House on edge ahead of $2.2 trillion coronavirus vote

By David Morgan and Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Armed with hand sanitizer and discouraged from using elevators, members of the U.S. House of Representatives aimed to quickly pass a sweeping $2.2 trillion coronavirus stimulus bill on Friday, though it was unclear if they would be forced to delay a day.

Leadership of the Democratic-controlled chamber and top Republicans aimed to pass the largest relief measure that Congress has ever taken up in a voice vote, one of the fastest methods the chamber has, and pass it on to Republican President Donald Trump for his signature.

There could be opposition. Republican Representative Thomas Massie said he opposed the bill, and was uncomfortable with the idea of allowing it to pass on a voice vote, rather than in a formal call recording how each House member voted, which could delay the vote until Saturday.

The Capitol has laid out special procedures because of the coronavirus to minimize the threat of infection. Members are barred from sitting next to one another and would be called from their offices alphabetically for the vote. They will be required to use hand sanitizer before entering the chamber and encouraged to take the stairs, rather than use elevators, to better maintain social distancing.

While most of the House’s 430 current members are in their home districts because of the coronavirus outbreak, several are expected to travel to Washington for a vote around 11 a.m. EDT(1500 GMT).

On a call with fellow Democrats on Thursday afternoon, Speaker Nancy Pelosi urged House members not to do anything to delay the unprecedented economic aid package the Republican-led Senate backed by a unanimous 96-0 vote on Wednesday night.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who helped craft the package, also urged lawmakers to pass it quickly.

“This is the time that we want to see the government and that states all come together and execute on the largest financial package in the history of time,” he said on Fox Business Network.

The rescue package – which would be the largest fiscal relief measure ever passed by Congress – will rush direct payments to Americans within three weeks if the House backs it and Trump signs it into law.

The $2.2 trillion measure includes $500 billion to help hard-hit industries and $290 billion for payments of up to $3,000 to millions of families.

The legislation will also provide $350 billion for small-business loans, $250 billion for expanded unemployment aid and at least $100 billion for hospitals and related health systems.

VOICE VOTE SOUGHT

The rare but deep, bipartisan support in Congress underscored how seriously lawmakers are taking the global pandemic as Americans suffer and the medical system threatens to buckle.

Pelosi said House leaders were planning to fast-track the rescue plan by passing it via a voice vote on Friday. She had said that if there were calls for a roll-call vote, lawmakers might be able to vote remotely as not all would be able to be in Washington.

It was unclear whether Massie would block the measure.

“I’m having a real hard time with this,” Massie, an outspoken fiscal conservative, said on 55KRC talk radio in Cincinnati.

Democratic Representative Dean Phillips asked Massie on Twitter to let his colleagues know if he intended to delay the bill’s passage “RIGHT NOW so we can book flights and expend about $200,000 in taxpayer money to counter your principled but terribly misguided stunt.”

The United States surpassed China and Italy on Thursday as the country with the most coronavirus cases. The number of U.S. cases passed 82,000, and the death toll reached almost 1,200.

The Labor Department reported the number of Americans filing claims for unemployment benefits surged to 3.28 million, the highest level ever.

(Reporting by David Morgan, Doina Chiacu, Richard Cowan, Susan Cornwell and Patricia Zengerle; writing by Patricia Zengerle and Andy Sullivan; editing by Lincoln Feast.)

Italian coronavirus cases seen “10 times higher” than official tally

By Crispian Balmer and Angelo Amante

ROME (Reuters) – The number of coronavirus cases in Italy is probably 10 times higher than the official tally, the head of the agency collating the data said on Tuesday as the government readied new measures to force people to stay at home.

Italy has seen more fatalities than any other country, with latest figures showing that 6,077 people have died from the infection in barely a month, while the number of confirmed cases has hit 64,000.

However, testing for the disease has often been limited to people seeking hospital care, meaning that thousands of infections have certainly gone undetected.

“A ratio of one certified case out of every 10 is credible,” Angelo Borrelli, the head of the Civil Protection Agency, told La Repubblica newspaper, indicating he believed as many as 640,000 people could have been infected.

After four weeks of steep increases in deaths and cases, the growth rate has eased since Sunday, raising hopes that the most aggressive phase of the contagion might be over.

“The official numbers of the last two days indicate a slowdown in the epidemic,” said Giorgio Gori, the mayor of Bergamo, a small city in the northern region of Lombardy that has suffered the heaviest death toll in the country.

