U.S. completes withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan

(Reuters) -The United States completed the withdrawal of its forces from Afghanistan, the Pentagon said on Monday, after a chaotic evacuation of thousands of Americans and Afghan allies to close out U.S. involvement there after 20 years of conflict.

The operation came to an end before the Tuesday deadline set by President Joe Biden, who has drawn heavy criticism from both Democrats and Republicans for his handling of Afghanistan since the Taliban made rapid advances and took over Kabul earlier this month.

The withdrawal was announced by General Frank McKenzie, commander of the U.S. Central Command, who said the final flights did not include some of the dozens of Americans who remained behind.

More than 122,000 people have been airlifted out of Kabul since Aug. 14, the day before the Taliban regained control of the country two decades after being removed from power by the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.

The United States and its Western allies scrambled to save citizens of their own countries as well as translators, local embassy staff, civil rights activists, journalists and other Afghans vulnerable to reprisals.

The evacuations became even more perilous when a suicide bomb attack claimed by Islamic State – enemy of both the West and the Taliban – killed 13 U.S. service members and scores of Afghans waiting by the airport gates on Thursday.

Biden promised after the bloody Kabul airport attack to hunt down the people responsible.

The departure took place after U.S. anti-missile defenses intercepted rockets fired at Kabul’s airport.

Two U.S. officials said “core” diplomatic staff were among 6,000 Americans to have left. They did not say whether that included top envoy Ross Wilson, expected to be among the last civilians to depart.

A U.S. official said initial reports did not indicate any U.S. casualties from as many as five missiles fired on the airport. Islamic State claimed responsibility for the rocket attacks.

In recent days, Washington has warned of more attacks, while carrying out two air strikes. It said both hit Islamic State targets, one thwarting an attempted suicide bombing in Kabul on Sunday by destroying a car packed with explosives, but which Afghans said had struck civilians.

Tuesday’s deadline for troops to leave was set by Biden, fulfilling an agreement reached with the Taliban by his predecessor, Donald Trump to end the United States’ longest war.

But having failed to anticipate that the Taliban would so quickly conquer the country, Washington and its NATO allies were forced into a hasty exit. They leave behind thousands of Afghans who helped Western countries and might have qualified for evacuation.

(Reporting by Reuters bureaus and Idrees Ali and Rupam Jain; Additional reporting by Joseph Nasr in Berlin; Writing by Clarence Fernandez, Peter Graff, William Maclean and Steve Holland; Editing by Angus MacSwan, Catherine Evans and Peter Cooney)

Americans give to charity like never before amid pandemic

By Jonnelle Marte

(Reuters) – Hundreds of cars line up before dawn on weekly distribution days for the Forgotten Harvest’s partner food pantries in the metro Detroit area, where visits are up by 50% this year.

The need has grown as the coronavirus pandemic has shut down offices and other businesses. So has the response.

Monetary donations to the food bank are on pace to top last year’s contributions, helping to fund a larger storage space and new mobile distribution sites required to distribute food safely during the crisis.

“The only good thing about this pandemic is that it’s made people care a little bit more about their neighbors,” said Christopher Ivey, director of marketing for Forgotten Harvest, one of the largest food banks in Michigan.

The economic crisis set off by the pandemic has widened the chasm between the “haves” and the “have-nots” in the United States in new ways. People who can work from home, often in higher-income jobs, are comfortable.

But over 20 million Americans rely on unemployment benefits, and hunger and poverty are rising.

The expanded rift has been accompanied by an outpouring of donations to local food banks, crowdfunding campaigns and other aid to financially devastated Americans.

Amazon shareholder Mackenzie Scott’s $4 billion in charitable contributions, announced earlier this month, may be the biggest. But plenty of Americans are also chipping in, donating $10 or $20, some for the first time ever.

Many non-profits have suffered this year as the pandemic shuttered galas and fundraisers. But donations to some small and mid-sized charitable organizations were up 7.6% in the first nine months of 2020 over 2019, according to a recent analysis by the Association of Fundraising Professionals, which tracks nearly 2,500 groups. The number of donors is up by 11.7%.

