Editor’s note: This is a live account of COVID-19 updates from Monday, November 29, 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 It is no longer being updated.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.
Nearly two years into the pandemic, the world is racing to contain the latest variant, first identified in southern Africa and now popping up around the globe. The World Health Organization named the new version of the virus “omicron” and classified it as a highly transmissible variant of concern, though its actual risks are not yet understood.
If Washingtonians needed another reminder that COVID isn’t done with us yet, the latest round of employment data showed that overall hiring was slowing: Washington added just 6,300 jobs in October, versus 18,800 in September, even as the nation’s hiring surged 70% for the same period.
When is the best time to get a COVID booster shot? Here’s what the science tells us.
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.
German governors, Merkel to discuss virus amid high cases
Chancellor Angela Merkel will hold talks Tuesday with the governors of Germany’s 16 states amid growing concerns about the steep rise in new coronavirus cases in the country.
Merkel’s office confirmed Monday that the outgoing chancellor would have a video call with governors to discuss the outbreak, but declined to say whether any decisions would be made.
Germany’s highest court is to decide Tuesday on complaints filed against nationwide restrictions to curb coronavirus infections that were imposed earlier this year under federal “emergency brake” rules. The ruling could provide officials with guidance on the legality of any new coronavirus restrictions.
Mecklenburg Western-Pomerania in the northeast and Saarland in the west were the latest German states to tighten restrictions. Only people who can prove they are vaccinated or have recovered from COVID-19 will be able to enter nonessential stores. Saarland will also require people who are vaccinated or recovered to present a recent negative test to enter swimming pools and cultural venues.
EXPLAINER: What we know and don’t know about omicron variant
The World Health Organization says it could still take some time to get a full picture of the threat posed by omicron, a new variant of the coronavirus as scientists worldwide scramble to assess its multiple mutations.
Stock markets swooned, some public gatherings got canceled, and countries across the globe suspended incoming flights after scientists in South Africa last week identified the new version that appears to have been behind a recent spike in COVID-19 infections in the country’s most populous province.
Over the weekend, the list of countries that have spotted the new variant in travelers grew. Portugal detected 13 cases linked to the new variant among members of a single soccer club — only one of whom had recently traveled to South Africa.
On Friday, WHO designated it as a “variant of concern,” its most serious designation of a COVID-19 variant, and called it “omicron” as the latest entry into its Greek alphabet classification system designed to avoid stigmatizing countries of origin and simplify understanding.
Doctor: Many South Africans ill in surge have mild symptoms
South Africa’s rapid increase in COVID-19 cases attributed to the new omicron variant is resulting in mostly mild symptoms, doctors say.
“We’ve seen a sharp increase in cases for the past 10 days. So far they have mostly been very mild cases, with patients having flu-like symptoms: dry coughs, fever, night sweats, a lot of body pains,” said Dr. Unben Pillay, a general practitioner in Gauteng province where 81% of the new cases have been reported.
“Most of these patients have been treated at home,” Pillay told an online press briefing Monday. “Vaccinated people tend to do much better. We have not seen a vast increase in hospitalizations, but this is still early days. Hospitalizations often come several days after a rise in confirmed cases.”
Most of the new cases in South Africa have been among people in their 20s and 30s, and doctors note that age group generally has milder symptoms of COVID-19 in any case. They warn that older people infected by the new variant could have more severe symptoms.
LA begins enforcing strict mandate requiring proof of vax
Enforcement began Monday in Los Angeles for one of the strictest vaccine mandates in the country, a sweeping measure that requires proof of shots for everyone entering a wide variety of businesses from restaurants to theaters and gyms to nail and hair salons.
While the latest order aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus took effect Nov. 8, city officials spent the past three weeks providing business owners the information and resources business they need to comply.
“Nobody wants to penalize anyone,” said Sharon Tso, the city’s Chief Legislative Analyst, whose office drafted the enforcement rules. “That’s why we’ve been prioritizing education.”
A first offense will bring a warning but subsequent ones could produce fines running from $1,000 to $5,000. Inspectors with the Department of Building and Safety will enforce the mandate, and the city hopes to eventually get assistance from the LA County Department of Public Health, Tso said. She didn’t immediately know if any warnings or citations were issued on Monday.
State health officials confirm 781 new coronavirus cases
The state Department of Health (DOH) reported 781 new coronavirus cases and 49 new deaths on Monday.
