U.S. police unions approved for millions in pandemic aid

By Reade Levinson and Chris Prentice

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – At least six police unions qualified for a combined total of $2 million to $4.4 million in emergency U.S. government loans intended to help small businesses stay afloat during the coronavirus lockdown, according to data released Monday by the U.S. Small Business Administration.

The unions represent about 110,000 law enforcement officers in Philadelphia, Houston, New York state, Michigan and 11 Southern states.

All told, the six approved loans make up a small fraction of the program’s $521 billion in lending across 4.9 million loans as of June 30. The data released on Monday does not specify whether the loans were disbursed or if the unions will qualify for loan forgiveness.

Intended to help small companies and non-profit organizations keep their work forces employed during the coronavirus crisis, the federal Paycheck Protection Program allows employers with 500 or fewer workers hurt by the economic fallout of the pandemic to apply for a forgivable government-backed loan.

The six police unions typically receive 90% of their revenue from membership dues, according to tax records reviewed by Reuters, and thus, barring layoffs, would not be hurting for cash. All six unions have work forces of their own, providing support to members. Their combined loan applications said they sought to retain 331 jobs.

Four forces with unions that received loans – the New York State Police, Philadelphia Police Department, Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office and Houston Police Department – told Reuters they had not laid off or furloughed any employees during the pandemic, so their unions’ dues collections should not have suffered any significant hits.

It is clear the loan program, overseen by the Small Business Administration (SBA), gave out funds with few limits on who would benefit, said Liz Hempowicz, director of public policy at the watchdog group Project on Government Oversight.

“The onus was on the SBA to ensure we’re not just throwing public funds at entities that don’t need them,” she said. “It is common sense we’d prioritize the industries that need it most, and I don’t know that’s police unions right now.”

James Miller, spokesman for the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association, said the union sought a loan in anticipation of potential revenue losses and possible layoffs amid prison closures. The union, which represents about 26,000 employees and retirees, qualified to borrow between $150,000 and $350,000.

“Based on current revenue projections for the remainder of the year, we anticipate returning the loan, as it is the prudent thing to do,” he said, in an email to Reuters.

The other police unions approved for loans did not return repeated emails and calls seeking comment.

Qualifying for a loan of between $1 million and $2 million was the Southern States Police Benevolent Association, which represents about 58,000 federal, state, county and municipal law enforcement officers in eleven states. The Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police, which represents 14,000 active and retired Philadelphia police officers and sheriff deputies, qualified to borrow between $350,000 and $1 million.

Authorized to borrow between $150,000 and $350,000 were the Police Officers Labor Council in Michigan, which represents about 350 sheriffs and police departments; the Houston Police Officers’ Union, which represents 5,300 Houston Police Department officers; and the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police Home Association, a separate non-profit that maintains a lodge for union meetings.

The police unions were among at least 117 public and private sector unions that applied for loans through the program. The SBA did not release the names of recipients of loans less than $150,000.

The Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, which represents about 900,000 members across industries including teaching, performing arts, hospitality, manufacturing and construction, said in an email Wednesday that it received $267,000 and plans to ask for loan forgiveness.

Many affiliate unions represent industries that have laid off members as a result of the coronavirus, Rick Bloomingdale, Pennsylvania AFL-CIO president, said in an email. Faced with declining dues, he said, the union decided to seek aid.

“We made the decision to apply for the loan to keep our people employed.”

(Reporting by Reade Levinson in London and Chris Prentice in Washington, D.C.)

U.S. coronavirus death projection lowered but official warns of ‘second wave’

By Peter Szekely and Maria Caspani

NEW YORK (Reuters) – An influential university model on the U.S. coronavirus pandemic on Wednesday scaled back its projected death toll by 26% to 60,000 but a federal health official warned of a second wave of infections if Americans relax “social distancing” practices.

The downward revision in the death toll in the University of Washington model – often cited by U.S. and state policymakers – coincides with comments by some political leaders that caseloads may have reached a plateau in certain areas.

Those assessments in recent days, including an apparent leveling out in hospitalizations in New York state – the U.S. epicenter of the pandemic – are tempered by a persistent climb in the U.S. death toll, which rose by more than 1,900 on Tuesday as some 30,000 new infections were reported.

New York Mayor Bill De Blasio told a briefing on Wednesday that coronavirus-related hospitalizations in the most populous U.S. city had stabilized and that the need for ventilators was lower than projected.

“In the last few days we’ve actually seen fewer ventilators needed that were projected,” the mayor said.

Even that revised forecast suggested months of pain ahead for the United States. All told, about 400,000 U.S. infections have been reported, along with roughly 13,000 deaths.

