Northern California wildfires kill three, force evacuation of thousands

By Adrees Latif and Stephen Lam

SANTA ROSA, Calif. (Reuters) – A northern California wildfire raging in the foothills of the Cascade range has claimed three lives, officials said on Monday, as a separate blaze prompted mass evacuations and spread turmoil to the famed wine-producing regions of Napa and Sonoma counties.

The three fatalities in the so-called Zogg Fire in Shasta County, which erupted on Sunday near Redding, about 200 miles north of San Francisco, were reported by the county sheriff and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire). They were all civilians.

No further details about the victims or how they perished were immediately provided. But the deaths bring to 29 the number of people killed since mid-August in a California wildfire season of historic proportions.

The Zogg fire, which has destroyed 146 structures and charred 31,000 acres of grassy hillsides and oak woodlands thick with dry scrub, coincided with the outbreak of another conflagration in the heart of California’s wine country north of the Bay area.

That blaze, dubbed the Glass Fire, has spread across 36,000 acres of similar terrain in Napa and Sonoma counties since early Sunday, incinerating more than 100 homes and other buildings, forcing thousands of residents to flee and threatening world-renowned vineyards, according to CalFire.

Both fires were listed at zero containment as of Monday evening. The cause of each was under investigation.

They marked the latest flashpoints in a destructive spate of wildfires this summer across the Western United States.

In California this year, wildfires have scorched 3.7 million acres (1.5 million hectares) since January – far exceeding any single year in state history. They have been stoked by intense, prolonged bouts of heat, high winds and other weather extremes that scientists attribute to climate change.

More than 7,000 homes and other structures have burned statewide so far this year.

LANDMARK CHATEAU BURNS

The Glass Fire broke out in Napa Valley before dawn near Calistoga before merging with two other blazes into a larger eruption of flames straddling western Napa County and an adjacent swath of Sonoma County.

In one notable property loss, the mansion-like Chateau Boswell winery in St. Helena – a familiar landmark along the Silverado Trail road running the length of the Napa Valley – went up in flames on Sunday night.

An estimated 60,000 residents have been placed under evacuation orders or advisories in Sonoma and Napa counties combined, but no injuries have been reported.

Not everyone heeded evacuation orders.

In 2017, roughly 5% of Santa Rosa’s homes were lost when downed power lines sparked a devastating firestorm in October that swept the region, killing 19 people.

HARVEST SEASON SMOKE

The Glass Fire struck about midway through the region’s traditional grape-harvesting season, already disrupted by a spate of large fires earlier this summer.

Several Napa Valley growers said recently they would forgo a 2020 vintage altogether due to smoke contamination of ripening grapes waiting to be picked.

The 475 vintners in Napa Valley alone account for just 4% of the state’s grape harvest but half the retail value of all California wines sold. Sonoma County, too, has become a premiere viticulture region with some 450 wineries and a million acres of vineyards.

The full impact on the region’s wine business remains to be seen and will differ for each grower, depending on how far along they are in the harvest, said Teresa Wall, spokeswoman for the Napa Valley Vintners trade group.

“There are some who were close to wrapping up, and some who were still planning to leave their grapes hanging out there for a while,” she said.

The fires caused major upheavals for the area’s most vulnerable residents already grappling with the coronavirus pandemic.

The Adventist Health St. Helena hospital was forced to evacuate patients on Sunday, the second time in a month following a lightning-sparked wildfire in August.

On Monday, residents at Oakmont Gardens, a Santa Rosa retirement community, leaned on walkers and waited to board a bus taking them to safety, their face masks doubling as protection against smoke and COVID-19.

Over 100,000 homes and business have suffered power outages across northern California since Sunday, some from precautionary shutoffs of transmission lines to reduce wildfire risks in the midst of extremely windy, hot, dry weather, Pacific Gas and Electric Co reported.

Red-flag warnings for extreme wildfire risks remained posted for much of Northern California, forecasting low humidity and gale-force wind gusts.

