Editor’s note: This is a live account of COVID-19 updates from Wednesday, September 15, 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 It is no longer being updated.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.

COVID-19 deaths and cases in the U.S. have reached levels seen last winter. In Washington state, data from the Department of Health showed more than 7,000 people have died from COVID-19. Washington eclipsed a previous milestones of 6,000 deaths in July.

Religious and medical exemption requests are also being filed, and at least 8% of Washington state government workers have requested an exemption to Gov. Jay Inslee’s vaccine mandate.

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.

Can kids be harmed wearing masks to protect against COVID?

Can kids be harmed wearing masks to protect against COVID?

No, there is no scientific evidence showing masks cause harm to kids’ health despite baseless claims suggesting otherwise.

The claims are circulating on social media and elsewhere just as virus outbreaks are hitting many reopened U.S. schools — particularly those without mask mandates.

Among the unfounded arguments: Masks can foster germs if they become moist or cause unhealthy levels of carbon dioxide. But experts say washing masks routinely keeps them safe and clean.

Read the full story here.

—Lindsey Tanner, The Associated Press

Federal judge declines to block Florida ban on mask mandates

 A federal judge declined Wednesday to block a ban imposed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis to prevent mandating masks for Florida school students amid the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.

Judge K. Michael Moore in Miami denied a request by parents of disabled children for a preliminary injunction against an executive order that DeSantis issued in July that served as the basis for the Florida Department of Health issuing a rule that required school districts to allow parents to opt out of any student mask mandates.

Moore wrote in his ruling that parents should have pursued administrative claims before filing a lawsuit.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Matthew Dietz said in an email that he believed the judge misconstrued a U.S. Supreme Court decision about the exhaustion of administrative remedies in cases involving children with disabilities. He pointed out that it takes at least 75 days for administrative preconditions to be exhausted in Florida, meaning children with disabilities who would be seriously injured or killed by a COVID-19 infection would be unable to return safely to their school.

Read the full story here.

—The Associated Press

World leaders face new rule at UN meeting: vaccination

World leaders will have to be vaccinated against the coronavirus to speak at the U.N. General Assembly’s big meeting next week, the assembly leader and New York City officials have said, prompting swift objections from at least one nation.

With the diplomatic world’s premier event being held in person for the first time during the pandemic, city International Affairs commissioner Penny Abeywardena told the assembly in a letter last week that officials consider the hall a “convention center” and therefore subject to the city’s vaccination requirement.

“We are proud to join in the ongoing efforts to keep all U.N.G.A. attendees and our fellow New Yorkers safe during the pandemic,” she and Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement Wednesday, adding that the city would offer free, walk-in vaccinations — Johnson & Johnson’s single shot — and testing outside the U.N. during the meeting.

G.A. President Abdulla Shahid embraced the vaccination requirement in a letter Tuesday, calling it “an important step in our return to a fully-functional General Assembly.”

Read the full story here.

—Jennifer Peltz, The Associated Press

FDA strikes neutral tone ahead of vaccine booster meeting

Influential government advisers will debate Friday if there’s enough proof that a booster dose of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine is safe and effective — the first step toward deciding which Americans need one and when.

The Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday posted much of the evidence its advisory panel will consider. The agency struck a decidedly neutral tone on the rationale for boosters — an unusual and careful approach that’s all the more striking after President Joe Biden and his top health advisers trumpeted a booster campaign they hoped to begin next week.

Pfizer’s argument: While protection against severe disease is holding strong in the U.S., immunity against milder infection wanes somewhere around six to eight months after the second dose. The company gave an extra dose to 306 people at that point and recorded levels of virus-fighting antibodies threefold higher than after the earlier shots. Those antibodies appear strong enough to handle the extra-contagious delta variant that is surging around the country, Pfizer said.

Read the story here.

—Lauran Neergaard and Matthew Perrone, The Associated Press

Study of booster shot benefits fans debate over extra doses

Wading into an acrimonious debate over booster doses, researchers in Israel reported Wednesday that a third dose of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine can prevent both infections and severe illness in adults older than 60 for at least 12 days.

The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, is the latest salvo in the conflict over whether booster doses are needed for healthy adults and whether they should be given out, as the Biden administration plans to do, when so much of the world remains unvaccinated.

Several independent scientists said the cumulative data so far suggests that only older adults will need boosters — and maybe not even them.

Vaccination remains powerfully protective against severe illness and hospitalization in the vast majority of people in all of the studies published so far, experts said. But the vaccines do seem less potent against infections in people of all ages, particularly those exposed to the highly contagious delta variant.

Read the full story here.