“What’s really important is that people don’t turn these early signs of hope into releasing from the 30 days to stop the spread – it’s really critical,” said Deborah Birx, the coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, referring to guidelines aimed at reducing the spread of the virus.

“If people start going out again and socially interacting, we could see a really acute second wave,” Birx added.

The pandemic has upended American life, with 94% of the population ordered to stay at home and nearly 10 million people losing their jobs in the past two weeks.

Hospitals have been inundated with cases of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus, resulting in shortages of medical equipment and protective garments.

The University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation model is one of several that the White House task force has cited. It now projects U.S. deaths at more than 60,000 by Aug. 4, down from the nearly 82,000 fatalities it had forecast on Tuesday.

The White House coronavirus task force has previously projected 100,000 to 240,000 Americans could die.

The institute also moved up its projected peak in the number to U.S. deaths to this Sunday, when it predicted 2,212 people will succumb to the disease. The revision moves forward the projected peak by four days, suggesting the strain on the country’s healthcare system will begin to abate a little sooner than previously expected.

AT-HOME DEATHS UNTRACKED

New York’s de Blasio estimated an undercount in the death toll of 100 to 200 people per day who are dying at home but excluded from the city’s rapidly growing coronavirus count. So far the city’s announced death toll has reflected only COVID-19 diagnoses confirmed in a laboratory.

But after a spike in the number of people dying at home, the city will now try to quantify how many of those died from coronavirus-related causes and add that to the its official death toll, New York’s health department said.

“Every single measure of this pandemic is an undercount. Every. Single. One,” Mark Levine, chairman of the City Council’s health committee, wrote on Twitter. “Confirmed cases? Skewed by lack of testing. Hospitalizations? Skewed by huge # of sick people we are sending home because there’s no room in ERs. Deaths? Massive undercount because of dying at home.”

The state of New York accounts for more than a third of U.S. confirmed coronavirus cases, and nearly half the cumulative death toll.

Authorities in various states in recent days have disclosed data showing that the pandemic was having a disproportionate impact on African Americans, reflecting longstanding racial inequities in health outcomes in the United States.

De Blasio said there were “clear inequalities” in how the coronavirus is affecting his city’s population.

In New York, long weeks of fighting the pandemic were taking a toll on hospital staff, some of whom are coming down with the disease they have been fighting.

One resident doctor at New York-Presbyterian Hospital said he had been surprised by the number of hospital workers infected.

“There are people around the hospital who are sick and now they’re showing up on our patient list. … It’s hard not to see yourself in them,” the resident said. “A lot of us feel like we are being put in harm’s way.”

(Reporting by Peter Szekely, Doina Chiacu, Susan Heavey and Gabriella Borter; Writing by Daniel Trotta and Will Dunham; Editing by Scott Malone and Alistair Bell)

New York braces for COVID-19 onslaught as state’s dead nears 9/11 toll

By Maria Caspani and Nathan Layne

NEW YORK (Reuters) – New York state has recorded nearly 500 coronavirus-related deaths in a single day, bringing the statewide total to nearly 3,000, or about the same number killed in the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Friday.

New York City has mere days to prepare for the worst of the novel coronavirus onslaught, the city’s mayor Bill de Blasio said and pleaded for federal government help to end a shortage of medical staff and ventilators.

The city has suffered more than a quarter of U.S. deaths in the outbreak.

“I think somehow in Washington, there’s an assumption (that) there’s weeks to prepare,” de Blasio said on MSNBC. “There’s not weeks anymore. It is days now.”

Emergency Medical Technicians transport a patient into Bronx-Lebanon Hospital during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in the Bronx borough of New York City, New York, U.S., April 2, 2020. REUTERS/Brendan Mcdermid

New York state recorded 2,935 fatalities over 24 hours, up from 2,373 a day earlier, Cuomo said. It was the “highest single increase in the number of deaths since we started,” he said.

The Sept. 11 attacks killed nearly 3,000 people, the majority of them at New York City’s World Trade Center.

De Blasio is asking for 1,000 nurses, 150 doctors and 300 respiratory therapists as the number of COVID-19 cases in the city is expected to rise sharply next week.

New York City has yet to receive a resupply for the up to 3,000 ventilators needed by next week, de Blasio said, urging President Donald Trump to mobilize medical personnel from the U.S. military.

“They are not mobilized for action,” de Blasio, a Democrat, told WNYC radio. “The president has to give that order right now.” Trump is a Republican.

More than 25% of the 6,058 U.S. coronavirus deaths tallied by Johns Hopkins University as of Friday morning were in New York City. Infections in the United States totaling 240,000 account for about 24% of the more than 1 million cases worldwide.

