Pharmacy chain operator Giant Eagle settles Ohio opioid lawsuits mid-trial

By Nate Raymond

(Reuters) -Regional pharmacy chain operator Giant Eagle Inc. on Friday said it had agreed to settle lawsuits accusing it of fueling the opioid epidemic in several Ohio communities, including two counties that had taken it and three larger rivals to trial.

The settlement came during the fourth week of a trial in federal court in Cleveland over claims by the Ohio counties of Lake and Trumbull against Giant Eagle, Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc, CVS Health Corp and Walmart Inc.

The settlement resolves claims against Giant Eagle in 10 lawsuits by those counties and others in Ohio, the company and the plaintiffs’ lawyers said in a joint statement. It operates grocery stores and pharmacies in five states including Ohio.

Financial terms were not disclosed.

“While Giant Eagle denies it was a cause of the opioid crisis, it recognizes the severity of the crisis, its impact on the public and the hard work of the public officials working to address the harms,” the company said.

The case underway in Ohio is first trial the pharmacy chains have faced in nationwide litigation over an opioid abuse epidemic that U.S. government data shows led to nearly 500,000 overdose deaths from 1999 to 2019.

More than 3,300 cases have been brought largely by state and local governments against pharmacies, drugmakers and drug distributors.

The Ohio counties claim the pharmacies failed to prevent excessive amounts of opioid pills from flooding their communities or identify “red flags” of misuse. The companies deny wrongdoing.

The three largest U.S. drug distributors – McKesson Corp, Cardinal Health Inc and AmerisourceBergen Corp – and drugmaker Johnson & Johnson in July proposed paying up to $26 billion to settle cases against them.

A bankruptcy judge in August approved a settlement by OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma LP and its wealthy Sackler family owners that the company values at more than $10 billion.

(Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston; editing by Diane Craft and Steve Orlofsky)

Ohio can enforce ban on Down syndrome abortions -U.S. appeals court

By Jonathan Stempel

(Reuters) -A federal appeals court ruled on Tuesday that Ohio can enforce a 2017 law banning abortions when medical tests show that a fetus has Down syndrome.

In a 9-7 decision, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati said the law did not create a substantial obstacle to obtaining abortions, was reasonably related to Ohio’s legitimate interests, and was “valid in all conceivable cases.”

The law subjected doctors to license revocations and up to 18 months in prison for performing abortions on women they knew decided to abort at least in part because Down syndrome was in the fetus, or had reason to believe the condition was present.

Tuesday’s decision reversed a 6th Circuit panel ruling in October 2019. The 2-1 panel said the law, House Bill 214, should not be enforced because it prevented some women from obtaining lawful pre-viability abortions.

Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers that challenged the law did not say in a joint statement whether they would appeal to the Supreme Court, which has a 6-3 conservative majority.

“This abortion ban inserts politicians between patients and their doctors, denying services to those who need it,” Planned Parenthood president Alexis McGill Johnson said.

Ohio’s Republican Attorney General Dave Yost said the decision upholds a law directed to “protecting the lives of every Ohioan.”

Down syndrome is a genetic disorder where a person has an extra chromosome. Symptoms include cognitive impairment, slower physical growth, a flat face, a small head, a short neck and poor muscle tone.

Circuit Judge Alice Batchelder, who wrote Tuesday’s majority opinion, said Ohio’s law promoted the state’s interests in destigmatizing Down syndrome children, and encouraging doctors to respond to such diagnoses with “care and healing.”

The dissenters said the decision turns House Bill 214 into a “don’t ask, don’t tell” law for doctors and pregnant women.

Circuit Judge Bernice Bouie Donald accused the majority of demonstrating unconcealed “hostility” toward Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision establishing a constitutional right to abortion.

The case is Preterm-Cleveland et a v McCloud et al, 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 18-3329.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Howard Goller)

U.S. weekly jobless claims hit one-year low; fourth-quarter GDP revised up

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits dropped to a one-year low last week as economic activity rebounds after weather-related disruptions in February.

But the labor market is not out of the woods yet, with the weekly jobless claims report from the Labor Department on Thursday showing a staggering 18.953 million people were still receiving unemployment checks in early March. It will likely take years for a full recovery from the pandemic’s scarring.