“I am being cautious because I do not want to delude myself, but at the same time I have a lot of hope that two whole weeks of lockdown plus increasingly restrictive measures are producing results,” he told a group of foreign reporters.

The government has shut down all non-essential business until April 3 and the cabinet was due to meet later on Tuesday to tighten the screws still further, including hiking fines for people violating the shutdown to up to 4,000 euros ($4,300) from a maximum 206 euros at present.

VENTILATORS

The new directive under review, seen by Reuters, would also give the government the option to extend parts of the lockdown to July 31.

Gori said he did not see how business could remain shuttered for much longer, but indicated that the government might look to extend restrictions on those who have proved most vulnerable to the virus, especially the elderly.

The Civil Protection Agency said the biggest difficulty facing the country was a shortage of masks and ventilators – a problem that has dogged the health system since the contagion first surfaced in Lombardy on Feb. 21.

Underscoring the problem, the regional governor of Veneto, Luca Zaia, ordered the confiscation of ventilators at veterinaries, saying they could be converted to human use.

With other countries looking to hoard their own medical supplies, a consortium of Italian textile and fashion companies have converted their production lines and will soon be able to produce half the required amount of masks.

“(This) will give our system the ammunition that we need in order to fight this war and avoid our total dependence on imports,” Domenico Arcuri, the national commissioner for the emergency, told reporters.

The government has said a number of industrial sectors, including medical suppliers, must keep operating during the crisis, but there is growing unhappiness amongst some unions who think the prescribed list of strategic concerns is too wide.

Workers in the metal, chemical, textile, rubber-plastic and paper industries are expected to go on strike on Wednesday, alarming the government, which is holding talks with unions to try to stave off the stoppages.

“The last thing that Italy can allow itself is industrial conflict in a situation of national emergency,” deputy Economy Minister Antonio Misiani told SkyTG24 television.

(Additional reporting by Giuseppe Fonte and Giulia Segreti in Rome and Valentina Za and Elvira Pollina in Milan, and Riccardo Bastianello in Veneto; Editing by Alex Richardson)

Thai navy SEAL who took part in cave rescue dies after year-long infection

BANGKOK (Reuters) – A Thai navy SEAL who took part in the dramatic rescue of 12 boys and their soccer coach from a flooded cave in northern Thailand last year has died from a blood infection he contracted during the operation, the Royal Thai Navy said on Friday.

Petty Officer Beiret Bureerak had been receiving treatment, but his condition worsened, the navy said in a statement.

Another rescuer, former navy diver Sergeant Saman Kuman, died during the rescue operation.

Wild Boars Academy’s coach Ekapol Chanthawong and 12 boys had gone to explore the Tham Luang caves in Chiang Rai province on June 23, 2018, when a rainy-season downpour flooded the cave system and trapped them underground.

They survived for nine days on water dripping from rocks before they were discovered. Volunteers from abroad joined the rescue effort, which ended on July 10 when the boys and their coach were all brought out safely.

(Reporting by Jiraporn Kuhakanand Chayut Setboonsarng; Editing by Frances Kerry)

Former U.S. President George H.W. Bush taken to hospital in Maine

FILE PHOTO - Former United States President George H. W. Bush is brought into the auditorium where his son Former United States President George W. Bush speaks about his new book titled "41: A Portrait of My Father" at the George Bush Presidential Library Center in College Station, Texas November 11, 2014. REUTERS/Bob Daemmrich/Pool/File Photo

(Reuters) – Former U.S. President George H.W. Bush, 93, was taken to a hospital in Maine on Sunday after experiencing low blood pressure and fatigue, a family spokesman said on Twitter.

Bush, the oldest living former U.S. president, will likely remain at Southern Maine Health Care for a few days for observation, said the spokesman, Jim McGrath.

“The former president is awake and alert, and not in any discomfort,” McGrath wrote on Twitter.

FILE PHOTO - Former U.S. President George H.W. Bush arrives on the field to do the coin toss ahead of the start of Super Bowl LI between the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons in Houston, Texas, U.S., February 5, 2017. REUTERS/Adrees Latif/File Photo

FILE PHOTO – Former U.S. President George H.W. Bush arrives on the field to do the coin toss ahead of the start of Super Bowl LI between the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons in Houston, Texas, U.S., February 5, 2017. REUTERS/Adrees Latif/File Photo

Bush was hospitalized in Texas last month for treatment of an infection that spread to his blood, and stayed there for nearly two weeks. He was admitted to the hospital a day after he attended the funeral of his wife, Barbara, the former first lady who died on April 17. The couple had been married for 73 years.

