Coronavirus daily news updates, March 22: What to know today about COVID-19 in the Seattle area, Washington state and the world – The Seattle Times

Editor’s note: This is a live account of COVID-19 updates from Tuesday, March 22, 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 It is no longer being updated.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.
Multiple U.S. states will close mass coronavirus testing sites in the weeks to come despite concerns from health experts that the country will be unprepared if a new wave of cases hits following reported surges in European countries.
Meanwhile, senior administration officials said Congress should provide $22.5 billion for a continued pandemic response without cutting funding for other programs as Republican leaders have suggested.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki expressed concerns over money running out and hindering the administration’s ability to provide vaccines, boosters and treatments to immunocompromised people at no cost.
Several hundred providers of Evusheld, a potentially lifesaving COVID-19 therapy, were already removed from a federal dataset making it increasingly difficult for immunocompromised people to access the treatment.
We’re updating this page with the latest news about the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects on the Seattle area, the U.S. and the world. Click here to see the rest of our coronavirus coverage and here to see how we track the daily spread across Washington.
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The recently emerged version of the coronavirus called BA.2 that has driven a wave of cases in Europe now accounts for as much as 70 percent of new infections in many parts of the United States, according to an estimate from the genomics company Helix that could signal a new chapter in the third year of the pandemic.
The estimate from Helix, which conducts genomic sequencing on virus samples, comes amid concerns that Europe’s surge in infections will be replicated in coming weeks in the United States, where caseloads have often trailed those in Europe by roughly a month.
It’s clear BA.2, officially considered a subvariant of omicron, is gaining traction as the previously dominant lineage of omicron subsides. In two or three weeks, “everything in the Northeast is going to be BA.2,” predicted Jeremy Luban, a virologist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
Natalie Dean, a biostatistics expert at Emory University, noted that Britain had only a brief lull between its omicron wave and a surge from BA.2. That surprised her, and she suspects it could be repeated in the United States.
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The subvariant of omicron known as BA.2 accounts for about one-fourth of COVID-19 cases sequenced in Washington, according to the state’s largest genomic sequencing lab.
The subvariant has steadily spread in the state, and across the country and Europe, but researchers are hopeful any potential wave of the new strain won’t cause as many infections, hospitalizations and deaths as the original version of the variant did.
The new subvariant, which emerged in the United Kingdom in December, was identified in Washington in January and has remained at fairly low levels since then, state epidemiologist Dr. Scott Lindquist said last week. Now early data from the state Department of Health and the UW Medicine clinical virology lab show the proportion of cases involving the variant has increased over the past month or so.
“It’s been sort of slowly creeping up over the last six weeks,” Alex Greninger, assistant director of UW Medicine’s virology lab and an assistant professor of lab medicine and pathology, said in a Tuesday statement. “It’s going to be interesting to see what the end of April, beginning of May, what that time period will look like.”
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Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Tuesday she has tested positive for COVID-19 with “mild” symptoms.
On social media, the former Democratic presidential candidate said she was “feeling fine” and that former President Bill Clinton had tested negative and was quarantining until their household was fully cleared.
A spokesman for the former president posted on Twitter that he would continue to get tested in the days to come.
Hillary Clinton, 74, said she was “more grateful than ever for the protection vaccines can provide against serious illness” and urged people to get vaccine and booster shots.
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Spanish health authorities are moving closer to normalizing life in coexistence with COVID-19, by scrapping mandatory quarantines — from next week — for those infected with the virus but showing no or mild symptoms of the disease.
Under current regulations, seven days of isolation are mandatory for anybody who tests positive for the coronavirus.
Starting March 28, free COVID-19 tests will only be conducted on high-risk groups, at health facilities and nursing homes, and on patients with the worse conditions, Spain’s Health Ministry said Tuesday.
It said the decision was taken by the country’s Commission on Public Health.
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It was, many experts thought, a noble and necessary effort.
The goal: to combat a deadly coronavirus that in early 2020 was already spreading around the world.
The idea: to coax wealthy and poor countries to pool their money to place advance orders for vaccine doses. Participating countries would then share doses equitably to protect their most vulnerable people first.
But just months into the effort, it should have been clear it was doomed to fall short.
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With coronavirus cases rising in parts of Europe and Asia, scientists worry that an extra-contagious version of the omicron variant may soon push cases up in the United States too.
Experts are also keeping their eyes on another mutant: a rare delta-omicron hybrid that they say doesn’t pose much of a threat right now but shows how wily the coronavirus can be.
The U.S. will likely see an uptick in cases caused by the omicron descendant BA.2 starting in the next few weeks, according to Dr. Eric Topol, head of Scripps Research Translational Institute.
“It’s inevitable we will see a BA.2 wave here,” he said.
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New York City Mayor Eric Adams is preparing to lift requirements that children under age 5 wear face masks in school.
Adams on Tuesday said that he will make masks optional for those in daycare and prekindergarten starting April 4 if case rates and the risk of the virus spreading remain low. “We want to see our babies’ faces,” Adams said.
City officials said if trends continue as they have, they will lift the mandate. They said case rates were only one factor they were looking at and did not specify what thresholds of positivity rates or other metrics would cause them to reconsider.