—Apoorva Mandavilli, The New York Times

U.S. will require most new immigrants to get coronavirus vaccine

The United States will require new immigrants to be fully vaccinated against the coronavirus as part of its routine medical examination, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced on Tuesday.

The measure goes into effect on Oct. 1. Most people applying to become a permanent resident in the United States are required to receive the immigration medical examination “to show they are free from any conditions that would render them inadmissible under the health-related grounds,” according to USCIS.

The United States already requires a slew of other vaccinations for permanent resident applicants, including measles, polio, influenza and tetanus.

The coronavirus vaccination requirement follows updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, USCIS said. Exceptions to the requirement will be allowed for medical conditions, if there is a lack of vaccine supply or if the vaccine is “not age-appropriate” for the immigration applicant, USCIS said. Religious or “moral convictions” exemptions may be requested on a case-by-case basis.

The announcement comes after the Biden administration last week unveiled a sweeping set of vaccination mandates, requiring federal employees to get immunized against the coronavirus, and ordering businesses with more than 100 employees to require vaccinations or weekly testing.

Read the story here.

—Bryan Pietsch, The Washington Post

State health officials confirm 3,732 new coronavirus cases

The state Department of Health (DOH) reported 3,732 new coronavirus cases and 52 new deaths on Wednesday.

The update brings the state's totals to 613,670 cases and 7,089 deaths, meaning that 1.3% of people diagnosed in Washington have died, according to the DOH. The data is as of 11:59 p.m. Tuesday.

In addition, 34,446 people have been hospitalized in the state due to the virus — 191 new hospitalizations. In King County, the state's most populous, state health officials have confirmed a total of 144,231 COVID-19 diagnoses and 1,816 deaths.

Since vaccinations began in mid-December, the state and health care providers have administered 8,798,963 doses and 56.3%% 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 13,704 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.


Unvaccinated French health care workers face suspension

Health care workers in France face suspension from their jobs starting Wednesday if they haven’t been vaccinated against COVID-19. With as many as 300,000 workers still not vaccinated, some hospitals fear staff shortages will add to their strain.

Vaccines are now compulsory for medical care, home care and emergency workers in France, and Wednesday is the deadline for such staff to have had at least one shot. Failing that, they face having pay suspended or not being able to work. But a top court has forbidden staff to be fired outright.

The mandate was approved by France’s parliament over the summer to protect patients and the public from new surges of COVID-19. More than 113,000 people with the virus have died in France, and health authorities say most of those hospitalized in the most recent surge weren’t vaccinated.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

Pope questions vaccine skeptics, including cardinals

Pope Francis said Wednesday he didn’t understand why people refuse to take COVID-19 vaccines, saying “humanity has a history of friendship with vaccines,” and that serene discussion about the shots was necessary to help them.

“Even in the College of Cardinals, there are some negationists,” Francis said Wednesday, en route home from Slovakia.

He noted that one of them, “poor guy,” had been hospitalized with the virus. That was an apparent reference to U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke, who was hospitalized in the U.S. and placed on a ventilator last month after contracting the virus.

Francis was asked about vaccine skeptics and those who oppose vaccine mandates by a Slovakian reporter, given that some events during his four-day pilgrimage to the country were restricted to people who had gotten COVID-19 jabs. The issue is broader, however, as more and more governments adopt vaccine mandates for certain categories of workers, sparking opposition.

“It’s a bit strange, because humanity has a history of friendship with vaccines,” Francis said, noting that children for decades have been vaccinated against measles, mumps and polio “and no one said anything.”

He hypothesized that the “virulence of uncertainty” was due to the diversity of COVID-19 vaccines, the quick approval time and the plethora of “arguments that created this division,” and fear. 

Read the story here.

—Nicole Winfield, The Associated Press

Washington state’s COVID hospitalizations, cases begin to level off — though at dangerous levels, health officials say

The record levels of coronavirus infection and hospitalization that have surged since early to mid-July appear to be flattening — though at a dangerous level, Washington state health officials said Wednesday.

The state continues to see its highest rates yet of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, but the leveling of the epidemiological curves is a welcome sight after the highly contagious delta variant raged across the country this summer.

As of last week, the state was seeing a seven-day average of about 180 new hospitalizations per day, compared to an average of about 195 hospital admissions per day at the end of August, state epidemiologist Dr. Scott Lindquist said Wednesday.

While the new numbers are encouraging, he said he would be “very cautious” about getting hopes up. “We are not over this pandemic at all,” Lindquist added.

Read the story here.

—Elise Takahama

Largest colleges push student vaccines with mandates, prizes

As a new semester begins amid a resurgence of the coronavirus, 26 of the 50 largest public university campuses in the U.S. are not mandating that students be vaccinated, according to an analysis by The Associated Press.

