Grief in a pandemic: Holding a dying mother’s hand with a latex glove

By Deborah Bloom and Nathan Layne

KIRKLAND, Wash. (Reuters) – Doug Briggs put on a surgical gown, blue gloves and a powered respirator with a hood. He headed into the hospital room to see his mother – to tell her goodbye.

Briggs took his phone, sealed in a Ziplock bag, into the hospital room and cued up his mother’s favorite songs. He put it next to her ear and noticed her wiggle, ever so slightly, to the music.

“She knew I was there,” Briggs recalled, smiling.

Between songs by Barbara Streisand and the Beatles, Briggs conference-called his aunts to let them speak to their sister one last time. “I love you, and I’m sorry I’m not there with you. I hope the medicine they’re giving you is making you more comfortable,” said Meri Dreyfuss, one of her sisters.

Somewhere between “Stand by Me” and “Here, There, and Everywhere,” Barbara Dreyfuss passed away – her hand in her son’s, clad in latex. It would be two days before doctors confirmed that she had succumbed to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Doug Briggs is pictured outside of the Life Care Center of Kirkland, where his mother, Barbara Dreyfus, was a resident, contracted coronavirus disease (COVID-19), and later died in a hospital, in Kirkland, Washington, U.S., March 16, 2020. REUTERS/David Ryder

Dreyfuss, 75, was the eighth U.S. patient to die in a pandemic that has now killed more than 1,200 nationally and nearly 25,000 worldwide. She was among three dozen deaths linked to the Life Care nursing home in Kirkland, Washington, the site of one of the first and deadliest U.S. outbreaks. (For interactive graphics tracking coronavirus in the United States and worldwide, click https://tmsnrt.rs/2Uj9ry0 and https://tmsnrt.rs/3akNaFr )

Dreyfuss’s final hours illustrate the heartrending choices now facing families who are forced to strike a balance between staying safe and comforting their sick or dying loved ones. Some have been cut off from all contact with parents or spouses who die in isolation, while others have strained to provide comfort or to say their final goodbyes through windows or over the phone.

Just three days before his mother died, Briggs had been making weekend plans with her. Now, in his grief, he found himself glued to news reports and frustrated by the mixed messages and slow response from local, state and federal officials.

“You find out all these things, of what they knew when,” Briggs said.

Officials from Life Care Centers of America have said the facility responded the best it could to one of the worst crises ever to hit an eldercare facility, with many staffers stretched to the brink as others were sidelined with symptoms of the virus. As the first U.S. site hit with a major outbreak, the center had few protocols for a response and little help from the outside amid national shortages of test kits and other supplies.

‘NOT FEELING TOO GOOD’

A flower child of the 1960’s, Dreyfuss lived a life characterized by art and activism. After marrying her high school sweetheart and giving birth to their son, she pursued a degree in women’s studies at Cal State Long Beach, where she marched for women’s equality and abortion rights.

Furious over President Gerald Ford’s pardoning of former president Richard Nixon in 1974, Dreyfuss took to her typewriter and penned an angry letter to Ford. “Today is my son’s 9th birthday,” she wrote of a young Briggs. “I do not feel like celebrating.”

By the time she arrived at the Life Care Center in May 2019, years of health issues had dimmed some of that spark, her son said. Fibromyalgia and plantar fasciitis restricted her to a walker or a wheelchair, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease required her to have a constant flow of oxygen.

When her son visited on Feb. 25, he brought a grocery bag of her favorites, including diet A&W root beer. She awoke from a nap and smiled at him, but hinted at her discomfort.

“Hi Doug,” she said. “I’m not feeling too good.”

Still, Dreyfuss talked about an upcoming visit with her sisters – the movies she wanted to see, the restaurants she wanted to try. The mother and son then had only a vague awareness of the deadly virus then ravaging China.

In hindsight, Briggs realized he had witnessed the first signs of her distress. His mother was using more oxygen than usual, her breathing was more strained.

At the time, staff at the nursing home believed they were handling a flu outbreak and were unaware the coronavirus had started to take hold, a spokesman has said.

‘A TINY FOOTNOTE’

Two days later, Briggs dropped by to see his mom. She felt congested, and staff were going to X-ray her lungs for fluid. Briggs, 54, still saw no red flags, and continued to discuss weekend plans with his mother.

“I hope we can finally watch that new Mr. Rogers movie,” she told him, referring to the film, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.

Briggs hugged his mom before she was wheeled to the imaging room and drove for a quick meal. Soon after, he received a call from the nursing home. His mother was experiencing respiratory failure. She was on her way to the hospital. Doug rushed to nearby EvergreenHealth Medical Center. By then, she was unresponsive.

At the time, there were 59 U.S. cases of coronavirus, a number that has since soared to more than 85,000.