“We all know New York is bad but we know the worst is yet to come,” said Naila Shereen, an internal medicine specialist who rotates through various hospitals in New York.

New statistics on Friday confirmed that hundreds of thousands of Americans had lost their jobs because of the pandemic, although economists say the real figure is far more than that because huge swathes of the U.S. economy began shutting down last month to avoid spreading the virus.

‘BLOODLETTING’

U.S. employers cut 701,000 jobs last month, ending a record 113 straight months of employment growth, the Labor Department said. In the last two weeks, nearly 10 million workers have filed for jobless benefits.

“What we are watching in real time is the greatest bloodletting in the American labor market since the Great Depression,” said Joe Brusuelas, chief economist at RSM in Austin, Texas.

While the economic pain is spread across the country, New York is bearing the brunt of the grim march of the coronavirus in terms of cases, sickness and death. The virus causes the flu-like respiratory illness COVID-19 for which there is no vaccine.

“It’s very painful. You see your friends and people you work with, they’re getting sick,” Thomas Riley, a nurse in New York City who recovered after testing positive for the coronavirus, told CNN on Friday.

He said medical staff had very little protective equipment.

“It feels like we’re in a war, we’re soldiers in a war and we’re being sent out without camouflage, without Kevlar. We have no defenses against this and they’re giving us very little,” Riley said.

Cuomo said on Thursday his state’s apex – or the worst point – of the crisis would likely be on the “shorter end” of a projected range of seven to 30 days ahead. Most of the state’s coronavirus-related hospitalizations have been in the New York City area.

There are more than 102,863 coronavirus cases in New York state, up from 92,381 a day earlier, Cuomo said.

Anthony Fauci, a doctor and leading member of Trump’s coronavirus task force, said social distancing is beginning to work even though the United States is still far from over the worst.

“There’s no doubt…the mitigation activities, the physical separation that we’re doing clearly is having a positive impact. You don’t see it dramatically yet… but there’s no doubt that’s its having an effect,” Fauci told Fox News.

“It’s going to get worse – much worse – before it gets better… but it will turn around,” said Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

He said Americans should cover their face in public but remain isolated as much as possible, adding that face masks must be reserved for medical personnel battling the highly-infectious disease. “This is…an addition to the physical separation, not as a substitute,” Fauci said.

On Thursday, the Trump administration appeared ready to join local officials in advising Americans to wear face coverings in public to help curb the spread of the virus.

Deborah Birx, another member of Trump’s coronavirus task force, said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) would in coming days add a recommendation on masks to guidelines on protective measures.

New York City’s de Blasio and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti have both urged residents to cover their faces when near others in public, even if they have no symptoms.

(Reporting by Maria Caspani and Nathan Layne; Additional reporting by Peter Szekely, Lucia Mutikani, Lisa Lambert, Susan Heavey, Steve Holland and Dan Whitcomb; Writing by Alistair Bell; Editing by Frank McGurty and Howard Goller)

New York state coronavirus cases double to 22, Senate passes $8.3 billion spending bill

By Nathan Layne and David Morgan

NEW YORK/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The number of people who have the novel coronavirus in New York state doubled to 22 on Thursday following an increase in testing, as Tennessee became the 14th U.S. state to report a case of the fast-spreading illness.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo told a news conference that the expansion in testing came after the federal government approved its use of additional laboratories, boosting capacity to process tests. He said more testing would inevitably identify more cases.

“Those numbers are going to keep going up,” Cuomo said.

The U.S. Senate on Thursday passed an $8.3 billion bill to combat the outbreak, a day after the House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved it. The bill will now go to President Donald Trump for his signature.

More than $3 billion of the approved funds would be devoted to research and development of coronavirus vaccines, test kits and treatments. There are currently no approved vaccines or treatments for the fast-spreading illness that began in China and has infected more than 95,000 people in over 80 countries and territories.

Of the new cases in New York, eight are connected in some way to a Manhattan lawyer who lives in Westchester County and was previously diagnosed with the virus, two are in New York City and one in nearby Nassau County. The lawyer, who had an underlying respiratory illness, is recovering, Cuomo said.

Tennessee health officials said their first case was in an adult male in Williamson County. Williamson County schools will be closed for a deep cleaning on Friday and Monday, according to its official Twitter page.

The U.S. death toll from the COVID-19 respiratory disease caused by the virus stands at 11, all but one them in Washington state, which has a cluster of at least 39 infections in the Seattle area. The other death, announced on Wednesday, was in California.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Thursday reported 149 confirmed and presumed U.S. cases, which includes those reported by states but not yet confirmed by the agency. They do not necessarily include new cases reported on Thursday.

