Editor’s note: This is a live account of COVID-19 updates from Tuesday, November 30, 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 It is no longer being updated.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 rise of the omicron variant first reported by South African scientists is a reminder that the pandemic will continue as long as large regions of the world lack access to COVID-19 vaccines, scientists said. While richer countries are moving to offer booster shots, poorer countries continue to struggle with providing vaccine access.
Biden announced he would not issue a widespread lockdown, calling omicron a “cause for concern but not a cause for panic.” Doctors treating omicron cases said most patients have only shown mild flu-like symptoms. Biden encouraged the estimated 80 million unvaccinated Americans to get vaccinated and encouraged the use of face masks in all indoor public spaces.
Meanwhile, officials in Los Angeles moved to enforce a “strict” COVID-19 mandate, much like in Seattle. The mandate requires individuals to provide proof of vaccination to enter public spaces such as restaurants, theaters, gyms and other businesses. Businesses not complying with the mandate will receive a first-time warning but repeated violations could result in a fee ranging from $1,000 to $5,000.
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.
South Korea’s daily virus jump exceeds 5,000 for first time
South Korea’s daily jump in coronavirus infections exceeded 5,000 for the first time since the start of the pandemic, as a delta-driven surge also pushed hospitalizations and deaths to record highs.
With the spread threatening to overwhelm hospital capacities, health experts have called for officials to reimpose stricter social distancing rules that were eased last month to soften the pandemic’s impact on the economy.
The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency said most of the new 5,123 cases reported Wednesday came from the capital Seoul and its surrounding metropolitan region, where officials earlier said more than 80% of intensive care units designated for COVID-19 patients were already occupied.
More than 720 virus patients were in serious or critical condition, also marking a new high. The country’s fatalities reached 3,658 after seeing between 30 and 50 deaths a day in recent weeks.
Stricter coronavirus testing being weighed for all travelers to U.S.
The Biden administration is preparing stricter testing requirements for all travelers entering the United States, including returning Americans, to curb the spread of the potentially dangerous omicron variant, according to three federal health officials.
As part of an enhanced winter COVID strategy President Joe Biden is expected to announce Thursday, U.S. officials would require everyone entering the country to be tested one day before boarding flights, regardless of their vaccination status or country of departure. Administration officials are also considering a requirement that all travelers get retested within three to five days of arrival.
In addition, they are debating a controversial proposal to require all travelers, including U.S. citizens, to self-quarantine for seven days, even if their test results are negative. Those who flout the requirements might be subject to fines and penalties, the first time such penalties would be linked to testing and quarantine measures for travelers in the United States.
Injunction blocks Biden’s vaccine mandate for health workers
A federal judge issued a preliminary injunction Tuesday to halt the start of President Joe Biden’s national vaccine mandate for health care workers, which had been set to begin next week.
The injunction, written by Judge Terry Doughty, effectively expanded a separate order issued Monday by a federal court in Missouri. The earlier one had applied only to 10 states that joined in a lawsuit against the president’s decision to require all health workers in hospitals and nursing homes to receive at least their first shot by Dec. 6 and to be fully vaccinated by Jan. 4.
“There is no question that mandating a vaccine to 10.3 million health care workers is something that should be done by Congress, not a government agency,” wrote Doughty, a judge on the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana. He added: “It is not clear that even an act of Congress mandating a vaccine would be constitutional.”
The plaintiffs, he added, also have an “interest in protecting its citizens from being required to submit to vaccinations” and to prevent the loss of jobs and tax revenue that may result from the mandate.
Omicron carries scary mutations. That doesn’t mean they work well together
The omicron variant of the coronavirus has alarmed many scientists because of the sheer number of genetic mutations it carries — about 50 in all, including at least 26 that are unique to it. But more does not necessarily mean worse: Mutations sometimes work together to make a virus more fearsome, but they may also cancel one another out.