After hearing of her sister’s sudden hospitalization, Meri Dreyfuss remembered an earlier voicemail from Barbara: her distant voice, groaning for 30 seconds. When she had first heard it, she assumed Dreyfuss had called by accident, but now she realized her sister was in pain. “It haunts me that I didn’t pick up the phone,” she said.

Briggs spent close to 10 hours the next day in his mom’s hospital room. He wore a medical mask and anxiously watched her vital signs – especially the line tracking her oxygen saturation.

On his way out the door, a doctor took him aside to say they were testing her for the coronavirus. He remembered the difficulty reconciling the outbreak taking place on television – far away, in China – with what was happening in his mother’s hospital room.

In the Bay Area, Meri and Hillary Dreyfuss were packing their suitcases on Feb. 28 when Briggs telephoned. After the call, they decided that visiting their sister would pose too much danger of infection.

“I realized there was no way we were going to get on a plane at that point, because we couldn’t see her,” said the middle sister, Hillary. “And now, it seemed that we shouldn’t be seeing Doug, either.”

They canceled their flights. On Saturday, Feb. 29, Briggs learned his mother’s condition was deteriorating. Tough decisions loomed. Briggs and his aunts decided to prioritize making her comfortable over keeping her alive. Doctors gave her morphine to relax the heaviness in her lungs.

She died the next day.

Having emerged from a two-week quarantine, Briggs will soon retrieve his mother’s cremated remains. The family has been struggling with how to memorialize her life in such chaotic times.

“All the things that one would want to happen in the normal mourning process have been subsumed by this larger crisis,” said Hillary Dreyfuss. “It’s almost as though her death has become a tiny footnote in what’s going on.”

(Reporting by Deborah Bloom and Nathan Layne; Editing by Paul Thomasch and Brian Thevenot)

‘There are no funerals:’ Death in quarantine leaves nowhere to grieve

By Angelo Amante, Parisa Hafezi and Hayoung Choi

(Reuters) – Struck down by coronavirus at the age of 83, the long life of Alfredo Visioli ended with a short ceremony at a graveyard near Cremona, his hometown in northern Italy.

“They buried him like that, without a funeral, without his loved ones, with just a blessing from the priest,” said his granddaughter Marta Manfredi who couldn’t attend. Like most of the old man’s family – like most of Italy – she was confined to her home.

“When all this is over,” she vows, “we will give him a real funeral.”

Everywhere the coronavirus has struck, regardless of culture or religion, ancient rituals to honor the dead and comfort the bereaved have been cut short or abandoned for fear of spreading it further.

The virus, which has killed nearly 9,000 people worldwide, is reshaping many aspects of death, from the practicalities of handling infected bodies to meeting the spiritual and emotional needs of those left behind.

In Ireland, the health authority is advising mortuary workers to put face masks on dead bodies to reduce even the minor risk of infection. In Italy, a funeral company is using video links to allow quarantined families to watch a priest bless the deceased. And in South Korea, fear of the virus has caused such a drop in the number of mourners that funeral caterers are struggling for business.

There is little time for ceremony in hard-hit cities such as Bergamo, northeast of Milan, where the mortuaries are full and the crematorium is working around the clock, said Giacomo Angeloni, a local official in charge of cemeteries.

Bergamo, home to about 120,000 people, has been dealing with 5-6 times the number of dead it would in normal times, he said.

Italy has now reported nearly 3,000 deaths from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus – the highest outside China where the virus first emerged. The Italian army sent 50 troops and 15 trucks to Bergamo on Wednesday to take bodies to less overwhelmed provinces.

A ban on gatherings has shattered the vital rituals that help us grieve, said Andy Langford, the chief operating officer of Cruse Bereavement Care, a British charity providing free care and counseling to those in grief.

“Funerals allow a community to come together, express emotion, talk about that person and formally say goodbye,” he said.

“When you feel you have no control over how you can grieve, and over how you can experience those last moments with someone, that can complicate how you grieve and make you feel worse,” he said.

EXTRA STAFF

In Iran as in northern Italy, hospital and funeral workers are overwhelmed with bodies, as the virus has torn across the country, killing 1,284 people and infecting thousands, according to state TV.

The authorities have hired new people to dig graves, said a manager at Tehran’s Behesht-e Zahra cemetery. “We work day and night,” he said. “I have never seen such a sad situation. There are no funerals.”

Most corpses arrive by truck and are buried without the ritual washing that Islam dictates, he said.

Some Iranians suspect that the official haste to bury them has more to do with obscuring the spiraling death toll than halting the spread of the virus.

Deaths from COVID-19 have been recorded as heart attacks or lung infections, a hospital worker in Kashan, a city about a three-hour drive from Tehran, told Reuters.

“The officials are lying about the death toll,” the worker said. “I have seen dozens of corpses in the past few days, but they have told us not to talk about it.” Two nurses at Iranian hospitals also told Reuters they thought the death toll was higher than the official tally.