On Saturday, Bush attended an American Legion event in Kennebunkport, Maine to mark the upcoming Memorial Day with military veterans and his former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, according to a post on Bush’s official Twitter feed.

Bush is the father of former Republican President George W. Bush, who served two terms from 2001 to 2009, and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who unsuccessfully sought the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.

(Reporting by Daniel Wallis and Yeganeh Torbati; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

U.S. lawmaker wounded in shooting has surgery for infection: hospital

FILE PHOTO - Representative Steve Scalise (R-LA) is pictured sitting at the controls in the drilling shack on BP's Thunder Horse Oil Platform in the Gulf of Mexico, 150 miles from the Louisiana coast, May 11, 2017. REUTERS/Jessica Resnick-Ault

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Representative Steve Scalise, who was shot and wounded during a baseball practice last month, has undergone surgery to treat an infection and remains in serious condition, the hospital said on Thursday.

Scalise, the No. 3 Republican leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, had been readmitted to MedStar Washington Hospital Center’s intensive care unit because of concerns about the infection, the hospital said on Wednesday night.

Scalise, 51, tolerated the latest surgery well and remained in serious condition, the hospital said in a statement on Thursday.

A gunman opened fire on Scalise and other Republican lawmakers as they practiced on June 14 in a Washington suburb for a charity baseball game. Scalise, from Louisiana, was shot in the hip.

Scalise had been improving in recent weeks following surgeries to repair internal organs and broken bones.

Gunman James Hodgkinson, 66, had a history of posting angry messages against Republican President Donald Trump. He died after being wounded by police at the Alexandria, Virginia, ballpark.

(Reporting by Eric Beech; Editing by Peter Cooney)

Outbreak of hantavirus infections kills three in Washington state

A micrographic study of liver tissue seen from a Hantavirus pulmonary syndrome (HPS) patient seen in this undated photo obtained by Reuters, July 6, 2017. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/Handout via REUTERS

By Laura Zuckerman

(Reuters) – Five people have been stricken with the rare, rodent-borne hantavirus illness in Washington state since February, three of whom have died, in the state’s worst outbreak of the disease in at least 18 years, public health officials reported on Thursday.

The three fatal cases also mark the highest death toll from hantavirus pulmonary syndrome in Washington state during a single year since the respiratory ailment was first identified in the “Four Corners” region of the U.S. Southwest in 1993.

The disease has been found to be transmitted to humans from deer mice, either through contact with urine, droppings, saliva or nesting materials of infected rodents or by inhaling dust contaminated with the virus.

Victims in the latest outbreak were men and women ranging in age from their 20s to their 50s from four counties across the state, said David Johnson, spokesman for the Washington State Department of Health.

The first diagnosed case this year was in February and the most recent was last month, when the infection killed a resident of Spokane County in the eastern part of the state near Washington’s border with Idaho. Three of the five cases, including another one that proved fatal, were confirmed in the Puget Sound region of King and Skagit counties.

The only common factor among those infected by the disease, which typically kills more than a third of its victims, is that they were all exposed to infected mice, Johnson said.

The last time five confirmed hantavirus cases were diagnosed in Washington state in a single year was in 1999, although just one of those proved fatal, Johnson said.

Washington has reported 49 of the 690 hantavirus cases tallied nationwide from 1993 to January 2016, ranking fifth among 10 Western states that account for the bulk of all documented infections, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta.

Eighteen infections with four deaths were reported nationally in 2015. The year before, the CDC counted 35 cases, of which 14 were fatal.

The most highly publicized hantavirus outbreak occurred in 2012, when 10 visitors to Yosemite National Park in California were diagnosed with the infection, three of whom died, prompting a worldwide alert. All but one of those were linked to tent cabins later found to have been infested by deer mice.

(Editing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Paul Tait)

Republican lawmaker Steve Scalise’s condition worsens after June shooting

FILE PHOTO: House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) speaks to reporters at the U.S. Capitol, hours before an expected vote to repeal Obamacare in Washington, D.C., U.S., May 4, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Representative Steve Scalise, shot and wounded during a baseball practice last month, developed an infection and was readmitted to an intensive care unit, MedStar Washington Hospital Center said on Wednesday.

Scalise, the No. 3 Republican leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, had been improving in recent weeks following surgeries to repair internal organs and broken bones.

The hospital, which downgraded his condition to “serious” from “fair,” said it would provide another update on Thursday.

A gunman opened fire on Scalise and other Republican lawmakers as they practiced on June 14 in a Washington, D.C., suburb for a charity baseball game. Scalise, from Louisiana, was shot in the hip.