“In principle, mutations can also work against each other,” said Jesse Bloom, an evolutionary biologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. “However, in this case evolutionary selection is more likely to lead to the spread of a new variant with favorable than unfavorable combinations of mutations.”
Still, this phenomenon, called epistasis, is why scientists are reluctant to speculate on omicron’s attributes, even though individual mutations in the variant are associated with greater transmissibility or with an ability to dodge the body’s immune defenses.
“It is important to get a sense of the full virus,” said Penny Moore, a virus expert at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases in South Africa.
FDA panel backs first-of-a-kind COVID-19 pill from Merck
A panel of U.S. health advisers on Tuesday narrowly backed a closely watched COVID-19 pill from Merck, setting the stage for a likely authorization of the first drug that Americans could take at home to treat the coronavirus.
A Food and Drug Administration panel voted 13-10 that the drug’s benefits outweigh its risks, including potential birth defects if used during pregnancy.
The recommendation came after hours of debate about the drug’s modest benefits and potential safety issues. Experts backing the treatment stressed that it should not be used by anyone who is pregnant and called on FDA to recommend extra precautions before the drug is prescribed, including pregnancy tests for women of child-bearing age.
The vote specifically backed the drug for adults with mild-to-moderate COVID-19 who face the greatest risks, including older people and those with conditions like obesity and asthma. Most experts also said the drug shouldn’t be used in vaccinated patients, who weren’t part of the study and haven’t been shown to benefit.
Oregon tests voluntary electronic tool to verify vaccination
Oregon is working on an electronic vaccine verification tool that residents could use to share their COVID-19 vaccination status with businesses that ask for proof of verification.
The Oregon Health Authority said the tool would be optional and people could volunteer to opt-in, KHQ-TV reported.
Oregon is testing a model of the tool with “communities disproportionally impacted by COVID-19,” health officials said.
The goal is to make it available to anyone in Oregon in the spring 2022.
Oregon does not require businesses to ask for customers’ proof of COVID-19 vaccination, but many Portland restaurants and bars and places such as the Rose Quarter — which includes the Moda Center where the Portland Trail Blazers basketball team plays — have established their own requirements.
Officials said the tool is modeled after a similar ones used in Washington and California.
State health officials confirm 1,407 new coronavirus cases
The state Department of Health (DOH) reported 1,407 new coronavirus cases and 46 new deaths on Tuesday.
The update brings the state's totals to 774,465 cases and 9,303 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. Monday. Tallies may be higher earlier in the week because new state data isn’t reported on weekends.
In addition, 42,912 people have been hospitalized in the state due to the virus — 78 new hospitalizations. In King County, the state's most populous, state health officials have confirmed a total of 173,128 COVID-19 diagnoses and 2,068 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.
As omicron variant alarm spreads, countries mull a radical ‘pandemic treaty’
Omicron was the Black Friday surprise no one wanted. But this mysterious and alarming new coronavirus variant has injected itself into a global debate about vaccine inequality and pandemic responses at a potentially crucial moment.
Less than a week after the new variant was reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) by South Africa, global leaders met Monday to discuss the creation of an international agreement to better deal with historic outbreaks — what some advocates have dubbed a “pandemic treaty.” The special session of the World Health Assembly (WHA), only the second ever held by the WHO’s governing body, is expected to last until Wednesday.
The meeting began as the WHO warned of “very high” global risk from the new variant.
The arrival of a fast-spreading variant from an under-vaccinated country should bolster those who favor a treaty — at least in theory. For over a year, experts have warned that “no one is safe until everyone is safe.” The emergence of a worrying new variant in a continent where only 6% of the population is fully vaccinated is precisely the scenario warned about.
When threatened, governments don’t often think globally. They look out for themselves. And since omicron emerged, countries have responded with restrictions and outright bans on entry from countries with confirmed cases. Southern Africa, where the variant was first detected, has been particularly targeted with travel bans, even though the virus has already spread.