“Things have improved over the last year, but there are still millions of people dealing with real economic pain,” said AnnElizabeth Konkel, economist at Indeed Hiring Lab. “Increased vaccinations are hopefully the beginning of the end.”

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits tumbled 97,000 to a seasonally adjusted 684,000 for the week ended March 20, the lowest level since mid-March. Data for the prior week was revised to show 11,000 more applications received than previously reported.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast 730,000 applications in the latest week. The decline in claims was led by Ohio, which has been dogged by fraudulent filings. There were also large decreases in California and Illinois.

Claims shot up in the second week of March, likely as backlogs after severe winter storms in Texas and other parts of the densely populated South region were processed.

The deep freeze in the second half of February, which also gripped other parts of the country, depressed retail sales, homebuilding, production at factories, orders and shipments of manufactured goods last month.

Warmer weather, the White House’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 pandemic rescue package and increased vaccinations are expected to boost activity in March. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell struck an optimistic note on the economy at an appearance before lawmakers this week.

U.S. stocks opened lower. The dollar rose against a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices were higher.

CORPORATE PROFITS FALL

But the massive fiscal stimulus, which extended government-funded unemployment aid, including a $300 weekly supplement, through Sept. 6, could keep claims elevated as some people reapply for benefits. Rampant fraud has also pushed filings higher. Claims surged to a record 6.867 million in March 2020.

Just over a year after the pandemic barreled across the United States, jobless claims remain above their 665,000 peak during the 2007-09 Great Recession. In a healthy labor market, claims are normally in a 200,000 to 250,000 range.

Employment is 9.5 million jobs below its peak in February 2020. Economists say it could take at least two years for the economy to recover all the 22.4 million jobs lost in March and April last year.

It could even take longer for the labor force participation rate, or the proportion of working-age Americans who have a job or are looking for one, to rebound significantly. The participation rate is near a 47-year low, with women accounting for the biggest share of dropouts.

The claims report also showed that people receiving benefits after an initial week of aid dropped 264,000 to 3.870 million in the week ended March 13. But the decline in the so-called continuing claims was partly due to people exhausting their eligibility for benefits, limited to 26 weeks in most states.

At least 5.551 million people were on extended benefits during the week ended March 6, up 734,692 from the prior period. Another 1.068 million were on a state program for those who have exhausted their initial six months of aid.

The government also confirmed on Thursday that the economy lost considerable momentum at the end of last year amid a flare- up in new coronavirus infections and delays in providing more fiscal stimulus.

Gross domestic product increased at a 4.3% annualized rate, the Commerce Department said in its third estimate of fourth-quarter GDP growth. That was up from the 4.1% pace reported last month but a sharp deceleration from the record 33.4% rate logged in the third quarter.

Corporate profits were weak last quarter. After-tax profits without inventory valuation and capital consumption adjustment, which correspond to S&P 500 profits, contracted at a 1.7% rate after accelerating at a 36.1% pace in the third quarter. Profits fell 3.3% in 2020 after rising 1.8% in 2019.

But that is all history. The economy is forecast to grow by as much as a 7.5% rate in the first quarter. Growth this year is expected to top 7%. That would be the fastest growth since 1984 and would follow a 3.5% contraction last year, the worst performance in 74 years.

“We believe there is ample room for corporate profits to rise as company revenues pick up markedly and margins remain well supported,” said Lydia Boussour, lead U.S. economist at Oxford Economics in New York. “Improving health conditions, expanding vaccine distribution, and generous fiscal stimulus will form a powerful growth cocktail.”

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Andrea Ricci)

Fired Ohio policeman pleads not guilty in Black man’s killing, granted bail

By Rich McKay

(Reuters) – A former Ohio police officer pleaded not guilty on Friday to murder and other charges in the shooting death of an unarmed Black man, the latest in a series of killings that have raised questions of racial injustice in U.S. law enforcement.

At the hearing in Franklin County court, Judge Elizabeta Saken agreed to release the former officer, Adam Coy, a 19-year-veteran of the Columbus police force, on $3 million bail.

Coy, a 44-year-old white man, was indicted by a grand jury on Wednesday in the Dec. 22 killing of Andre Maurice Hill, 47. Coy was responding to a nuisance call about car noise.

The former officer, shackled and dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit, appeared at the hearing through a video monitor from a jail where he has been held since his arrest on Wednesday.

