Editor’s note: This is a live account of COVID-19 updates from Wednesday, May 18, 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 It is no longer being updated.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.

The Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday cleared a booster shot for children ages 5 to 11. The authorization comes as COVID-19 infections rise in the U.S. Officials hope the extra dose will enhance children’s protection against the virus.

Meanwhile, immunocompromised individuals are finding it difficult to navigate the latest wave of the pandemic as officials move to drop safety measures despite increasing hospitalization rates in several U.S. cities.

King County will close three testing sites as federal funding wanes, citing low demand and an increasing availability of PCR and at-home tests.

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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US health secretary tests positive for COVID on Germany trip

President Joe Biden’s top health official tested positive for COVID-19 on Wednesday, the latest member of his Cabinet to be infected with the virus.

U.S. Health Secretary Xavier Becerra tested positive while visiting Berlin, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services said. Becerra, who is fully vaccinated and boosted, was experiencing mild symptoms.

HHS spokeswoman Sarah Lovenheim said he will continue to work in isolation in Berlin.

Becerra was last at the White House last Thursday. He is not considered a close contact of Biden.

Read the full story here.

—Tom Murphy and Frank Jordans, The Associated Press
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Apple delays and modifies its return to office plans

Apple, in a blow to its efforts to restore normalcy to its operations, has suspended its requirement that employees return to the office this month because of a resurgence of COVID-19 cases.

The reversal was welcome news for thousands of employees who pushed back against the company’s demand that they begin coming to the office for at least three days a week starting in late May. Early this month, the group, which calls itself “Apple Together,” published a letter calling on the executive team to allow for a hybrid and flexible work schedule, saying they could collaborate remotely using online tools such as Slack and spare themselves hours of commuting.

One of Apple’s leading artificial intelligence engineers, Ian Goodfellow, resigned in early May because of the office-return policy. Goodfellow did not respond immediately to requests for comment.

Apple said in a note to employees Tuesday that it would proceed with a pilot program to bring some workers back to the office twice a week in the weeks ahead. It said anyone in that program who felt “uncomfortable coming into the office” would have the “option to work remotely.”

The company also asked that employees who do come to campus wear masks in common areas and elevators. It said it would continue to monitor COVID cases and provide employees with updates at least two weeks before any future changes to its office policy.

Read the story here.

—Tripp Mickle The New York Times

Insiders bemoan culture, data gaps that limit CDC in crises

An internal review by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has uncovered deep concerns among current and former employees and other federal health officials about its urgency, responsiveness and culture, according to interviews with more than half a dozen people involved in the process.

Findings from the review announced last month, some of which could be released in coming weeks, may give CDC Director Rochelle Walensky momentum to usher in change at an agency that’s been criticized by members of Congress, prominent health experts and local public officials for not having the tools and culture needed to respond effectively to a pandemic that’s resulted in one million American deaths.

One part of the review meant to look at how the agency performed during COVID-19 is being led by longtime Health and Human Services Department official James Macrae, who for the last month has interviewed people who work at or alongside the Atlanta-based CDC. Other aspects of the review are scrutinizing the agency’s wider operations and capabilities.

Bloomberg spoke to more than half a dozen people who have met with Macrae, both from inside the CDC and from other parts of government that work with the agency. Many raised longstanding frustrations with how the health agency operates. Most spoke on condition of anonymity because the work is ongoing.

Read the full story here.

—Drew Armstrong and Riley Griffin, Bloomberg

LA is doing much better than New York with new coronavirus wave. Can it last?

Los Angeles County is doing significantly better than New York City so far in this latest spring wave of omicron cases, and officials remain hopeful that California can avoid the significant increases in coronavirus hospitalizations seen on the East Coast.

The New York City health commissioner, Dr. Ashwin Vasan, said Tuesday that the city was entering a high COVID-19 alert level, warning that there is high community spread of the coronavirus and “pressure on the health care system is increasing.” He reiterated a call to wear masks in indoor settings and also urged seniors or others at high risk of severe COVID-19 to wear a mask in crowded outdoor settings and to avoid gatherings.

