U.S. posts sharpest weekly rise in COVID-19 deaths since August

(Reuters) – The United States recorded its biggest weekly rise in COVID-19 deaths since August, increasing 32% from the previous week to average about 1,500 people per day, according to a Reuters analysis of state and county reports.

New cases rose 13% in the week ended Nov. 22, or an average of more than 168,000 per day

Ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday this Thursday, at least 23 states have announced new restrictions to try to slow the spread of the virus but so far only New Mexico has issued a stay-at-home order.

Cases rose by 90% in New Mexico last week, the biggest percentage increase in the country, followed by Virginia at 62% and Arizona with a 50% increase.

In North Dakota, the hardest hit state on a per capita basis, nearly 73,400 tests have come back positive for the new coronavirus since the beginning of the outbreak. That is equivalent to 9.6% of the state’s population. North Dakota mandated masks starting Nov. 14 but another 14 states still do not require them.

Across the United States, 9.8% of tests came back positive for the virus for a second week in a row, according to data from The COVID Tracking Project, a volunteer-run effort to track the outbreak.

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.

Out of 50 states, 26 had positive test rates above 10% last week, led by Iowa at 56%, South Dakota at 45% and Idaho at 40%.

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

U.S. nuclear power industry group sees reprocessing as potential waste fix

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The head of the top U.S. nuclear power group said that reprocessing of nuclear waste, a technique that has not been practiced in the United States for decades because of proliferation and cost concerns, could help address a growing problem building up at nuclear plants across the country.

“Reprocessing is a very interesting part of the solution set,” Maria Korsnick, the head of the Nuclear Energy Institute, said during an interview last week that will be part of Reuters Events Energy Transition North America on Friday. The technology “would be really closing the fuel cycle in a very useful way” because it squeezes more energy from the waste that cannot be used when it is disposed permanently.

France and other countries reprocess nuclear waste by breaking it down into uranium and plutonium and reusing it to make new reactor fuel.

But nonproliferation experts say militants could target the reprocessing supply chain, which would be far longer in the United States, to seize materials that could be used to make a crude nuclear weapon.

Former President Jimmy Carter halted reprocessing in 1977, citing proliferation concerns. President Ronald Reagan lifted Carter’s moratorium in 1981 but high costs have prevented plants from opening.

Now the United States has a growing problem with nuclear waste, currently kept at the country’s nuclear reactors, first in spent fuel pools, and then in steel and concrete casks. While about $8 billion has been spent on the Yucca Mountain permanent nuclear waste repository project in Nevada, it has never opened due to local opposition.

President Donald Trump’s administration wanted to open Yucca, but Trump began opposing it in February as the presidential campaign got under way.

Two sites in New Mexico and Texas could serve as interim nuclear waste storage sites, but local concerns are mounting that those places could become the default permanent fix.

Rita Baranwal, the top U.S. Energy Department official on nuclear power, has said it is a shame to permanently dispose of nuclear waste and that the country should look at reprocessing and potentially export the waste to countries that could do it.

Korsnick said the nuclear power industry is eager to work with the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden on energy issues including nuclear waste. Biden’s transition website lists driving down costs of advanced nuclear power and commercializing it as one way to fight climate change.

Korsnick also applauded a decision this summer by the Development Finance Corporation (DFC), a U.S. development agency, to lift a ban on funding nuclear projects.

She said the move would help the United States compete with Russia and China, which are also looking to export nuclear technology. The export market for U.S. advanced nuclear power technology could be worth up to $2 trillion, she said. The DFC’s move was criticized by some development experts who say bringing nuclear projects to poor countries would do little to address poverty.

On reprocessing, France has demonstrated it can be done safely, Korsnick said. “These are all conversations that we would have to step through as we design our final solution,” she said. “I’m confident that we have the technological expertise to do this well.”

(Reporting by Timothy Gardner in Washington; Editing by Matthew Lewis)

Pfizer to start pilot delivery program for its COVID-19 vaccine in four U.S. states

(Reuters) – Pfizer Inc. has launched a pilot delivery program for its experimental COVID-19 vaccine in four U.S. states, as the U.S. drugmaker seeks to address distribution challenges facing its ultra-cold storage requirements.

Pfizer’s vaccine, which was shown to be more than 90% effective in preventing COVID-19 based on initial data, must be shipped and stored at -70 degrees Celsius (minus 94°F), significantly below the standard for vaccines of 2-8 degrees Celsius (36-46°F).

“We are hopeful that results from this vaccine delivery pilot will serve as the model for other U.S. states and international governments, as they prepare to implement effective COVID-19 vaccine programs,” Pfizer said in a statement on Monday.