Iranian authorities have rejected allegations of a cover-up, and President Hassan Rouhani, in a televised speech on Mar. 18, said his government had been “honest and straightforward with the nation.”

INFECTION RISK

In several countries, clusters of infection have followed funerals. In South Korea, where more than 90 people have died, the government has urged the families of COVID-19 victims to cremate their loved ones first, and hold the funeral later.

Korean funerals usually take place in hospitals, and involve three days of prayers and feasting. Most of the country’s early cases were linked to a church in Daegu city and a hospital in a nearby county. In February, several members of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus attended a funeral at the hospital for the brother of the church’s founder.

Since the outbreak, the number of mourners at funerals has plunged by 90%, regardless of whether the deceased had the virus, said Choi Min-ho, secretary general of the Korea Funeral Association.

“The culture of funerals has changed significantly,” he said. “A handful of mourners quickly offer condolences and leave the place without dining together out of infection worries.”

Condolence money, traditionally handed over in cash, is now sent via bank transfer, he added.

Authorities in Wuhan, the epicenter of China’s outbreak and location of the majority of its deaths, quickly identified the funeral business as a potential source of transmission.

The local civil affairs bureau in late January ordered all funerals for confirmed COVID-19 victims to be handled at a single funeral home in the city’s Hankou district. Mourning ceremonies, usually boisterous social events in China, were curtailed along with all other public gatherings.

Those restrictions are still in place, even though the number of new cases has dwindled in recent weeks. Bereaved families are not even allowed to see the bodies of their loved ones, a worker at the funeral home told Reuters.

In China, the ashes of the deceased tend to be kept in funeral homes until they are taken to a family plot on public holidays such as the Tomb Sweeping Festival in April. That’s also canceled this year.

“DEATH MANAGEMENT”

In Spain, too, a large cluster of cases has been traced to a funeral in the northern town of Vitoria in late February. At least 60 people who attended tested positive after the event, said local media reports.

With over 600 deaths, Spain is the second-worst hit country in Europe after Italy, and most people are now confined to their homes. Referring to these restrictions, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has called coronavirus a “cruel” disease that paralyses the human need to socialize.

In Ireland, up to 100 guests are still allowed at all funerals – for now. But most families are opting for small private ceremonies and encouraging others to express their condolences online through websites such as RIP.ie, where death notices and funeral invitations are usually posted.

Open casket funerals are out for any victim of coronavirus, and “the family should be advised not to kiss the deceased,” according to new guidelines from Ireland’s Health and Safety Executive to its funeral directors.

The risk of catching coronavirus from a dead body is slim, public health officials say, but some countries are recommending extra measures.

Israel has reported no coronavirus deaths, but its health ministry says the deceased should be double-wrapped in impermeable plastic. Ritual washing and rites will be performed in full protective gear and the corpse re-wrapped in plastic for burial. Normally Israel’s Jewish dead are laid to rest in a cloth smock and shroud.

Ireland’s guidelines advise workers in funeral parlors to put face masks on dead bodies before moving them, in case they “expel a very small amount of air and viral droplets from the lungs” and infect the living.

In Britain, where the pandemic is still gathering pace, there is widespread anxiety about the likely death toll.

Britain has been slower in implementing the strict measures seen elsewhere in Europe, and expert estimates of how many will die from COVID-19 have ranged wildly from the tens to the hundreds of thousands.

An emergency bill to tackle the virus, which has killed 104 people in Britain, includes a number of measures the government says will “streamline the death management process.” The measures include allowing funeral directors to register a death on behalf of a self-isolating family.

Deborah Smith, a spokesperson for the National Association of Funeral Directors, said the bill will help the profession “preserve the dignity of those who die and care for their bereaved families with compassion – even if they are not able to have the kind of funeral they would have wanted.”

Smith would not be drawn on the expected numbers, but said “funeral directors are preparing for a variety of scenarios.”

“NOT ALONE”

One scenario is already playing out in Wuhan.

Last month, a worker at the funeral home in Hankou district, identifying himself only as Huang, wrote an essay that was circulated on social media. He said funeral workers were as overwhelmed as the city’s medics but had received less recognition.

He said staff had worked without a break since the start of the epidemic. “Some of our employees don’t even drink water because they need to go to the toilet and it’s difficult to take off the protective clothing,” he wrote.

Half a world away, in the virus-stricken Italian town of Bergamo, funeral workers wage a near-identical struggle.

“It’s like being in a war with an invisible enemy,” said Roberta Caprini, a partner in Centro Funerario Bergamasco, a funeral service in Bergamo. “We’ve been working without interruption for two weeks and sleeping 3-4 hours a night when we manage it. Everyone in our area, us included, has lost someone or have someone sick in their home.”

Bergamo’s Church of All Saints has become a makeshift mortuary, its pews pushed aside to accommodate the dead. Caprini said she had counted at least 60 coffins when she visited on Tuesday.