Greece mandates COVID-19 vaccinations for residents over 60
Residents in Greece over 60 years old will have to undergo mandatory vaccinations against coronavirus or face monthly 100-euro ($114) fines beginning next year, the prime minister announced Tuesday, declaring the country’s first general inoculation mandate.
The Greek government decided upon the measure in response to a surge in new daily infections and the emergence of the omicron variant. It will take effect on Jan. 16 and the fines will be added to tax bills, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said in a televised statement.
Greece’s overall COVID-19 death toll exceeded 18,000 this week with confirmed new infections at high levels. Roughly a quarter of the country’s adult population remains unvaccinated.
Brazil and Japan report first cases of the omicron variant
Brazil and Japan joined the rapidly widening circle of countries to report cases of the omicron variant Tuesday, while new findings indicate the mutant coronavirus was already in Europe close to a week before South Africa sounded the alarm.
The Netherlands’ RIVM health institute disclosed that patient samples dating from Nov. 19 and 23 were found to contain the variant. It was on Nov. 24 that South African authorities reported the existence of the highly mutated virus to the World Health Organization.
That indicates omicron had a bigger head start in the Netherlands than previously believed.
Together with the cases in Japan and Brazil, the finding illustrates the difficulty in containing the virus in an age of jet travel and economic globalization. And it left the world once again whipsawed between hopes of returning to normal and fears that the worst is yet to come.
Pentagon chief says Guard who refuse vaccine cannot train
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has decided that National Guard members who refuse COVID-19 vaccination will be barred from federally funded drills and training required to maintain their Guard status.
Austin spelled out the policy in an internal memo obtained by The Associated Press. In the memo, he instructed leaders of the military services Tuesday to publish guidance by next week on dealing with Guard members who fail to meet military medical readiness requirements by refusing the vaccine.
“Vaccination is essential to the health and readiness of the force,” he wrote.
All members of the military are required to be vaccinated unless they obtain an official waiver for medical or other reasons.
The military services have set varying deadlines that apply to active and reserve forces. Members of the Air Guard must be vaccinated by December; Army Guard members have until June. Austin’s policy will affect Guard members only when the vaccination deadline set by their service has been reached.
Labor group accuses Amazon of under-reporting COVID-19 cases contracted at work
Amazon provided “misleading or grossly incomplete” data about the number of COVID-19 infections potentially spread in its U.S. facilities, according to a labor group calling on the federal government to investigate the company.
Of the almost 20,000 employees the company said contracted the coronavirus last year, Amazon maintains that only 27 potentially caught it at work, according to the Strategic Organizing Center, which reviewed Amazon’s annual workplace illness and injury disclosures to the Department of Labor. Federal authorities last year required companies to report work-related COVID-19 cases.
The center, whose members include the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union, compared Amazon’s COVID-19 disclosures with county health department records about COVID outbreaks in Los Angeles, Salt Lake City and Troutdale, Oregon (outside Portland). The three health departments found more than 750 COVID cases among Amazon workers, but Amazon’s disclosures suggest none of them were work-related, according to the study.
Amazon disputed the study’s conclusions.
Amazon benefited from a surge in online shopping during the lockdown period of the pandemic even as many retailers were forced to close stores. Last year, Amazon’s sales jumped 38% to $386 billion, and the company posted record profits.
The company’s e-commerce boom coincided with a barrage of criticism from workers, labor groups and government officials, who said Amazon didn’t do enough to protect workers and was stingy with COVID data.
Quarantine hotel escapees arrested as Europe enforces new COVID measures
A couple was arrested for violating coronavirus quarantine, to which they were restricted after at least one of them tested positive for the coronavirus on arrival from South Africa, according to local news reports.
The incident comes as Europe goes on high alert over the appearance of the omicron variant of the coronavirus in at least 12 countries across the continent.