By contrast, L.A. County is poised to enter the medium COVID-19 community level this week, and “COVID-19 is not currently straining our health care system and our health care resources,” L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said Tuesday.

Ferrer has urged residents to wear high-quality masks — like KF94, KN95 and N95 respirators — while indoors, get vaccinated and boosted, get tested when feeling sick or potentially exposed to the coronavirus, and opt to gather in well-ventilated areas, with outdoors offering the lowest risk.

But Ferrer added that she is optimistic that L.A. could potentially avoid reaching a high COVID-19 community level, which would prompt the Department of Public Health to require universal masking in indoor public settings.

Read the story here.

—Rong-Gong Lin II, Los Angeles Times
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Detainees at Northwest immigration detention center on hunger strike over COVID concerns

Nine people detained at the Northwest ICE Processing Center in Tacoma have joined in a hunger strike to protest what they say are unclean conditions in the detention center amid worries about COVID spread, according to an advocacy organization that’s been in touch with the protesters.

The strike began Friday, according to the group La Resistencia, at the fenced facility that is among the largest immigration detention centers in the U.S. The center has capacity for about 1,500 people held as they go through immigration-status proceedings.

The detention center is operated by the for-profit GEO Group in partnership with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

The hunger strikers have asked for better cleaning of the facility and units, more nutritious food, better access to medical services and jobs that pay a minimum wage.

Read the full story here.

—Paige Cornwell

Officials say more areas of US may see mask recommendations

COVID-19 cases are increasing in the United States – and could get even worse over the coming months, federal health officials warned Wednesday in urging areas hardest hit to consider reissuing calls for indoor masking.

Increasing numbers of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations are putting more of the country under guidelines issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that call for masking and other infection precautions.

Right now, the increases are concentrated in the Northeast and Midwest. “(But) prior increases of infections, in different waves of infection, have demonstrated that this travels across the country,” said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the CDC director, said at a White House briefing with reporters.

For an increasing number of areas, “we urge local leaders to encourage use of prevention strategies like masks in public indoor settings and increasing access to testing and treatment,” she said.

However, officials were cautious about making concrete predictions, saying how much worse the pandemic gets will depend on several factors, including to what degree previous infections will protect against new variants.

Read the story here.

—Mike Stobbe and Zeke Miller, The Associated Press

Coronavirus vaccine could have saved 319,000 people in U.S., study says

About a third of the 1 million lives lost to COVID-19 could have been saved with vaccines, a new analysis shows.

Researchers at the Brown School of Public Health, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Microsoft AI for Health analyzed data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and The New York Times and came up with not only 319,000 needless deaths but also a state-by-state breakdown of where they could have been prevented.

Between January 2021 and April 2022, about every second person who died from COVID-19 since vaccines became available might have lived if they had gotten the shots, the researchers found. Nationwide, about half of the 641,000 people who have died since vaccines became available could have lived if every single eligible adult had gotten jabbed.

“At a time when many in the U.S. have given up on vaccinations, these numbers are a stark reminder of the effectiveness of vaccines in fighting this pandemic,” said Stefanie Friedhoff, associate professor of the practice in Health Services, Policy and Practice at the Brown University School of Public Health, and a co-author of the analysis, in a statement. “We must continue to invest in getting more Americans vaccinated and boosted to save more lives.”

They created a dashboard showing the number of vaccine-preventable deaths per 1 million residents in each state and in the U.S. as a whole. Then they created an “alternative scenario” positing what it would look like if the vaccination pace had been sustained at its highest point last spring and stayed aloft long enough for 85%, 90% or even 100% of the adult population to get jabbed.

Read the story here.

—Theresa Braine, New York Daily News
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Traveling this summer? CDC recommends everyone test for COVID-19 in days before flying

If you are traveling internationally or within the U.S. this summer, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends you test for COVID-19 in the days before flying.

The agency’s recommendation for all travelers regardless of vaccination status came in an update to its COVID-19 testing website on May 16.

“Consider getting tested as close to the time of departure as possible (no more than 3 days) before your trip” when heading to any destination, the CDC said.