(Reporting by Adrees Latif and Stephen Lam in Santa Rosa, California; Writing and additional reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York and Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Peter Cooney, Gerry Doyle & Shri Navaratnam)

Meatpackers deny workers benefits for COVID-19 deaths, illnesses

By Tom Hals and Tom Polansek

(Reuters) – Saul Sanchez died in April, one of six workers with fatal COVID-19 infections at meatpacker JBS USA’s slaughterhouse in Greeley, Colorado, the site of one of the earliest and deadliest coronavirus outbreaks at a U.S. meatpacking plant.

Before getting sick, the 78-year-old Sanchez only left home to work on the fabrication line, where cattle carcasses are sliced into cuts of beef, and to go to his church, with its five-person congregation, said his daughter, Betty Rangel. She said no one else got infected in the family or at Bible Missionary Church, which could not be reached for comment.

JBS, the world’s largest meatpacker, denied the family’s application for workers’ compensation benefits, along with those filed by the families of two other Greeley workers who died of COVID-19, said lawyers handling the three claims. Families of the three other Greeley workers who died also sought compensation, a union representative said, but Reuters could not determine the status of their claims.

JBS has said the employees’ COVID-19 infections were not work-related in denying the claims, according to responses the company gave to employees, which were reviewed by Reuters.

As more Americans return to workplaces, the experience of JBS employees shows the difficulty of linking infections to employment and getting compensation for medical care and lost wages.

“That is the ultimate question: How can you prove it?” said Nick Fogel, an attorney specializing in workers’ compensation at the firm Burg Simpson in Colorado.

The meatpacking industry has suffered severe coronavirus outbreaks, in part because production-line workers often work side-by-side for long shifts. Companies including JBS, Tyson Foods Inc and WH Group Ltd’s Smithfield Foods closed about 20 plants this spring after outbreaks, prompting President Donald Trump in April to order the plants to stay open to ensure the nation’s meat supply. The White House declined to comment on the industry’s rejections of workers’ claims. The U.S. Department of Labor did not respond to a request for comment.

Tyson has also denied workers’ compensation claims stemming from a big outbreak in Iowa, workers’ attorneys told Reuters. Smithfield workers at a plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, also hit by a major outbreak, have generally not filed claims, a union official said, in part because the company has paid infected workers’ wages and medical bills.

Smithfield declined to comment on workers’ compensation. Tyson said it reviews claims on a case-by-case basis, but declined to disclose how often it rejects them. JBS acknowledged rejecting claims but declined to say how often. It called the denials consistent with the law, without elaborating.

Workers can challenge companies’ denials in an administrative process that varies by state but typically resembles a court hearing. The burden of proof, however, usually falls on the worker to prove a claim was wrongfully denied.

The full picture of how the meatpacking industry has handled COVID-related workers’ compensation remains murky because of a lack of national claims data. Reuters requested data from seven states where JBS or its affiliates have plants that had coronavirus outbreaks. Only three states provided data in any detail; all show a pattern of rejections.

In Minnesota, where JBS had a major outbreak, meatpacking employees filed 930 workers’ compensation claims involving COVID-19 as of Sept. 11, according to the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry. None were accepted, 717 were rejected and 213 were under review. The agency did not identify the employers.

The Minnesota Department of Health said only two meatpacking plants there had significant coronavirus outbreaks: a JBS pork processing plant in Worthington, and a poultry plant in Cold Spring run by Pilgrim’s Pride Corp <PPC.O>, which is majority-owned by JBS.

Tom Atkinson, a Minnesota workers’ compensation attorney who has represented meatpacking workers, estimates up to 100 COVID-19 claims were filed by employees at the Worthington plant.

In Utah, seven JBS workers filed claims related to COVID-19 by Aug. 1 and all were denied, according to the state’s Labor Commission. At least 385 workers at a JBS beef plant in Hyrum, Utah, tested positive for COVID-19.