The trend seems to have continued in December, typically the most active time for charitable giving in the United States, early data show. Charities received $2.47 billion in donations on Dec. 1, the Tuesday after Thanksgiving known as GivingTuesday, up 25% from 2019.

“People are giving like we’ve never seen before,” said Woodrow Rosenbaum, chief data officer for GivingTuesday.

Much of that is coming in small dollar amounts, suggesting that people across the income spectrum are stepping up their contributions, Rosenbaum said.

About 70% of the donations made to campaigns on GoFundMe were under $50 this year, up from 40% in 2019, according to a spokesperson for the fundraising website.

“What we have now is much more collective action,” said Rosenbaum.

America’s Food Fund, started this year, raised over $44 million on GoFundMe, the largest campaign ever on the fundraising website. Long-time programs like the United States Post Office’s Operation Santa, which matches donors with needy families who send letters to a special North Pole address, report unprecedented support.

Jonathan Cummings, executive director for Revive South Jersey, a ministry started in 2012 to tutor English, mentor and provide housing help in local communities, says a “groundswell” of volunteers signed up to deliver food every two weeks after the organization realized that many of the families it supports were struggling to afford groceries.

Giving Tuesday donations tracked by Share Omaha, a Nebraska organization that supports local nonprofits, nearly doubled this year from 2019, to over $3 million, with a third coming from first-time donors. When the group asked for volunteers earlier in the year for packing meals for the homeless and other tasks, it got 700 applications, up from the 200 monthly average.

“Even if people are out of work or furloughed, they want to give back to the community,” said Marjorie Maas, executive director for the organization.

Janette McCabe was one of the hundreds of people waiting in cars before sunrise on the Monday before Christmas in a parking lot in Warren, Michigan, for a Forgotten Harvest food bank distribution.

McCabe and her husband lost their jobs recently and have been relying on food stamps. She has been coming to the food bank distribution for about a month and a half.

“The volunteers are fantastic,” McCabe said. “I don’t know what we would do if we didn’t have them.”

(Reporting by Jonnelle Marte; Additional reporting by Emily Elconin; Editing by Heather Timmons and Dan Grebler)

U.S. disease experts: Don’t travel for Thanksgiving

By Rebecca Spalding and Manojna Maddipatla

(Reuters) – The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday urged Americans not to travel during next week’s Thanksgiving holiday to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus as cases of COVID-19 spike around the United States.

The travel advice is a “strong recommendation,” not a requirement, CDC official Henry Walke said on a call with reporters. The federal agency said it was making the recommendation after many states across the country experienced a surge in coronavirus cases in recent weeks.

“We’re alarmed with the exponential increase in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths,” Walke said.

The CDC advised against gathering with anyone who has not lived in the same household for at least 14 days, the incubation period for the coronavirus. Officials said they were also posting recommendations on their website on how to stay safe during the holidays for those Americans who do choose to travel.

“It is the right advice. We are in a major surge in the U.S. with hospitals inundated,” Dr. Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said at a Reuters forum. “There are some that will travel nonetheless, but, hopefully, they will put in place some common-sense measures to limit the damage the virus can cause.”

While the CDC recommended virtual gatherings, for those who do gather in person, guests should bring their own food and utensils and celebrate outdoors if possible, it said.

If celebrating indoors, it recommends that Americans open windows and put fans in front of open windows to pull fresh air into the room where guests are sitting. It also suggests limiting the number of people near where food is being prepared.

The Wednesday before Thanksgiving is typically the busiest travel day of the year in the United States, as Americans gather with friends and family around the country. Shares in airlines and hotel companies have plummeted since the outbreak began as government officials have advised against unnecessary travel.

The AAA travel agency has said it anticipates at least a 10 percent drop in the number of travelers this Thanksgiving, the largest single-year drop since 2008. Based on its October models, it forecasts 50 million Americans will travel for the holiday, compared with 55 million in 2019.

With the CDC recommendations, it expects that number now to be even lower.

