Five U.S. states had coronavirus infections even before first reported cases

By Mrinalika Roy

(Reuters) -At least seven people in five U.S. states were infected with the novel coronavirus weeks before those states reported their first cases, a large new government study showed, pointing to the presence of the virus in the country as early as December 2019.

Participants who reported antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 were likely exposed to the virus at least several weeks before their sample was taken, as the antibodies do not appear until about two weeks after a person has been infected, the researchers said.

The positive samples came from Illinois, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and were part of a study of more than 24,000 blood samples taken for a National Institutes of Health research program between Jan. 2 and March 18, 2020.

Of the seven samples, three were from Illinois, where the first confirmed coronavirus case was reported on Jan. 24, while the remaining four states had one case each. Samples from participants in Illinois were collected on Jan. 7 and Massachusetts on Jan. 8.

The data suggests that the coronavirus was circulating in U.S. states far from the initial hotspots and areas that were considered the virus’ points of entry into the country, the study noted.

The data also backs a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study that suggested the virus may have been circulating in the United States well before the first COVID-19 case was diagnosed on Jan. 19, 2020.

“This study allows us to uncover more information about the beginning of the U.S. epidemic,” said Josh Denny, one of the authors of the study, which was published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases.

The United States has so far reported 33.6 million cases, according to a Reuters tally.

The infections were confirmed using two antibody tests, which were granted emergency use authorization by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration.

(Reporting by Mrinalika Roy in Bengaluru; Editing by Anil D’Silva)

Tornado rips through Mississippi, damages buildings, power lines

(Reuters) -A tornado tore through the southern U.S. city of Tupelo on Sunday, blowing the roofs off homes and tearing down trees and power lines, but there were no immediate reports of injuries.

“Emergency crews are currently assessing the degree of damage,” the mayor’s office said in a statement on Facebook, urging people to stay in their homes.

Social media images and videos showed the roofs of many homes and buildings blown away, electricity lines down and streets in the Mississippi city swamped with debris.

The tornado also wreaked damage in southeast Pontotoc County and Calhoun City, television station WTVA said.

“Calhoun City was hit hard tonight,” the county sheriff, Greg Pollan, said on Facebook. “Light poles have been snapped off. Trees in a few homes. Trees on vehicles. Damage to several businesses.”

Strong storms are expected to continue moving east across north Mississippi and southwest Tennessee early on Monday, weather authorities said.

(Reporting by Bhargav Acharya in Bengaluru; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

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)

Texas sheds coronavirus mask, occupancy restrictions

By Brad Brooks

LUBBOCK, Texas (Reuters) – Texans awoke on Wednesday with a statewide mask mandate and occupancy restrictions in businesses lifted, a move some heralded as freedom and others as foolishness.

On paper, Texas’ rollback of coronavirus mitigation efforts is the most sweeping seen in the United States, along with a similar measure in Mississippi. In practice, vast swaths of Texas have rarely enforced mask or occupancy mandates in the past year, anyway.

Several major retailers, grocery and restaurant chains in Texas said they would still require that masks be worn in their stores, which under Abbott’s order relaxing restrictions is their right to do.

Still, some expected to see standoffs between maskless customers and store employees on Wednesday.

Texas was one of the first states to reopen its economy after the first wave of pandemic cases last May, and the nation’s second most populous state led the way again last week when Governor Greg Abbott announced the relaxation amid declines in new daily COVID-19 cases and with the rollout of vaccines.

As of Sunday, 18% of the U.S. population had received at least one dose of a vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

County officials in regions where COVID patients take up 15% or more of hospital beds for seven consecutive days can enact new mask and occupancy restrictions, under Abbott’s order, but no regions are currently in that situation.

Austin’s city council voted to still require masks – and dared state officials to sue the city.

“In Austin, we’re committed to saving lives,” city council member Greg Casar wrote on Twitter.

The Texas Education Agency’s guidance for public schools is for the continued use of masks, while nursing homes in the state will not loosen restrictions.

