Idaho 27th state in which Avian flu has spread

Revelations 6:8 “And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed him. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth.”

Important Takeaways:

  • Avian flu has spread to 27 states, sharply driving up egg prices
  • The price of eggs has soared in recent weeks in part because of a huge bird flu wave that has infected nearly 27 million chickens and turkeys in the United States, forcing many farmers to “depopulate” or destroy their animals to prevent a further spread.
  • On Friday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced yet another outbreak, this one in two flocks in Idaho, making that the 27th state in which the virus has been found since February.
  • According to the USDA, the price of a dozen eggs in November hovered around $1. Right now, that price is $2.95 and rising.

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Idaho gets tough on abortions, passes Texas style ban on abortions of babies with heartbeats

Important Takeaways:

  • Idaho Legislature Passes Texas-Style Bill to Ban Abortions on Babies With Beating Hearts
  • The Idaho House passed the law today, after the state Senate had already given the measure its approval and will now head to the governor for his signature.
  • Idaho already has a law in place that will ban abortions once Roe v. Wade is overturned. The state legislature also passed a heartbeat law in 2021 that prohibits abortions once an unborn baby’s heartbeat is detectable, but, because of current court precedent, it is not in effect either.
  • Until the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, neither of those abortion bans can be in force. Now, just in case the nation’s highest court doesn’t reverse the infamous decision this summer, Idaho lawmakers want to pass a Texas-style bill to ban abortions once a heartbeat is detected and to have a private enforcement mechanism.
  • The Idaho Senate voted 28-6 to approve the bill
  • The House voted 51-14 for the measure.

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Another dry season for Idaho if more snow doesn’t arrive

Important Takeaways:

  • ‘Really tight water year’: Drought, low snowpack may foretell Idaho’s climate future
  • When winter ends and summer’s broiling heat arrives, it is these snowy peaks that serve as the state’s reservoir, filling the Salmon, Snake, Big Lost, Boise and other tributaries with cold, clear water.
  • By the turn of the century, Idaho could see reductions of 35%-65% of its snowpack, according to a study published in Nature Reviews Earth & Environment last year.
  • Idaho’s dry weather in 2021 saw over two-thirds of the state in extreme or exceptional drought
  • This month, most areas of the state are listed in moderate to severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

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COVID-19 still rages, but some U.S. states reject federal funds to help

By Andy Sullivan

(Reuters) – As the resurgent COVID-19 pandemic burns through the rural U.S. state of Idaho, health officials say they don’t have enough tests to track the disease’s spread or sufficient medical workers to help the sick.

It’s not for want of funding.

The state’s Republican-led legislature this year voted down $40 million in federal aid available for COVID-19 testing in schools. Another $1.8 billion in pandemic-related federal assistance is sitting idle in the state treasury, waiting for lawmakers to deploy it.

Some Idaho legislators have accused Washington of overreach and reckless spending. Others see testing as disruptive and unnecessary, particularly in schools, since relatively few children have died from the disease.

“If you want your kids in school, you can’t be testing,” said state Representative Ben Adams, a Republican who represents Nampa, a city of about 100,000 people in southwestern Idaho.

Meanwhile, the state is reporting the fifth-highest infection rate in the United States, at 369 confirmed cases per 100,000 people, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Schools in at least 14 of Idaho’s 115 districts, including Nampa, have had to close temporarily due to COVID-19 outbreaks since the start of the year, according to Burbio, a digital platform that tracks U.S. school activity.

Idaho’s experience illustrates how political ideology and polarization around the COVID-19 epidemic have played a role in the decision of mostly conservative states to reject some federal funding meant to help locals officials battle the virus and its economic fallout.

For example, Idaho was one of 26 Republican-led states that ended enhanced federally funded unemployment benefits before they were due to expire in September. Gov. Brad Little claimed that money was discouraging the jobless from returning to work. At least six studies have found that the extra benefits have had little to no impact on the U.S. labor market.

Idaho has also rebuffed $6 million for early-childhood education, as some Republicans in the state said mothers should be the primary caretakers of their children.