In Colorado, 69% of the 2,294 worker compensation claims for COVID-19 had been denied as of Sept. 12. Although the state does not break down the denials by industry, a JBS spokesman told Reuters the company is rejecting claims in Colorado and that it uses the same claim-review procedures nationwide.

JBS spokesman Cameron Bruett did not answer the question of whether JBS employees were infected on the job and declined comment on individual workers’ claims. He said the company has outsourced claim reviews to a third-party administrator.

“Given the widespread nature of viral spread, our third-party claims administrator reviews each case thoroughly and independently,” said Bruett.

The administrator, Sedgwick, did not respond to a request for comment. Bruett, also a spokesman for Pilgrim’s Pride, did not respond to questions about infections and claims at its Minnesota plant.

At the JBS plant in Greeley, where Sanchez worked before he died, at least 291 of about 6,000 workers were infected, according to state data. The company, in its written response to the family’s claim, said that his infection was “not work-related,” without spelling out its reasoning. The two sides are now litigating the matter in Colorado’s workers’ compensation system.

Under Colorado law, a workers’ compensation death benefit provides about two-thirds of the deceased worker’s salary to the surviving spouse and pays medical expenses not covered by insurance. If JBS had not denied the Sanchez family’s claim, that would have provided his widow a steady income and paid uncovered medical bills totaling about $10,000, according to his daughter.

“They don’t care,” Rangel said of JBS. “They are all about the big profits, and they are not going to give any money out.”

MASS INFECTIONS, LITTLE COMPENSATION

The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) International Union, which represents 250,000 U.S. meatpacking and food-processing workers, said last week at least 122 meatpacking workers have died of COVID-19 and more than 18,000 had missed work because they were infected or potentially exposed.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) said on Sept. 11 that it had cited JBS for failing to protect workers at the Greeley plant from the virus. OSHA cited Smithfield this month for failing to protect workers at its Sioux Falls, South Dakota, plant, where the agency said nearly 1,300 workers contracted the coronavirus and four died.

Smithfield and JBS said the citations had no merit because they concerned conditions in plants before OSHA issued COVID-19 guidance for the industry. OSHA said it stands by the citations.

Workers’ compensation is generally the only way to recoup medical expenses and lost wages for work-related injuries and deaths. The system protects employers from lawsuits, with few exceptions, and allows workers to collect benefits without having to prove fault or negligence. But the system was designed for factory accidents, not airborne illnesses.

In response to the coronavirus, governors and lawmakers in at least 14 states have made it easier for some employees to collect workers compensation for COVID-19 by putting the burden on companies and insurers to prove an infection did not occur at work. But most of the changes, which vary by state, only apply to workers in healthcare or emergency services. A similar proposal failed to gain support in Colorado.

Mark Dopp, general counsel for the North American Meat Institute, a trade association that represents meatpackers, said it is difficult to determine where workers get infections given extensive sanitation efforts taken by meat plants and workers’ daily travel to and from the plants.

Tyson in April closed its Waterloo, Iowa, pork processing plant due to a COVID-19 outbreak. Ben Roth, a local workers’ compensation attorney, said five families of employees who died filed workers compensation claims for death benefits, and all were denied.

He said meat-processing companies have an incentive to deny every claim because admitting they caused even one infection can expose the firms to liability for all workers contracting COVID-19.

“That undercuts the argument that they want to make across the board: that you can’t prove you got it here and not at a grocery store,” Roth said.

Tyson said it follows state laws for workers’ compensation. The company noted that Iowa law states that disease with an equal likelihood of being contracted outside the workplace are “not compensable as an occupational disease.”

In Colorado, Sylvia Martinez runs a group called Latinos Unidos of Greeley and said she knows of more than 20 JBS workers who applied for workers compensation and were denied. Many plant workers are not native English speakers and sought out her group for guidance, she said, adding that many don’t understand their rights and fear being fired. The company’s rejections have discouraged more claims, Martinez said.

“If you deny five or 10, those workers will tell their co-workers,” she said.

