Coronavirus fuels historic legal battle over voting as 2020 U.S. election looms

By Joseph Ax

(Reuters) – The Nov. 3 contest between President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden has generated an unprecedented wave of election-related litigation, as both sides seek to shape the rules governing how votes are tallied in key states.

With 40 days left, the court clashes have spread to every competitive state amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has fueled pitched battles over seemingly mundane issues such as witness signatures, U.S. mail postmarks and the use of drop boxes for ballots.

Trump’s unfounded attacks on voting by mail and delivery delays amid cost-cutting measures at the U.S. Postal Service have only intensified the urgency of the litigation.

A Reuters analysis of state and federal court records found more than 200 election-related cases pending as of Tuesday. Overall, at least 250 election lawsuits spurred by the coronavirus have been filed, according to Justin Levitt, a Loyola Law School professor who has been tracking the litigation.

The pandemic has turned what were once minor hurdles, such as witness signature requirements, into potentially major obstacles, while exacerbating existing concerns.

“In the past, long lines would be disenfranchising or deterring, but in this case they can be deadly,” said Myrna Perez, who directs the voting rights and elections program at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice.

Democrats generally have sought to ease restrictions on mail ballots, which are surging as voters want to avoid the risk of visiting in-person polling sites.

“The Biden campaign has assembled the biggest voter protection program in history to ensure our election runs smoothly and to combat any attempt by Donald Trump to interfere in the democratic process,” Mike Gwin, a Biden spokesman, said.

Republicans say they are trying to prevent illegal voting, although experts say voter fraud is exceedingly rare.

“Democrats are working to shred election integrity measures one state at a time, and there’s no question they’ll continue their shenanigans from now to November and beyond,” said Matthew Morgan, general counsel for the Trump campaign.

A flurry of court decisions this month have delivered several Democratic wins, although many remain subject to appeal. In the key states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and North Carolina, officials will count ballots that arrive after Nov. 3, as long as they were sent by Election Day.

Several pending cases, including in competitive Texas, Pennsylvania and Michigan, could have a major impact on those states’ elections.

In Pennsylvania, for instance, Republicans will ask the U.S. Supreme Court to step in after the state’s highest court rejected their bid to limit drop boxes and disqualify late-arriving ballots. The Trump campaign is pursuing a separate federal lawsuit over some of the same issues.

In Texas, state Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, has sued officials in Harris County to stop them from sending absentee ballot applications to all voters. The county, which includes Houston, is the state’s most populous, with nearly 5 million residents.

Republicans prevailed in several earlier cases.

In Florida, a federal appeals court blocked hundreds of thousands of ex-felons from voting in November. In Texas, where only those 65 years and older can vote by mail without having to provide a valid reason such as disability, a series of court rulings have stymied Democratic efforts to extend that right to all residents.

SUPREME COURT BATTLE TO COME?

The influx of cases may also be a preview of what is to come after Nov. 3, when new fights could arise over which ballots should be counted.

Both campaigns have assembled armies of lawyers in preparation.

The Biden campaign has lined up hundreds of attorneys and has brought in top lawyers like former U.S. Solicitors General Donald Verrilli and Walter Dellinger and former Attorney General Eric Holder as advisers.

Marc Elias, the Democratic attorney who has coordinated many election lawsuits this year on behalf of left-leaning groups, is heading a team focused on state-by-state voter protection.

Trump’s campaign, for its part, has filed multiple challenges to states like Nevada and New Jersey that plan to mail a ballot to every voter.

Some Democrats are concerned that if Republicans succeed in getting a successor to the late liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court before the election, it will ensure Trump wins any dispute that ends up at the high court.

The Supreme Court’s decision in 2000 to stop the Florida recount handed the presidency to Republican George W. Bush, the only time the high court has decided the outcome of a U.S. presidential election.

Trump has seemingly laid the groundwork for a post-election fight, repeatedly asserting without evidence that voting by mail will yield a “rigged” result.

On Wednesday, the president said explicitly that he wanted to have Ginsburg’s successor in place because he expects the election to end up at the Supreme Court.

Levitt, the law professor tracking the cases, said he still trusted that judges would reject challenges not backed by evidence.

“Filing a case costs a few hundred dollars and a lawyer, and can often be useful for messaging,” he said. “But courts of law demand evidence that the court of public opinion doesn’t.”

