Coronavirus daily news updates, Dec. 31: What to know today about COVID-19 in the Seattle area, Washington state and the world

U.S. health officials reported 488,000 coronavirus cases Wednesday, shattering the daily record as the second year of the pandemic comes to an end. Officials reported the rapid surge in cases is largely driven by the latest variant, which is highly transmissible.

Some major cities, including Atlanta, have canceled public New Year’s Eve festivities amid the wave of cases. But New York City is still set to hold celebrations in Times Square limiting the crowd to 15,000 from the usual 58,000.

A live fireworks and augmented reality show will be held at the Space Needle during New Year’s Eve, but public viewings and crowds will not be allowed at the Seattle Center as there is no way to verify vaccination status or a negative COVID-19 test in the open 74-acre park, officials said.

Meanwhile, officials in Quebec announced they would impose a nighttime curfew from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. beginning on New Year’s Eve as multiple provinces report surges in cases. COVID-19 hospitalizations in Quebec doubled in one week reaching 939 and officials expected to report a record 16,000 daily cases Friday.

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 and the world.

North Korea’s Kim vows to boost military, maintain virus curbs

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un vowed to further bolster his military capability, maintain draconian anti-virus measures and push hard to improve the economy during a speech at a key political conference this week, state media reported Saturday.

Read more here.

—The Associated Press

Alaskans line up for virus tests as cases rise with omicron

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — People are lining up to get coronavirus tests as Alaska sees an uptick in new COVID-19 cases over the past week.

Cars lined up and some people said they waited for over an hour to get tested in Anchorage, KTUU-TV reported.

The city’s health agency said it received 25,000 at-home tests Thursday from the state. The shipment was delayed by several days.

Some tests will be distributed at the Anchorage New Year’s Eve celebration.

Cases have been on the rise in Alaska, and at least six cases of the omicron variant have been confirmed.

“We have seen a significant increase in case counts over the past week,” said State Epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin. “Our increase has been about 66% since the previous week.”

McLaughlin said more confirmed omicron cases are expected after a lab was shut down this week because of a storm.

—The Associated Press

CES gadget show shortened to 3 days; some big tech stay away

LAS VEGAS — The annual CES gadget convention will be three days instead of four following an uptick of COVID-19 cases and the withdrawal of some of its best-known tech presenters.

Convention organizer The Consumer Technology Association announced in a statement Friday that CES will run from Jan. 5-7, one day shorter than planned. The event still has over 2,200 exhibitors confirmed to show off their products at the Las Vegas convention, spokeswoman Jeanne Abella said.

The announcement follows the withdrawal of tech giants from CES last week citing health risks of the omicron variant, including cellphone carriers like T-Mobile, whose CEO had been slated to deliver a keynote speech. Computer maker Lenovo and social media companies like Twitter and Facebook parent company Meta also canceled plans to attend. News outlets including CNN said they would cancel or reduce coverage.

Read the full story here.

—Associated Press

Kraken game vs. Islanders on Jan. 4 will be postponed

The Seattle Kraken will have their sixth game this season postponed next week, when they were supposed to host the New York Islanders on Jan. 4.

Due to Canadian teams continuing to postpone games due to attendance restrictions from local COVID protocols, the Islanders are postponing their entire upcoming West-Coast trip.

The Kraken next play Saturday, Jan 1. against the Canucks, and with the gap of no Tuesday game now, they won’t play again until they host the Ottawa Senators on Thursday, Jan. 6.

Read the full story here.

—Marisa Ingemi

Studies suggest why omicron is less severe: It spares the lungs

A spate of new studies on lab animals and human tissues are providing a possible explanation of why the omicron variant causes milder disease than previous versions of the coronavirus.

In studies on mice and hamsters, omicron produced less-damaging infections, often limited largely to the upper airway: the nose, throat and windpipe. The variant did much less harm to the lungs, where previous variants would often cause scarring and serious breathing difficulty.

“It’s fair to say that the idea of a disease that manifests itself primarily in the upper respiratory system is emerging,” said Roland Eils, a computational biologist at the Berlin Institute of Health, who has studied how coronaviruses infect the airway.