Gunman James Hodgkinson, 66, had a history of posting angry messages against Republican President Donald Trump. He died after being wounded by police at the Alexandria, Virginia, ballpark.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Howard Goller)

Bird flu hits another U.S. farm that supplies Tyson Foods

quarantine researcher checking chickens on poultry farm for bird flu

By Tom Polansek

CHICAGO (Reuters) – Bird flu that is highly lethal to poultry has infected a second commercial chicken farm in Tennessee that supplies Tyson Foods Inc, company and state officials said on Thursday.

The finding expands an outbreak near the major chicken-producing states of Alabama and Georgia, and is the second in the type of breeder flock crucial for keeping the chicken-meat industry supplied with birds. A case of less dangerous bird flu was confirmed in Alabama on Thursday.

In Tennessee, authorities have started to cull the infected flock of 55,000 chickens in Lincoln County, to contain the highly pathogenic H7N9 flu, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The farm was in a quarantine zone established after authorities this month found the same strain of the disease in a flock of about 73,500 chickens less than 2 miles (3.2 km) away, the Tennessee Department of Agriculture said. That farm also supplied Tyson, the world’s biggest chicken company.

“I’m sure on the part of the company they’re quite concerned and going back and reviewing all of their information and data to determine how in the world this got into the buildings,” said Bret Marsh, state veterinarian in Indiana, which had the nation’s only highly pathogenic bird flu case in poultry in 2016.

The initial case in Tennessee was the nation’s first infection of highly pathogenic bird flu at a commercial operation in more than a year. Tennessee also recently detected a less-dangerous case of low-pathogenic flu in another chicken flock.

On Thursday, Alabama said the USDA confirmed a suspected case of low-pathogenic flu in a guinea fowl at a flea market as H7N9. Aviagen, the world’s largest poultry breeding company, has culled chickens in the state over concerns about the disease.

Highly pathogenic bird flu led to the deaths of about 50 million birds, mostly egg-laying hens, in the United States in 2014 and 2015.

Another widespread outbreak could represent a financial blow for poultry operators because it could kill more birds or require flocks to be culled. It also would likely trigger more import bans from trading partners, after South Korea, Japan and other countries limited imports after the first highly pathogenic case in Tennessee.

China has also been grappling with an outbreak of H7N9, which has killed 161 people since October. U.S. authorities have said that strain is genetically distinct from the H7N9 in Tennessee and that the risk of the disease spreading to people from poultry or making food unsafe is low.

Tyson said it worked with Tennessee and federal officials to quickly euthanize birds in the infected flock and did not expect disruptions to its chicken supply.

“Our business is diversified and scaled across multiple states, so we plan to meet our customers’ needs,” spokesman Worth Sparkman said.

Tyson shares fell 1.7 percent to close at $62.00 on Thursday.

The company has said it tests all the birds it owns for the virus and flocks diagnosed with highly pathogenic flu are not processed.

Wild birds can carry the disease without showing signs of sickness and transmit it to poultry through feces, feathers or other forms of contract.

(Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Matthew Lewis)

Thailand confirms first Zika-linked microcephaly in Southeast Asia

City worker fumigates area to get rid of mosquitoes carrying Zika

By Aukkarapon Niyomyat

BANGKOK (Reuters) – Thailand reported on Friday the first confirmed cases in Southeast Asia of microcephaly linked to mosquito-borne Zika, as the World Health Organization urged action against the virus across the region.

The confirmation of two case of microcephaly, a birth defect marked by small head size, came a day after U.S. health officials recommended that pregnant women postpone non-essential travel to 11 Southeast Asian countries because of the risk of Zika.

“We have found two cases of small heads linked to Zika, the first cases in Thailand,” Prasert Thongcharoen, an adviser to the Department of Disease Control, told reporters in Bangkok.

He declined to say where in Thailand the cases were found but officials have said they were not in Bangkok.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) said the cases were the first of Zika-linked microcephaly in Southeast Asia and the virus infection represented a serious threat to pregnant women and their unborn children.

“Countries across the region must continue to strengthen measures aimed at preventing, detecting and responding to Zika virus transmission,” Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, the WHO’s regional director, said in a statement.

U.S. health officials have concluded that Zika infections in pregnant women can cause microcephaly, which can lead to severe developmental problems in babies.

VIRUS SPREADING

The connection between Zika and microcephaly first came to light last year in Brazil, which has confirmed more than 1,800 cases of microcephaly that it considers to be related to Zika infections in the mothers.