Coy’s attorney, Mark Collins, told the court Friday that his client is not a danger to the public and is not a flight risk, emphasizing his connections to the community and family ties.

“This case is unique,” Collins said. “It is not a who-done-it, but whether or not his use of force was justified. He is not a threat, your honor.”

Coy was indicted on one charge of murder, one charge of felonious assault and two counts of dereliction of duty.

The case is the latest in a series of police killings of Black people that have highlighted longstanding accusations of racial injustice in U.S. law enforcement. Last summer, a handful of high-profile deaths in Minneapolis, Atlanta and Louisville and elsewhere triggered nationwide protests that pushed police reform to the top of the U.S. political agenda.

(Reporting by Rich McKay; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

New York nurse given COVID-19 vaccine as U.S. rollout begins

By Jonathan Allen and Gabriella Borter

NEW YORK (Reuters) -An intensive care unit nurse became the first person in New York state to receive the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine on Monday, marking a pivotal turn in the U.S. effort to control the deadly virus.

Sandra Lindsay, who has treated some of the sickest COVID-19 patients for months, was given the vaccine at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in the New York City borough of Queens, an early epicenter of the country’s COVID-19 outbreak, receiving applause on a livestream with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.

“It didn’t feel any different from taking any other vaccine,” Lindsay said. “I feel hopeful today, relieved. I feel like healing is coming. I hope this marks the beginning of the end of a very painful time in our history. I want to instill public confidence that the vaccine is safe.”

Minutes after Lindsay received the injection, President Donald Trump sent a tweet: “First Vaccine Administered. Congratulations USA! Congratulations WORLD!”

Northwell Health, the largest health system in New York state, operates some of the select hospitals in the United States that were administering the country’s first inoculations of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine outside trials on Monday.

The vaccine, developed by Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech, won emergency-use approval from federal regulators on Friday after it was found to be 95% effective in preventing illness in a large clinical trial.

The first 2.9 million doses began to be shipped to distribution centers around the country on Sunday, just 11 months after the United States documented its first COVID-19 infections.

As of Monday, the United States had registered more than 16 million cases and nearly 300,000 deaths from the virus.

Health officials in Texas, Utah, South Dakota, Ohio and Minnesota said they also anticipated the first doses of the vaccine would be received at select hospitals on Monday and be administered right away.

LOGISTICAL CHALLENGE

The first U.S. shipments of coronavirus vaccine departed from Pfizer’s facility in Kalamazoo, Michigan, on Sunday, packed into trucks with dry-ice to maintain the necessary sub-Arctic temperatures, and then were transported to UPS and FedEx planes waiting at air fields in Lansing and Grand Rapids, kicking off a national immunization endeavor of unprecedented complexity.

The jets delivered the shipments to UPS and FedEx cargo hubs in Louisville and Memphis, from where they were loaded onto planes and trucks to be distributed to the first 145 of 636 vaccine-staging areas across the country. Second and third waves of vaccine shipments were due to go out to the remaining sites on Tuesday and Wednesday.

“This is the most difficult vaccine rollout in history. There will be hiccups undoubtedly but we’ve done everything from a federal level and working with partners to make it go as smoothly as possible. Please be patient with us,” U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams told Fox News on Monday, adding that he would get the shot as soon as he could.

The logistical effort is further complicated by the need to transport and store the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine at minus 70 Celsius (minus 94 Fahrenheit), requiring enormous quantities of dry ice or specialized ultra-cold freezers.

Workers clapped and whistled as the first boxes were loaded onto trucks at the Pfizer factory on Sunday.

“We know how much people are hurting,” UPS Healthcare President Wes Wheeler said on Sunday from the company’s command center in Louisville, Kentucky. “It’s not lost on us at all how important this is.”

MORE DOSES ON THE WAY

More than 100 million people, or about 30% of the U.S. population, could be immunized by the end of March, Moncef Slaoui, the chief advisor to the U.S. government’s Operation Warp Speed coronavirus vaccine initiative, said in an interview on Sunday.