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Additional reporting by Jan Wolfe and Disha Raychaudhuri; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Peter Cooney)

‘Rare, dangerous’ heat wave to hit California, U.S. West

By Andrew Hay

(Reuters) – A record heat wave with temperatures of up to 125 Fahrenheit (49 Celsius) was set to punish California starting on Friday as another extreme weather event raised risks of more forest fires and rolling blackouts.

The “deadly heat wave” of “rare, dangerous and very possibly fatal” temperatures was forecast across Southern California for the U.S. Labor Day holiday weekend, the National Weather Service (NWS) in Los Angeles said.

Record or excessive heat was also expected in Nevada and western Arizona with “brutal” temperatures set to peak on Sunday and continue into Monday, the service said.

“There is a high risk for heat illness along with heightened fire weather concerns,” the NWS Los Angeles office reported, forecasting record high temperatures on Saturday and Sunday.

Climate scientists blame human activities for a two to three degree Fahrenheit rise in average temperatures in California since the early 20th century and say extreme wet-dry cycles are creating abundant parched vegetation to supercharge wildfires.

The long weekend’s heat event is expected to be hotter than the one in mid-August that helped trigger the second and third largest forest fires in California history that are still burning.

Death Valley in California’s Mojave desert recorded one of the hottest air temperatures ever on the planet of 130F on Aug. 17, and highs of around 124F were expected there on Sunday, the NWS said.

The California power grid asked power generators to delay any maintenance until after the weekend to prevent blackouts like the two nights of rolling outages seen in mid-August as residents cranked up their air conditioning.

(Reporting by Andrew Hay; Editing by Tom Brown)

COVID-19 reinfection detected in U.S. patient; saliva tests endorsed

By Nancy Lapid

(Reuters) – The following is a roundup of some of the latest scientific studies on the novel coronavirus and efforts to find treatments and vaccines for COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus.

COVID-19 reinfection seen in U.S. patient

A case of coronavirus reinfection has been documented in a U.S. patient from Reno, Nevada, according to doctors. The 25-year-old man tested positive for the virus in April after showing mild illness and then got sick again in late May, developing more severe COVID-19 symptoms. Doctors and Nevada public health officials said they were able to show through sophisticated testing that the virus associated with each instance of infection represented genetically different strains. Their report, released on Friday, is undergoing peer review by the Lancet medical journal. Last week, three reinfections were reported – one in Hong Kong and two in Europe. Unlike the Nevada case, the second infections in those patients were milder than the first. Reinfection “may represent a rare event,” the Nevada researchers wrote. But, they said, the findings implied that initial exposure to the virus may not result in full immunity for everyone who has been infected by it.

Saliva samples preferable for COVID-19 testing

Letting patients provide saliva samples for COVID-19 tests is easier and safer than swabbing the back of the nose and throat for samples to test, and the results are equally reliable, Yale University researchers said. Writing on Friday in the New England Journal of Medicine, they compared saliva and nasopharyngeal swab samples from 70 U.S. hospitalized COVID-19 patients and 495 asymptomatic healthcare workers, using gold-standard laboratory methods. In both groups, the saliva tests and the nasopharyngeal swab tests showed similar sensitivity for detecting the virus. For healthcare workers, unlike the collection of nasopharyngeal samples, collection of saliva samples by patients does not present a risk of infection and alleviates demands for supplies of swabs and personal protective equipment, the researchers said. In a separate study on Friday in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine, Canadian researchers employed an experimental saliva test kit and found that it might miss some mild or asymptomatic infections. But they agreed with the Yale researchers about the advantages of saliva tests and said they “may be of particular benefit for remote, vulnerable or challenging” patients.

Accuracy of faster COVID-19 tests is unclear

It is hard to know whether so-called point-of-care COVID-19 tests, which provide results in a couple of hours rather than days as some other tests do, are accurate, according to a research review. The authors of the review, published on Wednesday by the Cochrane Library, focused on two types of rapid point-of-care tests: antigen tests, which identify proteins on the virus using disposable devices, and molecular tests, which detect viral genetic material using portable or table-top devices. Altogether, they reviewed 22 studies from around the world that compared point-of-care tests to gold-standard so-called RT-PCR laboratory tests. Three-quarters of the studies did not follow the point-of-care test manufacturers’ instructions, they found. There also was little information about study participants, so it was not possible to tell if the results could be applied to people with no symptoms, mild symptoms or severe symptoms. And studies often were at risk for bias, or did not detail their methods. “The evidence currently is not strong enough and more studies are urgently needed to be able to say if these tests are good enough to be used in practice,” the research team led by Jonathan Deeks of the University of Birmingham in Britain wrote.