The update brings the state's totals to 773,069 cases and 9,257 deaths, meaning that 1.2% of people diagnosed in Washington have died, according to the DOH. The data is as of 11:59 p.m. Sunday. Tallies may be higher earlier in the week because new state data isn’t reported on weekends. Data was also not reported last Nov. 25 and 26.
In addition, 42,834 people have been hospitalized in the state due to the virus — 334 new hospitalizations. In King County, the state's most populous, state health officials have confirmed a total of 172,912 COVID-19 diagnoses and 2,063 deaths.
Since vaccinations began in mid-December, the state and health care providers have administered 10,726,994 doses and 61.6% of Washingtonians have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to vaccination data, which the state updates on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Providers are currently giving an average of about 34,352 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.
Washington state virologists hunt specimens for omicron variant, confident they can spot it
Washington state’s virology teams have begun hunting for cases of the coronavirus’s new, highly mutated omicron variant, which hasn’t yet been detected in the United States but is worrying state and local health officials.
At the University of Washington, research teams working to sequence virus samples are confident they’ll be able to detect omicron infections once the variant lands in the state, said Alex Greninger, an assistant professor at UW’s department of laboratory medicine and pathology, in a Monday news briefing.
“Washington is one of the best-covered states” when it comes to sequencing, Greninger said. “We have sort of the best eyes out there when it comes to looking for these variants and reporting on them. As soon as omicron is here, we’ll be one of the first to pick it up.”
Now, he and his team are running about 800 to 1,000 sequences a week.
Rep. Ronny Jackson says COVID variant is Democratic hoax to justify new ballot rules
Rep. Ronny Jackson , R-Texas, says omicron is just the latest deep state plot to distract America.
The former White House physician claimed the worrisome variant is a hoax that Democrats will use to impose new COVID-19 mail-in ballot rules.
Jackson, a staunch supporter of former President Donald Trump, was repeating the latest version of the right-wing conspiracy theory that holds virtually any action taken by President Joe Biden or his public health officials is designed to help their electoral prospects.
Court denies Massachusetts hospital workers’ vaccine appeal
The Supreme Court has turned away an emergency appeal from employees at the largest hospital system in Massachusetts who object to the COVID-19 vaccine on religious grounds.
Justice Stephen Breyer did not comment Monday in rejecting the request from employees at Mass General Brigham for a religious exemption to the system’s vaccine requirement. Lawyers for the employees said in court papers that six have been fired, one has resigned and another was vaccinated in order to remain employed.
Mass General Brigham, which with 80,000 workers is the state’s largest private employer, told employees they would terminated if they did not receive their first shot by Nov. 5.
The employees who sued contend the requirement violates federal workplace discrimination laws.
Breyer, who handles emergency appeals from Massachusetts, acted on his own and without even asking Mass General Brigham for a response. Lower courts also had denied the request.
Austin denies Oklahoma bid for exception to vaccine mandate
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Monday rejected a request by Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt that his state’s National Guard be exempt from a Pentagon requirement that all military members be vaccinated against COVID-19.
Stitt, a Republican, had asked Austin in early November to suspend the mandate for members of the Oklahoma Guard. In his response denying the request, Austin laid out the Pentagon’s rationale for the mandate and noted potential consequences of Stitt’s stated intention to defy the requirement.
In his letter to Stitt, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press, Austin left open the question of how the vaccine requirement will be enforced and how far the Pentagon will go to force the issue. He did suggest that Guard troops who refuse the shots could lose their federal status, which could impact their pay and future benefits.
Austin wrote that all members of the Oklahoma Army and Air National Guard, “regardless of duty status,” must follow the directions of Army and Air Force service secretaries for COVID-19 vaccine compliance deadlines. “Failure to do so may lead to a prohibition on the member’s participation in drills and training” conducted under Title 32 of the U.S. Code, “and jeopardize the member’s status in the National Guard.”
COVID’s ‘not done with us’: Nations rush to contain omicron
Taking an act-now-ask-questions-later approach, countries around the world slammed their doors shut again to try to keep the new omicron variant at bay Monday as more cases of the mutant coronavirus emerged and scientists raced to figure out just how dangerous it might be.
Japan announced it would bar entry of all foreign visitors, joining Israel in doing so just days after the variant was identified by researchers in South Africa. Morocco banned all incoming flights. Other countries, including the U.S. and European Union members, have moved to prohibit travelers arriving from southern Africa.