United Airlines, American Airlines and Southwest Airlines each said on Thursday that bookings were weakening due to the spike in COVID-19 cases, and United said cancellations were rising.

(Reporting by Rebecca Spalding, Tracy Rucinski, David Shepardson and Lisa Pauline Mattackal; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Jonathan Oatis and Peter Henderson)

U.S. has a plan to start Pfizer vaccine shots in December: Health Secretary Azar

By Doina Chiacu and Deena Beasley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – If Pfizer Inc. submits the positive initial data from its COVID-19 vaccine trial to health regulators as quickly as expected, the U.S. government plans to begin vaccinating Americans in December, Health Secretary Alex Azar said on Tuesday.

Pfizer on Monday said the vaccine it has been developing with German partner BioNTech SE was 90% effective against COVID-19, based on an early look at results from its large, late-stage trial.

The U.S. drugmaker said it expects to have safety data as soon as next week that it needs to apply for emergency use authorization (EUA) with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Upon FDA authorization, the United States would receive about 20 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine per month, Azar said on a call with reporters, noting that HHS could being procuring supplies at the end of this month.

The United States has a $1.95 billion contract for 100 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine – enough to inoculate 50 million people – with an option to acquire 500 million more.

Earlier on Tuesday, Azar said on CNBC that final decisions are subject to a close look at the vaccine efficacy data.

Based on recommendations to the government, it will likely start with inoculations of the elderly in nursing homes and assisted living facilities, healthcare workers and first responders, with a goal to complete those shots by the end of January.

Top U.S. infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci also said in an interview with MSNBC that he expects the doses of the vaccine to be available for certain high priority groups in December.

Azar said he anticipates there will soon be more vaccines to protect against COVID-19 from other companies, including Moderna Inc <MRNA.O>, which is expected to announce interim results of a large trial of its experimental vaccine at the end of the month.

“By the end of March, early April, we expect to have enough for every American who would like to be vaccinated,” Azar told CBNC.

ANTIBODY DRUG DISTRIBUTION

Azar also said the U.S. government would begin distribution of Eli Lilly and Co’s antibody treatment this week, starting first in areas with the highest numbers of hospitalized COVID-19 patients and overall cases.

The treatment, which is administered by infusion, received an EUA on Monday.

“We’ll ensure equitable distribution, and we’ll work tightly with our governors,” Azar said. He said the government will use the same process employed to distribute remdesivir, an antiviral drug from Gilead Sciences Inc used to treat people hospitalized with COVID-19.

According to the Health and Human Services website, the agency will ship more than 79,000 doses of the antibody therapy this week, with the largest number going to Wisconsin, Texas, California, and Illinois.

The United States has purchased 300,000 doses of the treatment for this year and has an option to buy an additional 650,000 doses next year.

Azar said health officials and Eli Lilly were exploring ways to provide the treatment outside of hospitals, including through outpatient infusion centers.

Fauci described the Lilly treatment as “an important first step in the development and distribution of interventions that are given early in the course of disease.”

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu in Washington, Caroline Humer and Carl O’Donnell in New York, Deena Beasley in Los Angeles and Manojna Maddipatla in Bengaluru; Editing by Andrew Heavens, Alexandra Hudson and Bill Berkrot)

As Americans head to the polls, COVID-19’s long shadow looms

By Nick Brown and Ernest Scheyder

(Reuters) – For many Americans, this is the coronavirus election.

The pandemic has killed about 230,000 people in the country and destroyed millions of jobs, defining the last year of Donald Trump’s presidency and becoming a rallying cry for his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden.

Here are stories from a cross-section of Americans – voters and officials – for whom COVID-19 is the driving force in Tuesday’s election. Their stories underscore why the disease casts a long shadow over the 2020 U.S. presidential election.

SONIKA RANDEV, 36, NEW YORK, NEW YORK

Dr. Sonika Randev has had a dark year. In March, when she was a medical resident at New York’s Metropolitan Hospital, Randev contracted COVID-19, spending three weeks battling fever, brain fog, body aches, a loss of taste and smell and what she termed a “bone-chilling cold.”

