Special Report: Death and politics roil a Georgia jail

FILE PHOTO: The Chatham County Jail sits at sunset in Savannah, Georgia, U.S., May 2, 2019. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

By Ned Parker, Jason Szep and Linda So

SAVANNAH, Ga. (Reuters) – In the summer of 2016, Georgia’s Chatham County hired jail monitor Steven Rosenberg with a mission: scrutinize the county jail’s healthcare services after a string of deaths.

In the previous 30 months, seven inmates had died at the Chatham County Detention Center, shaking public confidence. The last healthcare provider lost its contract in June 2016 after some of its own staff accused it of improper practices.

Chatham County sought a fresh start, signing a multiyear contract worth $7 million annually with a small Atlanta company, CorrectHealth LLC. The county wanted to know whether the new provider was taking the steps needed to prevent deaths.

But after several trips to the jail that summer through winter, Rosenberg’s team delivered four scathing reports. They described staff shortages, unclear health guidelines and failures to give inmates prescribed medications. Such failings, they warned, could trigger “potential loss of life.” Indeed, that September, six weeks before the second report was issued, an inmate strangled himself with a telephone cord. The death came after the monitors warned that the facility lacked written policies for suicidal inmates.

In late December, Rosenberg pressed CorrectHealth and Quick Rx, the jail’s pharmacy operator, to open their books for inspection; his firm was hired to assess the company’s compliance with the contract and tally penalties for shortcomings. Before the day was out, the county sheriff barred Rosenberg from the detention center.

Both companies were politically connected in Savannah. CorrectHealth, and its president’s wife had donated $5,000 to the election campaign of Chatham County Sheriff John Wilcher. CorrectHealth also had hired a state senator to run the jail’s dental clinic. And pharmacy operator Quick Rx was owned by a powerful member of the Georgia House of Representatives.

Rosenberg’s team was allowed back three weeks later, but the skirmish was the start of a standoff between the monitor on one side, and county and company on the other. Within a year, the county terminated the monitor’s contract, at the sheriff’s request, and waived $5 million in fines the monitor had recommended imposing on CorrectHealth. Wilcher rebuffed a plan to hire a new provider.

Instead, commissioners in June 2018 handed CorrectHealth a new three-year deal worth $22 million. During the bidding process, Reuters found, CorrectHealth shared inflated budget costs with its competitors, allowing it to make a cheaper offer.

FILE PHOTO: An inmate on suicide watch sits while prison officers talk to him at the Chatham County jail in Savannah, Georgia, February 21, 2019. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

FILE PHOTO: An inmate on suicide watch sits while prison officers talk to him at the Chatham County jail in Savannah, Georgia, February 21, 2019. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

The Chatham County Detention Center’s troubles offer a look into the challenges American communities face in holding accountable the private companies that have been entrusted with managing healthcare services at a growing number of jails and prisons. The failed reform effort in Savannah also speaks to the power of local politics, in a county where two state officials had a piece of the jail medical contract.

After the county terminated Rosenberg’s contract in October 2017, medical and guard staff shortages persisted and medicines continued to go missing. Six inmates have died – five by their own hands – since CorrectHeath took over three years ago.

Wilcher said in a February interview he was “happy” with CorrectHealth. He declined to answer all follow up questions and referred Reuters to the county attorney, who did not reply.

CorrectHealth did not respond to interview requests or questions sent in writing. Quick Rx told Reuters it won the work on merit, not politics.

The United States incarcerates more prisoners than any other wealthy democracy, and an increasing number of local jails, housing over 700,000 inmates, contract with for-profit healthcare companies. The companies offer local governments ways to control jail spending and manage a notoriously unhealthy population.

Yet the for-profit industry operates with little local or national oversight, monitored only if localities volunteer to seek review by non-government accrediting groups. Despite the Georgia jail’s continued problems with suicides, it received coveted accreditations from a national industry body for inmate medical and mental health care.

“Healthcare providers do what they want to do. There’s often nobody monitoring the contract,” said U.S. Justice Department consultant Steve Martin, a former Texas Corrections Department general counsel who has inspected some 500 prisons and jails.

FRIENDS IN HIGH PLACES

Carlo Musso, an emergency room doctor who founded CorrectHealth in 2000, has built an operation that now holds 41 contracts at jails across Georgia and Louisiana, with 2017 operating revenue of nearly $45 million. He is also a generous donor to politicians and sheriffs and a fundraising stalwart for the Georgia Sheriffs Association. Musso, his wife and companies donated $363,000 over a dozen years to Georgia politicians seeking state office, records show.

In Chatham County, Musso’s chance came in August 2015 when the jail’s healthcare contract opened for bidding. The relationship between the county and the jail’s previous medical provider, Corizon Health Inc, had deteriorated after a string of deaths, straining their ability to work together and ultimately leading to its loss of the contract. In a letter to the county, Corizon said it had been made a “scapegoat” for problems.

Musso promised sweeping change at the Chatham County Detention Center.

That November, the county sheriff at the time died of cancer, triggering a special election. Wilcher, a 40-year veteran of local law enforcement, won in March 2016. Pitching himself as a reformer, he vowed to “make the sheriff’s office great again.”