It picked Rhode Island, Texas, New Mexico, and Tennessee for the program after taking into account their differences in overall size, diversity of populations, immunization infrastructure, and need to reach individuals in varied urban and rural settings.

The four states will not receive vaccine doses earlier than other states by virtue of the pilot, nor will they receive any differential consideration, Pfizer said.

The company expects to have enough safety data on the vaccine from the ongoing large scale late-stage trials by the third week of November before proceeding to apply for emergency use authorization (EUA).

Pfizer and its partner BioNTech SE have a $1.95 billion deal to supply 100 million doses of the vaccine to the U.S. government, which has an option to acquire up to an additional 500 million doses.

Earlier on Monday, rival Moderna Inc. said its experimental vaccine was 94.5% effective in preventing COVID-19 based on interim data from a late-stage trial, boosting hopes that vaccines against the disease may be ready for use soon.

Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines use a new technology called synthetic messenger RNA to activate the immune system against the virus.

(Reporting by Shubham Kalia in Bengaluru; Editing by Anil D’Silva and Richard Pullin)

Factbox: Results of high-profile U.S. House of Representatives races

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Democrats were projected to retain their majority in the U.S. House of Representatives in Tuesday’s election, but appeared to have failed in their goal of wresting more seats from Republicans.

Results were still coming in on Wednesday, but Democrats lost several of the most closely watched contests in sharp contrast to their convincing win in 2018.

Here are some of the most high-profile races in the 435-member House:

MINNESOTA’S 7TH DISTRICT

Long-time Representative Collin Peterson, one of only two House Democrats who opposed both articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump in 2019, was defeated by Minnesota’s former lieutenant governor, Republican Michelle Fischbach. The district in rural western Minnesota voted strongly for Trump in 2016.

SOUTH CAROLINA’S 1ST DISTRICT

Representative Joe Cunningham, who stunned Republicans in 2018 when he became the first Democrat to represent the coastal district in nearly four decades, lost to Republican Nancy Mace, the first female graduate of the Citadel military college.

GEORGIA’S 14th DISTRICT

Republican small business owner Marjorie Taylor Greene is a political newcomer who promoted online conspiracy theory QAnon in a 2017 video but later backtracked, saying it was not part of her campaign. She won a House seat in conservative rural northwest Georgia after her Democratic opponent dropped out.

TEXAS’ 21ST DISTRICT

Republican Representative Chip Roy defeated Wendy Davis, a Democratic former state senator who caught the national spotlight in 2013 by talking for over 11 hours to temporarily stop an anti-abortion bill. The central Texas district includes part of Austin.

NEW MEXICO’S 2ND DISTRICT

Freshman Democratic Representative Xochtil Torres-Small lost a rematch with Republican Yvette Herrell, who had been the loser two years ago and was endorsed by the conservative House Freedom Caucus’ political action committee. The district covers southern New Mexico including part of Albuquerque.

COLORADO’S 3RD DISTRICT

Republican Lauren Boebert, a pistol-packing gun rights activist who defied coronavirus restrictions to open her restaurant, spoke warmly of QAnon in May, but later said “I’m not a follower.” She defeated Democrat Diane Mitsch Bush, a university professor, in a largely rural district encompassing western Colorado.

These races remain undecided:

NEW JERSEY’S 2ND DISTRICT

Representative Jeff Van Drew, who was elected to Congress as a Democrat in 2018 but became a Republican after voting against impeaching Trump, faces a strong challenge from Democrat Amy Kennedy. She is a former schoolteacher who married into the famous U.S. political family. The district in southern New Jersey includes Atlantic City.

NEW YORK’S 2ND DISTRICT

Republican New York State legislator Andrew Garbarino is running against a Black combat veteran, Democrat Jackie Gordon, for the seat held for 14 terms by retiring Republican Representative Peter King. The largely suburban district on Long Island includes the eastern edges of the New York City metropolitan area.

(Reporting by Susan Cornwell, Susan Heavey and Andy Sullivan; Editing by Scott Malone and Mary Milliken)

‘We don’t give up really easy’: Navajo ranchers battle climate change

By Stephanie Keith and Andrew Hay

CEDAR RIDGE, Ariz. (Reuters) – Two decades into a severe drought on the Navajo reservation, the open range around Maybelle Sloan’s sheep farm stretches out in a brown expanse of earth and sagebrush.

A dry wind blows dust across the high-desert plateau, smoke from wildfires in Arizona and California shrouding the nearby rim of the Grand Canyon.