The state also did not apply for $6 million that would have bolstered two safety-net programs that aid mothers of young children and working families. Little’s administration said it had enough money already for those programs.

Idaho has accepted some federal COVID-19 help. In fact, the rejected funds are just a small portion of the nearly $2 billion in federal relief Idaho has spent since March 2020 to fight the virus and shore up businesses and families, state figures show.

But hundreds of millions more remain untouched. Idaho has deployed just $780 million, or 30%, of the $2.6 billion it received under the federal American Rescue Plan Act, signed into law in March.

Neighboring Washington state, by contrast, has parceled out nearly three-quarters of the $7.8 billion it received under that legislation. Washington has recorded roughly 60% as many cases per capita as Idaho since the start of the pandemic, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Some in Idaho are exasperated that a state of just 1.8 million people would turn down a dime of assistance when it’s struggling to tame the pandemic.

With no testing in place, nurses in Nampa schools rely mainly on parents to let them know when a child is infected, the district’s top nurse, Rebekah Burley, told the school board in September. She said she needed three or four more staffers to track existing cases and attempt to keep people quarantined.

“We’re tired, we are stressed, and something needs to change,” she said.

REJECTING FEDERAL MONEY

The refusal by red states to accept some types of federal aid that would benefit their constituents isn’t new.

For example, a dozen Republican-controlled states have rejected billions of dollars available through the landmark 2010 Affordable Health Care Act to cover more people under the Medicaid health program for the poor, which is jointly funded by the federal government and the states. Lawmakers from these places contended their states couldn’t afford to pay their share of an expansion. (Idaho initially was among them, but its voters opted in to the Medicaid expansion through a 2018 ballot referendum, bypassing state leaders.)

That same dynamic has played out during the coronavirus crisis. Since March 2020, Congress has approved six aid packages totaling $4.7 trillion under Republican and Democratic administrations, including the bipartisan CARES Act in March 2020 and the Democratic-backed American Rescue Plan Act this year.

Florida and Mississippi didn’t apply for benefits that would give more money to low-income mothers of young children. Four states, including Idaho, North Dakota and Oklahoma, opted not to extend a program that provided grocery money to low-income families with school-age kids in summer months.

Iowa, like Idaho, turned down federal money for COVID-19 testing in schools. New Hampshire rejected money for vaccinations.

Republican lawmakers in Idaho, like those elsewhere, cite concerns about local control, restrictive terms attached to some of the aid, and the skyrocketing national debt.

“We are chaining future generations to a lifetime of financial slavery,” said Adams, the Idaho legislator.

Yet even before the pandemic, Idaho long relied on Washington for much of its budget. Federal funds account for 36% of state spending in Idaho, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers, above the national average of 32%.

State officials say they have enough money to handle the COVID-19 crisis for now.

Critics say Idaho’s reluctance to use more federal aid is a symptom of its hands-off approach to COVID-19 safety. Few public schools require masks, and local leaders have refused to impose mask mandates, limits on indoor gatherings and other steps to contain the virus.

“There’s a lot of people in our legislature and some local officials who really have not taken this seriously,” said David Pate, the former head of St. Luke’s Health System, the state’s largest hospital network.

Idaho has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the nation, with only 55% of adults and teens fully immunized, compared to 67% nationally.

HOSPITALS FULL

COVID-19 is pummeling Idaho even as cases have plunged in much of the nation. Intensive-care units statewide are full, forcing hospitals to turn away non-COVID patients. At least 627 residents died of the disease in October, well above the previous monthly death toll of last winter, records show.

Idaho received $18 million through the American Rescue Plan to hire more public-health workers, but lawmakers did nothing with that money this year.

Some local public health departments say they do not have enough staff to track the virus. “We have a lot of people doing two or three jobs right now,” said Brianna Bodily, a spokesperson for the public-health agency serving Twin Falls, a southern Idaho city of 50,000. The department is working with a 12% smaller budget than last year.

Such staff shortages have contributed to a backlog of test results statewide, which the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare says is hurting its ability to provide an up-to-date picture of the disease’s prevalence.

