authorities say a broadband call center in Vancouver, Washington, has been temporarily closed because of a COVID-19 outbreak that has resulted in 29 confirmed and two possible cases.
Public Health spokeswoman Marissa Armstrong said in an email late Friday that the first case at the Spectrum Communications office was reported in mid-April, with the most recent case reported Friday, The Columbian reported.
Armstrong said the business closed Wednesday, will undergo a deep cleaning, and will also consult with Labor & Industries before reopening. Read more about the outbreak here.
Tacoma bar's liquor license suspended after dozens of public health complaints
The Washington Liquor and Cannabis Board has suspended the license of a bar in Tacoma for 180 days, after months of complaints and citations.
The board said this week that it issued an immediate, emergency suspension of An American Tavern’s license because of repeated, willful non-compliance and disregard for public health and safety, The News Tribune reported.
The board also said during that time it will seek to revoke the license permanently.
In total, the board has received 60 complaints about the bar, has issued verbal and written warnings, four administrative violations and $800 in fines. Read the full story here.
Federal mask retreat sets off confusing scramble for states and cities
SAN ANTONIO — Minnesota’s statewide mask mandate is over. But in Minneapolis, the state’s largest city, face coverings are still required.
In Michigan, Kentucky and Oregon, governors cheerily told vaccinated people that they could go out maskless. But mask mandates remained in force for New Yorkers, New Jerseyans and Californians.
So unexpected was new federal guidance on masks that in Kansas City, Missouri, Mayor Quinton Lucas went from saying he would not change his mask order, to saying he would think about it, to announcing that he was getting rid of it altogether, all in the span of about seven hours.
Across the country, governors, store owners and people running errands were scrambling on Friday to make sense of the abrupt change in federal guidelines, which said fully vaccinated people could now safely go most places, indoors or outdoors, without a mask.
At least 20 states that still had mask mandates in place this week said by Friday evening that they would exempt fully vaccinated people or repeal the orders entirely, while at least five others with mask requirements had not announced any changes. The rapidly changing rules brought an end to more than a year of mandatory masking in much of the country, even as some said they were not yet ready to take off their face coverings. Read the full story here.
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