A1 A1
Photo: Limited audience coming back to selection night

Bitcoin smashes through $50,000 as mainstream charge gathers pace

LONDON — Bitcoin charged to a record-high on Wednesday, a day after breaking the $50,000 mark for the first time.

It adds steam to a rally fueled by signs that the world’s biggest cryptocurrency is gaining acceptance among mainstream investors and companies, even as analysts warned about the sustainability of such prices amid elevated volatility.

Bitcoin hit a record $51,721 on Wednesday morning. It has risen around 70% so far this year, with most of the gains coming after electric carmaker Tesla said it had bought $1.5 billion in bitcoin.

The move by Tesla, which also said it would accept bitcoin as payment, was the latest in a string of large investments that have vaulted bitcoin from the fringes of finance to company balance sheets and Wall Street, with U.S. firms and traditional money managers starting to buy the coin.

Such mainstream moves, some investors said, could help bitcoin become a widespread means of payment — something it has so far failed to achieve at any large scale — and in turn further bolster prices.

“The more people that adapt it and use it as money, then the greater the chances of it perhaps being taken on board as a mainstream currency,” said Russ Mould, investment director of AJ Bell. “That would feed further speculative interest.”

The rush in 2021 by retail and institutional investors comes on top of a 300% rise last year as investors searched for high-yielding assets and alternatives the dollar amid rock-bottom or even negative interest rates across the globe.

The meteoric rise of bitcoin, which traded at a few hundred dollars only five years earlier, has also led major investment banks to warn of a speculative bubble.

Bitcoin’s rise “blows the doors off prior bubbles,” BofA said last month.

Despite the flurry of mainstream acceptance this year, some analysts warned that bitcoin was still far from becoming a widely used form of payment.

“We advise investors against viewing this as a ‘mainstream moment’ for crypto, and counsel caution before engaging in speculation as crypto is not a currency,” said Mark Haefele, chief investment officer at UBS Global Wealth.

“We also do not think platform companies with existing in-house payment ecosystems will jump on the crypto bandwagon.”

Bitcoin has risen eight-fold since last March and has added more than $700 billion in market value since September. JPMorgan questioned the “magnitude” of the jump on the back of a total flow of just $11 billion from institutional investors.

Even as bitcoin laps into the mainstream, cryptocurrencies remain subject to patchy oversight around the world, with the lack of regulatory clarity and associations with crime keeping many larger investors leery of exposure.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde both called last month for tighter oversight of bitcoin due to concerns over its use for criminal activities such as money laundering.

Some believe the extreme volatility is a cause for concern.

“We feel that, due to its volatility, bitcoin lacks many of the established qualities that make up ‘money’, such as being a stable store of value and unit of account,” said George Lagarias, chief economist at Mazars.

Boosting bitcoin’s rise have been analyst suggestions that its limited supply of 21 million could boost further gains for the virtual asset.

A narrative of bitcoin becoming “digital gold” has gained traction as investors predict looming inflation with central banks and governments opening the stimulus taps to counter COVID-19.

St. Louis Federal Reserve President James Bullard told CNBC in an interview on Tuesday that bitcoin’s claim to be rival to gold would not threaten the dollar’s dominance.

“Investors want a safe haven, they want a stable store value and then they want to conduct their investments in that currency,” he said. “It’s very hard to get a private currency — it’s really more like gold — to play that role.”

JPMorgan said in January that bitcoin emerged as a rival to gold and could trade as high as $146,000 if it becomes established as a safe-haven asset.

”The fundamental view that bitcoin as a viable store of value amongst investors and as a treasury asset for corporations is continuing to gain traction,” said James Butterfill, investment strategist at digital asset manager CoinShares.

U.S. business intelligence software firm MicroStrategy Inc , whose CEO has become one of bitcoin’s most visible proponents, on Tuesday said it would issue $600 million of debt through convertible notes to buy additional bitcoin.