With funding bottled up in the state capitol, Little, the governor, announced in August that he would steer $30 million from a previous round of COVID-19 aid to school testing.

The Nampa school district has requested some of that money but has yet to set up a testing program, spokeswoman Kathleen Tuck said. Roughly 20% of the district’s students were not attending class regularly in the first weeks of the school year due to outbreaks, according to superintendent Paula Kellerer.

Nampa resident Jaci Johnson, a mother of two children, ages 10 and 13, said she and other parents have been torn over whether to send their children to class, due to the potential risk.

“Do we feed our kids to the lions, or do we keep them home and make them miserable?” Johnson said.

(Reporting by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Scott Malone and Marla Dickerson)

Oregon wildfire displaces 2,000 residents as blazes flare across U.S. West

By Deborah Bloom

KLAMATH FALLS, Oregon (Reuters) -Hand crews backed by water-dropping helicopters struggled on Thursday to suppress a huge wildfire that displaced roughly 2,000 residents in southern Oregon, the largest among dozens of blazes raging across the drought-stricken western United States.

The Bootleg fire has charred more than 227,000 acres (91,860 hectares) of desiccated timber and brush in and around the Fremont-Winema National Forest since erupting on July 6 about 250 miles (400 km) south of Portland.

That total, exceeding the land mass of New York City, was 12,000 acres higher than Wednesday’s tally. Strike teams have carved containment lines around 7% of the fire’s perimeter, up from 5% a day earlier, but Incident Commander Joe Hessel said the blaze would continue to expand.

“The extremely dry vegetation and weather are not in our favor,” Hessel said on Twitter.

More than 1,700 firefighters and a dozen helicopters were assigned to the blaze, with demand for personnel and equipment across the Pacific Northwest beginning to strain available resources, said Jim Gersbach, a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Forestry.

“It’s uncommon for us to reach this level of demand on firefighting resources this early” in the season, he said.

Firefighter Garrett Souza, 42, a resident of the nearby town of Chiloquin, said Wednesday he and his team spent 39 hours straight on the “initial attack” of the fire last week.

“It’s the cumulative fatigue that really, I think, wears a person out over time,” he told Reuters, as he took a break from hacking at hotspots in the burn area.

No serious injuries have been linked to the Bootleg fire, officials said, but it has destroyed at least 21 homes and 54 other structures, and forced an estimated 2,000 people from several hundred dwellings placed under evacuation. Nearly 2,000 homes were threatened.

LARGEST OF MANY WILDFIRES

The Bootleg ranks as the largest by far of 70 major active wildfires listed on Thursday as having affected nearly 1 million acres in 11 states, the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, reported. It was also the sixth-largest on record in Oregon since 1900, according to state forestry figures.

Other states hard hit by the latest spate of wildfires include California, Idaho, Montana and Alaska.

As of Wednesday, the center in Boise put its “national wildland fire preparedness level” at 5, the highest of its five-tier scale, meaning most U.S. firefighting resources are currently deployed somewhere across the country.

The situation represents an unusually busy start to the annual fire season, coming amid extremely dry conditions and record-breaking heat that has baked much of the West in recent weeks.

Scientists have said the growing frequency and intensity of wildfires are largely attributable to prolonged drought that is symptomatic of climate change.

One newly ignited blaze drawing attention on Thursday was the Dixie fire, which erupted on Wednesday in Butte County, California, near the mountain town of Paradise, still rebuilding from a 2018 firestorm that killed 85 people and destroyed nearly 19,000 structures in the state’s deadliest wildfire disaster.

The Dixie fire has charred about 2,250 acres (910 hectares) in its first 24 hours as some 500 personnel battled the blaze, which was spreading across a steep, rocky tree-filled terrain about 85 miles (140 km) north of Sacramento.

Erik Wegner of the U.S. Forest Service said dense stands of dead and dying trees created highly combustible conditions for the blaze. “It took off really fast,” he told Reuters.

Authorities have issued evacuation orders and warnings for several small communities in the area.