Before the update, the CDC’s recommendation did not include domestic travelers considered up-to-date on their vaccines, according to CNN.

The agency still recommends wearing masks when using public transportation, but doing so is no longer enforced as of April 18.

Read the story here.

—Julia Marnin, McClatchy Washington Bureau

More than 75% of nation’s long COVID patients hadn’t been hospitalized for initial illness

It is the most succinct and dispassionate name for long COVID: U09.9 — a medical diagnostic code created last year to allow doctors to document post-COVID conditions.

Now a large new study has analyzed data from the first few months after the code took effect, and the results paint a sobering picture of long COVID’s serious and ongoing impact on people’s health and the U.S. health care system.

The analysis, based on what the report calls the largest database of private health insurance claims in the United States, found 78,252 patients who were diagnosed with the U09.9 code from the International Classification of Diseases between Oct. 1, 2021, and Jan. 31, 2022, and the vast majority of them had not been hospitalized for their initial infection.

Dr. Claire Steves, a clinical academic and physician at King’s College London, who was not involved in the new research, said the overall number of people who received the diagnosis was “huge,” especially given that the study covered only the first four months after the diagnostic code was introduced and did not include people covered by government health programs like Medicaid or Medicare (though it did include people in private Medicare Advantage plans). “That’s probably a drop in the ocean compared to what the real number is,” Steves said.

The study, conducted by FAIR Health, a nonprofit organization that focuses on health care costs and insurance issues, found that for 76% of the patients, the initial coronavirus infection did not make them sick enough to require hospitalization. Yet months later, they were experiencing symptoms that were diagnosed as post-COVID conditions, including breathing problems, coughing, fatigue and hypertension.

Read the story here.

—Pam Belluck, The New York Times

Eric Clapton cancels shows after testing positive for COVID

Eric Clapton, a critic of coronavirus vaccines and pandemic restrictions, has tested positive for COVID-19 and canceled two upcoming European gigs.

Clapton’s upcoming shows in Zurich on Tuesday and Milan on Wednesday will be rescheduled, he announced on his Facebook page and official online site. The 77-year-old rocker tested positive following his concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall on May 8.

“It is very frustrating that having avoided COVID throughout lockdown and throughout the period when travel restrictions have been in place Eric should have succumbed to COVID at this point in time,” his Facebook page and official online site announced.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press
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Germany OKs more COVID-19 vaccine spending for this fall

Germany plans to spend another 830 million euros ($872 million) to buy new coronavirus vaccines that will allow the country to deal with a series of possible variants this fall, the health minister said Wednesday.

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach said that the government, via the European Union, already has ordered enough of the existing vaccines and of one that has been developed by Germany’s BioNTech to counter the omicron variant. He said the new funding is earmarked for a vaccine being developed by Moderna to tackle both omicron and other variants.

“We are betting on a broad portfolio of vaccines; we must be prepared for all eventualities,” Lauterbach said. “We don’t know what variants will confront us in the fall.”

“One lesson from the pandemic is that we never again want to have too little vaccine,” he added, alluding to the sluggish start early last year of the EU’s and Germany’s COVID-19 vaccination campaign. “We want to be able to offer all those who need or want it a fourth shot.”

The minister left open, however, whether a fourth vaccine shot will be recommended for everyone, saying that will depend on what variant comes later this year.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

N. Korea reports another jump in suspected COVID cases

North Korea on Wednesday added hundreds of thousands of infections to its growing pandemic caseload but also said that a million people have already recovered from suspected COVID-19 just a week after disclosing an outbreak, a public health crisis it appears to be trying to manage in isolation as global experts express deep concern about dire consequences.

The country’s anti-virus headquarters announced 232,880 new cases of fever and another six deaths in state media Wednesday. Those figures raise its totals to 62 deaths and more than 1.7 million fever cases since late April. It said more than a million people recovered but at least 691,170 remain in quarantine.

Outside experts believe most of the fevers are from COVID-19 but North Korea lacks tests to confirm so many. The outbreak is almost certainly larger than the fever tally, since some virus carriers may not develop fevers or other symptoms.

Read the story here.

—Kim Tong-Hyung, The Associated Press