Meanwhile, smaller cryptocurrency ethereum edged 1.5% higher, just shy of its record high price of $1,874.98.

With value of cryptocurrencies close to $1.5 trillion, investors warn about the value in owning bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies.

”As an intangible asset with no yield or practical use, save for a few organizations who accept it as payment, it is really just demand (against a predictable supply) which determines its price,” said Lagarias.

”But whereas the price of bitcoin has risen to the skies, what value one gets from holding it in a long-term portfolio still remains subject of much debate.”

61-year-old woman, 25-year-old man identified as barbershop crash fatalities

WENATCHEE — Wenatchee police have identified the people killed in a fatal collision Thursday as a 61-year-old woman and a 25-year-old man, both from East Wenatchee.

A Toyota SUV crashed into The Ave Barber Shop about 6:30 p.m. after the driver apparently suffered an unspecified medical emergency. Colleen Johnson, a passenger in the SUV, and Jesus Fausto-Curiel, a customer in the Chelan Avenue barbershop, were killed, according to a news release Tuesday from the Wenatchee Police Department.

A GoFundMe is available to help return Fausto-Curiel’s body to Mexico.

A 23-year-old barber shop employee, identified in a GoFundMe as Luis Guerra of Wenatchee, is being treated at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, police said.

Police have not released the identity of the driver, but Capt. Edgar Reinfeld said Tuesday he was treated for minor injuries at Central Washington Hospital. Two others inside the barbershop also suffered minor injuries, he said.

The investigation into the collision remains under investigation.

An investigator has interviewed all known witnesses and has stitched together video from multiple sources along Chelan Avenue to show what happened immediately before the collision, the release said.

If the cause of the crash is determined to be a medical emergency, police will not pursue criminal charges, Reinfeld said Friday.

Second doses the priority at Town Toyota Center vaccination site

WENATCHEE — Second doses of the COVID-19 vaccine are the priority for the next two weeks at the Town Toyota Center mass vaccination site.

This focus on second doses will probably mean fewer first dose appointments for next week, according to Luke Davies, Chelan-Douglas health administrator.

About 300 first doses and about 100 second doses were administered Feb. 16 before an 11 a.m. news conference with Davies. The plan is to give around 900 doses daily for the rest of the week, Davies said.

As of last Friday, 9,678 people have been vaccinated at the Town Toyota Center site, according to the state Department of Health.

Provided photo 

Luke Davies

Chelan-Douglas Health District administrator

While the Town Toyota Center site focuses on second doses, federally qualified health centers in the area will get more first doses to pick up some of slack, Davies said.

Davies reported Tuesday that some health partners in the area had interruptions to their supply of COVID-19 booster shots last week due to vaccine allocations from the state. The issue was fixed this week with the providers affected getting the delayed boosters from last week and this week, Davies said.

“There have been some delays for vaccine coming into Washington state, but the mass vaccination center and Confluence (Health) have been able to receive theirs on time,” Davies said. “But some of the boosters that are coming from Moderna will be delayed by a day or two. But they should all be within the window for getting the booster.”

Davies asked the community to be patient. He said that if any serious interruption to vaccine supply occurs, health officials will always prioritize the second shot of the vaccine.

Davies also said with the entire state now in Phase 2, it is important to maintain safety precautions as the COVID-19 B117 variant is 50% more contagious and has been found in Washington. The health district expects a third or fourth wave of COVID-19 cases to appear sometime in March and April, according to Davies.

Social distancing and hand washing are still valuable strategies against the virus but a new possibility is to double mask.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, there was a massive shortage of masks,” Davies said. “Right now the amount of PPE [Personal Protective Equipment] volume we can procure is sufficient to double mask if [people] feel more comfortable with that.”

If one does double mask, the same rules apply. Fabric masks should be washed daily while surgical masks need to be replaced daily, according to Davies.