In Washington state, firefighters have contained about 20% of a lightning-caused fire near Nespelem, which has burned nearly 23,000 acres (9,270 hectares) northeast of Seattle since Monday, mostly on tribal lands of the Colville Reservation.

There were no injuries, but the blaze killed some livestock, destroyed three houses and forced evacuations of several others, officials said.

(Reporting by Deborah Bloom in Klamath Falls, Oregon; Additional reporting by David Ryder in Nespelem, Washington, and Mathieu Lewis Rolland in Butte County, California; Writing and additional reporting by Peter Szekely and Steve Gorman; Editing by David Gregorio, Daniel Wallis and Chris Reese)

Idaho becomes latest state to pass ‘fetal heartbeat’ abortion ban

By Gabriella Borter

(Reuters) -Idaho has become the latest Republican-led state to pass a “fetal heartbeat” law, prohibiting abortions after five or six weeks of pregnancy except in medical emergencies or in cases of rape or incest.

The law, signed by Republican Governor Brad Little on Tuesday, follows a wave of similar legislation passed by states aiming to prompt a review of the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling Roe v. Wade, which guarantees a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion.

Also on Tuesday, Arizona passed a law banning abortions performed strictly on the basis of genetic disorders detected in the fetus, such as Down syndrome or cystic fibrosis, unless the condition is considered lethal.

“We should never relent in our efforts to protect the lives of the preborn,” Little said in a statement.

The “fetal heartbeat” law bans abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected, often at six weeks. That could be before a woman realizes she is pregnant.

Idaho’s law states that it will only go into effect 30 days after any U.S. appeals court upholds another fetal heartbeat abortion ban, as several states are in legal battles to have their laws enacted.

“This legislation changes nothing,” abortion rights group Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii said in a statement posted to Facebook on Tuesday.

“What it really does is simply set Idaho up for a lawsuit if a similar ban in another federal court upholds their unconstitutional legislation – and there is nothing that indicates that would ever happen. But even if it does, we will launch a lawsuit immediately to stop it,” the statement said.

Abortion is one of the most divisive issues in the United States, with opponents citing religious belief to declare it immoral, and proponents declaring it a women’s health and privacy issue, among other arguments.

Several Republican-led states have passed restrictions on abortions at around six weeks and most are still tied up in the courts. A law passed in Iowa in 2018 was overturned by a state judge in 2019.

“It is undisputed that such cardiac activity is detectable well in advance of the fetus becoming viable,” District Court Judge Michael Huppert wrote in his decision.

A fetus that is viable outside the womb, usually at 24 weeks, is widely considered the threshold in the United States to prohibit abortion.

(Reporting by Gabriella BorterEditing by Bill Berkrot)

Mississippi governor signs law banning transgender athletes from women’s sports

(Reuters) – Mississippi’s Republican governor on Thursday signed legislation banning transgender athletes from competing in women and girls’ sports, the first U.S. state to pass such legislation this year.

Governor Tate Reeves had vowed earlier this month he would sign the bill, tweeting that the measure was needed “to protect young girls from being forced to compete with biological males for athletic opportunities.”

Some 37 bills regulating transgender athletes have been introduced in 20 states this year, according to LGBTQ advocates at the Human Rights Campaign.

“Governor Reeves’ eagerness to become the face of the latest anti-transgender push is appalling, as he chooses fear and division over facts and science,” said Human Rights Campaign President Alphonso David.

Idaho passed the first-of-its-kind “Fairness in Women’s Sports Act” last year, but it was blocked by a federal judge who found it unconstitutional.

(Reporting by Maria Caspani, Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

U.S. loses one life every 33 seconds to COVID-19 in deadliest week so far

(Reuters) – In the United States last week, someone died from COVID-19 every 33 seconds.

The disease claimed more than 18,000 lives in the seven days ended Dec. 20, up 6.7% from the prior week to hit another record high, according to a Reuters analysis of state and county reports.

Despite pleas by health officials not to travel during the end-year holiday season, 3.2 million people were screened at U.S. airports on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Health officials are worried that a surge in infections from holiday gatherings could overwhelm hospitals, some of which are already at capacity after Thanksgiving celebrations.

