Editor’s note: This is a live account of COVID-19 updates from Thursday, May 26, 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 It is no longer being updated.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.
Adults who are 65 and older face higher risks of developing long-COVID, according to a recently published study. The study of veterans found that about one-third who had breakthrough infections showed signs of long-COVID, despite being vaccinated.
Meanwhile, Gregg Gonsalves, an epidemiologist and Yale professor, weighed in on whether U.S. citizens and leaders have learned to tolerate mass death and suffering following the grim milestone of 1 million lives lost to COVID-19 and mass shootings across the country. “I think the evidence is unmistakable and quite clear. We will tolerate an enormous amount of carnage, suffering and death in the U.S., because we have over the past two years. We have over our history,” said Gonsalves.
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.
The rules for hybrid work were always made up
The conundrum facing executives nationwide these days is one familiar to anyone who has ever planned a birthday gathering: “It’s really hard to get anybody to come to a party if everybody RSVPs maybe,” said Zach Dunn, an expert on hybrid work and founder of workplace management company Robin.
Now imagine that party involved paychecks, bottom lines and a 10-year lease. So when Dunn counsels executives on their return-to-office plans, he encounters inordinate stress over the question of whether to mandate that employees spend certain days in the office, or opt for flexibility while enticing people with activities and meals, relying on pure enthusiasm to fuel the great return.
Those decisions have grown more complex in recent weeks, as COVID-19 cases surged. Apple, for example, which has faced fierce internal opposition to its RTO plan, told workers last week that the company was scaling back from a required three days a week in the office to an optional two days.
RTO plans used to be held together with something like magic, or at least like math: Three days for that mythic cafeteria banter, two days for pants that don’t button.
Now? Forget it. The three-two weekday RTO split, like so many other aspects of office reopening plans, has begun to seem less like gospel and more like gibberish.
Said Dunn, “People are way too fixated on number of days in office as a metric. The office has to earn its place in the average person’s week.”
COVID-19 cases are rising rapidly in nearly every U.S. state. Office occupancy has remained fairly flat, just above 40%, since late March. Many company leaders who have reopened their offices are struggling to fill them, as the persistent delays in RTO plans undermined deadlines and details, like the specific days of the week that workers are expected back.
Some companies, like Airbnb, have recently told their employees they never have to return to the office; others, like Goldman Sachs, where workers are back five days a week, remain zealous about the benefits of in-person work. But many businesses are in the fuzzy realm of hybrid work and plenty of hybrid workplaces are still trying to decide how many days employees should report back to their desks, while finding that attendance is something challenging to track or enforce.
“The word of the day is chaos,” said Becky Frankiewicz, U.S. president of ManpowerGroup, a global staffing agency with more than 4,500 offices. “I had a Canadian CEO ask me probably three weeks ago: ‘Becky, we opened the offices, and no one came back. What do we do now?’”
Unlike fully remote or in-person work arrangements, hybrid models have unfolded differently in every office. A Robin survey of more than 10,000 offices globally found that nearly 20% of American office workers are back one day a week, about 10% are back two days a week and 5% are back three days a week. Even fewer are back four or five days a week, and more than 50% do not use the office consistently. Wednesday is the most popular day for going into the office, according to data from workplace security firm Kastle.
Then there are plenty of company leaders still scratching their heads: Nearly one-third of employers surveyed haven’t decided on their return-to-office plans, according to data from ManpowerGroup. And those in the process of setting or tweaking expectations realize that there is a lot at stake, including how employees form relationships with one another and how they view their company leadership.
Fewer Americans apply for jobless benefits last week
Fewer Americans applied for jobless aid last week with the number of Americans collecting unemployment benefits already near five-decade lows.
Applications for unemployment benefits fell by 8,000 to 210,000 for the week ending May 21, the Labor Department reported Thursday. First-time applications are generally representative of the number of layoffs.
The four-week average for claims, which smooths out some of the weekly volatility, ticked up from the previous week to 206,750.
The total number of Americans collecting jobless benefits for the week ending May 14 rose slightly from the previous week, to 1,346,000. Last week that number stood at 1,315,000, the fewest since in more than five decades.
In Washington, new initial claims for unemployment benefits fell 7% to 3,591 for the week that ended May 21, from 3,861 the prior week, according to data from the federal Department of Labor. The Washington state Employment Security Department reports its own figures later Thursday; those often differ slightly from the federal numbers.