The state epidemiologist has also observed a small increase in suspected COVID-19 cases statewide, Davies said. The Super Bowl was only a week ago, but it’s still too early to see if any indoor gatherings because of the Super Bowl had any impact. The health district is closely tracking this development with contact tracing, according to Davies.

“If you’re in the community and you think you may have been exposed during the Super Bowl, it’s important to go and get tested as it’s still available in several areas,” Davies said.

The Wenatchee Valley has two locations to obtain free COVID-19 testing: The old Department of Transportation building, 1551 N. Wenatchee Ave., and CAFÉ, 802 S. Mission St. in Wenatchee. Both testing sites are available from Tuesday to Saturday. Find information at cdhd.wa.gov/covid-19.

State to expand testing to schools in effort to get kids back in person

OLYMPIA — Washington is expanding its COVID-19 testing program to include about 50 new school districts, an effort to get kids back in schools quickly, Gov. Jay Inslee announced on Tuesday.

School districts can now take part in a voluntary testing program in partnership with the Department of Health, the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction and the nonprofit Health Commons. Eleven districts have already piloted the program on school grounds, according to the Department of Health. At least 48 more districts will start the program this month, although no list of those participating has been released yet.

“We are opening our schools for in-person instruction,” Inslee said. “We know that this can be done safely.”

Currently, 200,000 students at 175 schools in the state are receiving some kind of in-person instruction, Inslee said, and it’s increasing every day. He said there is “resounding confidence” that in-person is the best way to educate students, while at the same time the state is still giving parents an option to provide virtual learning.

Decisions about when to reopen schools are still up to each district, but health officials hope a testing program can help districts feel more confident bringing back students.

Each district that joins the program will have access to numerous different testing strategies and a planner from Health Commons, which will help them determine the best strategy for them. The first tier of testing would be people with symptoms, but a district can also choose to include asymptomatic people .

“It’s important to know there is no one correct way to do COVID testing in schools,” said Sarah Sutton, of Health Commons.

While only about 60 districts are currently volunteering to take part in the program, Inslee said he was confident the state could support more schools He pointed to the state’s COVID relief package and anticipated federal funds as ways school districts can fund this testing.

“If there are additional districts out there, we stand ready to support them as well,” said Lacy Fehrenbach, of the Department of Health.

In a statement after Inslee’s announcement, the Washington Education Association said it would like to see this testing funded for all schools operating with in-person learning, as testing, along with social distancing and adequate personal protective equipment, is a fundamental piece for safe operation of schools.

“Yet, these are the same issues that many school districts are struggling to provide,” the statement reads. “As Gov. Inslee noted, it is educators who are the ones fighting to make sure these safety precautions are in place.”

Inslee thanked educators for their leadership the past few months, adding everyone should now have a “sense of urgency” to get kids back in school.

Everyone has concerns about in-person learning, Inslee said, but the state now has more knowledge about the virus and how it spreads in schools. In schools that have reopened, social distancing and masks have worked.

“We know that there’s nothing with zero risk in this world,” Inslee said. “But we know that we now have the necessary tools to mitigate that risk.”

Current state guidance allows districts to determine if they want to return to in-person learning. As schools begin to reopen, the question of when teachers can get vaccinated remains. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state guidance do not call for teachers to be vaccinated before returning to in-person learning. However, many teachers and legislators have pushed Inslee to move teachers up in line.

Some teachers are being vaccinated today, if they’re 65 and over, Inslee said Tuesday. Younger teachers will be included in the next tier of those eligible, which also includes essential workers such as food processing workers and child care workers. However, Inslee didn’t say who in that group would be prioritized.

The mass vaccination of teachers is not a prerequisite to going back to school, Inslee said.

A statement from the Washington Education Association said educators working in person should have access to the vaccine, as other states have given them.

”These basic precautions will ensure the safe operations of our schools for students, staff, families and our communities, which is ultimately what all want,” the statement reads.