The summer monsoon rains have failed again, and stock ponds meant to collect rainwater for the hot summer months are dry.

With no ground water for her animals, Sloan, 59, fills an animal trough with water from a 1,200-gallon white plastic tank. She and her husband, Leonard, have to pay up to $300 to have the tank filled as her pickup truck has broken down. When it’s working, she hauls water herself every two days, spending $80 a week on fuel.

The cost of hauling water has made their ranch unprofitable.

The Navajo Nation – covering a 27,000 square mile area straddling the U.S. states of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah — competes with growing cities including Phoenix and Los Angeles for its water supply.

And as climate change dries out the U.S. West, that supply is becoming increasingly precarious.

In decades past, “we got rain every year around June, July, August,” said Leonard Sloan. The 64-year-old rancher pointed toward the dry ponds in the ground near a local butte named Missing Tooth Rock. “When we had that storm, there would be water and they would be full. And now due to global warming, we don’t get no rain, just a little.”

To keep their ranch alive the Sloans have to get water, which is free, from the sole livestock well in the area some 15 miles to the east.

They spend between $3,000 and $4,000 a year on hay to supplement their animals’ feed as the open range no longer produces enough grass to sustain them.

Maybelle has cut her sheep herd down to 24 head, and Leonard tells her to get rid of them and her 18 goats to focus on their 42 cattle, which bring more money at market.

But Maybelle bristles at the thought of giving up sheep herding learned from her mother, and grandmother before her. Maybelle’s mother, father and sister all died in April from coronavirus.

“I’m doing it for my parents,” Maybelle said, wiping tears away as she sat on the metal railing of a corral while her cattle licked salt blocks and drank water.

GRADUAL DISASTER

The Sloans remember grass growing as high as the belly of a horse as recently as the 1980’s.

But drought conditions on the reservation have become largely relentless since the mid-1990’s.

Annual average temperatures rose by 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit in the reservation’s Navajo County area over the 100 years to 2019, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data.

The months of June to August this year were the driest on record in the area for the three-month period, according to drought monitoring data studied by climate scientist David Simeral of the Desert Research Institute in Nevada. Three of the five driest July-August rainy seasons in the area have occurred since the late 1990’s.

The warming trend has prompted desertification, with sand dunes now covering about a third of the reservation, according to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

All but one of the reservation’s rivers have stopped running year-round, said Margaret Redsteer, a scientist at the University of Washington in Bothell.

“That’s the really tricky thing about droughts, and climate change is like that too,” Redsteer said. “It’s a gradual disaster.”

DETERMINED PEOPLE

On paper, the Navajo Nation has extensive water rights based on the federal “reserved rights” doctrine which holds that Native American nations have rights to land and resources in treaties they signed with the United States.

In practice, the Navajos and other tribes were left out of many 20th century negotiations divvying up the West’s water.

There are signs some of the next generation are keeping up ranching traditions.

Some youths simply help their grandparents haul water each day from the sole well for livestock in the Bodaway-Gap area. Still others, including Maybelle’s children, send money from their work off the reservation to help fund their families’ ranches.

“Us Indians, we don’t give up really easy,” Maybelle said. “We’re really determined people.”

(Reporting by Stephanie Keith and Andrew Hay; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

New U.S. COVID-19 cases rise in 27 states for two straight weeks

(Reuters) – The number of new COVID-19 cases in the United States has risen for two weeks in a row in 27 out of 50 states, with North Carolina and New Mexico both reporting increases above 50% last week, according to a Reuters analysis.

The United States recorded 316,000 new cases in the week ended Sept. 27, up 10% from the previous seven days and the highest in six weeks, according to the analysis of state and county data.

The nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, told ABC News that the country was “not in a good place.”

“There are states that are starting to show (an) uptick in cases and even some increases in hospitalizations in some states. And, I hope not, but we very well might start seeing increases in deaths,” he said, without naming the states.

North Carolina reported a 60% jump in new cases to 13,799 last week, while New Mexico saw new infections rise 55% to 1,265. Texas also reported a 60% jump in new cases to 49,559, though that included a backlog of several thousand cases.

Deaths from COVID-19 have generally declined for the past six weeks, though still stand at more than 5,000 lives lost a week. Deaths are a lagging indicator and generally rise weeks after a surge in cases.

Testing in the country set a record of over 880,000 tests a day, surpassing the previous high in July of 820,000.

Nationally, the share of all tests that came back positive for COVID-19 held steady at about 5%, well below a recent peak of nearly 9% in mid-July, according to data from The COVID Tracking Project, a volunteer-run effort to track the outbreak.