Zika has spread extensively in Latin American and the Caribbean over the past year or so, and more recently it has been cropping up in Southeast Asia.

Thailand has confirmed 349 Zika cases since January, including 33 pregnant women, and Singapore has recorded 393 Zika cases, including 16 pregnant women.

Some health experts have accused Thai officials of playing down the risk of Zika to protect its thriving tourist industry, but Prasert dismissed that.

“Thailand is not hiding anything and is ready to disclose everything,” he said, adding that other countries in Southeast Asia might also have cases of Zika-linked microcephaly that they have not disclosed.

The WHO said Thailand’s response was an example for the region.

“Thailand’s diligence underscores the commitment of health authorities to the health and wellbeing of the Thai public, and provides a positive example to be emulated,” Singh said.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said on Thursday people should consider postponing travel to Brunei, Myanmar, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Maldives, Philippines, Thailand, Timor-Leste (East Timor), and Vietnam.

The CDC has already issued a “travel notice” for Singapore, and said such a warning would be considered for the new countries if the number of cases rose to the level of an outbreak.

Thailand’s confirmation of Zika-linked microcephaly comes ahead of China’s week-long “Golden Week” holiday with Thailand expecting 220,000 Chinese visitors, up from 168,000 for the week in 2015, Tourism Authority of Thailand governor Yuthasak Supasorn told Reuters.

NO VACCINE

There is no vaccine or treatment for Zika. An estimated 80 percent of people infected have no symptoms, making it difficult for pregnant women to know whether they have been infected.

There are also no specific tests to determine if a baby will be born with microcephaly, but ultrasound scans in the third trimester of pregnancy can identify the problem, according to the WHO.

Zika is commonly transmitted through mosquitoes but can also be transmitted sexually.

Another Thai health ministry adviser urged everyone to work to stop the spread of mosquitoes but said people should not panic.

“Don’t have sex with a Zika-infected person. If you don’t know if they are infected, then use a condom,” the adviser, Pornthep Siriwanarangsan, told reporters. “We can’t stop women from becoming pregnant … but we mustn’t panic.”

Health authorities in the region said they were stepping up monitoring, but there has been little testing and officials said the real number of cases was bound to be higher than the confirmed figure.

“We do not test everybody, we test only those who are symptomatic,” said Paulyn Jean Rosell-Ubia, health secretary in the Philippines, which has reported 12 Zika cases.

“Yes, we are positive that the number is higher because we are not testing everyone.”

Malaysia, which has reported six cases of Zika, including two in pregnant women, said it would seek information from Thailand on the particular strain of the Zika virus there.

“We are taking serious notice of the reports in Thailand, and we will reach out to the Thai authorities for more information … so that we can be more prepared,” Malaysia’s health minister, Subramaniam Sathasivam, told Reuters.

Authorities in Vietnam, which has reported three cases of Zika, ordered stepped up monitoring of pregnant women.

In Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, head of disease outbreak and surveillance Dwi Oktavia said there had been no sign of any increase in birth defects there. Indonesia had one Zika case in 2015 but has confirmed none since then.

Microcephaly in babies can lead to respiratory problems related to malformation of the brain, a serious threat to the lives of babies. Children with microcephaly face lifelong difficulties, including intellectual impairment.

Zika was first identified in Uganda in 1947 and first isolated in Asia in the 1960s. It was unknown in the Americas until 2014.

(Additional reporting by Amy Sawitta Lefevre, Juarawee Kittisilpa and Panarat Thepgumpanat, Kanupriya Kapoor in JAKARTA, Roxanna Latiff in KUALA LUMPUR, Karen Lima in MANILA and Pham Thi Huyen My in HANOI; Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Alex Richardson)

New York Fish Markets Hit With Rare Bacterial Infection

A rare bacterium has been discovered at fish markets in multiple New York boroughs and has been confirmed to have infected at least 30 people.

Health officials say they do not know the source of the outbreak.  The bacterium, Mycobacterium marinum, is common in fish but does not normally infect humans.  Markets in Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan have been found to have the bacterium.

The infection causes bumps under the skin or tender lesions.  Once the bumps turn into open wounds, they won’t heal on their own.  If the infections are not cleared at that point, they can go deeper into the skin and require surgery.

Dr. Jay Varma, deputy commissioner for disease control, said a part of the problem in finding the source is that the infection can take weeks to show even the most mild symptoms.

A doctor in the Chinatown section of New York said that many patients who came to him said they were infected at a site where they were cut by a fish bone.  One victim said they had cut themselves on a lobster.