‘WHO IS GOING TO HIRE HIM?’

JBS also contested the claim of Alfredo Hernandez, 55, a custodian who worked at the Greeley plant for 31 years. He became infected and was hospitalized in March. He still relies on supplemental oxygen and hasn’t returned to work, said his wife, Rosario Hernandez.

Generall y, companies approve claims if it looks probable that an employee was injured or sickened at work, said Erika Alverson, the attorney representing Hernandez. But JBS, she said, is arguing workers could have contracted COVID-19 anywhere.

“They’re getting into, where did our clients go, what were they doing during that time, who was coming into their house, what did their spouse do, was there any other form of exposure?” said Alverson, of the Denver firm Alverson and O’Brien.

A judge will decide the Hernandez case in an administrative hearing. In the meantime, the Hernandez family has only his disability benefits – a portion of his salary – to cover his medical and insurance costs, Rosario Hernandez said.

“We’re getting bunches of bills,” she said.

(Reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware, and Tom Polansek in Chicago; Editing by Noeleen Walder, Caroline Stauffer and Brian Thevenot)

Oregon inmates find redemption in fighting wildfires

By Adrees Latif

PAISLEY, Ore. (Reuters) – In the flames, they are finding redemption.

The 10 Oregon prisoners carry chainsaws, axes, shovels and hoes into the biggest wildfires the state has seen in a century.

Banding together, they form lines in the forest and trudge up the steep ashen slopes of the Cascade Mountains, hunting embers that could reignite flames.

The men are part of a seven-decade-old state-run program that aims to do two basic things: Rehabilitate prisoners by teaching them a trade, and provide extra boots on the ground for intense wildfire seasons.

A dozen such crews have worked fires in Oregon this month, which has seen over 1 million acres burn and nine people die during this year’s wildfire season.

The men in a crew working the forested mountains near Paisley, Oregon, last week were mostly young and fit. They had to be to scale the punishing terrain. Ankle-deep ash slicked hills and meant the men slipped two steps back for each stride forward.

Many were violent offenders – armed robberies and assaults were common convictions – but none were in prison for homicide or sexual crimes. Most say they have personalities that feed off adrenaline. The highs that crime brought landed them in jail. All say they are blessed to have found a legal, alternative rush.

“This gives us a different opportunity, rather than going back to something that we already know, which is guns, gangs, violence and drugs,” said Eddie Correia, 36, who is about halfway through his six-year sentence for an assault conviction.

Correia’s crew had 10 prisoners who spent their days fighting fires and another 10 who slept and worked in an Oregon Department of Forestry support camp, picking up trash, serving food and providing other services. They earn $6 a day for their labor.

The men wake at 6:30 a.m. each day in Oregon’s cold early fall dawn. They dress in sweatshirts emblazoned with the word INMATE and make their way to a makeshift breakfast area, where they sip coffee, stamp their feet to ward off the chill and chat about the chore that awaits them.

Around them, the flat green pastures of the Fremont National Forest run right up to the fire-devastated mountains, where billows of white smoke float upward from the flames.

The men prep their equipment before heading out, using files to sharpen axes and triple checking their bright yellow backpacks to make sure all their gear is there.

Armando Gomez-Zacarias, 24, who has just over three years left on a 7-1/2 year sentence for robbery, said the work gave him “a nice adrenaline rush.”

The physical toll, he emphasized, was brutal.

“It’s like running 100 laps on the track without stopping and carrying 50 pounds of weight,” he said.

Correia, who has fought fires in the program since 2018 and wants to continue after he is released from jail, said the strenuous work and danger fostered a camaraderie impossible to replicate inside prison walls.

Those connections and sense of purpose, he said, “have helped me deal with a lot of my own demons.”