However, 28 states have positive test rates above the 5% level that the World Health Organization considers concerning. The highest positive test rates are 26% in South Dakota, 21% in Idaho and 19% in Wisconsin.

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

Trump says sending federal agents to more U.S. cities to fight violent crime

By Jeff Mason and Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump announced a plan on Wednesday to send federal agents to more U.S. cities to crack down on violent crime as he emphasizes a “law and order” mantra going into the Nov. 3 presidential election.

Trump, joined by Attorney General William Barr, unveiled an expansion of the “Operation Legend” program to include cities such as Chicago and Albuquerque, New Mexico, in a further effort by federal officials to tackle violence.

“Today I’m announcing a surge of federal law enforcement into American communities plagued by violent crime,” said Trump.

Trump said “we have no choice but to get involved” with a rising death toll in some major cities.

“This bloodshed must end, this bloodshed will end,” he said.

The program involves deploying federal law enforcement agents to assist local police in combating what the Justice Department has described as a “surge” of violent crime.

A Justice Department official said the initiative is not related to the use of federal agents from the Department of Homeland Security to quell unrest in Portland, Oregon.

The Republican president has sharply criticized Democratic leaders for presiding over cities and states that are experiencing crime waves, using the issue as part of a “law and order” push he hopes will resonate with his political base. Trump is trailing Democrat Joe Biden in national opinion polls.

It is not unusual for federal law enforcement to work alongside local partners. The Justice Department official said “Operation Legend” would provide additional resources to cities suffering from “traditional” violent crime.

Trump has emphasized a robust policing and military approach to the protests across the United States about racial inequality after the death of George Floyd, a Black man, in Minneapolis police custody.

The White House has sought to focus on city crime even as Trump’s approval numbers plummet in response to his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

The “Operation Legend” program involves federal agents form the FBI, U.S. Marshals Service and other agencies, partnering with local law enforcement.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has said federal intervention was not required to help with violence in New York City, and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has also urged Trump not to send unidentified federal agents to her city.

“Operation Legend” is named for LeGend Taliferro, a 4-year-old boy who was shot and killed while he slept early June 29 in Kansas City, Missouri, according to the Department of Justice’s website.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason and Sarah Lynch; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)

Quarantine or not, tourists still flock to New Mexico

By Andrew Hay

RED RIVER, N.M. (Reuters) – In the New Mexico mountain resort of Red River, tourists from Texas stroll along Main Street, most disregarding Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s orders they quarantine and wear masks.

It’s the same in other New Mexican tourist towns such as Taos and Santa Fe, except nearly all their visitors wear face coverings – surrounded by signs warning of fines if they don’t.

Like governors in at least 15 states, Democrat Lujan Grisham has ordered out-of-state tourists to self-isolate, citing data that about one in 10 of New Mexico’s spiking COVID-19 cases comes from visitors.

Enforcing the orders is proving difficult, given the lack of a national plan, police reluctance to take on the massive task, and Americans’ penchant for driving hundreds or thousands of miles to vacation, even in a pandemic.

A U.S. road trip this summer means navigating through a patchwork of quarantine regulations across various states, most of them voluntary.

New York, New Jersey and Connecticut require travelers from 19 states with high COVID-19 infection rates to self-quarantine for two weeks upon arrival. New York imposes fines.

Hard-hit Florida requires travelers from those three states to self-isolate for 14 days whether arriving by plane or car, or face a $500 fine.

Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Vermont all have varying self-isolation rules.

‘TAKING AWAY OUR LIBERTY’

New Mexico published newspaper ads in neighboring Arizona and Texas, states respectively reporting 27% and 18% positive coronavirus test rates, urging their residents not to visit. Health experts consider a 5% rate to be worrisome.

But tourists keep coming.

“I think it’s bullshit. They’re saying the masks should work, so why should you be quarantined?” said Chris Fry, 59, a feed company manager from Dimmitt, Texas, staying in his cabin near Red River and stopping in town for ice before going fishing.

A 45-minute drive south in Taos Plaza, Louisiana tourist Christy Brasiel was frustrated the historic Native American community was closed to visitors and compared Lujan Grisham’s rules to “communism or socialism.”

“They’re taking away our liberty,” said Brasiel, 49, staying in an Airbnb rental to avoid her voluntary quarantine order enforced by local hotels that turn away out-of-state visitors.

As in cities across New Mexico, police in Red River have yet to issue citations for non-compliance to COVID-19 rules, said Mayor Linda Calhoun, a Republican, adding that she is encouraging businesses to require masks.