In June 2016, CorrectHealth won the deal, taking over the jail’s healthcare that August. The county viewed the new tender as a way to improve jail medical care. “The old contract really had no teeth in it,” said Roy Harris, the acting sheriff before Wilcher was elected.

The new contract set requirements for medical staffing and fines for failing to meet them. Intake screenings had to be completed within four hours or the company faced a $500 penalty per violation. Inmates had to receive medications within two hours of their prescription schedule; violations brought $100 fines per case.

As CorrectHealth won the job, Musso promised to retain the jail’s pharmacy firm, Quick Rx, owned by Ron Stephens, a titan of the state Republican Party and two-decade veteran of the Georgia House of Representatives.

Quick Rx had held the jail contract since the 1990s, but faced recent criticism. In 2014, jail medical staff said a pharmacy technician, not a licensed pharmacist, was taking prescription orders in violation of Georgia law, leading to medication errors. Quick Rx denied the allegation, saying it adheres to state laws.

Musso initially wanted to hire another drug supplier, not Stephens’ company, said Karen Cotton, a retired major in charge of jail operations in 2016 with first-hand knowledge of the negotiations. “It was a political thing. Musso had to back off,” she said.

Stephens said his company was hired because it provides “exceptional pharmacy services” at good rates. CorrectHealth did not respond to queries about the hiring.

Musso had also forged a partnership with another politician, State Senator Lester Jackson, a Democrat popular with Chatham’s black community, who had served on the Democratic National Committee from 2009 to 2012.

Jackson owned a dentistry practice, Atlantic Dental Associates, that worked with Musso across the state since 2014. Today, Atlantic runs dental services at 18 jails with CorrectHealth.

Atlantic landed the Chatham County jail’s $197,500 annual dental contract from CorrectHealth a few months before Jackson appeared in pamphlets for Sheriff Wilcher during the white Republican’s campaign for a full four-year term that November. The image of a smiling Jackson shaking the sheriff’s hand cut across racial and partisan lines in the largely Democratic county, which is 41% African-American. It was a blow to Wilcher’s rival, McArthur Holmes, a black Democrat.

“See how politics comes into this thing?” Holmes said in an interview.

Jackson said he did not formally endorse Wilcher, but considers him a friend and did not object to the use of his picture. Holmes never sought his endorsement, he added.

Wilcher won by 10 percentage points, emerging as a steadfast CorrectHealth defender.

THE MONITORS

In July 2016, the county hired Rosenberg’s firm, Community Oriented Correctional Health Services. Founded in 2006, the Oakland nonprofit has served as a consultant to local governments in New York, Florida, California, New Jersey and Washington, D.C., at times called to testify before Congress.

In Savannah, it would assess the jail’s medical operations. If CorrectHealth performed poorly, it would suggest fines. Rosenberg’s account is taken from his team’s confidential reports, which Reuters obtained through an open records request.

Almost immediately, he and CorrectHealth began clashing.

At the end of CorrectHealth’s first month at the jail – August 2016 – the monitors urged the company to craft policies for dealing with mentally ill inmates, and told the county the provider was struggling to hire registered nurses for inmate intake screenings.

Long-running challenges over staffing “have not been rectified by CorrectHealth,” the monitors reported.

Soon, CorrectHealth grappled with its first inmate suicide.

At 5:19 a.m. on September 30, Guy Leonard hanged himself with a telephone cord barely three hours after he was booked. On an intake form, the nurse wrote that Leonard said he had no plans to hurt himself and did not appear intoxicated, though he had been arrested on a charge of public drunkenness.

After the suicide, the nurse changed the original intake form to say Leonard looked intoxicated at booking. The sheriff’s department scolded the medical team in a letter, saying altered forms “will give the appearance of impropriety by CorrectHealth.” The sheriff also fired two guards over their failure to check Leonard’s cell in the hour before he died, while a third officer resigned.

The monitors returned in November and reported that “not all inmates” were getting a full physical and mental health assessment in their first 14 days – a standard recommended by the correctional industry’s medical accreditation body. The reason, the monitors reported, was “staffing shortages.”

They also reported a breakdown in the delivery of prescriptions. Medications ordered for inmates were sometimes missing; at times, an inmate would be listed for the same prescription twice. CorrectHealth told the monitor the Quick Rx records system did not synchronize with its own electronic records, leading to prescription mistakes.

Nearly three months later, the monitors reported that a guard told them nursing staff had falsely claimed inmates were refusing medications, “when they actually just did not have the medication to administer to the patient because it had not been received from the pharmacy.”

The questions over Quick Rx were a potential embarrassment for the sheriff. Quick Rx owner Stephens, the ranking Savannah Republican in Georgia’s state house, had supported Wilcher with a $1,000 campaign donation. Stephens said the two have been friends “for many years” and that he contributes to many local officials.

In February 2017, Rosenberg’s firm recommended $3 million in fines for CorrectHealth over its staffing failures and the late delivery of medicines. By June 2017, the monitors had raised their fine recommendation to $5.2 million.