Travelers infected with the new version have turned up in a widening circle of countries over the past few days, including now Spain, and cases in Portugal and Scotland have raised fears that the variant may already be spreading locally.
“Many of us might think we are done with COVID-19. It’s not done with us,” warned Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization.
Days after the variant sent a shudder through the financial world nearly two years into the pandemic that has killed over 5 million people, markets had mixed reactions Monday, with European stocks and oil prices rebounding and Wall Street opening higher, while Asian markets fell further.
Biden vaccine rule for health workers blocked in 10 states
A federal judge on Monday blocked President Joe Biden’s administration from enforcing a coronavirus vaccine mandate on thousands of health care workers in 10 states that had brought the first legal challenge against the requirement.
The court order said that the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid had no clear authority from Congress to enact the vaccine mandate for providers participating in the two government health care programs for the elderly, disabled and poor.
The preliminary injunction by St. Louis-based U.S. District Judge Matthew Schelp applies to a coalition of suing states that includes Alaska, Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming. Similar lawsuits also are pending in other states.
The federal rule requires COVID-19 vaccinations for more than 17 million workers nationwide in about 76,000 health care facilities and home health care providers that get funding from the government health programs. Workers are to receive their first dose by Dec. 6 and their second shot by Jan. 4
The court order against the health care vaccine mandate comes after Biden’s administration suffered a similar setback for a broader policy. A federal court previously placed a hold on a separate rule requiring businesses with more than 100 employees to ensure their workers get vaccinated or else wear masks and get tested weekly for the coronavirus.
Biden’s administration contends federal rules supersede state policies prohibiting vaccine mandates and are essential to slowing the pandemic.
But the judge in the health care provider case wrote that federal officials likely overstepped their legal powers.
COVID vaccine makers race to address omicron variant
Vaccine makers are rushing to explore ways to tailor their coronavirus shots to combat the newly identified omicron variant, which is prompting countries around the world to tighten restrictions to stop the spread.
Germany’s BioNTech and its partner Pfizer, as well as U.S. firm Moderna, are working to understand what level of protection their current vaccines offer and how to adapt them amid concern the variant’s mutations may make it more transmissible and evade the body’s immune response.
Moderna has mobilized hundreds of people as it anticipates its existing vaccine could lose some efficacy against the newest variant, though it would still provide a level of protection, and a new version could be available by next year if needed, executives said.
BioNTech said in a statement Monday that development had started to move as quickly as possible while scientists simultaneously research the need for a new shot, Bloomberg News reported, and Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla told CNBC a new template was made to develop a vaccine for the variant.
The two companies, which are conducting clinical trials to test the vaccine against other variants, said last week they could make a tailor-made vaccine in about 100 days if necessary, “subject to regulatory approval.”
Omicron brings COVID-19 vaccine inequity ‘home to roost’
The emergence of the new omicron variant and the world’s desperate and likely futile attempts to keep it at bay are reminders of what scientists have warned for months: The coronavirus will thrive as long as vast parts of the world lack vaccines.
The hoarding of limited COVID-19 shots by rich countries — creating virtual vaccine deserts in many poorer ones — doesn’t just mean risk for the parts of the world seeing shortages; it threatens the entire globe.
That’s because the more the disease spreads among unvaccinated populations, the more possibilities it has to mutate and potentially become more dangerous, prolonging the pandemic for everyone.
“The virus is a ruthless opportunist, and the inequity that has characterized the global response has now come home to roost,” said Dr. Richard Hatchett, CEO of CEPI, one of the groups behind the U.N.-backed COVAX shot-sharing initiative.
Perhaps nowhere is the inequality more evident than in Africa, where under 7% of the population is vaccinated. South African scientists alerted the World Health Organization to the new omicron variant last week, though it may never be clear where it first originated. Researchers are now rushing to determine whether it is more infectious or able to evade current vaccines.
As omicron variant circles the globe, African nations face blame and bans
Nations in southern Africa are protesting bitterly as more of the world’s wealthiest countries cut them off from travel, renewing a debate over border closures from the earliest days of the coronavirus pandemic and compounding the problems facing poorly vaccinated countries.
The new coronavirus variant called omicron, first detected in Botswana, put governments on edge after South Africa announced a surge of cases this week, plunging countries into the most uncertain moment of the pandemic since the highly contagious delta variant took hold this past spring.