She spoke of the “real torture” felt by families who watched sick relatives taken away to hospital and never saw them again. Her company has arranged video links to burials, to allow families to watch the priest bless the deceased.

Sometimes, she said, they drive the hearses past the bereaved family’s home, so mourners “can at least come down at the moment and offer a quick prayer.”

(This story has been refiled to fix the bylines)

(Reporting by Elisa Anzolin and Emilio Parodi in Milan; Angelo Amante in Rome; Parisa Hafezi in Dubai; David Stanway in Shanghai; Joan Faus in Barcelona; Hayoung Choi in Seoul, Padraic Halpin in Dublin; Emma Farge in Zurich; Kate Kelland in London and Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Writing and additional reporting by Andrew RC Marshall; Edited by Sara Ledwith and Jason Szep)

Japan records first coronavirus death, two taxi drivers test positive

By Rocky Swift and Elaine Lies

TOKYO (Reuters) – A woman has died from the coronavirus in Japan, the first such death in the country since the epidemic spread from China, the health minister said on Thursday.

Two taxi drivers, one of them in the capital Tokyo, have also tested positive, raising the possibility that it could be passed on through their passengers.

For a graphic tracking the spread of the coronavirus from China, click here

On the Diamond Princess cruise liner quarantined in the port of Yokohama, 44 new cases were confirmed.

But in some good news for the 3,500-odd passengers and crew who have been stuck onboard since Feb. 3, Japan said it would allow some elderly people who have tested negative for the coronavirus to disembark ahead of schedule.

Japan is of the countries worst affected by the epidemic outside China, with 251 confirmed cases, including those on the Diamond Princess.

Health Minister Katsunobu Kato told a news conference on Thursday that a woman in her 80s living in Kanagawa prefecture, which borders Tokyo, had died. She was the first fatality in Japan, and the third outside mainland China.

The woman fell ill in January but only later showed symptoms of pneumonia and was hospitalised, then transferred to another hospital when her condition worsened.

Her infection with the coronavirus confirmed after her death, Kato said. The route of contagion was being investigated.

The minister also confirmed that a Tokyo taxi driver in his 70s had tested positive for the virus, along with a doctor in central Japan. A third person, also a taxi driver, in Chiba just east of Tokyo has also tested positive.

Kato announced earlier on Thursday that elderly passengers on the Diamond Princess who have pre-existing conditions or are in windowless rooms would be allowed to leave starting from Friday, rather than the originally targeted date of Feb. 19. They will complete their quarantine onshore.

The liner was quarantined on arrival in Yokohama, near Tokyo, on Feb. 3 after a man who disembarked in Hong Kong before it travelled to Japan was diagnosed with the virus that has now killed more than 1,350 people in mainland China.

About 80% of the ship’s passengers were aged 60 or over, with 215 in their 80s and 11 in their 90s, according to Japanese media. The ship, managed by Princess Cruise Lines and owned by Miami-based Carnival Corp, typically has a crew of 1,100 and a passenger capacity of 2,670.

The additional 44 cases included 43 passengers and one crew member, Kyodo news agency said. With the number of those infected on the cruise ship now up to 218 plus one quarantine officer, concerns have been raised about conditions on the ship.

Brandon Brown, a health expert at the University of California, said that despite some passengers’ concerns, recycled air on the ship did not pose a risk.

“The more likely explanation for the spread of infection during quarantine on the ship is the high passenger interaction due to close quarters and limited personal space on any cruise ship,” Brown said.

Indian media aired videos in which Indian crew members said they were working in close quarters and appealed for help from Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

A health ministry official could not confirm how many of those infected so far on the ship were crew.

OLYMPICS CONCERNS

Also on Thursday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the cabinet would decide on Friday on spending 10.3 billion yen ($95 million) from the budget reserve to respond to the coronavirus.

Tokyo 2020 Olympics President Yoshiro Mori repeated that the Summer Olympics due to held in the capital from July 24 would go ahead as planned.

“I would like to clearly reiterate that cancellation or postponement of the Tokyo Games are not being considered,” he said at the start of a meeting with International Olympic Committee Coordination Commission Chief John Coates.

(Additional reporting by Antoni Slodkowski, Kiyoshi Takenaka and Elaine Lies; Writing by Linda Sieg and Elaine Lies; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Girl’s drowning sparks water riot in thirsty South African township

By Mfuneko Toyana

QWAQWA, South Africa (Reuters) – Eight-year-old Musa and her older sister Moleboheng trudged down the ravine with buckets and drum bottles to fetch water from a filthy stream because they were thirsty and tired of waiting for trucks meant to deliver emergency water that never showed up.

But Musa never returned, her mother Phindile Mbele recalled, choking back tears. The little girl drowned in the stream, which is thick with sewage, mud and algae, probably pulled down by a strong underwater current.