In November, when the first report on the omicron variant came out of South Africa, scientists could only guess at how it might behave differently from earlier forms of the virus. All they knew was that it had a distinctive and alarming combination of more than 50 genetic mutations…

But as cases skyrocketed, hospitalizations increased only modestly. Early studies of patients suggested that omicron was less likely to cause severe illness than other variants, especially in vaccinated people. Still, those findings came with a lot of caveats.

Read the rest of the story here.

—New York Times

Omicron’s New Years cocktail: Sorrow, fear but hope for 2022

PARIS (AP) — Sorrow for the dead and dying, fear of more infections to come and hopes for an end to the coronavirus pandemic were — again — the bittersweet cocktail with which the world said good riddance to 2021 and ushered in 2022.

New Year’s Eve, which used to be celebrated globally with a free-spirited wildness, felt instead like a case of deja vu, with the fast-spreading omicron variant again filing hospitals. In London, officials said as many as 1 in 15 people were infected with the virus in the week before Christmas, while hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients in the U.K. rose 44% in the last week.

At the La Timone hospital in the southern French city of Marseille, Dr. Fouad Bouzana could only sigh Friday when asked what 2022 might bring.

“Big question,” he said. “It’s starting to become exhausting, because the waves come one after another.”

Read the rest of the story here.

—Associated Press

Should kids be vaccinated? Brazil turns to online survey

BRASILIA, Brazil (AP) — As world leaders rely on public health specialists to inform their decisions about whether and how to vaccinate children against the coronavirus, Brazil’s government is asking the online public for guidance.

In recent weeks, President Jair Bolsonaro has staked out a position against immunizing kids aged between 5 and 11, and his administration took the unusual step of creating a platform that could validate a stance that is widely opposed by experts. Since his government on Dec. 23 unveiled its online questionnaire on the issue, the president’s supporters have been highly engaged on messaging apps trying to pressure parents to swing the results…

Health experts, for their part, are aghast. Some Brazilian states’ health secretariats have already pledged to ignore any health ministry guidelines on childhood vaccination if based on the public consultation. Gonzalo Vecina, founder and director of Brazil’s health regulator between 1999 and 2003, says public consultation on vaccines is “unprecedented”.

Read the rest of the story here.

—Associated Press

Limited revelers return to Times Square to usher in 2022

NEW YORK (AP) — New York City readied to embrace the new year — and bid good riddance to another pandemic-marred 12 months — as it prepared to revive its annual New Year’s Eve celebration in Times Square.

It did so as an uneasy nation tried to muster optimism that the worst days of the pandemic are now behind it — even as public health officials cautioned Friday against unbridled celebrations amid surging COVID infections from the omicron variant.

The city said it would limit the number of people it lets into Times Square to witness a 6-ton ball, encrusted with nearly 2,700 Waterford crystals, descend above a crowd of about 15,000 in-person spectators — far fewer than the many tens of thousands of revelers who usually descend on the world-famous square to bask in the lights, hoopla and shower of confetti during the nation’s marquee New Year’s Eve event.

“We are very excited to welcome back visitors to Times Square this New Year’s Eve,” said Tom Harris, the president of the Times Square Alliance. “Our goal is to have a safe and responsible event for the world to see.”

The annual ball drop takes place Friday, as the clock ticks into midnight and ushers in the new year, an occasion usually commemorated with Champagne, clinking pints, joyous embraces and hopes for better times ahead.

But 2022 begins just as the year prior began — with the pandemic clouding an already uncertain future.

Read the rest of the story here.

—Associated Press

EXPLAINER: Why are so many flights being canceled?

The forces that have scrambled thousands of flights since Christmas Eve could ease in January, but that’s cold comfort to the millions of flyers with New Year’s plans.

And if 2021 has taught us anything, it’s that 2022 will likely be just as unpredictable.

Here’s a look at what has mucked up flights for thousands of people this holiday season, and what could happen over the next few weeks.

WHAT HAPPENED?