SUICIDES, QUESTIONS

On March 11, 2017, Demilo Glover, jailed a week earlier after an arrest on a drunk driving charge, told a nurse his medications had been changed and he hallucinated that a little boy had appeared in his room holding a can of green beans, a department report said. The CorrectHealth team moved him to a rear infirmary cell. Throughout the night, he screamed. Earlier, Glover, who described himself as bipolar, told medical staff he had not taken his antipsychotic and antidepressant prescriptions for one to two days before his arrest and made bad decisions when not medicated.

The next morning, March 12, two guards collected his breakfast tray and asked Glover if he was OK. After they left, Glover knotted his bed sheet around his neck and slung it from a pipe. Minutes later, the guards returned to the cell, finding his corpse.

Twice in the months before the suicide, monitors warned that the infirmary’s cells were dangerous for suicidal inmates. When the monitors told Wilcher the infirmary did not have enough nurses, he bristled. The sheriff, they wrote, “does not want to hear about anything having to do with CorrectHealth.”

FILE PHOTO: Jerome Hill climbs the stairs at the Chatham County Detention Center shortly before his suicide in Savannah, Georgia, U.S. in this September 30, 2016 handout photo. Chatham County Detention Center/Handout via REUTERS

On April 3 of that year, Jerome Hill, 36, was arrested for allegedly threatening his girlfriend with a handgun.

Barely 90 minutes after being jailed, Hill said he wanted to kill himself, a department internal affairs report said. At 6:20 p.m. on April 7, guard Sharon Pinckney opened Hill’s cell in the mental health wing to take him for a shower. Hill raced up the stairs to the wing’s second floor and, ignoring her pleas, jumped from the walkway’s railing, landing head first. He died 18 days later, while in a coma at a hospital.

Pinckney told investigators “she did not understand why she was alone dealing with inmates on suicide watch and who had other mental issues.”

The internal affairs report into Hill’s death makes no mention of his meeting CorrectHealth’s psychiatrist in his four days at the jail.

SHERIFF PUSHES BACK

As the deaths mounted, the sheriff began pushing back against the monitor’s scrutiny. In a June 2017 email, an aide to the sheriff told Rosenberg’s team they didn’t need to visit the jail so often.

On August 24, 2017, Wilcher emailed the county manager he “WOULD LIKE TO GET THE COACH [monitors] GONE THANKS SHERIFF.” He contended they hadn’t offered “one piece of advice” on how to correct problems.

Within two months, Rosenberg’s contract was terminated. At the same time, Wilcher was advocating that CorrectHealth’s contract be extended.

As the sides negotiated new contract terms, CorrectHealth balked at the millions in pending fines. At this impasse, county administrators began negotiating with Virginia healthcare provider MHM Centurion. CorrectHealth quoted a contract price of $8.6 million, saying the county had pressed it to hire more staff. But then Centurion quoted the county budget price of $7.1 million, and won the job.

At a county commission meeting October 20, 2017, Wilcher chastised the county. “I am happy with the provider I got,” he said.

Commissioners rebuffed him, voting 6-3 for Centurion. The company was supposed to take over one week later. But suddenly, the sheriff announced he could not finish the background checks for Centurion’s medical staff in time.

Faced with uncertainty, Centurion walked away. In turn, commissioners approved CorrectHealth staying on through June 2018 – ahead of the awarding of a new three-year contract. Centurion declined to comment.

The county waived CorrectHealth’s fines. Just one county commissioner, Chester Ellis, objected. “I think that was a conflict of interest because of the campaign donation,” he told Reuters, citing Musso’s donations to Wilcher.

INFLATED NUMBERS

In April 2018, CorrectHealth bid on a new healthcare tender. Among three bidders, its proposal received the poorest score from a county screening committee, but offered the lowest bid. One reviewer wrote: “1/10 on suicide prevention. Very little detail; Not thorough.”

Wilcher continued to back the company.

Without debate, County Commission Chairman Al Scott called an up or down vote on keeping CorrectHealth in June 2018. The vote was 6-1 in favor, with Ellis dissenting. Scott told Reuters the jail was the sheriff’s jurisdiction, so he followed Wilcher’s suggestion.

During the bidding, Reuters found, the company had inflated the costs of providing medical care when the county requested numbers to provide rival bidders.

Musso told the county he spent just over $1 million on drug costs. However, a Reuters review of CorrectHealth’s invoices from Quick Rx shows the actual spending on drugs in 2017 was $280,000 less. The inflated number allowed Musso to offer a lower bid than competitors. Musso did not answer questions about the conflicting numbers.

As CorrectHealth won the contract renewal, Wilcher hired his own monitor to offer guidance on securing a coveted accreditation from the National Commission on Correctional Health Care, an industry body that provides voluntary health standards for jails and state prisons and offers its seal of approval.

“We are not interested in, nor have or will we engage in, ANY activities or work that can be perceived to discredit you, the County, or its contractors,” monitor Ken Ray wrote the sheriff in his proposal. Ray did not respond to interview requests.

That June, NCCHC accreditation teams toured the jail and, two months later, the group sent notice it was granting a preliminary accreditation for the detention center’s healthcare services. The NCCHC also said it was awarding the jail the group’s first-ever certification for mental health services. At the time of its visit, the group said, the jail had not had a suicide in 12 months.

That was true, but the letter omitted the subsequent death of inmate Mosheh Underwood, 24, who hung himself in his cell August 4, 2018.