“We rushed down there. She was still under the water… Two boys from the neighborhood went in and one carried her out,” Mbele said. “The house is empty without her. She was such a sweet, quiet child”.

Musa’s death last month further enflamed the mood among residents of Mandela Park township on the edge of Qwaqwa in South Africa, turning intermittent protests over water shortages into a full-blown, week-long riot.

Protesters torched shops, overturned government vehicles and hurled bricks and bottles at riot police who responded with rubber bullets.

South Africans have protested for years over unreliable supplies of water and power, but chronic mismanagement has been compounded by the effects of last year’s drought, the worst in a century, which has been linked to climate change.

“It rains here all the time but they say there’s drought. Then how did that little girl drown because that stream was full?” said Malgas “Skinny” John, 39, who used rocks and burning tyres during the January riot to barricade the road leading into Qwaqwa in a face-off with police.

“We have to strike and burn things, only then do we get water,” said the unemployed father of two, as he queued with neighbors to fill his container from a water truck.

Locals, some wearing an African National Congress (ANC) t-shirt, stand in the queue for water at Marakong village, in the Free State province, South Africa, February 5, 2020. Picture taken February 5, 2020. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

“We’ll do it again, we’ll keep burning things if we have to,” John added.

Officials fear riots like the one seen at Qwaqwa could be a sign of worsening climate-linked instability to come, as dams and water pipes deteriorate further and the urban population continues to mushroom.

South Africa’s water minister Lindiwe Sisulu has promised 3 billion rand ($203 million) to end the shortages in Qwaqwa. Its municipality owes half a billion rand for water, out of a national unpaid bill of nearly 9 billion rand.

But even Sisulu’s own department has a 3.5 billion rand shortfall in maintenance funds, which it says risks a “detrimental impact on the national economy”, especially if water supplies to the thirsty power utility Eskom and liquid fuel maker Sasol are disrupted.

“We’ve been drinking this brown, filthy water since 2016,” said little Musa’s mother Mbele.

“Nothing will change. I know, soon, I will have to go the same stream where my daughter died to get water.”

(Editing by Gareth Jones)

Hong Kong mourning for student spirals into street violence

Hong Kong mourning for student spirals into street violence
By Clare Jim and Jessie Pang

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Candlelight Hong Kong vigils mourning a student who died on Friday after a high fall during a pro-democracy rally quickly spiraled into street fires, bursts of tear gas and cat-and-mouse clashes between pro-democracy protesters and police.

The center of violence was on Nathan Road, in the Kowloon district of Mong Kok, one of the most densely populated locations in the world, where activists built barricades and trashed an entrance to the metro station.

Police used a robot to detonate a suspected explosive device on a side street after at least three blasts in the area amid a standoff with petrol-bomb throwing protesters lasting hours.

Police fired tear gas there and in Tseung Kwan O, to the east of the Kowloon peninsula, where the student, Chow Tsz-lok, fell from the third to the second floor of a parking lot in the early hours of Monday.

Chow, 22, who studied at the University of Science and Technology (UST), fell as protesters were being dispersed by police.

He died on Friday – graduation day for many UST students. His death is likely to fuel anger at police, who are under pressure over accusations of excessive force as the former British colony grapples with its worst political crisis in decades.

UST students trashed a campus branch of Starbucks, part of a franchise perceived to be pro-Beijing, and rallies are expected across the territory over the weekend.

“Condemn police brutality,” they wrote on the restaurant’s glass wall.

Hundreds of students, most in masks and carrying candles, then lined up in silence at UST to lay white flowers in tribute.

Thousands also left flowers at the spot where he fell at the car park, occasionally singing hymns.

In the shopping district of Causeway Bay, hundreds lined the streets in silence, with the eerie hum of the city in the background.

Then the mood changed.

People started shouting abuse at “black police”, referring to perceived brutality, and blocked streets in Causeway Bay.

In Mong Kok, dozens of activists barricaded off Nathan Road, which leads to the harbor to the south. They vandalized a closed metro entrance, throwing in bricks and pouring oil through the metal grill, and destroyed a phone booth in a small explosion. There were clashes and fires in the New Territories town of Sha Tin.

In Tseung Kwan O, where people had been leaving flowers and silently crying for hours, people screamed encouragement and abuse after a traffic light was set on fire.

Chow’s friend and fellow UST student, Ben, 25, said the computer science undergraduate liked playing netball and basketball.

“We played netball together for a year,” he told Reuters in tears. “I hope he can rest in peace. I really miss him.”

SPIRAL OF VIOLENCE

Students and young people have been at the forefront of the hundreds of thousands who have taken to the streets since June to seek greater democracy, among other demands, and rally against perceived Chinese meddling in the Asian financial hub.

Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula, allowing it colonial freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland, including an independent judiciary and the right to protest.