The Dallas Jewish Conservatives organization plans to host a party Wednesday evening with about 200 people. There will be a moment of silence for the pandemic’s dead, refreshments for the guests and a bonfire into which folks will be encouraged to toss masks.

“It’s about freedom, liberty and personal responsibility,” said Benjie Gershon, founder of the group. “The act of throwing a mask into the bonfire … is in no way meant to belittle or undermine the tragic numbers of individuals who have fallen ill to COVID.”

(Reporting by Brad Brooks in Lubbock, Texas; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Weeks after winter storms, Mississippi city still grappling with water crisis

By Joseph Ax and Rory Doyle

JACKSON, Miss. (Reuters) – Officials in Mississippi’s largest city, Jackson, are aiming to have running water largely restored by the weekend, nearly three weeks after devastating winter weather left tens of thousands of residents without service.

The city on Friday was again distributing non-potable water at four sites so people can flush their toilets, and residents must still boil any faucet water before using it for food preparation, drinking, washing dishes or brushing teeth.

Charles Williams, the city’s public works director, said on Thursday that workers should soon be able to sample enough water to lift the boil advisory.

“I see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Williams said at a news conference, sounding more optimistic than he did on Wednesday, when problems at the city’s treatment plant caused pressure to drop across the entire system. At that time, he estimated around a quarter of Jackson’s 43,000 water connections – most of which serve multiple households – were not operating.

Officials did not have an updated estimate as of Friday, though city spokeswoman Michelle Atoa said the system maintained pressure overnight.

Tamiko Smith, 53, spent several anxiety-filled days scrambling to find clean water to perform the at-home dialysis treatments her husband, Otis, requires four days a week.

She tracked down some packaged water at a dialysis training center. Her husband’s uncle, however, who comes to Jackson to receive his own dialysis at a clinic, went three days without treatment because the facility had no access to water.

“It was very stressful,” said Smith, who compared the situation to living in a “third-world country.”

The problems stem from the same cold snap that wreaked havoc in Texas last month, shutting down the state’s power grid and leaving millions without heat in sub-freezing temperatures.

Jackson, the state capital with a population of more than 160,000 people, has seen more than 100 water main leaks since the storm and has been repairing them as quickly as possible, officials said.

The city’s mayor, Chokwe Lumumba, sent a letter to Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves earlier this week requesting $47 million in emergency funding to repair and improve Jackson’s water system.

Resident Jennifer Cattenhead, 39, and her three children finally had water service return on Thursday after more than two weeks without it.

“I was like, ‘Oh Lord,'” she said with relief.

Cattenhead had driven miles to find stores with jugs of water in stock, and she melted ice to use for flushing toilets. The first week after the storm, her house also had no power or heat, forcing her family to sleep in their cars for warmth.

The crisis has also shuttered businesses across the city. Jeff Good, the co-owner of three restaurants, said his pizzeria, Sal & Mookie’s New York Pizza & Ice Cream Joint, would open on Friday for the first time since Feb. 17 after getting water restored on Thursday.

Workers at his Broad Street Bakery & Café, meanwhile, were spending all day on Friday baking after the water returned ahead of reopening on Saturday morning.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Additional reporting by Maria Caspani and Rory Doyle; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Diane Craft)

Some Republican governors stand by mask mandates as Texas and Mississippi accelerate reopening

By Gabriella Borter

(Reuters) – While Texas and Mississippi announced complete rollbacks of their states’ COVID-19 mitigation measures this week, several governors of other Republican states have made clear they are not abandoning their mask mandates despite political pressure.

The sharp decline of new daily COVID-19 cases and the rollout of vaccines in the United States have prompted state and local governments to ease business restrictions in recent weeks, with movie theaters set to open at limited capacity in New York and indoor dining resuming in San Francisco on Friday.

However, the decline in cases plateaued last week with new infections rising in 29 out of 50 states compared with the prior week. Texas saw a 69% rise in cases in the week ended Feb. 28.

Few of the rollbacks have been as sweeping as in Texas, where Governor Greg Abbott on Tuesday said the state’s mask mandate would be lifted and most businesses could open at full capacity next week.