Airlines weren’t spared from the spread of the omicron variant, which knocked out flight crews at airlines that had already reduced the size of their workforces following the collapse of air travel in 2020.

The wave of omicron infections arrived at the same time that crowds began to pack airports for holiday travel. Then the Pacific Northwest and other areas were slammed with cold and heavy snowstorms.

The convergence of all three forced airlines to cancel thousands of flights starting on Christmas Eve. 

Read the rest of the story here.

—Associated Press

Israel approves 4th vaccine dose for most vulnerable

TEL AVIV (AP) — Israel has approved a fourth vaccine dose for people most vulnerable to COVID-19, an official said Thursday, becoming one of the first countries to do so as it braces for a wave of infections fueled by the omicron variant.

Nachman Ash, the director general of the Health Ministry, announced the decision at a press conference, saying the doses would initially be given to those with weakened immune systems.

“We will continue to track the data on a daily basis and we will see if we need to broaden this recommendation to more of the population,” he said.

The Sheba Medical Center later said it would begin administering the fourth dose to heart transplant patients early on Friday. Israel launched trials of the fourth dose at the center earlier this week, administering it to some 150 medical personnel who had gotten a booster in August.

Read the rest of the story here.

—Associated Press

Two forces collided to create the most unusual job market in modern American history

It can be difficult now to remember what the U.S. economy looked like a year ago. The unemployment rate was 6.7%, with 10 million fewer people employed than before the pandemic. Expectations were that it could take years for the labor market to heal.

Then, the economy experienced two historic surprises. First, demand for workers came soaring back at a velocity almost never before seen. And second, despite companies going all out to hire, millions of workers either retired early or stayed on the sidelines.

These two forces collided to create the most unusual job market in living memory — and an economy afflicted not by too few jobs, but too few workers.

For those looking for employment or to change jobs, the 2021 economy has been a blessing, as companies hike wages and many workers feel empowered to quit because they can swiftly find new opportunities. But the resulting labor shortages are causing profound problems across a range of industries — from restaurants that can’t find servers to factories that can’t find people for the assembly line to hospitals that can’t find nurses.

The shortages are beginning to raise difficult questions about how much some of America’s most vital sectors can continue to rely on a relatively low-paid workforce.

In 2022, something’s got to give. Otherwise, worker shortages could become an enduring feature — or defect — of the U.S. economy.

Read the rest of the story here.

—Washington Post

Southampton-Newcastle postponed due to coronavirus cases

LONDON (AP) — A continuing coronavirus outbreak at Newcastle has led to Sunday’s game at Southampton being postponed, the Premier League said Friday.

Newcastle’s previous game against Everton scheduled for Thursday had also been called off.

The Premier League said a combination of COVID-19 cases and injuries meant 19th-place Newcastle does not have the required 13 outfield players and one goalkeeper available to face Southampton at St. Mary’s Stadium.

The league said in a statement that it “was able to make its decision in advance of the fixture to give clarity to the affected clubs and their fans.”

It brings the total to 18 Premier League games postponed in the past three weeks, including last-place Norwich’s trip to Leicester on Saturday.

Read the rest of the story here.

—Associated Press

A night in a Seattle severe weather shelter, with snow outside but threat of COVID inside

Simon Foster, director of operations for The Salvation Army in Seattle, weaves through a line that’s been forming outside Exhibition Hall since a little after the sun went down on Tuesday. It’s now nearly 7 p.m. and some people have been waiting in 28-degree weather for over an hour.

“How much longer?” one of roughly two dozen people in line asks. Some are dressed for the cold; most are not. None are dressed to be outside all night, which is where they’d be without this shelter at Seattle Center.

Foster looks at his watch. His eyes are bloodshot. He’s had eight hours of sleep in the last four days.

“Two minutes,” he says through two masks.

“Two minutes feels like years to us,” a woman says.

Foster pauses. “One minute 30 seconds,” he says, closes the door behind him and walks into The Salvation Army’s severe winter shelter.