Healthcare workers and elderly residents of long-term care homes will be first in line to get the inoculations of a two-dose regimen given about three weeks apart. That would still leave the country far short of the herd immunity that would halt virus transmission, so health officials have warned that masks and social distancing will be needed for months to control the currently rampaging outbreak. Pfizer Chief Executive Officer Albert Bourla told CNN in an interview on Monday that most of the 50 million vaccine doses the company will provide this year have been manufactured, adding that it plans on producing 1.3 billion doses next year. Approximately half will be allocated to the United States, he said. But Bourla said Pfizer is “working very diligently” to increase the amount of doses available because demand is very high. At the same time, he said, the company has not reached an agreement with the U.S. government on when to provide an additional 100 million doses next year. “We can provide them the additional 100 million doses, but right now most of that we can provide in the third quarter,” Bourla said. “The U.S. government wants them in the second quarter so are working very collaboratively with them to make sure that we can find ways to produce more or allocate the doses in the second quarter.” Slaoui said the United States hopes to have about 40 million vaccine doses – enough for 20 million people – distributed by the end of this month. That would include vaccines from both Pfizer and Moderna Inc. An outside U.S. Food and Drug Administration advisory panel is scheduled to consider the Moderna vaccine on Thursday, with emergency use expected to be granted shortly after. On Friday, Moderna announced it had struck a deal with the U.S. government to deliver 100 million additional doses in the second quarter.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen, Gabriella Borter, Lisa Lambert, Lisa Baertlein and Brendan O’Brien; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Paul Simao)

Ohio city braces for demonstrations over police shooting

By Rich McKay

(Reuters) – Protesters were expected to gather on Friday evening in downtown Columbus, Ohio, to demand transparency in investigations in the fatal shooting of a 23-year-old Black man killed by a sheriff’s deputy while entering his home last week.

The shooting occurred on Dec. 4 after a Franklin County Sheriff’s deputy said he spotted a man with a gun in the Northland neighborhood of Columbus, according to authorities. The officer fired his weapon after the man failed to obey commands to drop the gun, police said.

The family of the slain man, Casey Christopher Goodson, said he had been shot while returning from a dental appointment after buying three sandwiches at a local shop. A coroner’s report said that he was shot multiple times in the torso.

“I’m calling for justice and that’s all I’m calling for,” Goodson’s mother, Tamala Payne, said in a news conference Thursday. “My son was a peaceful man and I want his legacy to continue in peace.”

Lawyers for the deputy, identified as Jason Meade, said that Goodson had pointed a gun at him before the shooting, CBS News and other media reported.

The shooting is the latest in a spate of killings of African Americans by police in the United States this that have triggered a wave of protests over racial injustice and brutality by law enforcement.

Columbus police, along with federal authorities, have launched investigations into the shooting, along with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Ohio, the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice and the FBI.

Tom Quinlan, chief of police in Columbus, has promised an “independent, meticulous unbiased investigation.”

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Alistair Bell)

Trump-appointed justice could signal major Supreme Court shift on abortion

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – With President Donald Trump poised to nominate a U.S. Supreme Court justice to fill the vacancy created by the death of liberal icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a new 6-3 conservative majority could be emboldened to roll back abortion rights.

The ultimate objective for U.S. conservative activists for decades has been to overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide. But short of that, there are other options the court has in curtailing abortion rights.

Republican-led states including Ohio, Georgia, Missouri, Arkansas and Alabama have passed a variety of abortion restrictions in recent years. Some that seek to ban abortion at an early stage of pregnancy are still being litigated in lower courts and could reach the justices relatively soon.

Abortion is one the most divisive issues in the United States. Conservative opposition to it has been a driving force behind Republicans, including Trump, making a high priority of judicial appointments in recent years.

“Roe v. Wade is on the line in a way it never has been before,” said Julie Rikelman, a lawyer with the Center for Reproductive Rights, which regularly challenges abortion restrictions.

Even if Roe is not overturned, “we could be in a situation where the court is upholding even more restrictions on abortion,” Rikelman added.

Trump has said he intends to announce his nomination on Saturday, with conservative appeals court judges Amy Coney Barrett and Barbara Lagoa considered the frontrunners to be named to succeed Ginsburg, who was a strong defender of abortion rights. Ginsburg died on Friday at age 87.

The leadership of the Republican-controlled Senate is poised to move forward with the nomination even as Trump seeks re-election on Nov. 3.

Even though the court had a 5-4 conservative majority before Ginsburg’s death, some activists on the right were concerned about Chief Justice John Robert’s incremental approach. Roberts angered conservatives by siding with the court’s liberals in June when the court ruled 5-4 to strike down a Louisiana abortion restriction involving a requirement imposed on doctors who perform the procedure.