Afterward, figuring she was immune to the coronavirus, Randev volunteered to care for the hospital’s sickest COVID patients, watching many die.

“My unit became an end-of-life unit,” she said. “We were basically waiting for patients to pass away or go to hospice.”

Melancholy quickly set in.

New York’s nightly ritual – in which people clapped and cheered for healthcare workers from their windows – stopped buoying Randev’s spirits. She found herself shutting her windows to the sound, which only reminded her of “the sea of misery” the city had become. When friends and colleagues took to drowning their sorrows, Randev found drinking only made her feel worse, so she stopped.

She felt powerless.

Now, as she gets back on her feet, she said she is trying to take some of that power back – by voting for Democratic candidate Joe Biden.

“Being able to go to the polls and finally exert some control just by casting a vote, I think that’s something powerful,” Randev said.

Recalling how doctors were forced to reuse the same masks and gowns for days, Randev said Trump should have done more to boost supply of protective gear. She also feels Trump unfairly left state governments to fight the pandemic on their own, then “turned around and criticized” those who imposed strict lockdowns.

In a statement to Reuters in October, a Trump campaign spokeswoman said the president has faced the pandemic “head on,” citing his restrictions on travel from China, adding that “he will not stop until we’ve beaten the coronavirus.”

But Randev does not believe Trump would do any better in a second term. “He is who he is,” she said. “He’s never going to change.”

CHRIS HOLLINS, 34, HOUSTON, TEXAS

It has been less than six months since Chris Hollins was thrust into the job of running elections in Harris County, Texas – the largest county in a historically conservative state that Biden has a chance of flipping.

Already, the new county clerk has battled Texas’ Republican governor and attorney general on voting rights access, underscoring the bitter battle for votes in the second-largest U.S. state.

Hollins launched drive-through voting and kept some early-voting locations open 24/7, largely for the convenience of the county’s large numbers of medical and oil industry workers, who often work odd hours.

A Republican state representative sued Hollins for the county’s use of drive-through voting in both the Texas Supreme Court, which rejected the suit on Sunday, and in federal court, where a judge on Monday ruled against it as well.

Hollins opposed the governor’s order limiting counties to one drop-off location for absentee ballots.

As a public appointee, Hollins cannot publicly endorse a candidate, though he is a Democrat.

Prodded partly by the COVID-19 pandemic, county commissioners boosted the election budget seven fold from 2016 levels to $27.7 million. Hollins used that money to triple the county’s early-voting locations to 120.

Plastic coverings that Hollins’ office bought for voters’ fingers – the county uses touchscreen voting terminals – have gone viral on social media, with some playfully describing them as “finger condoms.”

Hollins said his job is “to make sure every voter in Harris County has an opportunity to cast their ballots and can do so safely.”

He and the county have been largely been successful: By Oct. 29, more county voters had cast early ballots than in the entire 2016 election.

GLORIA “LEE” SNOVER, 52, BETHLEHEM TOWNSHIP, PENNSYLVANIA

Her father died of it. Her mother spent eight days in the ICU; her husband, 17 days. Five others in her family contracted it, including herself. For Lee Snover, COVID-19 was more than a news story. It was a family crisis.

Still, Snover goes to the polls more determined than ever to reelect Trump. The chair of the Republican Committee of Northampton County, Pennsylvania – a crucial swing district Trump won in 2016 – said that despite widespread criticism of the president’s handling of the disease, it never occurred to her to blame him for the pandemic that ravaged her family’s health and hamstrung its construction business.

Snover hit emotional rock-bottom the day of her father’s funeral in April, when, battling her own mild COVID diagnosis, she was forced to stay home. The same day, her husband entered the hospital with worsening symptoms. Her mother would soon join. The virus would ensnare eight family members total.

COVID has infected 5,700 Northampton residents and killed 315, according to Pennsylvania Department of Health data. That is 103 deaths per 100,000 residents, well above the U.S. average.