U.S. health officials say they expect to be able to get enough privately manufactured coronavirus tests – around 1 million – to public laboratories this week with the capacity to test about 400,000 people.

CDC official Anne Schuchat said her agency would also supply testing kits by the end of the week that could test around 75,000 people.

“Right now, it is a challenge if you are a doctor wanting to get somebody tested,” U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told reporters following a briefing with lawmakers in Washington.

According to the Association of Public Health Laboratories, labs in 44 states and the District of Columbia can currently test for coronavirus. States with labs not yet testing are Alabama, Maine, Ohio, Oklahoma, West Virginia and Wyoming. Labs in U.S. territories Guam, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are also not testing yet, according to the APHL.

MARKETS TUMBLE

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, who is leading the U.S. response, visited mask-manufacturer 3M Co. He urged Americans not to purchase masks if they are healthy to free up supply for healthcare workers and people who are sick.

“Unless you are ill, you have no need to buy a mask,” Pence said at the Minnesota company, which has ramped up production to help respond to the coronavirus.

“The risk to the average healthy American from contracting coronavirus remains low,” Pence said, adding that “there will be more cases,” especially among more vulnerable populations such as seniors and those with chronic health conditions.

Pence was scheduled to visit Washington Governor Jay Inslee later on Thursday.

Global equity markets continue to tumble as the number of coronavirus cases outside China mounted, fuelling warnings that world growth is likely to reach its weakest level since the global financial crisis.

By mid-afternoon, the main U.S. stock indexes were down more than 3%.

Corporations have begun issuing profit warnings and curbing activities.

Alphabet Inc’s  Google on Thursday joined Amazon.com Inc, Facebook Inc and Microsoft Corp  in recommending employees in the Seattle area work from home, after some were infected with the coronavirus.

The companies’ work-from-home recommendation will affect more than 100,000 people in the area, as both Microsoft and Amazon employ over 50,000 each. Facebook employs more than 5,000 in the area and Google about 4,500, according to media reports.

California Governor Gavin Newsom declared a statewide emergency in response to the outbreak after state health authorities confirmed 53 cases, the most of any U.S. state.

 

(Reporting by Maria Caspani, Michael Erman and Hilary Russ in New York, Susan Heavey and Lisa Lambert in Washington, Jeff Mason in Maplewoord, Minnesota; Writing by Sonya Hepinstall; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Bill Berkrot)

Explainer: Low vaccination rates, global outbreaks fuel U.S. measles spread

A measles poster is seen at Venice Family Clinic in Los Angeles, California February 5, 2015. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

By Steve Gorman

(Reuters) – A measles outbreak that has stricken at least 225 people in New York state since October began with a traveler who visited Israel during the Jewish high holidays and returned to a predominantly ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Rockland County.

A similar pattern unfolded three months later and nearly 3,000 miles (4,800 km) away when a person who visited Eastern Europe returned to a community with strong ties to a local church group in Vancouver, Washington. More than 50 people fell ill there.

In both instances, U.S. travelers picked up measles in foreign countries where the highly contagious disease was running rampant and brought it back to places where vaccination rates were too low by U.S. public health standards, setting off the worst outbreaks seen in those states in decades.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says New York’s outbreak marks the highest tally of imported cases since measles was declared eradicated in the United States in 2000.

The two outbreaks appear to be winding down, health officials say, after concerted efforts to pinpoint the origins and isolate and inoculate those who were exposed but unprotected and educate parents who had resisted vaccines.

The disease has spread mostly among school-age children whose parents declined to get them vaccinated. Most cited philosophical or religious reasons, or concerns – debunked by medical science – that the three-way vaccines against measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) could cause autism, authorities said.

New York State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker said another key factor was mere “complacency” in an age where the potential ravages of measles are unfamiliar to parents who came of age after the vaccine was introduced in 1957.

In Rockland County, the suburb north of Manhattan accounting for the bulk of cases, the state has vaccinated 15,000 children since the outbreak began there last autumn, Zucker said. The Brooklyn borough of New York City was another hot spot.

Still, officials say the measles crisis in New York and Washington states offer a lesson about the importance of maintaining a minimum level of “herd” immunization against dangerous, preventable diseases such as measles.

It also highlights the global nature of disease control, in which a hot spot of infection in one country can ignite a distant outbreak in an immunization-weak spot of another, said Dr. Scott Lindquist, Washington’s top epidemiologist.

Here are some key facts about measles and immunization, according to public health experts and the CDC.

WHAT IMMUNIZATION RATES ARE IDEAL?