As in the early days of delta, political alarm spread quickly across the world, with officials trading blame over how the failures of the global vaccination effort were allowing the virus to mutate, even as researchers warned that the true threat of the new variant was not yet clear.
Bearing a worrying number of mutations that researchers fear could make it spread easily, omicron was spotted Saturday in patients in Britain, Germany and Italy, leaving in its wake what scientists estimated to be thousands of cases in southern Africa and tens or hundreds more globally. One nation after another shut its doors to southern Africa even as they spurned public health measures that scientists said were far more urgently needed to take on the new variant.
The cascade of travel closures triggered a wave of resentment among Africans who believed that the continent was yet again bearing the brunt of panicked policies from Western countries, which had failed to deliver vaccines and the resources needed to administer them.
New variant cause for ‘concern, not panic,’ Biden tells US
President Joe Biden called the new COVID-19 variant omicron a cause for concern but “not a cause for panic” Monday and said he was not considering any widespread U.S. lockdown. He urged Americans anew to get fully vaccinated, including booster shots, and return to face masks indoors in public settings to slow any spread.
Speaking Monday at the White House, Biden said it was inevitable that the new variant would reach the U.S., but he also said the country has the tools necessary to protect Americans — particularly the approved vaccines and booster shots.
When omicron arrives, and it will, Biden said, America will “face this new threat just as we’ve faced those that have come before it.”
Thousands protest coronavirus restrictions in Czech capital
Thousands rallied in the Czech capital of Prague on Sunday to protest the government’s restrictive measures to tackle a record surge of coronavirus infections.
The protesters included members and supporters of a number of fringe political parties and groups that failed to win any parliamentary seats in October’s election. It was their third protest in the last two weeks. The participants didn’t wear face coverings or follow social distancing rules and drank beer despite a ban on drinking alcohol in public.
At Prague’s Letna Park, the protesters chanted “Freedom!” and “We’ve had enough!” while displaying banners that discouraged getting vaccinated such as ones reading“My body my choice.”
Police didn’t intervene.
The country has been setting repeated records in new daily infections, hitting a record high of almost 28,000 cases on Thursday.
As omicron emerges, a tired public has little appetite for new restrictions
Cold weather is driving more Americans indoors. The holiday season has prompted a wave of travel, generating new lines of covid transmission. And the delta variant is pushing up hospitalizations.
Now, adding to the potentially bad news, an ominous new variant has emerged: Omicron.
But after nearly 21 months of COVID-19 restrictions, there is little appetite in the country for the kinds of school closures, indoor gathering bans and restaurant restrictions that defined the early days of the pandemic, according to health officials, who say that the political will to push for unpopular – but effective – mitigation measures is waning.
“It is very exhausting,” said Ezekiel Emanuel, a physician and bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania who was on President’s Biden’s COVID advisory team during the transition. “The American public is rightfully exhausted, and therefore the amount of risk we’re willing to take goes up. People are willing to take more risks and accept more challenges, but they’re not willing to accept more restrictions.”
But he suggested that a resistance to such limitations, which some European countries have begun to reimpose, carries its own dangers.
“How often do you hear people say, ‘I’m done with COVID?’ Well, your being done with it does not mean the pandemic is over,” Emanuel said.
Swiss vote to approve COVID restrictions as infections rise
Swiss voters on Sunday gave clear backing to legislation that introduced a system with special COVID-19 certificates under which only people who have been vaccinated, recovered or tested negative can attend public events and gatherings.
Final results showed 62% of voters supporting the legislation, which is already in force. The referendum offered a rare bellwether of public opinion on the issue of government policy to fight the spread of coronavirus in Europe, which is currently the global epicenter of the pandemic.
The vote on the country’s “COVID-19 law,” which also has unlocked billions of Swiss francs (dollars) in aid for workers and businesses hit by the pandemic, came as Switzerland — like many other nations in Europe — faces a steep rise in coronavirus cases.
The Swiss federal government, unlike others, hasn’t responded with new restrictions. Analysts said it didn’t want to stir up more opposition to its anti-COVID-19 policies before they faced Sunday’s test at the ballot box — but that if Swiss voters gave a thumbs-up, the government may well ratchet up its anti-COVID efforts.