Snover opposes economic shutdowns, equating them to letting the virus win, even though doctors have said social distancing is the best way to beat COVID. “We see life as you gotta survive, you gotta win. We’re not victims. When something hits us, we beat it back and win,” she said.

With Trump behind in opinion polls, Snover says her last vote as a party official carries special weight.

“All this about women’s rights, and ‘Women are so mighty,’ but I look at them on Facebook and all they talk about is fear,” she said. “Putting my finger on that machine button and casting that ballot — that’s a victory against COVID.”

GARY SIMS, 52, RALEIGH, North Carolina

COVID-19 has caused Gary Sims to lose sleep, weight and time with his daughters – and he hasn’t even had the disease.

As director of elections for Wake County, North Carolina, Sims must stage a vote in the most populous county of a crucial battleground state, in the midst of a public health nightmare. The stress is eating him alive, he said.

From online poll worker training to mailing out hundreds of thousands of absentee ballots, “everything has been unprecedented,” Sims said.

He has had to reconfigure his agency’s 76,000-square-foot headquarters so that it can process five times its usual haul of mail ballots while keeping workers much farther apart than normal.

He has seen his two grown daughters just once this year, even though they live close by – for their own protection, he said, since he can’t work from home and is more exposed to the virus.

No stranger to pressure, the U.S. military veteran saw combat in two foreign conflicts. He worries political tensions could lead to confrontation, or that poll workers – many of whom are first-timers this year – could grow overwhelmed by the added burdens of enforcing social distancing and contending with a high turnout of partisan poll observers.

Sims’ blood pressure has spiked. Struggling to stomach solid foods, he’s subsisted mostly on protein shakes. He has lost 40 pounds (18 kg) in two months. “Did I need to lose the weight?” he said. “Yeah. Did I plan to lose it like that? No.”

As an official in charge of fair elections, Sims cannot reveal his own voting plans, but said he is an independent who votes with his daughters in mind.

“They’re getting their future started,” he said. “So my vote is for what’s best for them.”

ISRAEL SUAREZ, 76, FORT MYERS, FLORIDA

Israel Suarez nearly died after he contracted COVID-19 in August, but he did not let that stop him from voting.

Suarez spent 10 days in a Florida hospital and said he was convinced he was going to die. After the ordeal, the lifelong Republican and native of Puerto Rico voted early in October, an act he called a civic duty.

“The coronavirus shouldn’t stop anyone from exercising their moral and social responsibility to vote,” said Suarez, who founded the Nations Association Charities in Fort Myers, Florida, a nonprofit that runs youth groups and other community outreach programs.

Until now, Suarez has affiliated with Republican causes and politics. But this year, he’s supporting Biden.

“I’m so fed up with this man, Mr. Trump, because I almost died,” Suarez said. “I almost lost my life because of him.”

Suarez said Trump has divided and confused the country by failing to lead it successfully through the pandemic.

Suarez added that he persuaded his wife and daughter to vote for Biden, too. Biden “is a moral man,” Suarez said, “no matter what people think of him.”

(Reporting by Nick Brown and Ernest Scheyder; Editing by Ross Colvin and Cynthia Osterman)

After a campaign like no other, Americans rendering final verdict at polls

By Trevor Hunnicutt and Doina Chiacu

WILMINGTON, Del./WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Americans cast votes on Tuesday in the bitterly contested presidential race between incumbent Donald Trump and challenger Joe Biden after a tumultuous four years under the businessman-turned-politician that have left the United States as deeply divided as at any time in recent history.

Voters lined up at polling places around the country casting ballots amid a coronavirus pandemic that has turned everyday life upside down. Biden, the Democratic former vice president who has spent a half century in public life, has held a strong and consistent lead in national opinion polls over the Republican president.

But Trump is close enough in several election battleground states that he could piece together the 270 state-by-state Electoral College votes needed to win the election.

Trump is hoping to repeat the type of upset he pulled off in 2016 when he defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton despite losing the national popular vote by about 3 million ballots. Trump is aiming to avoid becoming the first incumbent U.S. president to lose a re-election bid since George H.W. Bush in 1992.