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With an urgent funding request stuck in Congress, a federal agency says it can no longer cover COVID tests and treatments bills for uninsured people and will stop taking claims at midnight Tuesday.
“The lack of funding for COVID-19 needs is having real consequences,” Martin Kramer, a spokesman for the Health Resources and Services Administration, said in a statement. “We have begun an orderly shutdown of the program.”
The Uninsured Program is an early casualty of the budget impasse between Congress and the White House over the Biden administration’s request for an additional $22.5 billion for ongoing COVID response. In operation since the Trump administration, the program reimburses hospitals, clinics, doctors and other service providers for COVID care for uninsured people, whose numbers total about 28 million. Kramer said the program will next have to stop accepting claims for vaccination-related costs, after April 5.
Shutting off the spigot of federal money could create access problems for uninsured people, as well as consequences for the rest of society.

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White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday that she is positive again for COVID-19 and will not accompany President Joe Biden to Europe this week for urgent meetings with world counterparts on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Biden tested negative on Tuesday, she said.
Psaki’s reinfection is the latest COVID-19 scare for the White House after recent positive tests for Vice President Kamala Harris’ husband and Ireland’s prime minister, who was in the nation’s capital last week for a series of in-person celebrations of St. Patrick’s Day with Biden and other officials.
The scares come as the Biden administration is trying to help the United States ease back into its pre-pandemic norms, even as cases climb in Europe due to a new variant of the omicron variant of the coronavirus.

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Some states will close mass coronavirus testing sites in the coming weeks, as many did before the recent omicron surge, despite concerns among some public health experts that the United States may be unprepared for a new wave of cases.
The closures arrive only a few months after Americans were forced to wait hours in long lines for free tests or to pay for testing. New Hampshire closed all state-run sites Tuesday. Massachusetts will have closed a majority by April 1. South Carolina has been gradually closing them this month; Utah has been doing so since February.
State health departments have cited sharp drops in demand for testing as a critical factor in their decisions, as well as a significant improvement in the availability of at-home rapid tests and declines in daily cases and hospitalizations, which have been recorded in nearly every state.
Many states have shifted testing efforts back to traditional health care providers, like hospitals and pharmacies. But some public health experts said that closing mass testing sites without taking other steps to address potential gaps in virus surveillance and testing access, especially while other mitigation measures like mask mandates are dropped, could leave the country scrambling in the face of another potential surge.