(Reporting by Adrees Latif in Paisley, Oregon; Additional reporting and writing by Brad Brooks; Editing by Richard Chang)

Coronavirus deaths rise above a million in ‘agonizing’ global milestone

By Jane Wardell

(Reuters) – The global coronavirus death toll rose past a million on Tuesday, according to a Reuters tally, a grim statistic in a pandemic that has devastated the global economy, overloaded health systems and changed the way people live.

The number of deaths from the novel coronavirus this year is now double the number of people who die annually from malaria – and the death rate has increased in recent weeks as infections surge in several countries.

“Our world has reached an agonizing milestone,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a statement.

“It’s a mind-numbing figure. Yet we must never lose sight of each and every individual life. They were fathers and mothers, wives and husbands, brothers and sisters, friends and colleagues.”

It took just three months for COVID-19 deaths to double from half a million, an accelerating rate of fatalities since the first death was recorded in China in early January.

More than 5,400 people are dying around the world every 24 hours, according to Reuters calculations based on September averages, overwhelming funeral businesses and cemeteries.

That equates to about 226 people an hour, or one person every 16 seconds. In the time it takes to watch a 90-minute soccer match, 340 people die on average.

(Reuters interactive graphic: https://tmsnrt.rs/2VqS5PS)

“So many people have lost so many people and haven’t had the chance to say goodbye,” World Health Organization (WHO) spokeswoman Margaret Harris told a U.N. briefing in Geneva.

“…Many, many of the people who died died alone in medical circumstances where it’s a terribly difficult and lonely death.”

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the world had to unite to fight the virus.

“History will judge us on the decisions we do and don’t make in the months ahead,” he said in the Independent newspaper.

INFECTIONS RISING

Experts remain concerned that the official figures for deaths and cases globally significantly under-represent the real tally because of inadequate testing and recording and the possibility of concealment by some countries.

The response to the pandemic has pitted proponents of health measures like lockdowns against those intent on sustaining politically sensitive economic growth, with approaches differing from country to country.

The United States, Brazil and India, which together account for nearly 45% of all COVID-19 deaths globally, have all lifted social distancing measures in recent weeks.

“The American people should anticipate that cases will rise in the days ahead,” U.S. Vice President Mike Pence warned on Monday. U.S. deaths stood at 205,132 and cases at 7.18 million by late Monday.

India, meanwhile, has recorded the highest daily growth in infections in the world, with an average of 87,500 new cases a day since the beginning of September.

On current trends, India will overtake the United States as the country with the most confirmed cases by the end of the year, even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government pushes ahead with easing lockdown measures in a bid to support a struggling economy.

Despite the surge in cases, India’s death toll of 96,318, and pace of growth of fatalities, remains below those of the United States, Britain and Brazil. India on Tuesday reported its smallest rise in deaths since Aug. 3, continuing a recent easing trend that has baffled experts.

In Europe, which accounts for nearly 25% of deaths, the WHO has warned of a worrying spread in western Europe just weeks away from the winter flu season.

The WHO has also warned the pandemic still needs major control interventions amid rising cases in Latin America, where many countries have started to resume normal life.

Much of Asia, the first region affected by the pandemic, is experiencing a relative lull after emerging from a second wave.

The high number of deaths has led to changes burial rites around the world, with morgues and funeral businesses overwhelmed and loved ones often barred from bidding farewell in person.

In Israel, the custom of washing the bodies of Muslim deceased is not permitted, and instead of being shrouded in cloth, they must be wrapped in a plastic body bag. The Jewish tradition of Shiva where people go to the home of mourning relatives for seven days has also been disrupted.

In Italy, Catholics have been buried without funerals or a blessing from a priest, while in Iraq former militiamen dropped their guns to dig graves at a specially created cemetery and learned how to conduct both Christian and Muslim burials.

In some parts of Indonesia, bereaved families have barged into hospitals to claim bodies, fearing their relatives might not be given a proper burial.

The United States, Indonesia, Bolivia, South Africa and Yemen have all had to locate new burial sites as cemeteries fill up.