It is possible that it could be days before the result is known, especially if legal challenges focused on ballots sent by mail are accepted in the event of a tight race.

There was a sense of anxiety among voters and concern about possible unrest after a campaign with heated rhetoric. There were buildings boarded up in anticipation of possible protests, including in Washington and New York City. A new fence was erected around the White House.

Polls opened in some Eastern states at 6 a.m. EST (1100 GMT). The most closely watched results will start to trickle in after 7 p.m. EST (2400 GMT) when polls close in states such as Georgia.

Biden made another appearance on Tuesday morning in the pivotal state of Pennsylvania. Speaking to supporters using a bullhorn in Scranton, the city where he was born, Biden returned to some of his familiar campaign themes, promising to unite Americans and “restore basic decency and honor to the White House.”

Appearing on Fox News on Tuesday morning, Trump said the crowds he saw on Monday during his frenetic last day of campaigning gave him confidence that he would prevail.

“We have crowds that nobody’s ever had before,” said Trump, who has been criticized by Democrats for holding packed rallies in defiance of social-distancing recommendations during the pandemic. “I think that translates into a lot of votes.”

The voting caps a campaign dominated by a pandemic that has killed more than 231,000 Americans and put of people millions out of work. The country this year also was shaken by protests against racism and police brutality.

Biden, who has framed the contest as a referendum on Trump’s handling of the pandemic, promised a renewed effort to combat the public health crisis, fix the economy and bridge America’s political divide.

Trump has downplayed the pandemic, saying the country is “rounding the corner” even as numerous states set single-day records of new infections in the final days of the campaign.

More than 99 million Americans voted early either in person or by mail, motivated not only by concerns about waiting in lines on Election Day amid the pandemic but also by extraordinary levels of enthusiasm after a polarizing campaign.

The record-shattering total is nearing three-quarters of the total 2016 vote, according to the U.S. Elections Project at the University of Florida. Experts predict the vote could reach 160 million, exceeding the 138 million ballots cast in 2016.

While there were long lines in some places, in many states lines were shorter, perhaps a reflection of the massive early vote.

In McConnellsburg, Pennsylvania, about a dozen voters lined up, bundled in jackets and hats on an unseasonably chilly morning.

“He’s a bit of a jerk, and I appreciate that,” Martin Seylar, a 45-year-old welder who had just finished his shift, said of Trump, his preferred candidate. “He doesn’t get everything that he says done, but the way I see it is he’s trying, versus where everybody else blows smoke at us.”

In Detroit, Republican voter Nick Edwards, 26, cast a ballot for Biden but voted for Republican candidates for Congress.

“Honestly, decency in the White House,” Edwards said when asked about his main concern. “When someone leads the party, they need to hold those values, as well. I don’t think Trump encompasses that.”

Some crucial states, such as Florida, begin counting absentee ballots ahead of Election Day and could deliver results relatively quickly on Tuesday night. Others including Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin are barred from processing the vast majority of mail ballots until Election Day, raising the possibility of a prolonged vote count that could stretch for several days.

U.S. stocks opened higher on Tuesday, as investors wagered that Biden would prevail and usher in fresh stimulus spending.

CONTROL OF CONGRESS AT STAKE

Voters on Tuesday will also decide which political party controls the U.S. Congress for the next two years, with Democrats pushing to recapture a Senate majority and expected to retain their control of the House of Representatives.

Trump, 74, is seeking another four years in office after a chaotic first term marked by the coronavirus crisis, an economy battered by pandemic shutdowns, an impeachment drama, inquiries into Russian election interference, U.S. racial tensions and contentious immigration policies.

Trump, looking tired and sounding hoarse after days of frenetic campaigning, struck a decidedly less belligerent tone on Tuesday than he did on the trail over the weekend. He was expected spend most of Tuesday at the White House, where an election night party is planned for 400 guests, all of whom will be tested for COVID-19.

Biden, 77, is looking to win the presidency after a five-decade political career including eight years as vice president under Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama. He mounted unsuccessful bids for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988 and 2008.

