Editor’s note: This is a live account of COVID-19 updates from Tuesday, May 17, 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 It is no longer being updated.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.
South Africa was hit with a COVID-19 surge driven by two omicron sub-variants within the last three weeks, resulting in higher hospitalization rates, according to health experts.
Though the surge has resulted in higher numbers of cases and hospitalizations, the number of reported COVID-19 deaths have not increased dramatically. The country reported and average of 8,000 new cases this week, a noticeable shift from the average of 300 new cases per day in early April.
Meanwhile, authorities reported that less than 1 million people in Shanghai remained in strict lockdown at the beginning of this week as officials move to reopen the city after the recent COVID-19 outbreak was contained.
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.
King County to close 3 COVID testing sites
Citing low demand and the widespread availability of both PCR and at-home tests, Public Health – Seattle & King County will close its Tukwila, Federal Way and Auburn COVID-19 testing sites.
With waning federal funding two years into the pandemic, the agency said it is planning to transition away from emergency response and toward long-term prevention by working with community partners to add more COVID-related services and precautions — like improving air ventilation — into their operations.
In recent weeks, the number of King County residents taking PCR tests has decreased. During the omicron wave between mid-January and early February, King County was reporting a seven-day average of 10,000 and 16,000 tests a day. That number has now dropped to between 2,600 and 6,000 tests.
According to health department spokesperson Kate Cole, in mid-January, the Auburn site saw a daily average of 1,300 tests. Federal Way averaged 682 tests daily and Tukwila averaged 660. As of April 25, there are an average of 174 tests administered daily at the Auburn site, 174 at the Federal Way site and 135 at the Tukwila site, she said.
Indonesia lifts outdoor mask mandate as COVID-19 wanes
Indonesia is lifting its outdoor mask mandate because its COVID-19 outbreak is increasing under control, President Joko Widodo said Tuesday. However, a mask mandate remains in place for indoor activities and public transportation, he said.
Widodo also said all fully vaccinated travelers will no longer be required to undergo COVID-19 tests to enter Indonesia.
The announcements came two weeks after millions of Indonesians celebrated the Eid al-Fitr holiday at the end of the Muslim holy moth of Ramadan by traveling to see their families, ending two years of pandemic restrictions and travel curbs. COVID-19 cases have continued to decline, prompting the government to relax its mask policy.
N. Korea’s Kim faces ‘huge dilemma’ on aid as virus surges
During more than a decade as North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un has made “self-reliance” his governing lynchpin, shunning international help and striving instead for domestic strategies to fix his battered economy.
But as an illness suspected to be COVID-19 sickens hundreds of thousands of his people, Kim stands at a critical crossroad: Either swallow his pride and receive foreign help to fight the disease, or go it alone, enduring potential huge fatalities that may undermine his leadership.
“Kim Jong Un is in a dilemma, a really huge dilemma,” said Lim Eul-chul, a professor at Kyungnam University’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies in Seoul. “If he accepts U.S. or Western assistance, that can shake the self-reliance stance that he has steadfastly maintained and public confidence in him could be weakened.”
Doing nothing, however, could be calamitous.
Since acknowledging a COVID-19 outbreak last week, North Korea has said “an explosively spreading fever” has killed 56 people and sickened about 1.5 million others. Outside observers suspect most of those cases were caused by the coronavirus.
WHO: 2nd COVID booster for most vulnerable offers benefits
An expert group convened by the World Health Organization says there may be some benefit in giving a second booster dose of coronavirus vaccine to the most vulnerable people amid the continuing global spread of omicron and its subvariants.
In a statement issued on Tuesday, the United Nations health agency said there was “a growing body of evidence regarding the value of an additional booster dose” for groups including health workers, people aged over 60 and those with weak immune systems.
The WHO said its expert group had assessed the limited data from seven studies for second booster doses of messenger RNA vaccines, saying there wasn’t enough information proving their effectiveness in younger, healthy people.
“In those most at risk for severe disease or death … the additional benefit of an additional booster dose of mRNA vaccine might be warranted,” the WHO said, acknowledging that there could be logistical or other challenges to offering people a second booster dose in some countries. While many rich countries have vaccinated more than 70% of their populations, fewer than 16% of people in poorer countries have been immunized.