(Reporting by Jane Wardell; additional reporting by Shaina Ahluwalia, Seerat Gupta and Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Robert Birsel and Nick Macfie)

U.S. CDC reports 204,328 coronavirus deaths

(Reuters) – The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Monday reported 7,095,422 cases of the new coronavirus, an increase of 36,335 cases from its previous count, and said that the number of deaths had risen by 295 to 204,328.

The CDC reported its tally of cases of the respiratory illness known as COVID-19, caused by a new coronavirus, as of 4 p.m. ET on Sept. 27, compared with its previous report a day earlier.

The CDC figures do not necessarily reflect cases reported by individual states.

(Reporting by Vishwadha Chander in Bengaluru; Editing by Devika Syamnath)

New U.S. COVID-19 cases rise in 27 states for two straight weeks

(Reuters) – The number of new COVID-19 cases in the United States has risen for two weeks in a row in 27 out of 50 states, with North Carolina and New Mexico both reporting increases above 50% last week, according to a Reuters analysis.

The United States recorded 316,000 new cases in the week ended Sept. 27, up 10% from the previous seven days and the highest in six weeks, according to the analysis of state and county data.

The nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, told ABC News that the country was “not in a good place.”

“There are states that are starting to show (an) uptick in cases and even some increases in hospitalizations in some states. And, I hope not, but we very well might start seeing increases in deaths,” he said, without naming the states.

North Carolina reported a 60% jump in new cases to 13,799 last week, while New Mexico saw new infections rise 55% to 1,265. Texas also reported a 60% jump in new cases to 49,559, though that included a backlog of several thousand cases.

Deaths from COVID-19 have generally declined for the past six weeks, though still stand at more than 5,000 lives lost a week. Deaths are a lagging indicator and generally rise weeks after a surge in cases.

Testing in the country set a record of over 880,000 tests a day, surpassing the previous high in July of 820,000.

Nationally, the share of all tests that came back positive for COVID-19 held steady at about 5%, well below a recent peak of nearly 9% in mid-July, according to data from The COVID Tracking Project, a volunteer-run effort to track the outbreak.

However, 28 states have positive test rates above the 5% level that the World Health Organization considers concerning. The highest positive test rates are 26% in South Dakota, 21% in Idaho and 19% in Wisconsin.

(Writing by Lisa Shumaker; Graphic by Chris Canipe; Editing by Tiffany Wu)

‘Take home’ lawsuits over COVID infections could be costly for U.S. employers

By Tom Hals

(Reuters) – U.S. businesses with COVID-19 outbreaks are facing an emerging legal threat from claims that workers brought coronavirus home and infected relatives, which one risk analysis firm said could cost employers billions of dollars.

The daughter of Esperanza Ugalde of Illinois filed in August what lawyers believe is the first wrongful death “take home” lawsuit, alleging her mother died of COVID-19 that her father contracted at Aurora Packing Co.’s meat processing plant.

The cases borrow elements from “take home” asbestos litigation and avoid caps on liability for workplace injuries, exposing business to costly pain and suffering damages, even though the plaintiff never set foot on their premises.

“Businesses should be very concerned about these cases,” said labor and employment attorney Tom Gies of Crowell & Moring, which defends employers.

The lawsuit against Aurora alleges that Ricardo Ugalde worked “shoulder to shoulder” on the company’s processing line in April when Aurora knew it had a coronavirus outbreak at its facility and failed to warn employees or adopt any infection prevention measures.

Aurora did not respond to a request for comment.

Between 7% and 9% of the roughly 200,000 U.S. COVID-19 deaths so far are believed to stem from take-home infections and the lawsuits could cost businesses up to $21 billion if the number of Americans fatalities reaches 300,000, according to Praedicat, a firm that evaluates risks for insurers.

Rob Reville, Praedicat’s chief executive, cautions that is a worst-case scenario and said the cases might cost far less, depending on how judges view the lawsuits.

The U.S. workers compensation system generally makes it difficult for workers to sue for COVID-19. The system caps liability for businesses and bars costly lawsuits in return for quick payments to employees, who do not need to prove fault.