COVID-19 cases mostly drop, except for the Americas
The number of new coronavirus cases and deaths are still falling globally after peaking in January, the World Health Organization said.
In its latest weekly assessment of the pandemic, the U.N. health agency said there were more than 3.7 million new infections and 9,000 deaths in the last week, drops of 3% and 11% respectively. COVID-19 cases rose in only two regions of the world: the Americas and the Western Pacific. Deaths increased by 30% in the Middle East, but were stable or decreased everywhere else.
WHO said it is tracking all omicron subvariants as “variants of concern.” It noted that countries which had a significant wave of disease caused by the omicron subvariant BA.2 appeared to be less affected by other subvariants like BA.4 and BA.5, which were responsible for the latest surge of disease in South Africa.
Salim Abdool Karim, an infectious diseases expert at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, said it appeared that South Africa had passed its most recent wave of COVID-19 caused by the BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants; the country has been on the forefront of the pandemic since first detecting the omicron variant last November.
Dominant coronavirus mutant contains ghost of pandemic past
The coronavirus mutant that is now dominant in the United States is a member of the omicron family but scientists say it spreads faster than its omicron predecessors, is adept at escaping immunity and might possibly cause more serious disease.
Why? Because it combines properties of both omicron and delta, the nation’s dominant variant in the middle of last year.
A genetic trait that harkens back to the pandemic’s past, known as a “delta mutation,” appears to allow the virus “to escape pre-existing immunity from vaccination and prior infection, especially if you were infected in the omicron wave,” said Dr. Wesley Long, a pathologist at Houston Methodist in Texas. That’s because the original omicron strain that swept the world didn’t have the mutation.
The omicron “subvariant” gaining ground in the U.S. — known as BA.2.12.1 and responsible for 58% of U.S. COVID-19 cases last week — isn’t the only one affected by the delta mutation. The genetic change is also present in the omicron relatives that together dominate in South Africa, known as BA.4 and BA.5. Those have exactly the same mutation as delta, while BA.2.12.1 has one that’s nearly identical.
This genetic change is bad news for people who caught the original omicron and thought that made them unlikely to get COVID-19 again soon. Although most people don’t know for sure which variant caused their illness, the original omicron caused a giant wave of cases late last year and early this year.
Long said lab data suggests a prior infection with the original omicron is not very protective against reinfection with the new mutants.
In a twist, however, those sickened by delta previously may have some extra armor to ward off the new mutants. A study released by researchers at Ohio State University prior to peer review found that COVID patients in intensive care with delta infections induced antibodies that were better at neutralizing the new mutants than patients who caught the original omicron.
Workers in office feel least connected, countering RTO claims
CEOs hellbent on getting workers back in the office say that being physically together boosts connectivity. Turns out that’s not the case.
Only one in six people feel strongly connected at work, with on-site employees the least connected of all, according to a study Tuesday from consulting firm Accenture. Some 22% of fully remote workers say they feel “not connected,” while the share for those in the office is nearly double.
The report bucks some of the central logic executives like Citadel’s Ken Griffin cite to encourage their employees to return to the office. While they say that boosts creativity and innovation, commuting is still expensive and can be fraught with challenges, especially for working parents struggling to find reliable and affordable child care.
“One might think a quick fix is simply to bring everyone back to work on-site and human connection will happen,” the report said. “It’s not that simple.”
Why the air at the gym may be more likely to spread COVID
Many gyms and health clubs seem to be filling up again with people eager to return to their old routines and communities or get in shape for summer — at the same time that new omicron variants are pushing COVID infections up. So how safe is it to go back to the gym?
Put another way, how many microscopic aerosol particles are the other cyclists in your spin class breathing out into the room? How many is the runner on the nearby treadmill spewing forth? A small study about respiration and exercise published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences provides some rather startling answers.
The study looked at the number of aerosol particles 16 people exhaled at rest and during workouts. These tiny bits of airborne matter — measuring barely a few hundred micrometers in diameter, or about the width of a strand of hair, and suspended in mist from our lungs — can transmit the coronavirus if someone is infected, ferrying the virus lightly through the air from one pair of lungs to another.