Last year, the WHO repeatedly criticized rich countries for offering booster doses and called for a moratorium on the practice, saying boosters were unnecessary for healthy people. The agency reversed its advice late last year amid the spread of the hugely infectious omicron variant, after dozens of countries began offering booster doses.
Pandemic wedding blues: Fewer US couples said ‘I do’ in 2020
Far fewer Americans said “I do” during the first year of the pandemic when wedding plans were upended, a new report finds.
There were 1.7 million weddings in 2020, a drop of 17% from the year before and the lowest recorded since 1963, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday.
The plunge was not exactly a surprise since the U.S. marriage rate had been on the decline since 2016.
The pandemic threw many marriage plans into disarray, with communities ordering people to stay at home and banning large gatherings to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
The CDC found that 46 states reported declines in marriage rates in 2020. Hawaii saw the largest drop in the country — 48% — followed by California, which fell 44%.
Nevada — long a popular wedding destination — continued to have the nation’s highest marriage rate. But even that state saw a 19% decline in the first year of the pandemic. Four states reported marriage increases — Montana, Texas, Alabama, and Utah, the CDC said.
US offering additional 8 free COVID-19 tests to public
The government website for people to request free COVID-19 at-home tests from the U.S. government is now accepting a third round of orders.
The White House announced Tuesday that U.S. households can request an additional eight free at-home tests to be shipped by the U.S. Postal Service.
The announcement comes as coronavirus cases are rising again in some areas of the country.
U.S. households can order an additional eight free, at-home tests at the link above. Anyone having trouble with the website can call 1-800-232-0233 for help.
President Joe Biden committed in January to making 1 billion tests available to the public free of charge, including 500 million available through covidtests.gov. But just 350 million of the amount available for ordering online have been shipped to date to addresses across the continental U.S., its territories and overseas military bases, the White House said.
People who have difficulty getting online or need help placing an order can call 1-800-232-0233 for assistance,
The third round brings to 16 the total number of free tests available to each U.S. household since the program started earlier this year.
How big is the latest U.S. coronavirus wave? No one really knows
Eileen Wassermann struggles to calculate her daily risks at this stage of the coronavirus pandemic — with infections drastically undercounted and mask mandates gone.
The immunocompromised 69-year-old ensconces herself in her SUV for the half-hour ferry ride across the Puget Sound from her home on Bainbridge Island to Seattle, where she undergoes treatment for the rare inflammatory condition sarcoidosis.
A retired scientist and lawyer who worked with drug companies, Wassermann is comfortable analyzing coronavirus data. But she said current numbers, which don’t account for most at-home test results, are unreliable.
“My mode, which sounds ridiculous maybe at this point, is to be as cautious as I was at beginning in 2020,” said Wassermann, who has received two booster doses of the coronavirus vaccine. “I don’t want to always walk around like a scaredy cat, but then on the other hand with this immune condition I have, I don’t want to take any chances.”
Americans like Wassermann are navigating murky waters in the latest wave of the pandemic, with highly transmissible subvariants of omicron spreading as governments drop measures to contain the virus and reveal less data about infections. With public health authorities shifting their focus to COVID-related hospitalizations as the pandemic’s U.S. death toll hits 1 million, people are largely on their own to gauge risk amid what could be a stealth surge.
“Any sort of look at the metrics on either a local, state or national level is a severe undercount,” said Jessica Malaty Rivera, an epidemiologist at the Pandemic Prevention Institute housed at The Rockefeller Foundation. “Everyone knows someone getting COVID now.”
New US hospitals face fiscal crisis over COVID relief money
A whole town celebrated in 2020 when, early in the coronavirus pandemic, Thomasville Regional Medical Center opened, offering state-of-the-art medicine that was previously unavailable in a poor, isolated part of Alabama. The timing for the ribbon-cutting seemed perfect: New treatment options would be available in an underserved area just as a global health crisis was unfolding.
In the end, that same timing may be the reason for the hospital’s undoing.