And while the country has begun to administer two new vaccines, it may be months before the inoculations put a dent in the coronavirus outbreak.

The number of new COVID-19 cases last week fell 1% to nearly 1.5 million. Tennessee, California and Rhode Island had the highest per capita new cases in the country, according to the Reuters analysis. In terms of deaths per capita, Iowa, South Dakota and Rhode Island were the hardest hit.

Across the United States, 11.3% of tests came back positive for the virus, down from 12% the prior week, according to data from the volunteer-run COVID Tracking Project. Out of 50 states, 31 had a positive test rate of 10% or higher. The highest rates were in Iowa and Idaho at over 40%.

The World Health Organization considers positive test rates above 5% concerning because it suggests there are more cases in the community that have not yet been uncovered.

(Graphic by Chris Canipe, writing by Lisa Shumaker, editing by Tiffany Wu)

New U.S. COVID-19 cases up 34% last week, set fresh records

By Michael Erman and Julie Steenhuysen

(Reuters) – Pfizer Inc’s experimental COVID-19 vaccine is more than 90% effective based on initial trial results, the drugmaker said on Monday, a major victory in the war against a virus that has killed over a million people and battered the world’s economy.

Experts welcomed the first successful interim data from a large-scale clinical test as a watershed moment that showed vaccines could help halt the pandemic, although mass roll-outs, which needs regulatory approval, will not happen this year.

Pfizer and German partner BioNTech SE said they had found no serious safety concerns yet and expected to seek U.S. authorization this month for emergency use of the vaccine, raising the chance of a regulatory decision as soon as December.

If granted, the companies estimate they can roll out up to 50 million doses this year, enough to protect 25 million people, and then produce up to 1.3 billion doses in 2021.

“Today is a great day for science and humanity,” said Pfizer Chief Executive Albert Bourla.

“We are reaching this critical milestone in our vaccine development program at a time when the world needs it most with infection rates setting new records, hospitals nearing over-capacity and economies struggling to reopen,” he said.

Experts said they still wanted to see the full trial data, which have yet to be peer-reviewed or published in a medical journal, but the preliminary results looked encouraging.

“This news made me smile from ear to ear. It is a relief to see such positive results on this vaccine and bodes well for COVID-19 vaccines in general,” said Peter Horby, professor of emerging infectious diseases at the University of Oxford.

There are still many questions, such as how effective the vaccine is by ethnicity or age, and how long it will provide immunity, with the “new normal” of social distancing and face covering set to remain for the foreseeable future.

Pfizer expects to seek U.S. emergency use authorization for people aged 16 to 85. To do so, it will need two months of safety data from about half the study’s 44,000 participants, which is expected in the third week of November.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said it would take several weeks for U.S. regulators to receive and process data on the vaccine before the government could potentially approve it.

MARKETS SURGE

The prospect of a vaccine electrified world markets with the S&P 500 and Dow hitting record highs as shares of banks, oil companies and travel companies soared. Shares in companies that have thrived during lockdowns, such as conferencing platform Zoom Video and online retailers, tumbled.

Pfizer shares jumped more than 11% to their highest since July last year, while BioNTech’s stock hit a record high.

Shares of other vaccine developers in the final stage of testing also rose with Johnson & Johnson up 4% and Moderna Inc, whose vaccine uses a similar technology as the Pfizer shot, up 8%. Britain’s AstraZeneca, however, fell 2%. Moderna is expected to report results from its large-scale trial later this month.

“The efficacy data are really impressive. This is better than most of us anticipated,” said William Schaffner, infectious diseases expert at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee. “The study isn’t completed yet, but nonetheless the data look very solid.”

U.S. President Donald Trump welcomed the test results, and the market boost: “STOCK MARKET UP BIG, VACCINE COMING SOON. REPORT 90% EFFECTIVE. SUCH GREAT NEWS!” he tweeted.

President-elect Joe Biden said the news was excellent but did not change the fact that face masks, social distancing and other health measures would be needed well into next year.