The married couple, a Portuguese woman and a Spanish man, were arrested Sunday evening at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam, moments before their flight was scheduled to depart for Spain. They have since been placed in isolation in a hospital, according to Het Parool, a Dutch newspaper.
The man and woman, whose names were not released, had arrived to the Netherlands on a flight from South Africa, and at least one of them tested positive for the coronavirus after landing at Schiphol airport. They were placed in isolation in a hotel along with travelers from southern Africa.
They left the hotel where they around 6 p.m. Sunday. Security guards alerted the Marechaussee, a national police force, according to the Guardian. The couple was arrested on the plane “almost silently and without violence,” a Marechaussee spokesman said.
South Africa, first to reveal omicron, braces for COVID surge, including among kids
South Africa has recorded a sharp increase in coronavirus cases, including among children under 2 years old, a top epidemiologist said Monday, as the country reckons with the consequences of being among the first to report the omicron variant of the coronavirus.
Health-care providers and officials said they are making preparations to deal with what is effectively a fourth wave of the pandemic in the country – including by ensuring there are enough pediatric hospital beds to deal with the possible increase in young children’s hospital admissions.
According to the City of Tshwane Metropolitan Municipality, which includes the heavily affected Gauteng Province, between Nov. 14 and 28, the age group with the highest total number of hospital admissions for covid were those under the age of 2. During those two weeks, 62 under-2-year-olds were admitted compared with 42 admissions for the ages 30 to 32.
'This is not going to be good,' says Moderna CEO about vaccines' effectiveness against omicron
Moderna’s CEO predicted Tuesday that existing coronavirus vaccines would be much less effective at combating omicron compared with previous COVID-19 variants, spooking financial markets in the United States, Europe and Asia as scientists rush to learn about the new variant.
Stéphane Bancel told the Financial Times that it would take months for pharmaceutical companies to manufacture new variant-specific doses to address omicron, as public health officials and vaccine makers worldwide examine the tangible impact of the largely unknown variant. The spread of omicron in South Africa, which was among the first countries to identify the variant and is preparing for a potential surge in infections, caused Bancel to suggest that existing vaccines might need to be modified in 2022.
“There is no world, I think, where [the effectiveness] is the same level … we had with delta,” Bancel said, referring to the highly contagious variant that was first detected in India in late 2020.
Even though Bancel cautioned against panic when it comes to a variant the public still does not know much about, he told the Financial Times that his initial talks with scientists indicate what could be “a material drop” in vaccine effectiveness against omicron.
“I just don’t know how much, because we need to wait for the data,” he said. “But all the scientists I’ve talked to … are, like, ‘This is not going to be good.'”
US tracking of virus variants has improved after slow start
After a slow start, the United States has improved its surveillance system for tracking new coronavirus variants such as omicron, boosting its capacity by tens of thousands of samples per week since early this year.
It’s a global effort to find and track new versions of the coronavirus, but until recently the U.S. was contributing very little. With uncoordinated and scattershot testing, the U.S. was sequencing fewer than 1% of positive specimens earlier this year. Now, it is running those tests on 5% to 10% of samples.
State, local and other labs, including those run by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and its contractors, bring the total to 40,000 to 80,000 weekly. Nine months ago, about 12,000 samples each week were being analyzed in this way.
“We’re in a much, much better place than a year ago or even six or nine months ago,” said Kenny Beckman of the University of Minnesota, who credited federal dollars distributed to public and private labs.
Counterfeit COVID masks are still sold everywhere, despite misleading claims
The N95 mask, arguably the most essential and coveted piece of pandemic protective gear, is no longer a rare commodity, thanks to the return of Chinese imports and a resurgence in U.S. domestic production.
But good luck buying the quality ones online or at big box retailers.
Consumers who try to purchase N95 masks, mainly on Amazon, are often led to vendors selling fake or poorly made KN95s, a Chinese-made mask that is often marketed as an N95 equivalent despite the lack of testing by U.S. regulators to confirm virus-filtering claims.