New studies add to data on COVID-19 in children

Children are far less likely than adults to get severe cases of COVID-19, British doctors found. At 138 hospitals in Britain, through June, less than 1% of COVID-19 patients were children, and 99% survived. Those who died had serious underlying health conditions. “We can be quite sure that COVID in itself is not causing harm to children on a significant scale,” said Malcolm Semple of the University of Liverpool, co-author of research published on Thursday in BMJ. While children’s risk for severe COVID-19 is low, Black children and obese children experienced higher risks. A separate study published on Monday in the journal JAMA Pediatrics suggests the proportion of U.S. children with asymptomatic COVID-19 may be low. At 28 hospitals, more than 33,000 children were tested during ear, nose and throat appointments or procedures. None were suspected of having the virus. Fewer than 1% were asymptomatically infected. Even without symptoms, infected children can shed virus for weeks, Korean doctors said on Friday in the JAMA Pediatrics.

(Reporting by Nancy Lapid, Kate Kelland and Deena Beasley; Editing by Will Dunham)

First U.S. COVID-19 reinfection case identified in Nevada study

By Deena Beasley

(Reuters) – Researchers for the first time have identified someone in the United States who was reinfected with the novel coronavirus, according to a study that has not yet been reviewed by outside experts.

The report, published online, describes a 25-year-old man living in Reno, Nevada, who tested positive for the virus in April after showing mild illness. He got sick again in late May and developed more severe COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.

Cases of presumed reinfection have cropped up in other parts of the world, but questions have arisen about testing accuracy. Earlier this week, University of Hong Kong researchers reported details of a 33-year-old man who had recovered in April from a severe case of COVID-19 and was diagnosed four months later with a different strain of the virus.

Researchers at the University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine and the Nevada State Public Health Laboratory said they were able to show through sophisticated testing that the virus associated with each instance of the Reno man’s infection represented genetically different strains.

They emphasized that reinfection with the virus is probably rare, but said the findings imply that initial exposure to the virus may not result in full immunity for everyone.

(Reporting by Deena Beasley; Editing by Dan Grebler)

New U.S. COVID-19 cases drop for fifth week in a row, deaths decline

(Reuters) – The number of new cases of the novel coronavirus reported in the United States fell 17% last week, the fifth straight week of declines, according to a Reuters tally of state and county reports.

Nearly 1,000 people a day continue to die from COVID-19, though last week’s total of more than 6,700 deaths was down 9% from the previous seven days.

The United States posted 297,000 new cases for the week ended Aug. 23, down from a weekly peak of over 468,000 cases in mid-July. The country is now averaging less than 50,000 new infections a day for the first time since early June.

The United States still has the worst outbreak in the world, accounting for a quarter of the global total of 23 million cases.

The state with the biggest percentage increase in new cases last week was South Dakota at 50%. Infections have been rising since the annual motorcycle rally in Sturgis, which drew more than 100,000 people from all over the country from Aug. 7 to 16. The South Dakota health department was not immediately available for comment.

Cases rose by 30% in nearby North Dakota and by 24% in Wyoming.

The United States tested on average 675,000 people a day last week, down from a peak in late July of over 800,000 people a day.

Nationally, the share of all tests that came back positive for the new virus was 6.3%, down from 7% the prior week and below a peak of 9% in mid-July, according to data from The COVID Tracking Project, a volunteer-run effort to track the outbreak.

South Carolina had the highest positivity rate in the nation at 22%, followed by Texas, Nevada and Idaho at 16%.

At least 29 states reported a positivity rate above 5%, the level the World Health Organization considers 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)

Trump threatens to sue Nevada to block universal mail-in ballots

By Joseph Ax

(Reuters) – President Donald Trump threatened to sue Nevada after Democratic lawmakers passed a bill on Sunday that would send mail-in ballots to every voter ahead of November’s presidential election in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

Trump, who has claimed without evidence that voting by mail will lead to rampant fraud, wrote on Twitter on Monday that the legislation approved on Sunday was an “illegal late night coup.”