Upset after a call with his lawyer, Underwood had asked for paper to cover his cell window so he could have privacy to use the bathroom. A guard provided it – despite previous warnings from Rosenberg’s team about letting inmates cover their windows.

An hour later, Underwood, who hanged himself, was found dead.

Jaime Shikmus, the NCCHC’s vice president, said the sheriff’s office was not required to disclose the suicide because it occurred after the surveyors visited.

In the 48 hours before the jail’s certifications were formally unveiled, the sheriff and county worried in internal documents that its standing would be in peril if the organization got a complete picture of its problems.

In one email, jail administrator Todd Freesemann, then the sheriff’s policy and accreditation supervisor, advised Wilcher that the jail “does not have adequate mental health professionals to deal with the volume of mental health requirements.” In another, the county’s attorney warned the sheriff that the lack of registered nurses “jeopardizes your accreditations.”

On February 14, 2019, the news was officially announced. The Chatham County jail had won full accreditation for its mental health and healthcare services, becoming the first local jail to win this honor.

Four months later, a fifth inmate killed himself on CorrectHealth’s watch. Guards and medical staff rushed to resuscitate the inmate, but when they tried to revive his heart with a defibrillator, the first device was broken and the second’s battery was uncharged, a jail report said.

Today, CorrectHealth continues to hold its $22 million contract.

(Additional reporting by Peter Eisler and Grant Smith. Editing by Ronnie Greene)

Dorian to hit Bahamas as ‘devastating’ hurricane, then menace Georgia and Carolinas

Hurricane Dorian is seen from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration NOAA's GOES-East Satellite, over the Atlantic Ocean, August 31, 2019 in this handout image obtained from social media. NOAA/Handout via REUTERS

By Zachary Fagenson

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (Reuters) – Hurricane Dorian punched northwest on Saturday to threaten Georgia and the Carolinas, possibly sparing Florida a direct hit, as the Bahamas braced for catastrophic waves and wind from the muscular category 4 storm.

Florida towns told residents to remain vigilant despite forecasts they might dodge a Dorian landfall, as a tropical storm watch was issued for the state’s south Atlantic coast.

Communities in northeast Florida, Georgia and South Carolina raised alert levels, with residents filling sandbags as authorities tested infrastructure and hurricane drills. South Carolina on Saturday joined Georgia, North Carolina and Florida in declaring a state of emergency.

Bahamas Prime Minister Hubert Minnis begged residents of Abaco and Grand Bahamas to head for the main island to escape the “devastating, dangerous” storm.

Hurricane Dorian is seen from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration NOAA-42 WP-3D Orion aircraft during a reconnaissance mission over the Atlantic Ocean, August 30, 2019 in this handout image obtained from social media. Picture taken August 30, 2019. LCDR Robert Mitchell/NOAA/Handout via REUTERS

“I want you to remember: homes, houses, structures can be replaced. Lives cannot be replaced,” Minnis told a news conference, adding that 73,000 people and 21,000 homes were at risk to storm surges of up to 15 feet (4.6 meters).

At 5 p.m. ET (2100 GMT)The National Hurricane Center (NHC) said Dorian was packing maximum sustained winds of 150 mph (240 kph) and would hit the Bahamas on Sunday with more than two feet of rainfall in places, threatening deadly flash floods.

Dorian could then veer northwest and possibly remain at sea as it moved up the U.S. eastern seaboard late on Monday through Tuesday, the NHC said.

A tropical storm watch was issued for a more than 120-mile stretch (193 km) of Florida coast from Deerfield Beach to around Palm Bay, meaning sustained winds of up to 73 mph (117 kmh)were possible within 48 hours.

North Carolina authorities warned residents Dorian was heading their way, while counterparts in Florida told towns to remain alert.

“While obviously for us it’s a better forecast, we can’t assume that there’s not going to be hazardous weather,” said Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber.

BAHAMAS ON SUNDAY

Central Florida towns urged residents to remain alert after past hurricanes like 1992’s Andrew slammed the Bahamas and then barreled straight into the peninsula’s southeast coast.

“Don’t start taking down your shutters, don’t start disassembling your emergency plan,” said Eric Flowers, a spokesman for the sheriff’s office in Indian River County.

On Tybee Island, a Georgia coastal barrier island, authorities put out sand for sandbags to protect against possible flooding in the marshy area.

“Our biggest concern is storm surge because the tides are really high right now,” said the manager of a local restaurant, who asked not be named as he was not authorized to speak to media.

Further north, Dorchester County in South Carolina raised its alert level to make sure infrastructure and public safety crews were ready for the hurricane in the area near the historic city of Charleston.

North Carolina Emergency Management (NCEMA) said the storm was forecast to keep moving in the state’s direction for the next 48 hours.

“Now is the time to prepare and assemble disaster supplies,” said Katie Webster, an NCEMA meteorologist, urging people to prepare a week’s supply of food and water.