But Esperanza Ugalde was not an employee of Aurora, so her family can sue the company. Depending on the circumstances, a successful wrongful death case can top $1 million in damages.

Take-home cases have been around for decades in asbestos litigation and courts have split on whether a business has an obligation to members of the public who have never been on their premises.

In 2013, a California jury awarded Rose-Marie Griggs $27.3 million in compensatory and punitive damages after she contracted mesothelioma that her lawyers argued was caused by asbestos fibers carried home in the 1950’s on the work clothes of her then-husband, who installed insulation for an affiliate of Owens-Illinois Inc.

The company appealed and two sides reached a private settlement before the appeal was heard.

CONTESTING THE ‘CAUSAL CHAIN’

Attorneys for both plaintiffs and companies said successful cases require a strong “causal chain” linking the sick family member to the worker and then to the business and the business’s alleged failure to adopt safety measures.

Miriam Alvarez Reynoso sued Byrne & Schaefer Inc, a manufacturer of electrical components in Lockport, Illinois, alleging negligence by the company led to her contracting COVID-19 and suffering “serious injuries to multiple organs.”

Reynoso’s lawsuit says she became infected while caring for her husband Servando Reynoso, a parts assembler at the company, who came home sick from work on April 8. It lists 18 categories of alleged shortcomings by Byrne & Schaefer, including failing to clean work areas and ignoring employees who said they had COVID-19 symptoms.

Company owner Tim Byrne said his five employees wore masks routinely before the pandemic to protect against dust and regularly used gloves.

“He was sick before anyone else,” said Byrne. “It’s difficult to prove after the fact.”

Lawyers said employers would likely be reluctant to settle the cases for significant sums until claims were vetted in the court system.

Peter Wozniak, an attorney with Barnes & Thornburg who represents employers, said the cases will test juror attitudes toward the behavior of plaintiffs, who need to show they protected themselves from other sources of infection.

“Are you always wearing a mask? Are you staying six feet away? Are you washing your hands,” he said. “It will be interesting and unpredictable with regards to people’s attitudes for individual responsibility.”

The best protection for business owners will be adopting and documenting measures to protect workers.

“If they had acted reasonably and if Aurora put these things in place prior to the death of Esperanza I don’t know if I would have taken the case,” said Bridget Duignan, who represents Ugalde’s daughter.

“But they did nothing.”

U.S. Midwest sees surge in COVID-19 cases as four states report record increases

By Anurag Maan and Lisa Shumaker

(Reuters) – Four U.S. states in the Midwest reported record one-day increases in COVID-19 cases on Saturday as infections rise nationally for a second week in a row, according to a Reuters analysis.

Minnesota reported 1,418 new cases, Montana 343 new cases, South Dakota reported 579 and Wisconsin had 2,902 new cases.

In the last week, seven mostly Midwest states have reported record one-day rises in new infections — Minnesota, Montana, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Wisconsin and Wyoming. Minnesota and Utah reported record increases two days in a row.

The United States recorded 58,461 new cases on Friday, the highest one-day increase since Aug. 7. The United States is reporting nearly 46,000 new infections on average each day, compared with 40,000 a week ago and 35,000 two weeks ago.

All Midwest states except Ohio reported more cases in the past four weeks as compared with the prior four weeks, according to a Reuters analysis.

Some of the new cases are likely related to an increase in the number of tests performed. In the last week, the country has performed over 1 million coronavirus tests three out of seven days — a new record, according to data from The COVID Tracking Project, a volunteer-run effort to track the outbreak.

However, hospitalizations have also surged in the Midwest and are not influenced by the number of tests performed.

Wisconsin’s hospitalizations have set new records for six days in a row, rising to 543 on Friday from 342 a week ago. South Dakota’s hospitalizations set records five times this week, rising to 213 on Saturday from 153 last week.