Fauci fires back at Cruz over COVID claims about Chinese lab
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious diseases expert, blasted Sen. Ted Cruz for suggesting that Fauci be investigated for statements he made about COVID-19 and said the criticism by the Texas Republican was an attack on science.
“I should be prosecuted? What happened on Jan. 6, senator?” Fauci, who is President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, said in an interview that aired Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” It was a reference to the violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol by supporters of then-President Donald Trump that was stoked as Cruz helped lead GOP objections to Congress’ certifying the 2020 election results.
Some Republicans, including Cruz and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., have accused Fauci of lying to Congress when he denied in May that the National Institutes of Health funded “gain of function” research — the practice of enhancing a virus in a lab to study its potential impact in the real world — at a virology lab in Wuhan, China.
When asked whether Republicans might be raising the claims to make him a scapegoat and deflect criticism of Trump, Fauci said, “of course, you have to be asleep not to figure that one out.”
Doctor who saw omicron early says symptoms different from delta
People infected by omicron in South Africa are showing very different symptoms to those suffering from the delta strain, said the doctor who alerted government scientists to the possibility of a new variant.
Patients who contracted it complain of fatigue, head and body aches and occasional sore throats and coughs, said Angelique Coetzee, who is also chairwoman of the South African Medical Association. Delta infections, by comparison, caused elevated pulse rates, resulted in low oxygen levels and a loss of smell and taste, she said.
After weeks of almost no COVID patients at her practice in Pretoria, the capital and epicenter of South Africa’s current surge, Coetzee said she suddenly started seeing patients, who were mostly young, complain of the symptoms on Nov. 18. She immediately informed the government’s Ministerial Advisory Council on Covid-19, and laboratories the next week identified a new variant, she said.
Merriam-Webster chooses vaccine as the 2021 word of the year
With an expanded definition to reflect the times, Merriam-Webster has declared an omnipresent truth as its 2021 word of the year: vaccine.
“This was a word that was extremely high in our data every single day in 2021,” Peter Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster’s editor-at-large, told The Associated Press ahead of Monday’s announcement.
“It really represents two different stories. One is the science story, which is this remarkable speed with which the vaccines were developed. But there’s also the debates regarding policy, politics and political affiliation. It’s one word that carries these two huge stories,” he said.
The selection follows “vax” as word of the year from the folks who publish the Oxford English Dictionary. And it comes after Merriam-Webster chose “pandemic” as tops in lookups last year on its online site.
Washington state’s pandemic recovery remains slow and uneven
If Washingtonians needed another reminder that COVID isn’t done with us yet, the latest round of employment data should do the trick.
Last week’s jobs report showed that overall hiring was slowing: Washington added just 6,300 jobs in October, versus 18,800 in September, even as the nation’s hiring surged 70% for the same period. Even accounting for the large losses of education and other government jobs, the state’s hiring has cooled.
But the recovery isn’t just slow, according to data posted this week by to state Employment Security Department (ESD): it’s also markedly uneven, with some of the hardest hit industries and places showing the least progress in bouncing back.
King County, for example, has regained most of the roughly 150,000 jobs it lost in the pandemic; its workforce is now within 2% of its October 2019 size.
By contrast, neighboring Snohomish County’s workforce is still 7.1% smaller than it was in October 2019. In the last year, Snohomish County has added only around 300 more jobs, ESD data show.
Catch up on the past 24 hours
As omicron spreads, how much should you worry? More cases of the coronavirus variant are popping up, including in Canada, as countries slam their borders shut. Don't be surprised if it's already in the U.S., Dr. Anthony Fauci says. The world is rushing to find answers to these key questions:
- Will the vaccines stop omicron? Early findings are mixed, and vaccine makers are already working on their response to what they see as "a Frankenstein mix of all the greatest hits." Meanwhile, Fauci points toward the best weapons at this point: vaccines and boosters. (Here's where to get yours in the Seattle area.)
- How sick will this variant make you? Early signs are sparking some hope that it may cause only mild illness, but it's really too soon to tell. Here's what we do know about the patients so far, and what else is and isn't known about omicron.
International travelers are stranded today, with some desperately trying to get home from abroad and others scratching plans to see loved ones in other countries as nations lock down their borders.
Japan has become the largest country to close its borders to all foreigners in response to omicron, starting tomorrow.
How omicron got its name: Here's the story behind the Greek letter many of us didn't know last week.
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