Roberts, who wrote a separate opinion explaining his views, signaled he may back other abortion restrictions in future cases but said he felt compelled to strike down Louisiana’s law because the justices just four years earlier had invalidated a similar law in Texas.

Trump vowed during the 2016 presidential campaign to appoint justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade. He already has appointed conservatives Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to the court. Both voted to uphold the Louisiana law.

Anti-abortion groups are pushing for Trump to pick Barrett, a conservative Roman Catholic who he appointed to the Chicago-based 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2017. Although she has not yet ruled directly on abortion as a judge, Barrett has twice signaled opposition to rulings that struck down abortion-related restrictions.

Abortion rights activists have voiced concern that Barrett would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade.

STATE-BY-STATE EFFORTS

Broadly speaking, Republican-controlled states have enacted two types of abortion laws: measures that would impose burdensome regulations on abortion providers and those that would ban abortions during the early stages of pregnancy.

The latter laws in particular directly challenge Roe v. Wade and a subsequent 1992 ruling that upheld it. Those two rulings made clear that women have a constitutional right to obtain an abortion at least up until the point when the fetus is viable outside the womb, usually around 24 weeks or soon after.

Legal challenges to laws recently enacted in conservative states that directly challenge the Roe precedent by banning abortion outright or in early stages of pregnancy are still being litigated in lower courts.

One appeal pending at the Supreme Court that the justices will discuss whether to hear in the coming months is Mississippi’s bid to revive a law that bans abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

In a separate case the court could act upon at any time, the Trump administration has asked the justices to put on hold a federal judge’s decision to block during the coronavirus pandemic a U.S. Food and Drug Administration rule requiring women to visit a hospital or clinic to obtain a drug used for medication-induced abortions.

Clarke Forsythe, a lawyer with the Americans United for Life anti-abortion group that has urged Barrett’s appointment, said he expects the Supreme Court to “continue with an incremental approach” even if Trump’s nominee is confirmed, in part because of Roberts’ opinion in the Louisiana case.

But Jennifer Dalven, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, which backs abortion rights, said that with only four votes among the justices needed to take up a case, a newly emboldened conservative wing could force Roberts’ hand and take up a more direct challenge to Roe.

“Now,” Dalven said, “Chief Justice Roberts and his concern for the integrity for the court and his potential for being an incrementalist is not enough.”

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham and Scott Malone)

Ballot drop boxes are latest battleground in U.S. election fight

By Andy Sullivan and Jarrett Renshaw

(Reuters) – Welcome to the latest partisan flash point in the U.S. presidential election: the ballot drop box.

As U.S. election officials gird for a dramatic expansion of mail voting in the Nov. 3 election, Democrats across the country are promoting drop boxes as a convenient and reliable option for voters who don’t want to entrust their ballots to the U.S. Postal Service.

President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign, meanwhile, has sued to prevent their use in Pennsylvania, a key battleground state, alleging that the receptacles could enable voting fraud.

Republican officials in other states have prevented their use. Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett told a U.S. Senate committee in July that drop boxes could enable people to violate a state law against collecting ballots.

In Missouri, Republican Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft decided not to distribute 80 drop boxes he had purchased because state law requires those ballots to be returned by mail.

“We didn’t want to cause confusion with voters,” spokeswoman Maura Browning said.

Drop boxes have taken on new urgency after cost-cutting measures at the U.S. Postal Service slowed mail delivery nationwide and Trump has repeatedly attacked the legitimacy of mail ballots. Polls show the Republican president trailing Democratic challenger Joe Biden in a race that some experts say could see half of all votes cast absentee.

Some say the drop box battle is a lot of fuss over a piece of civic furniture — typically a heavily constructed metal box placed in a public location, often monitored by video.

In Connecticut, Secretary of State Denise Merrill is recommending that voters return their ballots via drop box rather than through the mail for the November election, after receiving reports that some ballots mailed a week before the state’s Aug. 11 nominating contests arrived too late to be counted.

Three-quarters of ballots in that August primary were cast absentee, she said, up from roughly 4% in prior years. Merrill, a Democrat, said the state’s 200 newly installed drop boxes had proven a safe and popular option.