(Reporting by Zachary Fagenson in Jacksonville, Andrew Hay in New Mexico; Additional reporting by Daniel Wallis in New York; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien and Franklin Paul)

U.S. rights groups, doctors sue to stop Georgia ‘heartbeat’ abortion ban

FILE PHOTO: Abortion-rights campaigners attend a rally against new restrictions on abortion passed by legislatures in eight states including Alabama and Georgia, in New York City, U.S., May 21, 2019. REUTERS/Jeenah Moon

(Reuters) – A group of civil rights organizations, doctors and clinics sued Georgia’s government on Friday to overturn a law passed in March that bans abortions if an embryonic or fetal heartbeat can be detected.

The law, which was passed by Republicans, will make abortion possible only in the first few weeks of a pregnancy absent a medical emergency, in many cases before a woman even realizes she is pregnant. It is due to take effect in January.

“This law is an affront to the dignity and health of Georgians,” the lawsuit, which was filed by the Center for Reproductive Rights on behalf of the plaintiffs, said. It said that Georgians, particularly black Georgians, already die from pregnancy-related causes at a higher rate than in most other U.S. states.

At least four other Republican-led states this year passed laws dramatically limiting abortion. The laws are in conflict with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which found that women have a constitutional right to abort a pregnancy.

Some religious conservatives hope the passage of such laws will force the Supreme Court, in which conservative-leaning justices hold the majority, to revisit and even overturn the Roe v. Wade decision. Until the new law takes effect, Georgians are allowed to get an abortion until about the 20th week of pregnancy, with narrow exceptions.

The lawsuit names Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, Georgia Attorney General Christopher Carr, and other state government and medical officials as defendants. The lawsuit asks a judge to block the law from being enforced.

A spokeswoman for Carr, Katie Byrd, said by email that her office could not comment on pending litigation. A spokesman for Kemp did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A doctor who performs an abortion after an embryonic or fetal heartbeat is detected could be imprisoned for up to 10 years under Georgia’s new law.

Defenders of the law say they believe an embryo or a fetus should be afforded similar rights to those of a baby, often citing religious arguments in their support.

The law’s opponents say denying women abortions has already been deemed unconstitutional, and note that abortion restrictions force some women to turn to riskier means to end a pregnancy, which can sometimes be deadly.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen; Additional reporting by Peter Szekely; Editing by Susan Thomas and Bill Trott)

Georgia governor to sign heartbeat abortion ban, joining a U.S. movement

FILE PHOTO: Anti-abortion marchers rally at the Supreme Court during the 46th annual March for Life in Washington, U.S., January 18, 2019. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

By Daniel Trotta

(Reuters) – Georgia’s Republican governor on Tuesday is expected to sign a bill outlawing abortion if a doctor can detect a fetal heartbeat, part of a concerted effort to restrict abortion rights in states across the country.

Governor Brian Kemp praised the bill when it passed the state legislature in March and has scheduled a signing ceremony at 10 a.m. ET (1400 GMT), which would make him the fourth governor to sign such a law since mid-March.

Anti-abortion campaigners have intensified their efforts since Donald Trump was elected president and appointed two conservative justices to the U.S. Supreme Court, hopeful they can convince the right-leaning court to re-examine the landmark case Roe v. Wade that established a woman’s right to an abortion in 1973.

Kentucky, Mississippi and Ohio have passed heartbeat laws recently, and Iowa passed one last year. Courts have blocked the Iowa and Kentucky laws, and the others face legal challenges. The American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia has vowed to sue to stop this law.

Even so, anti-abortion advocates have seized the political and judicial opening in their favor, introducing measures in 15 states to ban abortion as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, according to Rewire.News, a site specializing in the issue.

That has raised concerns among abortion-rights advocates about expanding “abortion deserts,” described as major cities that are at least 100 miles (160 km) from an abortion provider.

Between Georgia and Mississippi is Alabama, where the House has passed a bill that would ban all abortions unless the mother’s life was threatened and the Senate is likely to vote on it this week, raising the prospect of a giant abortion desert in the Southeast.

Ushma Upadhyay, professor of reproductive health at the University of California, San Francisco, said she was concerned for low-income women who lack the means to travel.

“This is basic health that should be available to all women regardless of where they live, how much money they make or how many children they have,” Upadhyay said.

Abortion-rights supporters see the heartbeat bills as virtual bans because fetal heartbeats can be detected as early as six weeks, when women may not be aware they are pregnant.

Georgia’s Living Infants Fairness and Equality (LIFE) Act would permit later abortions in medical emergencies. In cases of rape or incest, the woman would be required to file an official police report.

(Reporting by Daniel Trotta in New York; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

Some 156 people in 10 states infected with E. coli from ground beef: CDC

FILE PHOTO: A general view of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia September 30, 2014. REUTERS/Tami Chappell/File Photo

By Brendan O’Brien

(Reuters) – A total of 156 people in 10 states have been infected with E. coli after eating tainted ground beef at home and in restaurants since the beginning of March, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said on Tuesday.

No deaths have been reported but 20 people have been hospitalized after they were infected with the strain E. coli O103 since March 1, the CDC said on its website.

The agency said an investigation is ongoing to determine the source of the contaminated ground beef that was supplied to grocery stores and restaurants.

“At this time, no common supplier, distributor, or brand of ground beef has been identified,” the CDC said.

The investigation began on March 28, when officials in Kentucky and Georgia notified the CDC of the outbreak. Since then, some 65 cases have been reported in Kentucky, 41 in Tennessee and another 33 in Georgia.