China denies interfering in Hong Kong and has blamed Western countries for stirring up trouble.

The protests were ignited by a now-scrapped extradition bill allowing people to be sent to mainland China for trial, but have evolved into wider calls for democracy. They pose one of the biggest challenges for Chinese President Xi Jinping since he took charge in 2012.

Two pro-Beijing newspapers ran full-page ads, commissioned by “a group of Hong Kong people,” calling for a postponement of the lowest-tier district council elections set for Nov. 24, a move that would infuriate those calling for democracy.

Since June, protesters have thrown petrol bombs and vandalized banks, stores and metro stations. Police have fired rubber bullets, tear gas, water cannons and, in some cases, live ammunition.

In June, Marco Leung, 35, fell to his death from construction scaffolding after unfurling banners against the extradition bill. Several young people who have taken their own lives have been linked to the protests. Chow was the first student to die.

The university called for an independent investigation into Chow’s death, saying an ambulance was blocked by police cars and ambulance officers had to walk to the scene, causing a delay of 20 minutes.

The government expressed “great sorrow and regret”. A police spokeswoman, tears in her eyes, said officers would find out the truth as soon as possible and urged the public to be “calm and rational”.

Police have denied blocking an ambulance. The car park said it would release CCTV footage as soon as possible.

Protests scheduled over the weekend include rallies in shopping malls, some of which have previously descended into chaos as riot police stormed areas crowded with families and children. Protesters have called for a general strike on Monday morning and for people to block public transport. Such calls have come to nothing in the past.

Last weekend, anti-government protesters crowded a shopping mall in running clashes with police that saw a man slash people with a knife and bite off part of the ear of a local politician.

(Reporting by Jessie Pang, Kate Lamb, Sarah Wu, Clare Jim, Felix Tam, Josh Smith, Anne Marie Roantree and Twinnie Siu; Writing by Farah Master and Nick Macfie, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

U.S. vaping-related deaths rise to 12, illnesses climb to 805

FILE PHOTO: A man uses a vaping product in the Manhattan borough of New York, New York, U.S., September 17, 2019. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

(Reuters) – U.S. health officials on Thursday reported 805 confirmed and probable cases and 12 deaths so far from a mysterious respiratory illness tied to vaping, with the outbreak showing no signs of losing steam.

Last week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported 530 cases and seven deaths due to severe lung illnesses.

U.S. public health officials have been investigating these illnesses, but have not linked it to any specific e-cigarette product.

As of Sept. 24, the confirmed deaths were reported in California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, and Oregon, the CDC said.

The House of Representatives began public hearings about the illness this week while Massachusetts imposed a four-month ban on sales of all vaping products, including those used for tobacco and marijuana, which is legal in the state.

Investigators have, however, pointed to vaping oils containing marijuana ingredient tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) or vitamin E acetate, a substance used in some THC products, as a possible cause of these illnesses.

The increased scrutiny also prompted leading e-cigarette maker Juul Labs to suspend all broadcast, print and digital product advertising in the United States and bring in a longtime Altria Group Inc executive as its CEO.

Altria owns a 35% stake in Juul.

Public health officials have advised consumers to quit vaping and urged those who continue using the devices to avoid buying such products on the street, using marijuana-derived oil with the products or modifying a store-bought vape product.

(Reporting by Saumya Sibi Joseph in Bengaluru; Editing by Saumyadeb Chakrabarty and Shounak Dasgupta)

‘What death smells like’: Dorian’s toll expected to soar in Bahamas

A truck sits on its side following landfall by Hurricane Dorian at an undisclosed location in the Bahamas in this International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies photo released on September 6, 2019. Courtesy International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies/Handout via REUTERS

By Nick Brown

MARSH HARBOUR, Bahamas (Reuters) – The smell of death hangs over parts of Great Abaco Island in the northern Bahamas, where relief workers on Friday sifted through the debris of shattered homes and buildings in a search expected to dramatically drive up the death toll from Hurricane Dorian.

Dorian, the most powerful hurricane to ever hit the Bahamas, swept through the Abaco Islands and Grand Bahama Island earlier this week, leveling entire neighborhoods and knocking out key infrastructure, including airport landing strips and a hospital.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of people are still missing, and officials say the death toll, which currently stands at 30, is likely to shoot up as more bodies are discovered in the ruins and floodwaters left behind by the storm.

“You smell the decomposing bodies as you walk through Marsh Harbour,” said Sandra Sweeting, 37, in an interview amid the wreckage on Great Abaco. “It’s everywhere. There are a lot of people who aren’t going to make it off this island.”

Some locals called the government’s initial official death toll a tragic underestimate.

“I work part-time in a funeral home, I know what death smells like,” said Anthony Thompson, 27. “There must be hundreds. Hundreds.”

Asked if any of his friends or family had perished, Thompson looked at the ground.

“I don’t want to ask, because there are people I still haven’t heard from,” he said.