“I do not understand why people think they’re such a problem,” Merrill said. “They’re more secure than mailboxes.”

Republicans in Pennsylvania don’t share that sentiment. Trump won that competitive state by less than 1 percentage point in 2016. Winning there again could prove pivotal in his quest to secure a second term in office.

The Trump campaign is suing to force the state to pull all drop boxes used in the June primary. It argues that people could drop off multiple ballots in boxes that are unstaffed, which is an illegal practice in Pennsylvania. State officials “have exponentially enhanced the threat that fraudulent or otherwise ineligible ballots will be cast and counted,” the lawsuit states.

The Trump campaign said in a court filing on Saturday that it had complied with a judge’s order to provide evidence of alleged fraud to the defendants. That evidence has not been made public. Trump lawyers did not respond to a request by Reuters to see it.

Bruce Marks, a former Republican state senator in Pennsylvania, said drop boxes do not provide a clear chain of custody for the ballots deposited inside.

“There’s no one watching or tracking,” he said.

Proponents say stuffing a ballot into a locked drop box is no different from dropping one into a Postal Service letter box. Pennsylvania Republicans oppose drop boxes because Democrats have had much more success in getting their voters to sign up for mail ballots this year, greater than a two-to-on margin, said Brendan Welch, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Democratic Party.

“(Republicans) know the easier it is for everyday people to vote, the more likely it is that they will lose,” Welch said. “Maybe they should spend their energy trying to match Pennsylvania Democrats’ organizing efforts in the Keystone State instead.”

Democratic Governor Tom Wolf has defended Pennsylvania’s use of drop boxes, arguing they are legal and essential, particularly in the age of the coronavirus.

ONE BOX, 864,000 VOTERS

In neighboring Ohio, Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose said last week that he did not want to risk a similar lawsuit as he announced that he would authorize one drop box for each of the state’s 88 counties. He said the Republican-controlled legislature had not given him the authority to provide more.

Democrats are pressing LaRose to revise his decision, pointing out that it leaves the 864,000 registered voters of Cleveland’s Cuyahoga County, a Democratic stronghold, with the same number of drop boxes as the 8,400 registered voters of Republican Vinton County.

“You can’t have a one-size-fits-all approach with our counties,” said Kathleen Clyde, a senior adviser for the Biden campaign in Ohio. “One drop box doesn’t cut it.”

LaRose in the meantime is trying to secure prepaid postage for mail ballots, spokeswoman Maggie Sheehan said, “effectively making every mailbox its own drop box.”

Michigan, another battleground state, has added drop boxes this year.

Wisconsin’s five largest cities, including Milwaukee, are setting up drop boxes as part of a secure-voting plan funded by the Center for Tech and Civic Life, a nonprofit group.

In hotly contested Florida, Democrats in Miami-Dade County, the state’s largest, are seeking to remove some procedural hurdles to make it easier for voters to use drop boxes.

Unlike other counties in the state, Miami-Dade voters must provide election officials with valid identification when dropping off a ballot at a drop box. Election workers also manually record a 14-digit number printed on the voter’s envelope into a log.

The whole process can take up to three minutes, the Democratic Party said in a letter to local election officials seeking to allow voters to drop their ballots quickly without the processing requirements.

“Trump has sabotaged the post office deliberately and we have to find ways around that. We think making it easier to use a drop box, and avoid the post office, is part of the solution,” said Steve Simeonidis, chairman of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party.

The White House has said Trump never told the Postal Service to change its operations.

NOT TENSE EVERYWHERE

Security measures required for ballot drop boxes vary by state. In Montana, these receptacles must be staffed by at least two election officials, while in New Mexico they must be monitored by video, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Before 2020, eight states — Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington — had laws detailing how and where drop boxes could be used.

Returning ballots this way proved popular: In Colorado, Oregon and Washington, more than half of mail ballots were returned either to a drop box or to an election office in the 2016 presidential election, according to a Massachusetts Institute of Technology survey.

Drop boxes haven’t been controversial in those states.

“Both parties use it at a really high rate, so a lot of those tensions don’t exist here,” said Murphy Bannerman of Election Protection Arizona, a nonpartisan voting-rights group.

(Reporting by Andy Sullivan in Washington and Jarrett Renshaw in Philadelphia; Editing by Marla Dickerson)

Ohio governor orders all children wear masks at public schools that reopen

By Rich McKay

(Reuters) – Ohio Governor Mike DeWine ordered on Tuesday that all children in grades K-12 wear masks at public schools that reopen.