Approaches on enforcement vary widely even among universities that do have vaccine mandates, with some offering leniency for students who opt out and others expelling those who do not comply.

Administrators are emphasizing high numbers for student vaccinations as key to bringing some normalcy back to campus and keeping instruction in classrooms rather than online. Where mandates face political opposition, schools are relying on incentives and outreach to get more students vaccinated.

The universities without vaccine mandates include many of the country’s very largest and account for roughly 55% of students enrolled at the 50 biggest overall, according to the AP analysis, which looked at the largest campuses by 2019-2020 enrollment that offer on-campus housing and award bachelor’s degrees.

Universities with vaccine mandates are concentrated in the Northeast and California. Almost all of those without mandates are in states that have restricted the ability to implement COVID-19 vaccine requirements, including Florida, Texas and Arizona.

For a look at approaches that three public universities are taking to get students vaccinated, read the story here.

—Pat Eaton-Robb and Amy DiPierro, The Associated Press

Pfizer says booster shots of vaccine restore waning immunity

Pfizer said that data from the U.S. and Israel suggest that the efficacy of its COVID-19 vaccine wanes over time, and that a booster dose was safe and effective at warding off the virus and new variants.

“Real-world data from Israel and the United States suggest that rates of breakthrough infections are rising faster in individuals who were vaccinated earlier,” Pfizer said in its presentation, which was posted on the FDA website. The drug giant is partnering with Germany’s BioNTech SE to make the shots.

The decrease in effectiveness is “primarily due to waning of vaccine immune responses over time,” rather than the delta variant, Pfizer researchers said in the presentation.

Read the story here.

—Robert Langreth, Bloomberg

Religious exemption requests grow as vaccine mandates rise

About 3,000 Los Angeles Police Department employees are citing religious objections to try to get out of the required COVID-19 vaccination. In Washington state, hundreds of state workers are seeking similar exemptions. And an Arkansas hospital has been swamped with so many such requests from employees that it is apparently calling their bluff.

Religious objections, once used sparingly around the country to get exempted from various required vaccines, are becoming a much more widely used loophole against the COVID-19 shot.

And it is only likely to grow following President Joe Biden’s sweeping new vaccine mandates covering more than 100 million Americans, including executive branch employees and workers at businesses with more than 100 people on the payroll.

The administration acknowledges that some small minority of Americans will use — and some may seek to exploit — religious exemptions. But it said it believes even marginal improvements in vaccination levels will save lives.

Read the story here.

—Andrew DeMillo and Colleen Long, The Associated Press

1 in 500 Americans have died of COVID-19, another grim pandemic milestone

At a certain point, it was no longer a matter of if the United States would reach the gruesome milestone of 1 in 500 people dying of COVID-19, but a matter of when. A year? Maybe 15 months? The answer: 19 months.

“Remember at the very beginning, which we don’t hear about anymore, it was all about flatten the curve," Jeffrey Klausner, clinical professor of medicine, population and public health sciences at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine.

The idea, he said, was to prevent “the humanitarian disaster” that occurred in New York City, where ambulance sirens were a constant as hospitals were overwhelmed and mortuaries needed mobile units to handle the additional dead.

The goal of testing, mask-wearing, keeping six feet apart and limiting gatherings was to slow the spread of the highly infectious virus until a vaccine could stamp it out. The vaccines came but not enough people have been immunized, and the triumph of science waned as mass death and disease remain.

Read the story here.

—By Dan Keating and Akilah Johnson, The Washington Post

AP source: 6 Saints coaches have positive COVID-19 tests

Six unidentified members of the New Orleans Saints coaching staff, a player and a nutritionist have tested positive for COVID-19, two people familiar with the situation said.

The people spoke with The Associated Press on Tuesday on condition of anonymity because the team and NFL had not made a public statement about the matter. The people said the entire Saints coaching staff had been vaccinated.

Later Tuesday, Michael Thomas — who already was ineligible to play the first six games while on the club’s physically unable to perform list — was placed on New Orleans’ COVID-19 reserve list.

For now, the entire team is operating under the NFL’s enhanced mitigation protocols, meaning mandatory masking inside facilities, daily testing, no in-person meetings and grab-and-go meals.

Read the story here.

—Brett Martell, The Associated Press

China imposes local lockdowns as COVID-19 cases surge

China tightened lockdowns and increased orders for mass testing in cities along its east coast Wednesday amid the latest surge in COVID-19 cases.

Checks have been set up in toll stations around the city of Putian in Fujian province, with a dozen of them closed entirely. The nearby cities of Xiamen and Quanzhou have also restricted travel as the delta variant spreads through the region.