E. coli cases have also been reported in Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Ohio and Virginia.

The CDC said that illnesses after March 26 may not have been reported yet because the lead time is two to three weeks.

People infected with the bacteria get sick two to eight days after swallowing the germ, and may sometimes develop a type of kidney failure.

Many of the infected people had bought large trays or chubs of ground beef from grocery stores and used the meat to make dishes like spaghetti sauce and Sloppy Joes, the agency said.

The regulator said it is not recommending that consumers avoid eating ground beef at this time, but said that consumers and restaurants should handle ground beef safely and cook it thoroughly to avoid foodborne illnesses.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee, Wis.; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Matthew Lewis)

More U.S. states push ahead with near-bans on abortion for Supreme Court challenge

Anti-abortion marchers rally at the Supreme Court during the 46th annual March for Life in Washington, U.S., January 18, 2019. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

(Reuters) – North Dakota Republican Governor Doug Burgum signed legislation on Wednesday making it a crime for doctors to perform a second-trimester abortion using instruments like forceps and clamps to remove the fetus from the womb.

FILE PHOTO:Governor Doug Burgum (R-ND) speaks to delegates at the Republican State Convention in Grand Forks, North Dakota, U.S. April 7, 2018. REUTERS/Dan Koeck

FILE PHOTO:Governor Doug Burgum (R-ND) speaks to delegates at the Republican State Convention in Grand Forks, North Dakota, U.S. April 7, 2018. REUTERS/Dan Koeck

The move came the same day that Ohio’s Republican-controlled legislature passed one of the nation’s most restrictive abortion bans – outlawing the procedure if a doctor can detect a heartbeat. The bill now goes to Republican Governor Mike DeWine, who is expected to sign it.

Georgia’s Republican-controlled legislature in March also passed a ban on abortions if a fetal heartbeat is detected, which can often occur before a woman even realizes she is pregnant.

Activists on both sides of the issue say such laws, which are commonly blocked by court injunctions, are aimed at getting a case sent to the U.S. Supreme Court, where conservatives hold a 5-4 majority, to challenge Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that established a constitutional right to abortion.

The North Dakota bill, which Burgum’s spokesman, Mike Nowatzki, confirmed in an email that the governor signed, followed similar laws in Mississippi and West Virginia.

Known as HB 1546, it outlaws the second-trimester abortion practice known in medical terms as dilation and evacuation, but which the legislation refers to as “human dismemberment.”

Under the North Dakota legislation, doctors performing the procedure would be charged with a felony but the woman having the abortion would not face charges.

Similar legislation exists in Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Ohio, Oklahoma and Texas, but is on hold because of litigation, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive rights group.

Abortion-rights groups challenging such bans argue they are unconstitutional as they obstruct private medical rights.

North Dakota has one abortion provider, the Red River Women’s Clinic in Fargo. Clinic Director Tammi Kromenaker did not immediately respond to a request for comment. She previously said her clinic would wait for a decision in a case involving similar legislation in Arkansas before deciding on a possible legal challenge to HB 1546.

(Reporting by Andrew Hay; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Peter Cooney)

CDC investigates E.coli outbreak in several states

FILE PHOTO: A general view of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia September 30, 2014. REUTERS/Tami Chappell/File Photo

(Reuters) – The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and several other U.S. agencies are investigating an E.coli outbreak in five states, the CDC said on Friday.

The CDC, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and several states are investigating the outbreak of toxin-producing E.coli O103 infections.

Escherichia coli, or E.coli bacteria, normally lives in the intestines of healthy people and animals. Although many strains of the bacteria are harmless, certain strains can cause severe abdominal cramps, bloody diarrhea and vomiting.

Georgia, Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee and Virginia are the five states that have reported E.coli infections relating to particular strain of the bacteria.

As many as 72 people from these states have reported infections and eight have been hospitalized as of April 4, 2019, the agency said. No deaths were reported.

The investigation is still going on and the reason for the outbreak is yet to be identified, the agency said.

(Reporting by Aakash Jagadeesh Babu in Bengaluru; Editing by James Emmanuel)

Trump sees ‘unbelievable’ tornado damage in Alabama visit

By Steve Holland

BEAUREGARD, Ala. (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday visited communities in eastern Alabama devastated by tornadoes that tore through homes and businesses, killing 23 people.

Trump and his wife Melania Trump took a helicopter tour of the area before going to the homes of some victims in the tiny and especially hard-hit community of Beauregard, near the border with Georgia.

Their motorcade passed trees knocked down like kindling and homes scattered in pieces.

“This is unbelievable,” Trump said as he and Alabama Governor Kay Ivey surveyed the devastation. He said he had seen “unbelievable” destruction from the air, too.

Relatives of one victim, Marshall Lynn Grimes, showed the president the 59-year-old’s cherished motorcycle vest and Bible. Trump hugged members of the family.

The president and Melania Trump then visited a disaster relief center at the Providence Baptist Church in Opelika, the county seat, to meet with survivors, volunteers, and first responders.

Tables at the church were piled high with donated clothes, toiletries and other items. Twenty-three crosses, one for each of those killed, were set up on a lawn outside.

Trump met privately with more victims’ families inside the church. He said he talked with one woman who lost 10 people in the storm.