Local school districts can still decide when to reopen and if learning will be done in person, online or a mix of the two, but everyone, including children and staff, must wear masks. Previously, masks were ordered only for adults.

“School districts are making decisions about how to come back,” DeWine, a Republican, said. “Each school district faces a different reality.”

There are exceptions to the order, including children with autism or other conditions that make it difficult to wear masks, he said.

The state and the Federal Emergency Management Agency will distribute 2 million face masks to Ohio schools for use by staff and students.

“This move gives us the best shot to keep Ohio’s kids and educators safe and physically in school,” DeWine said.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Chris Reese and Leslie Adler)

COVID-19 outbreak in hard-hit U.S. states may be peaking, Fauci says

By Susan Heavey

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A coronavirus surge in Florida, California and a handful of other hard-hit states could be peaking while other parts of the country may be on the cusp of growing outbreaks, the top U.S. infectious diseases official said on Tuesday.

A spike in cases in Florida, along with Texas, Arizona and California this month has overwhelmed hospitals, forced a U-turn on steps to reopen economies and stoked fears that U.S. efforts to control the outbreak are sputtering.

“They may be cresting and coming back down,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told ABC’s “Good Morning America” program regarding the state of the outbreak in several Sunbelt states.

Fauci said there was a “very early indication” that the percentage of coronavirus tests that were positive was starting to rise in other states, such as Ohio, Indiana, Tennessee and Kentucky.

“That’s a surefire sign that you’ve got to be careful.”

He urged the states with rising positivity rates to act quickly now to prevent a surge and other states to reopen carefully following guidelines established by U.S. officials and health experts.

Fauci has become a lightning rod for some supporters of President Donald Trump who accuse the 79-year-old health official of exaggerating the extent and severity of the U.S. outbreak and playing down possible treatments.

Trump, who is seeking a second term in the White House in the Nov. 3 election, retweeted a post accusing Fauci and Democrats of suppressing the use of the drug hydroxychloroquine to treat the virus. The post included a link to a video of a group discounting the need for face masks.

A Twitter spokesman confirmed that tweets with the video were in violation of the company’s COVID-19 misinformation policy, and the tweets shared by Trump were deleted.

In his interview with ABC, Fauci defended his work to protect Americans’ health.

“I have not been misleading the American public under any circumstances,” he said.

RISING TOLL

The number of people in the United States who have died of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus, rose to 148,446 on Monday, with more than 4.3 million confirmed cases, according to the latest Reuters tally.

Florida had 191 coronavirus deaths in the last 24 hours, the highest single-day increase since the start of the epidemic, its state health department reported on Tuesday.

Texas became the fourth state with more than 400,000 total cases, joining California, Florida and New York in the grim club. But in a glimmer of hope, Texas’ current hospitalizations due to COVID-19 fell on Monday, according to its state health department.

The rise in deaths and infections has dampened early hopes that the country was past the worst of the economic fallout in March and April when lockdowns brought business activity to a near standstill and put millions out of work.

The U.S. Congress on Tuesday was locked in difficult talks over another coronavirus aid package to help American families and businesses recover from the crisis.

In late March, as the economy was beginning to crater, Congress passed a $2.3 trillion stimulus package that included enhanced unemployment benefits to blunt the pain of lockdowns that were being adopted to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

Senate Republicans announced on Monday a $1 trillion coronavirus aid package hammered out with the White House, which Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell touted as a “tailored and targeted” plan to reopen schools and businesses, while protecting companies from lawsuits.

But the proposal sparked immediate opposition from both Democrats and Republicans. Democrats decried it as too limited compared with their $3 trillion proposal that passed the House of Representatives in May. Some Republicans called that one too expensive.

The Republican proposal would give many Americans direct payments of $1,200 each, provide billions in loans to small businesses and help schools reopen. But it would slash the current expanded unemployment benefit from $600 per week in addition to state unemployment to $200 per week. The enhanced unemployment benefit expires on Friday.

The supplemental benefit has been a financial lifeline for laid-off workers and a key support for consumer spending.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey, Daniel Trotta, Patricia Zengerle and Lisa Shumaker; Writing by Paul Simao; Editing by Howard Goller)