The study found that, at rest, the men and women breathed out about 500 particles per minute. But when they exercised, that total soared 132-fold, topping out above 76,000 ppm, on average, during the most strenuous exertion.
These findings help explain why several notable COVID superspreader events since 2020 have occurred at indoor gym classes. They also could renew some people’s concerns about indoor gym programs as COVID-19 cases increase again in much of the nation and raise questions about how to best reduce risks of exposure when we work out.
COVID-19, shootings: Is mass death now tolerated in America?
As the nation marked 1 million deaths from COVID-19 last week, the milestone was bookended by mass shootings that killed people simply living their lives: grocery shopping, going to church, or attending the fourth grade. The number, once unthinkable, is now an irreversible reality in the United States — just like the persistent reality of gun violence that kills tens of thousands of people every year.
Americans have always tolerated high rates of death and suffering — among certain segments of society. But the sheer numbers of deaths from preventable causes, and the apparent acceptance that no policy change is on the horizon, raises the question: Has mass death become accepted in America?
“I think the evidence is unmistakable and quite clear. We will tolerate an enormous amount of carnage, suffering and death in the U.S., because we have over the past two years. We have over our history,” says Gregg Gonsalves, an epidemiologist and professor at Yale who, before that, was a leading member of the AIDS advocacy group ACT UP. He made his comments in an interview last week, before the latest massacre at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, where 21 people were killed on Tuesday, including 19 children.
“If I thought the AIDS epidemic was bad, the American response to COVID-19 has sort of … it’s a form of the American grotesque, right?” Gonsalves says. “Really — a million people are dead? And you’re going to talk to me about your need to get back to normal, when for the most part most of us have been living pretty reasonable lives for the past six months?”
How to ‘COVID-proof’ your home (as much as possible) when a family member gets sick
For two years, you beat the odds. You masked, kept your distance, got your shots.
Now, despite those efforts, you, your child, or someone else in your home has come down with COVID-19. And the last thing you want is for the virus to spread to everyone in the family or household. But how do you prevent it from circulating when you live in close quarters?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends isolating COVID patients for at least five days, preferably in a separate room with access to their own bathroom, as well as diligent mask-wearing for both patient and caregiver. But for many families, those aren’t easy options. Not everyone has an extra bedroom to spare, let alone a free bathroom. Young children should not be left alone, and the youngest can’t tolerate masks.
“For parents of a young child, it’s pretty difficult not to be exposed,” said Dr. Preeti Malani, chief health officer at the University of Michigan. “You have to work back from the perfect to the possible and manage your risk the best you can.”
But take heart. Scientists say there is still a lot people can do to protect their families, chief among them improving ventilation and filtration of the air.
“Ventilation matters a lot,” said Dr. Amy Barczak, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. “If you’re taking care of someone at home, it’s really important to maximize all the interventions that work.”
Outside the home, viruses are quickly dispersed by the wind. Inside, germs can build up, like clouds of thick cigarette smoke, increasing the risk of inhaling the virus.
The best strategy for avoiding the virus is to make your indoor environment as much like the outdoors as possible.
Start by opening as many windows as the weather allows, said Joseph Fox, a heating, ventilation, and air conditioning engineer for a large school district in Ontario, Canada. If possible, open windows on opposite sides of the home to create a cross breeze, which can help sweep viruses outside and bring fresh air inside.
For extra protection, place a box fan in the patient’s window, facing outward, to draw air outside.
To prevent infected air from seeping out of the sickroom, try wedging towels in the gap under the bedroom door. People should also cover return air grills with plastic. These grills cover vents that suck air out of the room and recycle it through the heating or cooling system.
US making COVID antiviral drug more available at test sites
The White House on Thursday announced more steps to make the antiviral treatment Paxlovid more accessible across the U.S. as it projects COVID-19 infections will continue to spread over the summer travel season.
The nation’s first federally backed test-to-treat site is opening Thursday in Rhode Island, providing patients with immediate access to the drug once they test positive. More federally supported sites are set to open in the coming weeks in Massachusetts and New York City, both hit by a marked rise in infections.
Next week, the U.S. will send authorized federal prescribers to several Minnesota-run testing sites, turning them into test-to-treat locations. Federal regulators have also sent clearer guidance to physicians to help them determine how to manage Paxlovid’s interactions with other drugs, with an eye toward helping prescribers find ways to get the life-saving medication to more patients.
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