“Wisconsin is now experiencing unprecedented, near-exponential growth of the number of COVID-19 cases in our state,” Governor Tony Evers said in a video posted on social media.

Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota and Wyoming have also seen record numbers of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in the past week.

Cases have also begun rising again in the Northeast, including the early epicenters of New York and New Jersey.

In New York, more than 1,000 people tested positive for COVID-19 on Friday for the first time since June 5, Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Saturday.

The United States recently surpassed 200,000 lives lost from the coronavirus, the highest death toll in the world.

(Reporting by Anurag Maan in Bengaluru and Lisa Shumaker in Chicago; Editing by Daniel Wallis)

Canada’s biggest provinces seek clamp down on social gatherings as coronavirus wave spreads

By Mahad Arale and Allison Lampert

TORONTO/MONTREAL (Reuters) – Canada’s two most populous provinces on Friday moved to clamp down further on social gatherings in a bid to slow a second wave of coronavirus cases sweeping across much of the country.

Ontario ordered the closure of bars and restaurants from midnight to 5 a.m. except for takeout and delivery and said strip clubs would have to shut down from Saturday.

Premier Doug Ford, whose government has already slashed the size of permitted gatherings indoor and outdoors, repeated his concerns that the majority of new cases were in people under 40.

“I can tell you I don’t see seniors going into nightclubs too often,” he told a daily briefing.

Health officials in Canada have been making increasingly gloomy comments in recent days. Theresa Tam, the chief medical officer, said on Friday that some local authorities could be overwhelmed unless the wave was curbed.

In Quebec, Health Minister Christian Dube urged residents to cut down on social interactions.

“We’re asking you to make a special effort for the next 28 days,” he told a news conference, saying the government did not want to close bars because people might then attend private parties that are harder to control.

Ontario and Quebec together account for 79% of the 149,094 cases reported in Canada so far and 93% of the 9,249 deaths.

In Ottawa, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada signed a deal with AstraZeneca PLC to buy up to 20 million doses of its COVID-19 vaccine candidate. It is among the leading candidates in the global race for a vaccine.

Procurement Minister Anita Anand said in an interview that the first doses were due in early 2021, assuming public trials went well.

Canada has now signed deals for a total of around 300 million doses of vaccine candidates from a number of major pharmaceutical firms.

(Additional reporting by Allison Martell in Montreal, writing by David Ljunggren; Editing by Aurora Ellis and Alistair Bell)

Colleges reopenings in-person likely added 3,000 U.S. COVID-19 cases per day: study

By Vishwadha Chander

(Reuters) – Reopening college and university campuses for in-person instruction during late summer this year could be associated with more than 3,000 additional cases of COVID-19 per day in the United States in recent weeks, according to a new study.

The findings call into question the practicality of face-to-face classes during the COVID-19 pandemic, and are important as colleges and universities plan their spring 2020 semesters, said researchers from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Indiana University, the University of Washington and Davidson College.

The findings are yet to be peer reviewed and have not yet been published online.

To track COVID-19 cases and study their association with students attending classes at college campuses, the team used location data from a database of cellphone users who agreed to share information. The information was gathered from July 15 to Sept. 13.

They also looked at COVID-19 infection rates in counties with campuses, before and after colleges reopened and students arrived.

The researchers noted significant increases in counties where colleges had reopened for face-to-face instruction, especially in and around campuses with students who came from areas with higher incidences of COVID-19.

“We are able to predict between 1,000 and 5,000 additional cases a day due to colleges reopening for face-to-face instruction, with our best estimate being somewhere around 3,219 cases a day,” said Ana Bento, a co-author of the study, from Indiana University’s School of Public Health.

The study did not go into how many COVID-19 cases were “imported” – or from students who arrived on campuses – and how many were local transmissions.

The team also pointed out that asymptomatic cases may not have been caught unless testing was done on campuses regardless of symptoms, and that the study did not look at measures taken by individual colleges.

(Reporting by Vishwadha Chander in Bengaluru; editing by Jonathan Oatis)