Biden started his day at St. Joseph on the Brandywine, his Roman Catholic church near Wilmington, Delaware, where he spent some time at his son Beau’s grave with Beau’s daughter, Natalie. Beau Biden died of cancer at age 46 in 2015.

The two candidates have spent the final days barnstorming half a dozen battleground states, with Pennsylvania emerging as perhaps the most hotly contested. Biden will have made at least nine campaign stops in Pennsylvania between Sunday and Tuesday.

Biden’s polling lead has forced Trump to play defense; almost every competitive state was carried by him in 2016.

(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and Doina Chiacu in Washington; Additional reporting by Steve Holland and Susan Heavey in Washington; Michael Martina in Detroit; Nathan Layne in McConnellsburg, Pennsylvania; and Daniel Trotta; Writing by Joseph Ax and John Whitesides; Editing by Paul Thomasch)

More than 4 million Americans have already voted, suggesting record turnout

By John Whitesides

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Americans are rushing to cast ballots ahead of the Nov. 3 election at an unprecedented pace, early voting numbers show, indicating a possible record turnout for the showdown between President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden.

With four weeks to go before Election Day, more than 4 million Americans already have voted, more than 50 times the 75,000 at this time in 2016, according to the United States Elections Project, which compiles early voting data.

The shift has been driven by an expansion of early and mail-in voting in many states as a safe way to cast a ballot during the coronavirus pandemic and an eagerness to weigh in on the political future of Trump, said Michael McDonald of the University of Florida, who administers the project.

“We’ve never seen this many people voting so far ahead of an election,” McDonald said. “People cast their ballots when they make up their minds, and we know that many people made up their minds long ago and already have a judgment about Trump.”

The early surge has led McDonald to predict a record turnout of about 150 million, representing 65% of eligible voters, the highest rate since 1908.

Biden leads Trump in national opinion polls, although surveys in crucial battleground states indicate a tighter race.

The numbers reported so far come from 31 states, McDonald said, and will grow rapidly as more states begin early in-person voting and report absentee mail-in totals in the next few weeks. All but about a half-dozen states allow some level of early in-person voting.

The percentage of voters who cast their ballot at a voting machine on Election Day already had been in steady decline before this year, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, a federal agency.

The total number of early or mail-in votes more than doubled from nearly 25 million in 2004 to 57 million in 2016, it said, representing an increase from one in five of all ballots cast to two in five of all ballots cast.

Trump has railed against mail-in voting, making unfounded accusations that it leads to fraud. Experts have said such fraud is rare.

Those attacks by the president have shown signs of depressing Republican interest in voting by mail. Democrats have more than doubled the number of returned mail-in ballots by Republicans in seven states that report voter registration data by party, according to the Elections Project.

In the crucial battleground state of Florida, Democrats have requested more than 2.4 million mail-in ballots and returned 282,000, while Republicans have asked for nearly 1.7 million and returned more than 145,000.

A national Reuters/Ipsos poll taken last week found 5% of Democrats nationwide said they had already voted compared to 2% of Republicans. About 58% of Democrats planned to vote early compared to 40% of Republicans.

McDonald said early voting typically starts strong, then drops before surging just ahead of the election. But in some states, rates of participation already have skyrocketed a month out.

In South Dakota, early voting this year already represents nearly 23% of the total turnout in 2016. It is nearly 17% of total 2016 turnout in Virginia and nearly 15% of total 2016 turnout in the battleground state of Wisconsin.

“That’s just nuts,” McDonald said. “Every piece of data suggests very high turnout for this election. I think that’s just a given.”

(Reporting by John Whitesides; Editing by Scott Malone, David Gregorio and Will Dunham)

Americans on COVID-19 jobless benefits spent more than when working, study shows

By Jonnelle Marte

(Reuters) – Americans who received enhanced unemployment benefits due to the coronavirus pandemic spent more than when they were working, a study released on Thursday said, adding to concerns about a steep fall in spending when the emergency benefits expire.

The $600 weekly supplement added to jobless benefits as part of the CARES Act helped unemployed households spend 10% more after receiving benefits than they did before the pandemic, according to research by the JP Morgan Chase Institute.