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People who had a COVID-19 infection were at greater risk of developing Type 2 diabetes within a year than those who managed to avoid the coronavirus, according to a large review of patient records released Monday.
The finding is true even for people who had mild or asymptomatic forms of COVID-19, though the chances of developing new-onset diabetes were greater as the severity of COVID symptoms increased, according to researchers who reviewed the records of more than 181,000 Department of Veterans Affairs patients diagnosed with COVID-19 between March 1, 2020, and Sept. 30, 2021.
Their data was compared to the medical records of more than 4.1 million VA patients who were not infected during the same period and another 4.28 million who received medical care from VA in 2018 and 2019. This kind of study cannot prove cause and effect, but it showed a strong association between the two diseases.
Overall, the researchers calculated that people diagnosed with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, were 46% more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes for the first time or be prescribed medication to control their blood sugar. The research was released Monday in the Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology, a medical journal.
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Norway’s 85-year-old King Harald V tested positive for the coronavirus on Tuesday and has mild symptoms, royal officials said.
Harald will take a break from his duties for a few days and that his son and heir to the throne, Crown Prince Haakon, would take them over for now, the royal household said in a brief statement.
Harald has received three COVID-19 vaccine shots, although he’s been ill several times in recent years, including in 2020 when he had an operation for a new heart valve.
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Each of China’s provinces should set up at least two to three makeshift hospitals to treat COVID infections amid omicron’s explosive spread in the country, according to the country’s National Health Commission.
The move came after China updated its COVID treatment guidelines last week to reserve designated hospitals for those with severe conditions, while patients with mild symptoms should be sent to isolation facilities to avoid overwhelming the medical system.
A total of 33 makeshift hospitals have been built, or are currently under construction, to provide 35,000 beds, Jiao Yahui, an official with National Health Commission, said at a Tuesday briefing. Some 31 local governments are required to come up with plans to ensure the hospitals can be put into use within two days when needed.
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Almost 1 million people in the United States have died of COVID-19 in the past two years, but the full impact of the pandemic’s collateral damage is still being tallied. Now a new study reports that the number of Americans who died of alcohol-related causes increased precipitously during the first year of the pandemic, as routines were disrupted, support networks frayed and treatment was delayed.
The startling report comes amid a growing realization that COVID-19’s toll extends beyond the number of lives claimed directly by the disease to the excess deaths caused by illnesses left untreated and a surge in drug overdoses, as well as to social costs such as educational setbacks and the loss of parents and caregivers.
Numerous reports have suggested that Americans drank more to cope with the stress of the pandemic. Binge drinking increased, as did emergency room visits for alcohol withdrawal. But the new report found that the number of alcohol-related deaths, including from liver disease and accidents, soared, rising to 99,017 in 2020 from 78,927 in 2019 — an increase of 25% in the number of deaths in one year.
That compares with an average annual increase of 3.6% in alcohol-related deaths between 1999 and 2019. Deaths started inching up in recent years, but increased only 5% between 2018 and 2019.
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The Biden administration lacks the funds to purchase a potential fourth coronavirus vaccine dose for everyone, even as other countries place their own orders and potentially move ahead of the United States in line, administration officials said Monday.
Federal officials have secured enough doses to cover a fourth shot for Americans age 65 and older as well as the initial regimen for children under age 5, should regulators determine those shots are necessary, said three officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to detail funding decisions. But the officials say they cannot place advance orders for additional vaccines for those in other age groups, unless lawmakers pass a stalled $15 billion funding package.
“Right now, we don’t have enough money for fourth doses, if they’re called for,” White House coronavirus coordinator Jeff Zients said on a forthcoming episode of “In The Bubble with Andy Slavitt,” which was recorded Monday and shared with The Washington Post. “We don’t have the funding, if we were to need a variant-specific vaccine in the future.”
Federal regulators and health officials have not yet determined whether a fourth shot is needed, and some experts question whether the extra dose will be necessary to boost protection for the general population.
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Health officials in South Korea have instructed crematories to burn more bodies per day and funeral homes to add more refrigerators to store the dead as families struggle with funeral arrangements amid a rise in COVID-19 deaths.
The country has been dealing with a massive coronavirus outbreak driven by the fast-moving omicron variant, which has compromised a once robust pandemic response and is driving up hospitalizations and fatalities.
Officials have already allowed the 60 crematories across country to burn for longer hours starting last week, which raised their combined capacity from around 1,000 to 1,400 cremations per day.
But that hasn’t been enough to meaningfully ease the backlog of bodies waiting to be cremated in the densely populated Seoul metropolitan area, which is home to half of South Korea’s 52 million people and the center of its COVID-19 outbreak. The backlog has also trickled down to funeral homes at hospitals and other facilities, where families have struggled to make funeral arrangements because of the longer wait for cremations.
Senior Health Ministry official Son Youngrae said during a briefing that officials will instruct regional crematories to increase furnace operations from five times to seven times a day, which would match the levels at crematories in the greater capital area.
Read the full story here.
More than 100 students walked out of Seattle classrooms yesterday to protest the district’s decision to lift mask rules. “Every time we try to get hasty and toss our masks off, we have another spike and another thousand people die,” one student explained. The teachers union is on their side.
Scientists are bracing for another COVID-19 surge. Are we ready? No, experts say. 
Some states are closing COVID-19 testing sites despite the fears of a resurgence. That could leave the country scrambling when the surge arrives, health workers fear.

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