“We live off of tourists, that’s all we have, so it’s very difficult for us to enforce the order,” Calhoun said of the quarantine rule in her town nicknamed “Little Texas” for the number of visitors from that state.

Many locals in Taos County, where COVID-19 cases have doubled in the last month, are dismayed by the rule breaking.

“It doesn’t make any sense to be so selfish,” said lawyer Maureen Moore, 67.

“WE DON’T WANT YOU HERE”

Only three weeks ago, as outbreaks raged across the U.S. Sunbelt, New Mexico reported stable or declining daily cases.

A poor state with limited hospital capacity, New Mexico used early, tough restrictions to curb the pandemic.

But with its positive test rate rising above 4%, Lujan Grisham has scolded New Mexicans for letting down their guard since she eased restrictions on June 1, and on Monday re-closed indoor restaurant dining.

On a shortlist as a running mate to presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, Lujan Grisham has also rounded on tourism, the state’s second-largest industry.

“We don’t want you here now,” she told potential visitors in a July 9 press briefing, taking special aim at Texans. “I want you to stay in Texas.”

Lujan Grisham said New Mexico State Police would “aggressively” enforce her quarantine and mask orders. The force has handed out 13 verbal warnings for mask violations but none for quarantine non-compliance, a spokeswoman said on Monday.

The rules are piling pandemic pain on businesses in the state. Standing outside his Red River supermarket, business owner Ted Calhoun said Lujan Grisham had gone too far.

“Ordering visitors to do a 14-day quarantine is killing the tourist industry of New Mexico,” said Calhoun, the mayor’s husband.

(Reporting by Andrew Hay in Red River, New Mexico; editing by Bill Tarrant, Tom Brown and Alistair Bell)

Four more states added to New York quarantine order, Cuomo says

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Governor Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday ordered those arriving in New York from an additional four states to quarantine for 14 days to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The newly added states – Minnesota, New Mexico, Ohio and Wisconsin – were all seeing ‘significant’ community spread of the virus, Cuomo said in a statement.

Delaware, previously on the list, has now been removed.

Travelers arriving in New York from a total of 22 U.S. states are now required to quarantine for 14 days, according to Cuomo’s order which was first issued in June.

On Monday, the governor announced a travel enforcement operation at airports across the state to ensure travelers are abiding by the quarantine restrictions.

New York reported five COVID-19 fatalities on Monday, and 820 hospitalizations. There were 912 positive test results, or 1.5% of the total, as Cuomo warned in a tweet that “infection rates are alarmingly rising among 20-somethings in NY.”

(Reporting by Maria Caspani in New York, additional reporting by Peter Szekely in New York; Editing by Franklin Paul and Bernadette Baum)

Militia at violent New Mexico protest linked to white supremacy, domestic terror: mayor

By Andrew Hay

(Reuters) – Members of a heavily armed New Mexico militia blamed for sparking violence at a protest where a demonstrator was shot are trying to “prop up” white supremacy and may be connected to domestic terrorism, Albuquerque’s mayor said on Tuesday.

The peaceful protest calling for the removal of an Albuquerque statue of a Spanish conquistador turned violent on Monday after members of the New Mexico Civil Guard militia tried to keep demonstrators away from it, Albuquerque Police Commander Art Sanchez told a news briefing.

Among counter-protestors defending the statue was Steven Baca, 31, caught on video throwing a woman to the ground. Protesters then pursued him before he pulled out a handgun and shot a man, Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller told the briefing.

Baca was not immediately available for comment and police declined to say whether he was part of the militia.

But Keller said vigilantes, militias and other armed civilians had for weeks menaced local protests over the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis. Protesters are demanding the removal of statues of New Mexico’s Spanish colonial rulers who killed and enslaved indigenous people.

“They have been there for quite some time attempting to prop up white supremacy, trying to intimidate those speaking out and they are armed with weapons,” Keller said of the groups, adding he was working with the FBI on their possible links to “domestic terrorism in our city.”

Keller said the sculpture of Juan de Oñate was removed on Tuesday for “public safety” after another statue of the colonial governor was taken down Monday in Alcalde, New Mexico.

Baca, a former city council candidate, was charged with aggravated battery with a deadly weapon for shooting Scott Williams, who was in critical condition, police said.

He won less than 6% of the votes in last year’s city council elections on a platform to encourage citizens to protect themselves with firearms, renegotiate federal restrictions on law enforcement and end sanctuary city policies.

(Reporting by Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico; Editing by Peter Cooney and Christopher Cushing)