Researchers analyzed transactions for 61,000 households that received unemployment benefits between March and May. Spending dropped for all households as the virus spread and led to business shutdowns, but then rose when households began receiving jobless benefits, the study found.

That contrasts with a typical recession, when households receiving unemployment benefits usually cut spending by 7% because regular jobless benefits amount to only a fraction of a person’s prior earnings, the research found.

The analysis highlighted how the additional unemployment benefits are helping to prop up the U.S. economy and consumer spending after the pandemic led to a surge in joblessness across the country.

More than 30 million Americans are estimated to be receiving unemployment benefits – and they could be pushed off an income cliff when the supplemental benefits, which are due to expire at the end of July, are withdrawn.

“Our estimates suggest that expiration will result in large spending cuts, with potentially negative effects on both households and macroeconomic activity,” the researchers wrote.

The data also reflected the financial pain faced by households that encountered big delays in collecting benefits after states across the country were overwhelmed by applications.

Households that had to wait several weeks for their first unemployment check to arrive cut spending by about 20%, the study found. Spending recovered after the checks arrived.

(Reporting by Jonnelle Marte; editing by Richard Pullin)

Trump backs work incentives as part of next stimulus bill

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Wednesday he supports another coronavirus stimulus bill but wants it to include incentives for Americans to go back to work, setting up a clash with Democrats in Congress over jobless benefits.

“We want to create a very great incentive to work. So, we’re working on that and I’m sure we’ll all come together,” Trump said in an interview with Fox Business Network.

The remarks indicate the Trump administration will oppose an effort by Democrats in Congress to renew a $600 supplement to weekly jobless benefits set to expire at the end of July that was contained in earlier coronavirus relief legislation.

Many Republicans have argued that the supplemental benefit encourages workers to remain unemployed and they would prefer to provide a benefit for workers returning to the job.

Trump said the structure of the last round of financial aid to struggling Americans created a disincentive for people to return to work.

“It was an incentive, not to go to work. You’d make more money if you don’t go to work – that’s not what the country is all about,” Trump said in the interview. “And people didn’t want that. They wanted to go to work, but it didn’t make sense because they make more money if they didn’t.”

Administration officials have said they will calibrate their response in terms of further stimulus based on economic data set to roll in over the next couple of weeks. Negotiations over another relief bill are not expected to pick up until Congress returns from a break for the July 4 Independence Day holiday.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Tim Ahmann and Jonathan Oatis)

Coronavirus may have infected 10 times more Americans than reported, CDC says

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Government experts believe more than 20 million Americans could have contracted the coronavirus, 10 times more than official counts, indicating many people without symptoms have or have had the disease, senior administration officials said.

The estimate, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is based on serology testing used to determine the presence of antibodies that show whether an individual has had the disease, the officials said.

The officials, speaking to a small group of reporters on Wednesday night, said the estimate was based on the number of known cases, between 2.3 million and 2.4 million, multiplied by the average rate of antibodies seen from the serology tests, about an average of 10 to 1.

“If you multiply the cases by that ratio, that’s where you get that 20 million figure,” said one official.

If true, the estimate would suggest the percentage of U.S. deaths from the disease is lower than thought. More than 120,000 Americans have died from the disease since the pandemic erupted earlier this year.

The estimate comes as government officials note that many new cases are showing up in young people who do not exhibit symptoms and may not know they have it.

Officials said young people with no symptoms, but who are in regular contact with vulnerable populations, should proactively get tested to make sure they do not spread it.

“We have heard from Florida and Texas that roughly half of the new cases that are reporting are people under the age of 35, and many of them are asymptomatic,” one official said.

The CDC has sent 40 response teams to help deal with the outbreaks, they said.

More than 36,000 new cases of COVID-19 were recorded nationwide on Wednesday, just shy of the record 36,426 on April 24, concentrated on states that were spared the brunt of the initial outbreak or moved early to lift restrictions aimed at curbing the virus’ spread.

(Reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)