After the hottest summer and wettest fall on record, people living outside in Seattle — one of the largest homeless populations in the United States — face cold temperatures not seen in decades as the year draws to a close. On Tuesday, the high was 23 degrees Fahrenheit, the coldest day in Seattle in 31 years. In the same week, King County hit a record high number of coronavirus cases.

It’s likely not over yet, either: Cold, wet weather will continue the rest of the week. The Exhibition Hall shelter will stay open through Monday morning.

Read the rest of the story here.

—Scott Greenstone

Avoiding coronavirus part of quieter bowl week for College Football Playoff teams

For years, college coaches have worried about players partying too much ahead of big games. The pandemic has added another thing to fret over.

The latest surge in COVID-19 cases fueled by the omicron variant has led to five bowl games being canceled in the past two weeks, and forced two others to find replacement teams after one of the original selections withdrew with virus issues.

The biggest games of the postseason appear to be on as scheduled Friday. No. 1 Alabama will face No. 4 Cincinnati in the Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, and No. 2 Michigan and No. 3 Georgia square off in the Orange Bowl at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida.

“We had a little bout the last couple weeks that we lost some guys, and we’ve gotten most of those guys back, and really that’s the biggest thing, is being at full strength when you have to be, and that’s what we’re aiming towards,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said.

Read the rest of the story here.

—Associated Press

New virus infections driven by omicron soar in Australia

SYDNEY (AP) — New coronavirus infections soared again in Australia on Friday to a record of more than 32,000, just days after surpassing 10,000 for the first time.

Experts say the explosion is being driven by the highly contagious omicron variant and a recent relaxation of restrictions in Sydney and other areas.

More than 15,000 of the new cases were reported in Sydney. Another 5,000 cases came from elsewhere in New South Wales state, while almost 6,000 were confirmed in Victoria state, home to the second largest city of Melbourne.

While hospitalizations and deaths have been increasing from the surge, so far they haven’t reached comparative levels seen in previous outbreaks. And many cities were planning to go ahead with New Year’s Eve celebrations, including the famous fireworks display from the Sydney Harbor Bridge and Sydney Opera House.

Read the rest of the story here.

—Associated Press

Party-goers urged not to travel across UK as omicron surges

LONDON (AP) — Officials have warned revellers in Scotland and Wales to think twice before travelling to England to ring in the new year, highlighting how the four parts of the U.K. were again taking starkly different approaches to coronavirus restrictions amid record-high infections and soaring hospitalizations.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has resisted tightening restrictions in England despite the rapid spread of the highly transmissible omicron variant, instead focusing on frequent self-testing and an expanded vaccine booster program to control the spread of infections.

Meanwhile Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which set their own public health rules, imposed new restrictions this week that closed all nightclubs and limited social gatherings. Bars and pubs have had to return to table service only. In Edinburgh, which traditionally hosts one of Europe’s largest New Year’s Eve parties, people have been urged to stay at home.

While no formal travel ban is in place to stop Scottish party-goers from making their way to England on Friday, Scotland’s deputy leader John Swinney said travelling would be the “wrong course of action.”

Read the rest of the story here.

—Associated Press

Travel forecast 2022: Experts weigh in on pandemic-ready getaways and strategies

Despite the blows dealt to the travel industry by the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 and 2021, eager travelers are packed and ready for 2022, Seattle-area travel experts say. 

Resurgent vacationers have new goals in mind — to have rich, unforgettable experiences — but they’ll have to be agile to reach them while navigating the ever-changing landscape of regulations. With omicron now the dominant variant in the U.S., plans always have the potential to be disrupted.

With that in mind, we spoke to Seattle-based travelers and travel experts to compile their outlooks for the domestic and international travel landscape. Even though the surging omicron variant, coupled with winter weather issues, caused travel chaos over December’s peak holiday travel week, there’s still a sense of cautious optimism in the air as relates to travel in 2022.

Two-thirds of Americans are planning significant trips next year, according to Seattle-based Expedia’s 2022 Travel Trends Report, which dubbed its theme as the “Greatest of All Trips” mindset. The report, a collaboration with Northstar Research Firm, polled 12,000 people worldwide.

Read the rest of the story here.

—Erica Browne Grivas

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