Chaotic conditions around the islands were interfering with flights and boats, hampering relief efforts.

“Obviously, we have to take care of the sick and the injured first, but we’re also making preparations for the dead,” Dr. Caroline Burnett-Garraway, medical chief of staff at Princess Margaret Hospital in Nassau, told CNN by phone.

Many of those injured by the storm, which had been a Category 5 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale of intensity, were being airlifted to the hospital with fractures and head injuries and suffering from trauma and dehydration, said Burnett-Garraway, who expects a “second wave” of patients in the coming days.

With many clinics in the northern Bahamas flooded and unable to receive the injured, relief groups are focusing on getting doctors, nurses and medical supplies into the hardest-hit areas and helping survivors get food and safe drinking water.

The risk of outbreaks of diarrhea and waterborne diseases is high because drinking water may be contaminated with sewage, according to the Pan American Health Organization, which described the situation for some people on Abaco as “desperate.”

The United Nations estimated 70,000 people were in immediate need of food, water and shelter on the islands, where looting of liquor stores and supermarkets has been reported.

The relief effort faces formidable logistical challenges because of the widespread destruction of Dorian, which hovered over the Bahamas for nearly two days with torrential rains and fierce winds that whipped up 12- to 18-foot (3.7- to 5.5-meter) storm surges.

The storm made landfall on the Outer Banks of North Carolina on Friday with winds of 90 miles per hour (150 km/h).

EMERGENCY OPERATION

The U.N. World Food Programme said on Thursday it was organizing an airlift from Panama of storage units, generators and prefab offices for two logistics hubs, as well as satellite equipment for emergency responders, and has bought 8 metric tonnes of ready-to-eat meals.

The U.N. agency has allocated $5.4 million to a three-month emergency operation to support 39,000 people, a spokesman said.

A flight from the U.S. Agency for International Development landed early on Thursday with enough relief supplies to help 31,500 people, bringing hygiene kits, water containers and buckets, plastic sheeting and chain saws.

Total insured and uninsured losses in the Bahamas amounted to $7 billion, including buildings and business interruptions, according to a preliminary estimate by Karen Clark & Co, a consultancy that provides catastrophic modeling and risk management services.

(Reporting by Nick Brown in Sandy Point, Bahamas, additional reporting by Dante Carrer in Marsh Harbour, Bahamas and Peter Szekely and Matthew Lavietes in New York; Writing by Paul Simao; Editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis)

India floods kill more than 270, displace one million

FILE PHOTO: Rescuers remove debris as they search for victims of a landslide caused by torrential monsoon rains in Meppadi in Wayanad district in the southern Indian state of Kerala, India, August 10, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer

By Gopakumar Warrier and Rajendra Jadhav

BENGALURU/MUMBAI (Reuters) – Floods and landslides have killed more than 270 people in India this month, displaced one million and inundated thousands of homes across six states, authorities said on Wednesday after two weeks of heavy monsoon rains.

The rains from June to September are a lifeline for rural India, delivering some 70% of the country’s rainfall, but they also cause death and destruction each year.

The southern states of Kerala and Karnataka, and Maharashtra and Gujarat in the west, were among the hardest hit by floods that washed away thousands of hectares of summer-sown crops and damaged roads and rail lines.

At least 95 people were killed and more than 50 are missing in Kerala, where heavy rainfall triggered dozens of landslides last week and trapped more than 100 people.

About 190,000 people are still living in relief camps in the state, said Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, but he added some people are returning home as floodwaters recede.

In neighboring Karnataka, home to the technology hub Bengaluru, 54 people died and 15 are missing after rivers burst their banks when authorities released water from dams.

Nearly 700,000 people have been evacuated in the state.

Heavy rainfall is expected in parts of Karnataka, Maharashtra and Gujarat, as well as the central state of Madhya Pradesh, in the next two days, weather officials said.

In Maharashtra, which includes the financial capital Mumbai, 48 people died but floodwaters are receding, said a state official.

“We are now trying to restore electricity and drinking water supplies,” he said.

In Madhya Pradesh, the biggest producer of soybeans, heavy rains killed 32 people and damaged crops, authorities said.

In Gujarat, 31 people died in rain-related incidents, while landslides killed nearly a dozen people in the northern hilly state of Uttarakhand.

(Reporting by Gopakumar Warrier and Rajendra Jadhav; Editing by Euan Rocha and Darren Schuettler)

U.S. believes Osama bin Laden’s son Hamza is dead: official

By Mark Hosenball

(Reuters) – The United States believes that Hamza bin Laden, a son of slain al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and himself a notable figure in the militant group, is dead, a U.S. official said on Wednesday.

The U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, provided no further details, including when Hamza died or where.

President Donald Trump earlier on Wednesday declined to comment after NBC News first reported the U.S. assessment. Asked if he had intelligence that bin Laden’s son had been killed, Trump told reporters: “I don’t want to comment on it.”

