Coronavirus daily news updates, Jan. 24: What to know today about COVID-19 in the Seattle area, Washington state and the world

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FILE – In this Jan. 13, 2021 file photo, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits a coronavirus vaccination facility in the northern Arab city of Nazareth, Israel. Netanyahu, who has spent much of his long career casting Israel’s Arab minority as a potential fifth column led by terrorist sympathizers, is now openly courting their support as he seeks reelection in the country’s fourth vote in less than two years. (Gil Eliyahu/Pool via AP, File)

Editor’s note: This is a live account of COVID-19 updates from Sunday, Jan. 24, 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 It is no longer being updated.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.

It’s do-or-die time for Washington state as public health officials — and hundreds of volunteers — seek to launch a rapid vaccination program against COVID-19, before new variants spread throughout our 7.5 million people.

UW Medicine scientists discovered two persons in Snohomish County have caught the U.K. variant, which is considered more easily transmissible than the original strain that came from China last winter.

In an announcement Saturday, state Health Secretary Umair Shaw urged residents to “double down” on masks, handwashing, social distancing, and testing.

Some health experts say it’s necessary to double-mask, as Pete Buttigieg, federal nominee for transportation secretary, and his husband Chasten did on Inauguration Day last week. Others suggest upgrading to N-95 or KN-95 masks instead of simple cloth.

Washington state is inoculating a mere 15,000 residents per day but aims to triple that to 45,000 per day soon. A new clinic begins this week in Kitsap County but only has 2,000 doses for now of the Moderna vaccine. Here’s more information about who is eligible, and how to reserve an appointment there.

Throughout Sunday, on this page, we’ll be posting Seattle Times journalists’ updates on the outbreak and its effects on the Seattle area, the Pacific Northwest and the world. Updates from Saturday can be found here, and all our coronavirus coverage can be found here.

The following graphic includes the most recent numbers from the Washington State Department of Health, released Saturday afternoon.

7:59 pm, Jan. 24, 2021

Australia approves Pfizer vaccine, to begin in February

Australia’s medical regulator has approved use of its first coronavirus vaccine, paving the way for inoculations to begin next month.

The Therapeutic Goods Administration on Monday gave provisional approval for people aged 16 and over to use the vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech. Residents and workers at aged-care facilities, frontline healthcare workers and quarantine workers are among the groups being prioritized for the first doses.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison welcomed the development. He said Australia was among the first countries to complete a comprehensive process to formally approve a vaccine rather than just grant an emergency approval.

Read more from the Associated Press.

—Associated Press

6:18 pm, Jan. 24, 2021

Mexico’s president tests positive for coronavirus

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said Sunday he has tested positive for coronavirus and that the symptoms are mild.

Mexico’s president, who has been criticized for his handling of his country’s pandemic and for not setting an example of prevention in public, said on his official Twitter account that he is under medical treatment.

“I regret to inform you that I am infected with COVID-19,” he tweeted. “The symptoms are mild but I am already under medical treatment. As always, I am optimistic. We will all move forward.”

Read more from the Associated Press.

—Associated Press

5:28 pm, Jan. 24, 2021

California scientists find a homegrown coronavirus strain

California scientists have discovered a homegrown coronavirus strain that appears to be propagating faster than any other variant on the loose in the Golden State.

Two independent research groups said they stumbled upon the new strain while looking for signs that a highly transmissible variant from the United Kingdom had established itself here. Instead, they found a new branch of the virus’ family tree — one whose sudden rise and distinctive mutations have made it a prime suspect in California’s vicious holiday surge.

Researchers at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles found that although the strain had been barely detectable in early October, it accounted for 24% of roughly 4,500 viral samples gathered throughout California in the last weeks of 2020.

Read more from the Los Angeles Times here.

—Los Angeles Times

2:26 pm, Jan. 24, 2021

Pierce County health officials identify first case of COVID-19 variant

Health officials in Pierce County identified the first case of the highly contagious variant of COVID-19, they said Sunday.

The Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department said the person had mild symptoms and completed their quarantine period. Public-health experts say that the variant, first identified in the United Kingdom, and known as B.1.1.7, spreads more easily and quickly than the original strain.

“This new information does not change how we fight COVID-19,” Health Director Dr. Anthony L-T Chen said in a statement on Sunday. “Everyone needs to continue to do their part to minimize the spread — and get vaccinated when it is your turn — so we can put this pandemic behind us.”

The announcement came a day after Snohomish County health officials reported two cases of the B.1.1.7 variant. A spokesman for Public Health — Seattle & King County said Sunday that none of the samples sequenced from King County residents have been positive for the variant.

“We should expect the variant strains to become widespread here, and that will make the outbreak harder for us to control,” Dr. Jeff Duchin, Health Officer for Public Health – Seattle & King County, said in a Saturday evening blog post. “But we have the advantage of early warning to help us prepare.”

As of Friday, there were 195 detections of this version in 22 states, including Oregon. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned that the variant could become the dominant source of infection in the United States by March.