The World Health Organization said the results were very positive, but warned there was a funding gap of $4.5 billion that could slow access to tests, medicines and vaccines in low- and middle-income countries.

‘NEAR ECSTATIC’

“I’m near ecstatic,” Bill Gruber, one of Pfizer’s top vaccine scientists, said in an interview. “This is a great day for public health and for the potential to get us all out of the circumstances we’re now in.”

Between 55% and 65% of the population will need to be vaccinated to break the dynamic of the spread of COVID-19, said Germany’s health minister Jens Spahn, adding that he did not expect a shot to be available before the first quarter of 2021.

The European Union said on Monday it would soon sign a contract for up to 300 million doses of the Pfizer and BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.

The companies have a $1.95 billion contract with the U.S. government to deliver 100 million vaccine doses beginning this year. They did not receive research funding from the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed vaccine program.

The drugmakers have also reached supply agreements with the United Kingdom, Canada and Japan.

Pfizer said the interim analysis, conducted after 94 participants in the trial developed COVID-19, examined how many had received the vaccine versus a placebo.

Pfizer did not break down how many of those who fell ill received the vaccine. Still, over 90% effectiveness implies that no more than 8 of the 94 had been given the vaccine, which was administered in two shots about three weeks apart.

The efficacy rate, which could drop once full results are available, is well above the 50% effectiveness required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for a coronavirus vaccine.

Shortly after Pfizer’s announcement, Russia said its Sputnik V vaccine was also more than 90% effective, based on data collated from inoculations of the public. Its preliminary Phase III trial data is due to be published this month.

MORE DATA NEEDED

To confirm the efficacy rate, Pfizer said it would continue its trial until there were 164 COVID-19 cases among volunteers. Bourla told CNBC on Monday that based on rising infection rates, the trial could be completed before the end of November.

Pfizer said its data would be peer reviewed once it has results from the entire trial.

“These are interesting first signals, but again they are only communicated in press releases,” said Marylyn Addo, head of tropical medicine at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf in Germany.

Dozens of drugmakers and research groups around the globe have been racing to develop vaccines against COVID-19, which on Sunday exceeded 50 million cases since the new coronavirus first emerged late last year in China.

The Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine uses messenger RNA (mRNA) technology, which relies on synthetic genes that can be generated and manufactured in weeks, and produced at scale more rapidly than conventional vaccines. The technology is designed to trigger an immune response without using pathogens, such as actual virus particles.

The Trump administration has said it will have enough vaccine doses for all of the 330 million U.S. residents who want it by the middle of 2021.

(Reporting by Michael Erman and Julie Steenhuysen; Additional reporting by Michele Gershberg in New York, Ludwig Burger and Patricia Weiss in Frankfurt and Kate Kelland in London; Editing by Bill Berkrot, Caroline Humer, Edwina Gibbs and David Clarke)

New U.S. COVID-19 cases rise 11% last week, Midwest hard hit

(Reuters) – The number of new COVID-19 cases rose 11% in the United States last week compared to the previous seven days, with infections spreading rapidly in the Midwest, which reported some of the highest positive test rates, according to a Reuters analysis.

Deaths fell 3% to about 4,800 people for the week ended Oct. 11, according to the analysis of state and county reports. Since the pandemic started, nearly 215,000 people have died in the United States and over 7.7 million have become infected with the novel coronavirus.

Twenty-nine out of 50 states have seen cases rise for at least two weeks in a row, up from 21 states in the prior week. They include the entire Midwest except Illinois and Missouri, as well as new hot spots in the Northeast, South and West.

In Idaho, 23.5% of more than 17,000 tests came back positive for COVID-19 last week, the highest positive test rate in the country, according to data from The COVID Tracking Project, a volunteer-run effort to track the outbreak. South Dakota, Iowa and Wisconsin also reported positive test rates above 20% last week.

For a third week in a row, testing set a record high in the country, with on average 976,000 tests conducted each day last week. The percentage of tests that came back positive for the virus rose to 5.0% from 4.6% the prior week.

The World Health Organization considers rates above 5% concerning because it suggests there are more cases in the community that have not yet been uncovered.

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