Fujian has seen at least 152 new cases in recent days, prompting stay-at-home orders and the closure of entertainment, dining and fitness venues, along with the cancellation of group activities including those for the upcoming Mid-Autumn Festival holiday.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

EU pledges 200 million vaccine doses to low-income nations

The European Union’s top official said Wednesday that ramping up COVID-19 vaccinations around the world was the bloc’s No. 1 priority right now and committed another 200 million vaccine doses to Africa and low-income nations.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen used her State of the European Union speech on Wednesday to announce the new donation that will be fully delivered by the middle of next year and comes on top of 250 million vaccine doses already pledged.

Even when rich nations are already contemplating giving a third booster vaccine shot to large swathes of their populations, most of the world’s poorer nations are still waiting to be fully vaccinated, laying bare an acute sense of vaccine inequality.

Read the story here.

—Raf Casert, The Associated Press

Zimbabwe’s older people often sent to homes amid pandemic

The economic ravages of COVID-19 are forcing some families in Zimbabwe to abandon the age-old tradition of taking care of older people.

Some roam the streets. The lucky ones end up at facilities for older people— once widely viewed by many Zimbabweans as “un-African” and against the social bonds that have held extended families together for generations.

Rarely talked about, older people are “silent victims” of the pandemic, said Priscilla Gavi, executive director of HelpAge Zimbabwe.

Read the story here.

—Farai Mutsaka, The Associated Press

Most states have cut back public health powers amid pandemic

Republican legislators in more than half of U.S. states, spurred on by voters angry about lockdowns and mask mandates, are taking away the powers that state and local officials use to protect the public against infectious diseases.

A Kaiser Health News review of hundreds of pieces of legislation found that, in all 50 states, legislators have proposed bills to curb such public health powers since the COVID-19 pandemic began. While some governors vetoed bills that passed, at least 26 states pushed through laws that permanently weaken government authority to protect public health. In three additional states, an executive order, ballot initiative or state Supreme Court ruling limited long-held public health powers. More bills are pending in a handful of states whose legislatures are still in session.

In Arkansas, legislators banned mask mandates except in private businesses or state-run health care settings, calling them “a burden on the public peace, health, and safety of the citizens of this state.” In Idaho, county commissioners, who typically have no public health expertise, can veto countywide public health orders. In Kansas and Tennessee, school boards, rather than health officials, have the power to close schools.

Read the story here.

—Lauren Weber and Anna Maria Barry-Jester, The Associated Press

Landlord says tenants must get COVID vaccine: ‘You don’t want to get vaccinated? You have to move’

Jasmine Irby was leaving her two-bedroom apartment in South Florida last month when she noticed a letter from the management company taped to her door.

It read: “As of August 15th, all new tenants must show proof of vaccination before moving in … Existing tenants must show proof of vaccination before leases are renewed.” The policy, the notice stated, also applied to building employees.

Irby, a security guard who had lived in the Lauderhill, Fla., building for the past two years, was appalled, she told The Washington Post. Irby, 28, had planned to renew her lease by the end of August, but she did not intend to get the coronavirus vaccine.

Irby filed a complaint with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services demanding that she be allowed to renew her lease “without having to disclose my personal health information.”

Although Gov. Ron DeSantis was vaccinated in April, the Republican has said that getting immunized is a personal choice that should be left to individuals. DeSantis has pushed against mask and vaccination mandates in businesses and schools. He has also issued executive orders banning businesses and government entities from requiring proof of vaccination.

Read the story here.

—Andrea Salcedo, The Washington Post

Catch up on the past 24 hours

At least 8% of Washington state workers have sought exemptions from Gov. Jay Inslee's COVID-19 vaccine mandate. That amounts to nearly 4,800 people, highlighting what's at stake as some worry about a worker exodus. Here's the breakdown by department, and a look at who has the final say on exemptions for public and private employees. 

More than 7,000 people have died from COVID-19 in Washington state, with the pace of deaths increasing since the spring. The state yesterday reported 2,820 new cases and 56 new deaths. Nationwide, climbing infections are wiping out months of progress. Track the pandemic's spread with these maps.

No, COVID-19 vaccines do not mess with men's testicles. Dr. Anthony Fauci detailed why not on national TV after singer and rapper Nicki Minaj tweeted a conspiracy theory to her 22.6 million followers.

Alaska's ER patients are waiting for hours in their cars as medical teams ration care, with one hospital leader writing, "We are unable to provide lifesaving care to everyone who needs it." Columnist Danny Westneat wrote about pandemic death panels in Idaho, where hospitals are so flooded with COVID patients, that others may get treated based preferentially on who is most likely to live.

COVID-19 is causing a rash of cancellations for Washington's high-school football players.

—Kris Higginson