—Daniel Gilbert

1:50 pm, Jan. 24, 2021

Israel targets flights, religious scofflaws, as virus rages

FILE – In this Jan. 13, 2021 file photo, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits a coronavirus vaccination facility in the northern Arab city of Nazareth, Israel. Netanyahu, who has spent much of his long career casting Israel’s Arab minority as a potential fifth column led by terrorist sympathizers, is now openly courting their support as he seeks reelection in the country’s fourth vote in less than two years. (Gil Eliyahu/Pool via AP, File)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday said Israel will be closing its international airport to nearly all flights, while Israeli police clashed with ultra-Orthodox protesters in several major cities and the government raced to bring a raging coronavirus outbreak under control, The Associated Press reported.

The entry of highly contagious variants of the virus, coupled with poor enforcement of safety rules in ultra-Orthodox communities, has contributed to one of the world’s highest rates of infections. It also has threatened to undercut Israel’s highly successful campaign to vaccinate its population against the virus.

Late Sunday, the Israeli Cabinet approved a tight closure on nearly all incoming and outgoing air traffic. The government said it would make exceptions for a small number of humanitarian cases – such as funerals and medical patients – and cargo flights.

“We are closing the skies hermetically, except for really rare exceptions, to prevent the entry of virus mutations, and also to ensure that we progress quickly with our vaccination campaign,” Netanyahu said. Read the full story here.

—Josef Federman, The Associated Press

1:29 pm, Jan. 24, 2021

U.S. surpasses 25 Million coronavirus infections

The U.S. passed another milestone in the year-long struggle against COVID-19, as total infections exceeded 25 million, or about 8% of the population, Bloomberg reported, citing data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

On Saturday, the nation added 172,878 cases, 0.7% less than the average of the preceding seven days, figures compiled by Johns Hopkins and Bloomberg show. While daily case counts have declined after spiking to records of almost 300,000 after the Christmas holiday, the weekly average of about 175,000 new infections every day remains high.

The U.S. death toll surpassed 417,000 as another 3,390 people died of COVID-19 nationwide. It was the lowest increase on a Saturday in three weeks. Read the full story here.

—Brian Wingfield, Bloomberg

12:21 pm, Jan. 24, 2021

Quinault Indian Reservation’s battle with COVID-19 began with out-of-town traveler

The first positive COVID-19 case in the Quinault Indian Reservation over the summer wasn’t a resident or tribal member but a man who had driven from Arizona to self-quarantine in the peninsula’s woods, Crosscut reported.

As Grays Harbor County, which surrounds the reservation, saw a spike in the number of cases, the Quinault decided to close their reservation borders in late August, attempting to ward off outsiders who might infect a resident. It didn’t always work. 

After cases rose among residents of the reservation in November, the tribe instituted new measures, including penalties for people in quarantine who break protocol. Read the full story here.

—Manola Secaira, Crosscut

11:40 am, Jan. 24, 2021

U.S. to Boost Surveillance of Virus Variants, CDC Head Says

FILE – In this Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020 file photo, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, speaks during an event in Wilmington, Del., to announce President-elect Joe Biden’s health care team. Walensky, 51, an  infectious-diseases specialist formerly at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, became CDC director on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

FILE – In this Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020 file photo, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, speaks during an event in Wilmington, Del., to announce President-elect Joe Biden’s health care team. Walensky, 51, an infectious-diseases specialist formerly at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, became CDC director on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

The U.S. government, including the Pentagon, is stepping up surveillance of coronavirus variants to monitor their impact on COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics, Bloomberg reported, citing comments from the new head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We are now scaling up both our surveillance of these and our study of these,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said on “Fox News Sunday.” The agency is working with others, including the Defense Department and the Food and Drug Administration, to monitor the variants, she said.

Vivek Murthy, President Joe Biden’s nominee for surgeon general, said achieving broad immunity against the coronavirus by the start of the school year in September is “an ambitious goal,” and that new strains of the disease will require continued masking, social distancing and better government tracking.

“It is going to take a lot of work,” Murthy said on ABC’s “This Week.” Many schools don’t have resources to reopen just now, he said. “I do think we can get on a path toward opening schools more safely.”

—Craig Torres and Tony Czuczka, Bloomberg

11:20 am, Jan. 24, 2021

Vaccines alone will not halt the raging U.S. pandemic, modeling shows

Columbia University scientists have concluded even if millions of people are vaccinated against COVID-19, millions more will still catch the infection and fall ill, unless people continue to wear masks and maintain social distancing measures through at least this summer, The New York Times reported.

The arrival of highly effective vaccines in December lifted hopes that they would eventually slow or stop the spread of the disease through the rest of the population. But vaccines alone are not enough, the Columbia model shows. And if precautions like working remotely, limiting travel and wearing masks are relaxed too soon, it could add many more infections and thousands more deaths to the national toll.