“Using Covid to steal the state,” he added. “See you in Court!”

If the state’s Democratic governor, Steve Sisolak, signs the bill as expected, Nevada would become the seventh state to send ballots to all registered voter for the Nov. 3 election. Utah, Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon and Washington already conduct their elections entirely by mail, while California and Vermont have decided to do so this year due to the pandemic.

A Trump campaign spokeswoman did not immediately comment on Trump’s threat. But the ongoing public health crisis has prompted litigation in dozens of states between Democrats and Republicans over issues like absentee ballots, postmark deadlines and signature requirements.

Most states have sought to expand mail-in voting to avoid spreading the coronavirus at polling places on Election Day.

Nevada mailed ballots to voters ahead of its primary election in June and encouraged residents not to risk in-person voting. Most of the state’s polling places were closed, leading to waits of as much as seven hours in Las Vegas.

Sisolak’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Trump’s tweet.

Election experts say voter fraud of any kind, including incidents related to mail-in ballots, is vanishingly rare.

Last week, Trump suggested delaying the election due to the likelihood of fraud, though he does not have the authority to do so.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

With U.S. under coronavirus siege, Chicago cracks down, Florida cases soar

By Daniel Trotta

(Reuters) – The city of Chicago reimposed some coronavirus restrictions on Monday and the state of Florida reported more than 10,000 new cases for the sixth day in a row, as the pandemic showed few signs of abating in the United States.

In a rare ray of hope, New York state reported the fewest hospitalizations from the coronavirus in four months and New York City entered a new phase of reopening on Monday, but the progress, in the very city and state that were once the epicenter, was eclipsed by the grim news nearly everywhere else.

Metrics for the country have grown worse including a rising number of cases, deaths and hospitalizations along with rates of positive test results. The virus has killed 140,000 people in the United States and infected some 3.7 million, both figures leading the world.

Florida reported 10,347 new cases on Monday, the sixth day in a row the state has announced over 10,000 new infections. Another 92 people died in Florida, increasing the state’s death toll to 5,183.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced new restrictions due to take effect on Friday including a ban on indoor service at bars and shutdown of personal services such as shaves and facials that require the removal of masks.

“While we aren’t near the peak of the pandemic from earlier this year, none of us wants to go back there,” Lightfoot said in a statement.

The city of Los Angeles is on the brink of issuing a new stay-at-home order and at least 14 states have reported record hospitalizations so far in July, including Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Nevada, North Carolina and Texas.

Meanwhile, the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump is pushing for schools to reopen in a few weeks and resisting a federal mandate that people wear masks in public, part of what New York Governor Andrew Cuomo called an “incompetent” federal government response.

“I’ve said to the president from Day One: This virus does not respond to politics,” Cuomo told a news conference. “The solution is medicine and science.”

WHITE HOUSE BRIEFINGS RESUME

The country remained “totally unprepared,” Cuomo said, as other states lagged in testing, contact tracing, and personal protective equipment for doctors and nurses.

“Their mistake was they listened to the president,” Cuomo said, while also blasting “stupid and reckless” people in his own state who persistently gather in large groups.

On Monday Trump, under fire over his administration’s response to the surging virus, said he would on Tuesday resume holding news briefings on the pandemic after a lengthy hiatus.

White House debate has centered on whether Trump should risk doing daily briefings after he was mocked for musing that people might inject household disinfectants as a way to protect themselves from contracting the virus.

Last Friday Trump senior adviser Kellyanne Conway told reporters she favored a return of the briefings, which she said had bolstered his approval ratings.

New York state, where the virus took hold early this year before spreading to other states, recorded only eight deaths on Sunday while the total number of people hospitalized for the disease fell to 716, the fewest since March 18, Cuomo said.

However a Reuters analysis of data from the COVID Tracking Project showed cases rose by more than 5,000 in the past week, the first week-over-week increase since April, breaking a 13-week streak of declines.

New York City entered a new phase on Monday that will allow low-risk outdoor activity, entertainment at 33 percent capacity and professional sports events. But Major League Baseball’s Yankees and Mets will start their seasons in empty New York City ballparks, indoor dining in restaurants is still prohibited, and bars are subject to social distancing rules.