The move drew immediate criticism from some politicians and public health experts who have urged caution while the nation’s vaccination program is still underway.

President Joe Biden said on Wednesday that decisions to end the required wearing of masks – such as those made by Texas and Mississippi – amounted to “Neanderthal thinking” given the ongoing deaths being caused by the pandemic.

“I think it’s a big mistake. Look, I hope everybody’s realized by now, these masks make a difference,” he told reporters.

Public health experts agree face coverings are essential to slowing the spread of the virus, which has killed more than half a million Americans. But over the last year, resistance to public health measures in the United States, especially mask-wearing, has become politicized, with many Republican states enacting fewer and looser COVID-19 protocols than Democratic states.

In some Republican-led states, including Florida and South Dakota, there has never been a statewide mask mandate. In others, like Alabama and Ohio, mask mandates remain in effect.

Including the upcoming change in Texas, 34 states mandate that residents wear face masks in public, along with the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

In Ohio, U.S. Senate candidate Josh Mandel on Wednesday called on Republican Governor Mike DeWine to follow Texas’ lead and repeal the statewide mask order. The governor quickly rejected the idea.

“Ohio will be keeping its mask mandate to protect Ohioans who have yet to receive the vaccine. Vaccine supply is increasing, and there is light at the end of the tunnel, but the virus is still here and the pandemic is still ongoing today,” a spokesman for DeWine told Reuters in an email.

Governor Jim Justice of West Virginia, a Republican, said on Wednesday he was not ready to ease any restrictions, including an indoor mask mandate.

“All businesses must continue to follow the safety guidelines,” Justice said.

Abbott’s executive order in Texas will lift all mask requirements statewide as of March 10 and forbid local authorities from penalizing residents who do not wear face coverings. It will remove all restrictions on businesses in counties without a high number of hospitalizations.

Local officials can still apply limits to businesses where hospitalizations remain high, according to the order, but are prohibited from mandating that they operate at less than 50% capacity.

As of Monday, Texas was seeing about 7,500 new cases per day on a seven-day average, according to Reuters data, and it was ranked 47th in the list of states that have vaccinated the highest percentage of their populations.

Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves, a Republican, on Tuesday also lifted his state’s mask order and removed all restrictions on businesses.

But Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards, a Democrat in a majority Republican state, doubled down on his state’s mask order even as it increased capacity to 75% at restaurants and retail businesses on Wednesday.

“Louisiana’s mask mandate is still in place,” Edwards tweeted. “As we vaccinate more and more people, masks are still our most effective tool in stopping the spread of COVID-19 and saving lives.”

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter, Peter Szekely, Jarrett Renshaw and Carl O’Donnell; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Lisa Shumaker)

Sally lumbers toward U.S. Gulf Coast, threatens ‘catastrophic rain’

By Jonathan Bachman and Jennifer Hiller

GULF SHORES, ALABAMA (Reuters) – Hurricane Sally made a slow-motion crawl towards the U.S. Gulf Coast on Tuesday, threatening historic floods and prolonged rainfall as officials in three states urged people to flee the coast.

Sally could wallop the Alabama, Florida and Mississippi coasts on Tuesday night or early Wednesday with massive flash flooding and storm surges of up to 7 feet (2 meters) in some spots, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) said. Its languid pace recalls 2017’s Hurricane Harvey, which dumped several feet of rain over a period of days on the Houston area.

More than 2 feet of rain expected in some areas, creating “extreme life-threatening flash flooding likely through Wednesday,” an NHC forecaster said. While Sally’s winds decreased to 80 miles (140 km) per hour at 1 p.m.(1800 GMT), it was moving at a glacial pace of two miles per hour.

Sally will slow even more after landfall, causing Atlanta, Georgia to see as much as six inches (15 cm) of rain through Friday, said Jim Foerster, chief meteorologist at DTN, an energy, agriculture and weather data provider. “It’s going to be a catastrophic flooding event” for much of the southeastern U.S., Forester said, with Mobile, Alabama to the western part of the Florida panhandle taking the brunt of the storm.