There is no doubt that getting vaccinated protects the recipient from severe disease. Still, several infectious-disease researchers contacted by The New York Times cautioned that it would be months before enough people in the United States will have gotten the shots to allow for normal life to begin again.

—Matthew Conlen, Denise Lu and James Glanz, The New York Times

11:05 am, Jan. 24, 2021

Variants threaten to undo progress in fighting the virus, health experts warn

As the world approaches 100 million COVID-19 cases — including 25 million in the United States as of Saturday — a new set of questions has been raised about variants of the virus that could slow or even reverse the progress that has been made toward ending the pandemic, The New York Times reported.

One of those questions is how effective the current vaccines will be against these altered versions of the virus, which initially appeared in Britain, South Africa, Brazil and the United States. Some appear to be more contagious than the original version, and all are little understood.

On Friday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain ignited concern when he said at a news conference that the variant first found in his country might also be associated with a slightly higher chance of death, even as he acknowledged it was too soon to be sure. His own scientific advisers urged restraint in interpreting preliminary evidence.

Dr. Francis S. Collins, director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, said on MSNBC on Saturday that the variant could be increasing deaths in Britain simply because it is more contagious, spreading so rapidly that it is overwhelming the British health system.

—Ron DePasquale, The New York Times

10:55 am, Jan. 24, 2021

Birx, Trump’s coronavirus task force adviser, describes a pattern of misinformation and denial in the White House

FILE — Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, during a coronavirus task force meeting in Washington, June 26, 2020. Reports of a highly contagious new coronavirus variant in the United States, published on Friday, Jan. 8, 2021, by multiple news outlets, are based on speculative statements made by Birx and are inaccurate, according to several government officials. (Michael A. McCoy/The New York Times)

FILE — Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, during a coronavirus task force meeting in Washington, June 26, 2020. Reports of a highly contagious new coronavirus variant in the United States, published on Friday, Jan. 8, 2021, by multiple news outlets, are based on speculative statements made by Birx and are inaccurate, according to several government officials. (Michael A. McCoy/The New York Times)

Deborah Birx, the Trump administration’s coronavirus response coordinator, said in an interview broadcast on Sunday that misinformation and denial about the coronavirus pandemic had been rife in the White House, the New York Times reported.

Early last spring, there were people working in the White House who denied the severity of the disease. “There were people who definitely believed that this was a hoax,” she said in the interview, on the CBS news program “Face the Nation.”

Incomplete messaging, she said, had devastating consequences. While not specifically naming President Trump, who initially labeled the pandemic a “hoax,” Dr. Birx noted that “every time a statement was made by a political leader that wasn’t consistent with public health needs, that derailed our response. It is also why I went out on the road, because I wasn’t censored on the road.”

Dr. Birx came under intense criticism from public health experts for being a part of the Trump apparatus promoting misleading and sometime completely erroneous material. 

—Jan Hoffman, The New York Times

8:41 am, Jan. 24, 2021

Catch up on the past 24 hours

“It’s here.” Highly contagious COVID-19 strain found in Snohomish County: Two cases of a new COVID-19 variant, known as B.1.1.7 and first identified in the United Kingdom, have been detected in specimens from two Snohomish County residents, health authorities announced Saturday afternoon. This strain of coronavirus spreads more easily and quickly than the original variant, the Snohomish Health District said.

In Oregon, officials announced a second case of contagious COVID-19 strain: The Oregon Health Authority said it had identified the B.1.1.7 strain in a person with no known travel history, following the state’s first case last week. As of Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had reported 195 known cases of the variant strain in 22 states.

The rate of COVID-19 among Latinos in Washington has spiked since August: The exact numbers aren’t known because race and ethnicity for 44% of the state’s 294,017 COVID-19 cases, as of last week, weren’t reported. But for the majority of cases in which such information is known, the rate among Washington’s Hispanic residents is four times that of white residents and nearly quadrupled since late August, according to state figures adjusted for age for better comparison across populations. 

Two in five Americans live where COVID-19 strains hospital ICUs: Straining under record numbers of COVID-19 patients, hundreds of the nation’s intensive care units are running out of space and supplies and competing to hire temporary traveling nurses at soaring rates. Many of the facilities are clustered in the South and West.

Lives Remembered: Self-described inventor was Vashon Island’s first COVID-19 death: Thomas Sidduth, 64, became the first islander to die from the complications of the disease in December. In an effort “to help the people of Vashon grasp the seriousness of the disease,” Sudduth’s family made his cause of death known to the community through the Facebook page of an emergency response group.

Israeli vaccination drive shows promising results: Israel’s world-leading campaign to vaccinate its citizens is beginning to rein in the disease, according to the country’s second-largest health network. Raw data showed that two days after the second shot, the number of new infections and hospitalizations were both down about 60% from their peak, researchers reported.

What to do if you think you qualify for a vaccine: Our Q&A outlines the steps to take, starting with using the state’s online tool and ending with what you should do after your shot.

—Daniel Gilbert


Seattle Times staff & news services