Separately, the White House declined comment on whether any announcement was imminent.

Hamza, believed to be about 30 years old, was at his father’s side in Afghanistan before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States and spent time with him in Pakistan after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan pushed much of al Qaeda’s senior leadership there, according to the Brookings Institution.

Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. special forces who raided his compound in Pakistan in 2011. Hamza was thought to be under house arrest in Iran at the time, and documents recovered from the compound indicated that aides had been trying to reunite him with his father.

The New York Times reported that the United States had a role in the operation that led to Hamza’s death, which it said took place in the past two years. Reuters could not immediately verify those details.

Still, the U.S. government’s conclusion appears to be a recent one. In February, the State Department said it was offering a reward of up to $1 million for information leading “to the identification or location in any country” of Hamza, calling him a key al Qaeda leader.

Introduced by al Qaeda’s chief Ayman al-Zawahiri in an audio message in 2015, Hamza provided a younger voice for the group whose aging leaders have struggled to inspire militants around the world galvanized by Islamic State, according to analysts.

Hamza has called for acts of terrorism in Western capitals and threatened to take revenge against the United States for his father’s killing, the U.S. State Department said in 2017 when it designated him as a global terrorist.

He also threatened to target Americans abroad and urged tribal groups in Saudi Arabia to unite with Yemen’s al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to fight against Saudi Arabia, it said.

In March, Saudi Arabia announced it had stripped Hamza bin Laden of his citizenship, saying the decision was made by a royal order in November 2018.

(Reporting by Mark Hosenball; writing by Arshad Mohammed; editing by Howard Goller, Alistair Bell, Phil Stewart and G Crosse)

Family sent back to DR Congo after two die of Ebola in Uganda

A health worker checks the temperature of a woman as she crosses the Mpondwe border point separating Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo as part of the ebola screening at the computerised Mpondwe Health Screening Facility in Mpondwe, Uganda June 13, 2019. REUTERS/Newton Nabwaya

By Elias Biryabarema

KAMPALA (Reuters) – Authorities repatriated the relatives of two people who died of Ebola in Uganda back to the Democratic Republic of Congo on Thursday, including a 3-year-old boy confirmed to be suffering from the disease, the Ugandan health minister said.

The cases marked the first time the virus has crossed an international border since the current outbreak began in Congo last August. The epidemic has already killed 1,390 people in eastern Congo.

The family sent home on Thursday had crossed from Congo to Uganda earlier this week and sought treatment when a 5-year-old boy became unwell. He died of Ebola on Tuesday. His 50-year-old grandmother, who was accompanying them, died of the disease on Wednesday, the ministry said.

They were the first confirmed deaths in Uganda in the current Ebola outbreak.

The dead boy’s father, mother, 3-year-old brother and their 6-month-old baby, along with the family’s maid, were all repatriated, the minister’s statement said.

The 3-year-old has been confirmed to be infected with Ebola. His 23-year-old Ugandan father has displayed symptoms but tested negative, Ugandan authorities said.

“Uganda remains in Ebola response mode to follow up the 27 contacts (of the family),” the statement said.

Three other suspected Ebola cases not related to the family remain in isolation, the ministry said.

The viral disease spreads through contact with bodily fluids, causing hemorrhagic fever with severe vomiting, diarrhea and bleeding.

UGANDA PRECAUTIONS

Authorities in neighboring Uganda and South Sudan have been on high alert in case the disease spreads.

On Thursday, Uganda banned public gatherings in the Kasese district where the family crossed the border. Residents are also taking precautions, local journalist Ronald Kule told Reuters.

“They are a little alarmed now and they realize that the risk of catching Ebola is now real,” he said.

“Hand washing facilities have been put in place, with washing materials like JIK (bleach) and soap. There’s no shaking of hands, people just wave at each other.”

At the border, health workers checked lines of people and isolate one child with a raised temperature, a Reuters journalist said.

Uganda has already vaccinated many frontline health workers and is relatively well prepared to contain the virus.

The World Health Organization (WHO) sent 3,500 doses of a Merck experimental vaccine to Uganda this week, following 4,700 initial doses.

Dr. Mike Ryan, head of WHO’s emergencies program, said that he expected Uganda to approve the use of experimental therapeutic drug treatments, to be shipped “in coming days”.

Monitoring and vaccination had been stepped up, but there had been “no panic reaction” so far to the cases there.

The WHO has said it will reconvene an emergency committee on Friday to decide whether the outbreak is an international public health emergency and how to manage it.

Authorities have struggled to contain the disease partly because health workers have been attacked nearly 200 times this year in conflict-hit eastern Congo, the epicenter of the outbreak.

(Reporting by Elias Biryabarema; Writing by Omar Mohammed and Katharine Houreld; Editing by Angus MacSwan)