In fact, KN95 masks offered on Amazon and through other retailers are being sold without authorization for use in health care settings from the Food and Drug Administration, which last July revoked its emergency use authorization for imported masks that lack approval from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — a category that includes all KN95s from China.
They include brands like Boncare, which is produced by a company that has repeatedly failed federal testing standards; Yotu, whose manufacturer has also failed European Union testing; and ChiSip, an Amazon top seller whose manufacturer, Chengde Technology, was cited by the CDC for falsely claiming approval by federal regulators.
All but a handful of the 50 bestselling KN95 masks on Amazon are plagued by similar problems, according to an analysis of sales data published by the marketing analytics firm Jungle Scout. Last month, companies that make or sell masks of dubious quality racked up almost $34 million in sales.
Face masks again mandatory in England to combat omicron
England imposed new restrictions to combat the omicron variant on Tuesday, with face masks again compulsory in shops and on public transport.
Beginning Tuesday morning, all travelers returning to the U.K. must also take a PCR test and self-isolate until they receive a negative result. Previously they had been able to take a lateral flow test and there was no requirement to isolate.
About 14 cases of the omicron variant have so far been identified across the U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the new measures will “buy us time in the face” of the new coronavirus variant.
New info shows omicron spread wider earlier than thought
New findings about the coronavirus’s omicron variant made it clear Tuesday that the emerging threat slipped into countries well before their defenses were up, as two distant nations announced their first cases and a third reported its presence before South African officials sounded the alarm.
The Netherlands’ RIVM health institute found omicron in samples dating from Nov. 19 and 23. The World Health Organization said South Africa first reported the variant to the U.N. health agency on Nov. 24. Meanwhile, Japan and France reported their first cases of the new variant that has forced the world once again to pinball between hopes of returning to normal and fears that the worst is yet to come.
It remains unclear where or when the variant first emerged or how contagious it might be — but that hasn’t stopped wary nations from rushing to impose travel restrictions, especially on visitors coming from southern Africa. Those moves have been criticized by South Africa and the WHO has urged against them, noting their limited effect.
The latest news though made it increasingly clear that travel bans would struggle to stop the spread of the variant. German authorities said they had an omicron infection in a man who had neither been abroad nor had contact with anyone who was.
Russian coronavirus-denying monk given prison sentence
A rebel Russian monk who castigated the Kremlin and denied that the coronavirus existed was convicted Tuesday on accusations of encouraging suicides and given a 3½-year prison sentence.
When the coronavirus pandemic began, Father Sergiy, 66, denied its existence and denounced government efforts to stem the pandemic as “Satan’s electronic camp.” He has spread the long-debunked conspiracy theories about COVID-19 and described the coronavirus vaccines being developed against COVID-19 as part of a purported global plot to control the masses via microchips.
The Russian Orthodox Church stripped Father Sergiy of his abbot’s rank for breaking monastic rules and later excommunicated him, but he rejected the rulings and ignored police investigators’ summons.
Catch up on the past 24 hours
Washington state's hunt is on for the omicron variant, and researchers who are busy sequencing virus samples say our state has some of "the best eyes out there" when it comes to detection. If and when the variant shows up in the U.S., though, don't expect a flurry of lockdowns and other disruptive measures.
Omicron had already been in Europe for nearly a week when South Africa alerted global health authorities of its existence, health authorities in the Netherlands said as new cases popped up around the globe yesterday. Two quarantine-hotel escapees were arrested as the Netherlands amped up its restrictions. South Africa, meanwhile, is seeing a sharp increase in coronavirus cases, including among its youngest children.
A Texas man hit a strip club and bought a Lamborghini with coronavirus aid. Now he's headed to prison for a long time.
Merck's COVID-19 pill could clear a hurdle today when advisers to the FDA make their recommendation. But the agency has raised questions about molnupiravir, which was recently shown to be less effective than initially predicted.
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