Governors from Louisiana to Florida warned people to leave low-lying communities and Mobile County, Alabama Sheriff Sam Cochran warned residents of flood-prone areas that if they choose to ride out the storm, it will be “a couple of days or longer before you can get out.”

The causeway to Dauphin Island, Alabama, at the entrance to Mobile Bay was already flooded and impassable on Tuesday morning, the mayor said.

Coastal roads in Pascagoula, Mississippi, were flooding on Tuesday and some electrical wires were down, according to photos and social media posts from the police department, which asked people to respect road barricades and “refrain from joy riding.”

Nearly 11,000 homes are at risk of storm surge in the larger coastal cities in Alabama and Mississippi, according to estimates from property data and analytics firm CoreLogic.

Steady winds and bands of rain had started to arrive in Gulf Shores by Tuesday morning. Samantha Frederickson, who recently moved to Gulf Shores, Alabama, hit the beach early Tuesday to catch a view of the storm surf. “At the moment, we’re riding it out,” she said amid light rains and winds. “When it gets to the point we don’t feel comfortable, we’ll take off.”

President Donald Trump made emergency declarations for Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, which helps coordinate disaster relief.

At 1 p.m., storm was 60 miles (95 km) east of the mouth of the Mississippi River, the NHC said.

Ports, schools and businesses closed along the coast. The U.S. Coast Guard restricted travel on the lower Mississippi River from New Orleans to the Gulf, and closed the ports of Pascagoula and Gulfport, Mississippi, and Mobile, Alabama.

Energy companies buttoned up or halted oil refineries and pulled workers from offshore oil and gas production platforms. More than a quarter of U.S. offshore oil production was shut.

Sally is the 18th named storm in the Atlantic this year and will be the eighth tropical storm or hurricane to hit the United States – something “very rare if not a record” said Dan Kottlowski, senior meteorologist at AccuWeather, noting that accurate data on historic tropical storms can be elusive.

(Reporting by Jennifer Hiller in Houston and Jonathan Bachman in Gulf Shores, Alabama. Editing by Marguerita Choy, Jonathan Oatis and Timothy Gardner)

Sally strengthens to hurricane, bears down on U.S. Gulf Coast

By Jennifer Hiller

HOUSTON (Reuters) – Louisiana and Mississippi residents were under evacuation orders on Monday as Hurricane Sally churned across the Gulf of Mexico, strengthening to a hurricane ahead of expected landfall on Tuesday, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.

The second storm in less than a month to threaten the region, Sally was headed toward a slow-motion landfall on the U.S. Gulf Coast. Residents from Louisiana to Florida were told to expect heavy rain, storm surge and high winds.

Sally is the 18th named storm in the Atlantic this year and will be the eighth of tropical storm or hurricane strength to hit the United States – something “very rare if not a record,” said Dan Kottlowski, senior meteorologist at AccuWeather.

Mississippi and Louisiana issued mandatory evacuation orders to residents of low-lying areas, and Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards appealed for a federal disaster declaration and advised people living in Sally’s path to flee.

“We have to make sure that everything is tied down and out of the way so it doesn’t float away or become airborne,” said Steve Forstall, a Bay St. Louis port employee. In the coastal town, located roughly 50 miles (80 km) northeast of New Orleans, water from the bay was spilling onto the beach roadway early on Monday. Workers were seen boarding up homes and securing items like trash cans that can become projectiles in high winds.

The U.S. Coast Guard was limiting traffic from the Port of New Orleans, while energy companies slowed or cut refinery output and scrambled to pull workers from offshore oil and gas production platforms.

At 1 p.m. CDT (1800 GMT), Sally was 125 miles (210 km) east-southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River, packing sustained winds of 90 miles (145 km) per hour, according to the NHC.

It said the storm’s advance would slow in the next two days, dumping 8 to 16-inches on the coast and causing widespread river flooding.

Residents of southwest Louisiana are still clearing debris and tens of thousands of homes are without power after Hurricane Laura left a trail of destruction. Sally’s path remains east of that hard-hit area.