Now deep in the red two years into the pandemic, the 29-bed, $40 million hospital with a soaring, sun-drenched lobby and 110 employees is among three medical centers in the United States that say they are missing out on millions in federal pandemic relief money because the facilities are so new they lack full financial statements from before the crisis to prove how much it cost them.
In Thomasville, located in timber country about 95 miles (153 kilometers) north of the Gulf Coast port of Mobile, hospital officials have worked more than a year to convince federal officials they should have gotten $8.2 million through the CARES Act, not just the $1 million they received. With a total debt of $35 million, the quest gets more urgent each day, said Curtis James, the chief executive officer.
“No hospital can sustain itself without getting the CARES Act money that everybody else got,” James said.
Employees are trying to save money by cutting back on supplies but residents including Judy Hutto are worried about the hospital’s future. Hutto drove there recently for tests from her home 15 miles (24 kilometers) out in the country.
Jayapal tests positive for coronavirus, now in isolation
U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Seattle, announced on Twitter that she tested positive for the coronavirus Saturday.
She was experiencing “flu-like symptoms at the moment, and in accordance with CDC guidelines, I will be isolating and working remotely,” her Saturday night tweet said.
Jayapal flew from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco on Saturday for a fundraiser, spokesperson Siham Zniber said. The congresswoman tested positive in San Francisco, according to Zniber, and on Sunday she was still determining her plan for recovery. One option was to rent a car to drive to Seattle, where she could isolate.
FDA clears COVID booster shot for healthy kids ages 5 to 11
U.S. regulators on Tuesday authorized a COVID-19 booster shot for healthy 5- to 11-year-olds, hoping an extra vaccine dose will enhance their protection as infections once again creep upward.
Everyone 12 and older already was supposed to get one booster dose for the best protection against the newest coronavirus variants — and some people, including those 50 and older, can choose a second booster.
The Food and Drug Administration’s authorization now opens a third shot to elementary-age kids, too — at least five months after their last dose.
There is one more hurdle: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention must decide whether to formally recommend the booster for this age group. The CDC’s scientific advisers are scheduled to meet on Thursday.
Is it COVID or flu? New at-home test can tell you
An at-home COVID-19 test that can also detect other common respiratory viruses like the flu was authorized for emergency use Monday by the US Food and Drug Administration.
The test is made by Labcorp, a laboratory testing company based in North Carolina, and is the first nonprescription test authorized to look for multiple respiratory viruses in one sample. COVID symptoms can be similar to those from other respiratory illnesses like the flu and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, so the new test is meant to help people more easily determine which virus they have.
Labcorp’s test consists of a nasal swab, performed at home, which is then sent to the company for testing. Diagnostic results from the test are provided through an online portal. If the test is positive, a health care professional will follow up, a release says. The tests can be purchased online or in stores.
“This is the first test authorized for flu and RSV, along with COVID-19, where an individual can self-identify their need for a test, order it, collect their sample and send it to the lab for testing, without consulting a health care professional,” Jeff Shuren, director of FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health, said in a statement.
Shuren also said the U.S. is moving closer to diagnostic testing for respiratory viruses that can be performed entirely at home.
N. Korea reports another surge in fevers amid COVID crisis
North Korea on Tuesday reported another large jump in illnesses believed to be COVID-19 as a mass outbreak spreads through its unvaccinated population and military medical officers were deployed to distribute medicine.
State media said the North’s anti-virus headquarters reported another 269,510 people were found with fevers and six people died. That raises North Korea’s deaths to 56 after more than 1.48 million people became ill with fever since late April. North Korea lacks testing supplies to confirm coronavirus infections in large numbers, and the report didn’t say how many of the fever cases were COVID-19.
The outbreak is almost certainly greater than the fever tally, considering the lack of tests and resources to monitor and treat the people who are sick. North Korea’s virus response is mostly isolating people with symptoms at shelters, and as of Tuesday, at least 663,910 people were in quarantine.
In addition to lacking vaccines for its 26 million people, North Korea also grapples with malnourishment and other conditions of poverty and lacks public health tools, including antiviral drugs or intensive care units, which suppressed hospitalizations and deaths in other countries.
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