(Reporting by Daniel Trotta, Maria Caspani, Doina Chiacu and Lisa Shumaker; Editing by Howard Goller)

Climate change, COVID-19 stoke wildfire’s economic risk, Fed says

(Reuters) – Wildfires threaten the economy of the western United States to a greater extent than the rest of the country, and the coronavirus pandemic and climate change will only make that worse, according to research from the San Francisco Fed on Monday.

Some 52% of economic output in Arizona, California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Washington originates in counties with elevated wildfire hazard, putting the economies of the region in jeopardy as wildfires become more frequent and more destructive, the researchers found. By 2040 that proportion will have risen to 56%, they estimate. By comparison, about 25% to 30% of the Southeast’s economy faces elevated wildfire risk.

The states together account for a bit more than one-fifth of U.S. economic output.

“The portion of real output produced in (the counties of these states) with elevated exposure increases from $2.1 trillion in 2018 to $4.0 trillion in 2040 in the baseline scenario,” the researchers wrote in the regional Fed’s latest Economic Letter. The economic output under particular wildfire threat rises to $4.4 trillion under a more severe climate change scenario, they said.

Wildfire risk is a combination of the likelihood of a big fire happening – which climate scientists have shown has been rising as the planet warms – and the economic destruction, in terms of lives and livelihoods destroyed that it could cause.

The coronavirus pandemic is increasing the latter risk because the fiscal pinch to states and local governments from the drop in sales tax and other revenue means cuts to wildfire suppression and prevention spending, the researchers said.

(Reporting by Ann Saphir; Editing by Tom Brown)

Where COVID-19 is spreading fastest as U.S. cases rise 46% in past week

By Chris Canipe and Lisa Shumaker

(Reuters) – The United States saw a 46% increase in new cases of COVID-19 in the week ended June 28 compared to the previous seven days, with 21 states reporting positivity test rates above the level that the World Health Organization has flagged as concerning.

Nationally, 7% of diagnostic tests came back positive last week, up from 5% the prior week, according to a Reuters analysis of data from The COVID Tracking Project, a volunteer-run effort to track the outbreak.

The World Health Organization considers a positivity rate above 5% to be a cause for concern because it suggests there are more cases in the community that have not yet been uncovered.

Arizona’s positivity test rate was 24% last week, Florida’s was 16%, and Nevada, South Carolina and Texas’s were all 15%, according to the analysis.

Thirty-one states, mostly in the U.S. West and South, reported more new cases of COVID-19 last week compared to the previous week, the analysis found. Florida, Louisiana, Idaho and Washington state saw new cases more than double over that period.

In response to the new infections, Louisiana and Washington state have temporarily halted the reopening of their economies. Washington also mandated wearing masks in public.

Florida ordered all bars and some beaches to close. Idaho was not immediately available for comment.

Nationally, new COVID-19 cases have risen every week for four straight weeks. While part of that increase can be attributed to a 9% expansion in testing, health experts have also worried about states relaxing stay-at-home orders that had been credited with curbing the outbreak.

State officials across the country report the same trend in the new cases: People under 35 years old are going to bars, parties and social events without masks, becoming infected, and then spreading the disease to others.

Cases continue to decline in Northeast states, but some Midwest states that had new infections under control are seeing cases once again rise, including Illinois, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

 

(Reporting by Chris Canipe in Kansas City, Missouri, and Lisa Shumaker in Chicago; Editing by Tiffany Wu)

Strong quake hits Nevada but no immediate reports of injury, damage

(Reuters) – A strong earthquake with a magnitude of 6.5 struck a remote, sparsely populated area of Nevada about halfway between Reno and Las Vegas early on Friday, the U.S. Geological Survey said.

There were no immediate reports of damage and casualties, according to a Nye County Sheriff’s dispatcher.

The temblor occurred about 35 miles (57 km) west-northwest of Tonopah, the seat of Nye County, at a depth of 4.7 miles (7.6 km), the USGS said on its website.

It could be felt as far away as Sacramento, California, 350 miles away, according to social media posts.

Nye County, about 200 miles north of Las Vegas, includes a portion of Death Valley National Park. It has 43,000 residents spread out over an area that is roughly equivalent to the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combinded.

(Reporting by Shubham Kalia in Bengaluru and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Steve Orlofsky)