Damage from Sally is expected to reach $2 billion to $3 billion, but could exceed that if the storm’s heaviest rainfall happens over land instead of in the Gulf, said Chuck Watson of Enki Research, which models and tracks tropical storms.

(Reporting by Jennifer Hiller and Gary McWilliams; additional reporting by Catherine Koppel in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Dan Grebler)

Remnants of Hurricane Laura drench Arkansas as storm heads east

(Reuters) – The remnants of Hurricane Laura were dousing Arkansas on Friday morning and due to bring rain to the East Coast over the weekend.

Now a tropical depression, Laura had proved less damaging than feared, despite arriving in Louisiana this week as one of the most powerful hurricanes recorded in the United States.

The storm killed at least six people in Louisiana, including four who were killed when trees fell into homes, damaged buildings in Louisiana and Texas and knocked out power for hundreds of thousands of residents.

U.S. President Donald Trump is expected to head to the Gulf Coast over the weekend to survey the damage.

The storm was forecast to drop heavy rain over Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Missouri and Kentucky as it headed out to the East Coast, the National Weather Service said.

At its peak upon making landfall on Thursday morning, Laura had maximum sustained winds of 150 miles per hour (241 km per hour), faster than even Hurricane Katrina, which sparked deadly levee breaches in New Orleans in 2005 after arriving with wind speeds of 125 mph.

What would have been a dangerous 20-foot (6-m) storm surge that forecasters had predicted could move 40 miles (64 km) inland was avoided when Laura tacked east just before landfall, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards said. That meant a mighty gush of water was not fully pushed up the Calcasieu Ship Channel, which would have given the storm surge an easy path far inland.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Marguerita Choy)

Hurricane Laura approaches U.S. Gulf Coast forcing tens of thousands to evacuate

(Reuters) – Hurricane Laura was bearing down on the U.S. Gulf Coast on Tuesday, threatening fierce winds and storm surge from San Luis Pass, Texas to Ocean Springs, Mississippi and prompting thousands to evacuate before an expected Thursday landfall.

The storm strengthened to a hurricane as its center moved northwest over Cuba early Tuesday at 16 miles per hour (26 kph)with sustained winds of 70 miles per hour (110 kph), and it was due to intensify over the next two days, the National Hurricane Center said.

The Texas city of Galveston imposed a mandatory evacuation order on Tuesday after the storm’s track veered westward overnight towards to the island community of some 50,000 people. The storm was 620 miles (1,000 km) southeast of Galveston on Tuesday morning.

“It’s imperative that you make plans this morning to secure your homes and move you and your family to safety off island,” acting Mayor Craig Brown said in a statement on Tuesday.

More than 330,000 residents living in Jefferson and Orange Counties in eastern Texas were also placed under a mandatory evacuation order on Tuesday.

On Monday, the mayor of Port Arthur, Texas, an oil town of 54,000 people 85 miles (137 km) east of Houston, ordered a mandatory evacuation, giving residents until 6 a.m. on Tuesday to leave.

Laura is projected to make landfall in the Texas-Louisiana border region late Wednesday night or early Thursday morning as a major hurricane, possibly Category 3 on the 5-step Saffir-Simpson scale for measuring hurricane intensity, the NHC said.

“This has the potential to be the strongest hurricane to hit since Hurricane Rita,” Louisiana Governor John Edwards said at a Monday evening news conference, referring to the Category 5 hurricane that hit in 2005.

The storm comes on the heels of Tropical Storm Marco, which weakened sooner than expected and made landfall on Monday in Louisiana before dissipating.

Laura skirted the southern coast of Cuba on Monday but did not cause as much damage as it did in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, where it killed at least 10 people.

The coincidence of Laura’s storm surge with high tide along the Gulf Coast from High Island, Texas to Morgan City, Louisiana could result in water levels rising as high as 11 feet, the Miami-based forecaster said.

Rainfall along the coast near the Texas-Louisiana border, as much as a foot of water in some places, was expected to cause widespread flooding.

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter; Editing by Marguerita Choy)