A 95 percent rate of immunization is required to provide sufficient “herd” protection in a given population. Rates as low as 60 percent were found in parts of New York where measles spread, Zucker said.

HOW BAD CAN MEASLES GET?

Symptoms typically include high fever, cough, runny nose and watery eyes, followed by tiny white spots inside the mouth and a red rash that can cover the body.

Serious and potentially fatal complications, especially in young children and pregnant women, can include pneumonia and swelling of the brain. Ear infections occur in about 10 percent of children with measles and can lead to permanent hearing loss.

One rare but fatal complication is subacute panencephalitis (SSPE), which can attack the central nervous system seven to 10 years after a person has recovered from measles.

HOW CONTAGIOUS IS MEASLES?

Measles is spread through casual contact with the virus, which can linger and remain infectious in the air of an enclosed space for up to two hours after it is breathed out by someone carrying the disease. The rate of transmission from an infected person to another individual nearby who lacks immunity is about 90 percent.

ORIGINS OF LATEST OUTBREAKS?

Health authorities say the strain of the virus identified in Washington state matches the one circulating widely in Ukraine since last year. The New York outbreak has been tracked back to separate flare-ups of measles in Israel and in Eastern Europe.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Peter Cooney)

Travel snarled, power outages as storm bears down on U.S. Northeast

A woman walks during rain while the New York skyline and the One World Trade Center are seen from Exchange Place in New Jersey, U.S., March 7, 2018. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

By Jonathan Allen

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The second winter storm within a week crept into New York and surrounding states on Wednesday, with forecasters predicting intensifying snowfall that could snarl the evening commute as thousands remained without power from the last nor’easter.

Between 4 and 12 inches (10 and 30 cm) of snow were forecast for New York City and the surrounding suburbs in New Jersey and Connecticut through to Thursday morning, with wind gusts creating “near-whiteout conditions” for commuters, the National Weather Service said on Wednesday.

The storm will spread with varying degrees of intensity across the Northeast, from western Pennsylvania up into New England, and officials took precautions.

New York’s three major airlines reported a total of 1,431 canceled flights on Wednesday morning, about 40 percent of their normally scheduled flights.

All schools were closed in Philadelphia while schools across the region canceled classes or shortened the school day ahead of the storm, local news media reported. Schools stayed open in New York City.

This week’s storm was not forecast to have the hurricane-strength winds whipped up at times by the storm last week, but forecasters say strong gusts of 60 miles per hour (96.56 km per hour) and accumulated snow will still be enough to knock down more power lines.

Last week’s storm brought major coastal flooding to Massachusetts, killed at least nine people and knocked out power to about 2.4 million homes and businesses in the Northeast.

Some 100,000 homes and businesses in the region remained without power on Wednesday. A nor’easter is an East Coast storm in which winds blow from the northeast.

The governors of New Jersey and Pennsylvania declared states of emergency, giving them access to support from the U.S. government if needed.

The Amtrak passenger train service canceled some Wednesday trains between Washington and Boston, as well as some services in Pennsylvania, New York state and other parts of the Northeast.

The storm got off to an uncertain start in New York City, where the air was damp, and the odd stray snowflake could be spotted, but many early commuters saw no reason to unfurl the umbrellas stashed under their arms.

“I was expecting more than this,” Michelle Boone, 50, said as she waited for a bus to get to her job at a Manhattan homeless shelter. “I’m happy it’s not doing what they said it was going do. This evening could be different, though.”

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York; additional reporting by Scott DiSavino in New York and Barbara Goldberg in Maplewood, New Jersey; editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis)

New York Senate Expected To Block Abortion Expansion

Republicans in the New York State Senate are expected to block a bill from the state Assembly that would expand abortion into the third trimester.

The bill, AB6221, was approved by the Assembly on Tuesday 94-49.

“The state shall not deny a woman’s right to obtain an abortion as established by the United States Supreme Court in the decision Roe v. Wade,” the bill reads. “Notwithstanding any law to the contrary, New York protects a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy within 24 weeks from commencement of her pregnancy, or when necessary to protect a woman’s life or health as determined by a licensed physician.”

The bill had been part of a “women’s equality” bill but was separated into a stand-alone bill.

The head of New York State Right to Life told LifeNews that the bill shows the power of the abortion lobby in the state.

“Expanding cruel and brutal third-trimester abortions has long been a goal of the anti-life lobby who never met an abortion they didn’t like,” Lori Kehoe, New York State Right to Life executive director, told LifeNews. “With no regard for the fully developed unborn baby who is violently dismembered, or otherwise killed, the New York State Assembly once again put the abortion lobby above New York State women and their children.”