“I said how did it go, and she said I lost 10,” Trump said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

He told dozens of community volunteers gathered in the church auditorium that the first responders were doing an “A-plus job.”

“We’re gonna take care,” Trump said. “We couldn’t get here fast enough … I wanted to come the day it happened.”

Sunday’s tornadoes were the deadliest to hit the state since 2013. All 23 victims, including four children and seven members of one family, were killed in or around Beauregard, in rural Lee County about 10 miles (16 km) southeast of Auburn.

Dozens of people were injured and about 100 houses were destroyed by 170 mile-per-hour (264 km-per-hour) winds, officials said.

Mobile homes were tossed over and ripped open last weekend, their contents strewn across a landscape littered with debris and uprooted trees. In some places, shreds of houses had hung from the limbs of the few trees left standing.

The worst of the twisters, stirred up by a late-winter “supercell” thunderstorm, were ranked by forecasters at step four of the six-step Enhanced Fujita scale of tornado strength.

It was the greatest loss of life from a tornado since an EF-5 storm ripped through Moore, Oklahoma, in May 2013, killing 24 people and injuring 375 others.

(Reporting by Steve Holland; Writing by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Nick Zieminski)

Trump sees Michael’s wrath, rescuers search for bodies

U.S. President Donald Trump visits a street in the the town of Lynn Haven, Florida, as he tours areas ravaged by Hurricane Michael in Florida and Georgia, U.S., October 15, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Steve Holland

LYNN HAVEN, Fla. (Reuters) – President Donald Trump got a first-hand look on Monday at the “total devastation” that Hurricane Michael brought to Florida, as rescuers searched for scores of missing and hundreds of thousands of residents remained without electricity.

U.S. President Donald Trump, first lady Melania Trump and Florida Governor Rick Scott (R) help distribute water in the town of Lynn Haven, Florida, during a tour of areas ravaged by Hurricane Michael in Florida U.S., October 15, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

U.S. President Donald Trump, first lady Melania Trump and Florida Governor Rick Scott (R) help distribute water in the town of Lynn Haven, Florida, during a tour of areas ravaged by Hurricane Michael in Florida U.S., October 15, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Trump and first lady Melania Trump passed out bottles of water at an aid center in Lynn Haven, a city of about 18,500 people near Panama City in northwestern Florida, after taking a helicopter flight from Eglin Air Force Base about 100 miles (160 km) to the west.

“To see this personally is very tough – total devastation,” said Trump, who later traveled to neighboring Georgia to see storm damage there.

At least 18 deaths in four states have been blamed on Michael, which crashed into the Panhandle last Wednesday as one of the most powerful storms on record to hit the continental United States.

Thousands of rescuers, including volunteers, are still combing remote areas of the Florida Panhandle for those reported missing. They include 46 in Mexico Beach, according to ABC News. The town took a direct hit from the hurricane, and at least one person died there.

With most Mexico Beach homes already searched for survivors, rescue workers began using cadaver dogs to try to recover any human remains that might be buried under debris.

“The next phase is recovery,” Ignatius Carroll, a Miami fire captain who leads a Federal Emergency Management Agency rescue team, said by phone as he combed through wreckage. “We start using the dogs for larger rubble piles that were created by the storm.”

Searchers went through debris by hand, rather than with machines, so as not to destroy any bodies, Mexico Beach Councillor Linda Albrecht said.

“We expect to find everybody, because that’s our mentality. We expect everything to work out, but who knows what’s down the road?” said Albrecht, who returned to her home on Sunday to find it destroyed.

About 200,000 people remained without power in the U.S. Southeast, with residents cooking with fires and barbecue grills during daylight in hard-hit coastal towns such as Port St. Joe, Florida.

BILLIONS IN INSURED LOSSES

Insured losses for wind and storm surge from Hurricane Michael will run between an estimated $6 billion and $10 billion, risk modeler AIR Worldwide said. Those figures do not include losses paid out by the National Flood Insurance Program or uninsured property, AIR Worldwide said.

With top sustained winds of 155 miles per hour (250 kph), Michael hit the Florida Panhandle as a Category 4 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale.

Rescue efforts have been hampered by roads choked with downed trees after coastal woodlands and forests were uprooted by the storm.

Water service was restored to some in Panama City on Monday but Bay County officials said it was not yet safe to drink. Homeowners were advised to keep toilet flushes to a minimum because the sewer system was operating only at half capacity.

U.S. President Donald Trump riding aboard Marine One tours storm damage from Hurricane Michael along the Gulf Coast of Florida, October 15, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

U.S. President Donald Trump riding aboard Marine One tours storm damage from Hurricane Michael along the Gulf Coast of Florida, October 15, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

The Florida Division of Emergency Management said that while power was returning in most areas, at least 85 percent of customers in four mainly rural Panhandle counties were without electricity on Monday. Officials said it could be weeks before power returns to the most-damaged areas.

“We’re living in the daylight, and living in the dark once night gets here,” said Port St. Joe Mayor Bo Patterson, whose town of 3,500 was without power.

(Reporting by Steve Holland; Additional reporting by Terray Sylvester, Bernie Woodall in Florida, Makini Brice and Roberta Rampton in Washington, Rich McKay in Atlanta and Andrew Hay in New Mexico; Editing by Will Dunham and Peter Cooney)

Hurricane Michael’s death toll could rise as Florida searches intensify

First responders and residents walk along a main street following Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Florida, U.S., October 11, 2018. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

By Devika Krishna Kumar

PORT ST. JOE, Fla. (Reuters) – Rescuers used heavy equipment to clear debris in the Florida Panhandle towns hit hardest by Hurricane Michael, searching for survivors amid expectations the death toll of 12 from the powerful storm likely will climb.

Rescuers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) used dogs, drones and global positioning satellites in the search.

Bianna Kelsay is consoled by member of rescue personnel after being saved from her business damaged by Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Florida, U.S. October 11, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

Bianna Kelsay is consoled by member of rescue personnel after being saved from her business damaged by Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Florida, U.S. October 11, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

So far, no counties along the devastated northwest Florida coast have reported deaths related to the storm. That could change, as efforts to assess damage and look for casualties in the worst-hit communities have been hampered by downed utility lines and roads blocked by debris and fallen trees.

“I think you’re going to see it climb,” FEMA Administrator Brock Long said of the death count at a news conference. “We still haven’t gotten into some of the hardest-hit areas.”

Michael charged ashore on Wednesday near the small Florida Panhandle town of Mexico Beach as one of the most powerful storms in U.S. history, with top sustained winds of 155 miles per hour (250 km per hour). It pushed a wall of seawater inland and caused widespread flooding.

Many of the houses in Mexico Beach were reduced to naked concrete foundations or piles of debris.

Aerial photo shows boats laying among the debris from homes destroyed after Hurricane Michael smashed into Florida's northwest coast in Mexico Beach, Florida, U.S., October 11, 2018. Chris O'Meara/Pool via REUTERS

Aerial photo shows boats laying among the debris from homes destroyed after Hurricane Michael smashed into Florida’s northwest coast in Mexico Beach, Florida, U.S., October 11, 2018. Chris O’Meara/Pool via REUTERS

Although weaker as it pushed over the southeastern United States, the storm carried high winds and delivered drenching rains to Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia. It killed at least 12 people in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia, officials said.

In Virginia, the remnants of the hurricane swept away four people in floodwaters. A firefighter also was killed when hit by a truck as he was trying to help an accident victim, the Washington Post reported.

About 1.5 million homes and businesses were without power from Florida to Virginia early on Friday, according to utility companies.

It could be weeks before power is restored to the most damaged parts of Florida, such as Panama City.

Long urged communities such as Mexico Beach, where many homes were obliterated by 12 to 14 feet (3.7 to 4.3 meters) of storm surge, to rebuild to withstand future storms.

“It’s OK if you want to live on the coast or on top of a mountain that sees wildfires or whatever but you have to build to a higher standard,” he said. “If we’re going to rebuild, do it right.”

By early Friday morning the remnants of Michael had moved into the Atlantic Ocean northeast of Norfolk, Virginia, the National Hurricane Center said.

A collapsed building damaged by Hurricane Michael is pictured in Callaway, Florida, U.S. October 11, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

A collapsed building damaged by Hurricane Michael is pictured in Callaway, Florida, U.S. October 11, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

HOSPITAL PROBLEMS

The storm, which came ashore as a Category 4 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale, tore apart entire neighborhoods in the Panhandle.

Many of the injured in Florida were taken to Panama City, 20 miles (32 km) northwest of Mexico Beach.

Gulf Coast Regional Medical Center treated some people but the hospital evacuated 130 patients as it was dealing with its own hurricane effects.

The hospital was running on generators after the storm knocked out power, ripped off part of its roof and smashed windows, according to a spokesman for the hospital’s owner, HCA Healthcare Inc.

Much of downtown Port St. Joe, 12 miles (19 km) east of Mexico Beach, was flooded by Michael, which snapped boats in two and hurled a large ship onto the shore, residents said.

“We had houses that were on one side of the street and now they’re on the other,” said Mayor Bo Patterson, estimating that 1,000 homes were completely or partially destroyed in his town of 3,500 people.

The number of people in emergency shelters was expected to swell to 20,000 across five states by Friday, said Brad Kieserman of the American Red Cross. The Coast Guard reported rescuing 129 people.

Michael severely damaged cotton, timber, pecan, and peanut crops, causing estimated liabilities as high as $1.9 billion and affecting up to 3.7 million crop acres (1.5 million hectares), said Brad Rippey, a meteorologist for the U.S. Agriculture Department.

Michael also disrupted energy operations in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico as it approached land, cutting crude oil production by more than 40 percent and natural gas output by nearly a third as offshore platforms were evacuated.

It was the third strongest storm on record to hit the continental United States, behind only Hurricane Camille on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 1969 and the Labor Day hurricane of 1935 in the Florida Keys.

(Reporting by Devika Krishna Kumar in Port St. Joe, Fla.; Additional reporting by Rod Nickel in Panama City, Fla., Gina Cherelus and Scott DiSavino in New York, Gary McWilliams and Liz Hampton in Houston, Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas, Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee and Alex Dobuzinskis and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Writing by Dan Whitcomb and Bill Trott; Editing by Frances Kerry)