U.S. weekly deaths from COVID fall to lowest in 14 months

(Reuters) – U.S. deaths from COVID-19 last week fell to their lowest in nearly 14 months and the number of new cases continued to decline for a fifth week in a row, according to a Reuters analysis of state and county data.

Deaths for the week ended May 16 totaled 4,165, the lowest weekly death toll since March 2020, when the country reported 2,293 deaths. On average about 600 people died from COVID each day, down from a peak of over 3,000 deaths per day for most of January.

About 37% of the country’s population has been fully vaccinated as of Sunday, and 47% has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

New Hampshire leads the country with 85% of its residents receiving at least one dose, followed by Vermont at 65% and Massachusetts at 62%.

The rate of vaccinations, however, has been slowing for four straight weeks. In the past seven days, an average of 2 million vaccine doses were administered per day, which is down 2% from the previous week after falling 17% in the prior week.

New cases of COVID-19 fell 20% last week to 233,000, the lowest since June, according to the Reuters analysis. Only four out of 50 states logged week-over-week increases in new cases, including Alabama which reported over 9,000 new infections last week after processing a backlog of tests.

Excluding that backlog, Colorado led the nation in new cases per capita, overtaking Michigan, although new infections are falling in both states.

The lowest rates of infection based on population were in New Jersey, Oklahoma and California.

Nationwide, the average number of COVID-19 patients in hospitals fell 12%, the fourth weekly drop in a row.

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

Biden admin discusses tribes’ broader oversight in oil-rich Oklahoma

By Valerie Volcovici and Jennifer Hiller

(Reuters) – The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden is in talks with Oklahoma tribes over whether they should have a bigger say over a range of environmental regulations in much of the eastern half of the oil-rich state that was recognized last year as reservation land by the Supreme Court, officials told Reuters.

The discussions have triggered concern within Oklahoma’s Republican government that it risks losing control of a big tax base and has stirred uncertainty over future regulation of natural resources extraction, industry and other development in the region.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s Administrator Michael Regan last week had separate calls with Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt and leaders from several tribal nations about the tribes’ desire to have broader oversight on the land recognized by the court, an EPA official said.

“It is a priority of the Biden-Harris Administration to respect tribal sovereignty, fulfill federal trust and treaty responsibilities, and engage in robust consultation with tribal nations in policy deliberations that affect tribal communities,” an EPA official told Reuters in a statement.

Days earlier, the Interior Department’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement notified Oklahoma officials that it would begin discussions with the state and tribes on how to achieve a “responsible and orderly transition” of regulatory responsibility for surface mining in the area.

One Oklahoma official said the move would impact just a handful of mines, but said there is broader concern in the state that this could be a first step toward transferring control over more substantial operations.

The Interior Department declined to comment.

Most of Oklahoma’s oil and gas production is in the western part of the state, but some fields in the eastern part of the state could potentially be affected.

At issue is a July 2020 decision by the Supreme Court recognizing the ongoing existence of the historic Muscogee (Creek) Nation Reservation covering about half the state of Oklahoma, the result of legal wrangling over criminal jurisdiction in a rape case known as McGirt vs. Oklahoma.

After that decision, the Trump administration approved a state request to then EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler to retain regulatory jurisdiction over environmental issues on the land, upsetting tribal authorities who complained they were not consulted.

The governor this week said that he wants to take the case back to the Supreme Court to challenge the 5-4 decision.

“My big fear for the sake of Oklahoma’s future is if it goes into taxation or it bleeds into regulation, then the state of Oklahoma doesn’t have any rights in eastern Oklahoma,” Stitt said on a local news broadcast on Monday night.

Oklahoma Energy Secretary Kenneth Wagner, who participated in a call last week with Regan and Stitt, said the state does not believe the McGirt decision should apply to civil matters.

The tribes, which include the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, on along with the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Seminole, meanwhile, are working toward an agreement on shared jurisdiction that they want to present to the federal government.

“The next steps, as we understand it, are for the current EPA administration to report findings of their review of this issue and potentially advise tribes on ways to find a resolution to our concern,” said Tye Baker, senior director of Environmental Protection Services for the Choctaw nation.

(Reporting by Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Marguerita Choy)

Trump Supreme Court pick would slash odds of surprise liberal victories

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Amid a flurry of major rulings early this summer, the U.S. Supreme Court in an under-the-radar case handed a significant win to Native Americans by finding for the first time that almost half of Oklahoma is tribal land.

The ruling was a 5-4 decision in which conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch joined the four liberal justices, one of a handful of such surprise victories by the liberal wing of the court in recent terms.

The death of liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her possible replacement by a conservative appointed by President Donald Trump imperil such unlikely liberal wins in coming years.

The 5-4 conservative majority before Ginsburg’s death meant that the liberals on certain key issues only needed one conservative colleague siding with them.

Now, if Trump replaces her, they would need two, with likely implications for headline-grabbing issues on which liberals have prevailed in recent years, including abortion and gay rights, as well as lesser-known cases.

“The stars would have to line up,” said John Elwood, a Supreme Court lawyer.

The last two Supreme Court terms have defied expectations with a series of 5-4 rulings in which Chief Justice John Roberts joined the liberals in ruling against Trump’s bid to add a citizenship question to the U.S. census, blocking the president’s effort to rescind protections for young immigrants known as “Dreamers” and striking down a Louisiana abortion restriction.

But there are also several lesser-noticed 5-4 rulings that would have been unlikely with a 6-3 conservative majority.

The Oklahoma ruling was one. It is one of three 5-4 cases on Native American issues in which Gorsuch, who was appointed by Trump, joined the four liberals in the majority.

Similarly, Gorsuch two years ago was the fifth vote for the liberal wing of the court in striking down part of an immigration law that made it easier to deport people convicted of certain criminal offenses. He also cast the deciding vote that year in two 5-4 criminal cases in favor of defendants.

Last year, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, another conservative appointed by Trump, joined the four liberals in a 5-4 ruling that gave the greenlight to an antitrust lawsuit accusing Apple Inc of forcing consumers to overpay for iPhone software applications.

In an important case on evolving privacy rights in the age of the smartphone, Roberts and the four liberals prevailed in another 5-4 case in 2018 as the court imposed limits on the ability of police to obtain cellphone data pinpointing the past location of criminal suspects.

Whether the three liberals will be able to cobble together a majority in similar cases in future depends in large part on the identity of Trump’s nominee.

UNPREDICTABLE VOTES

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 died last Friday at age 87. The Republican-controlled Senate, which has to vote on whether to approve or reject the nomination, is poised to act even ahead of Nov. 3, when Trump is seeking re-election.

Carolyn Shapiro, a professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law, said that even before Ginsburg’s death, the 5-4 cases in which liberals prevailed were contingent on the individual legal reasoning of the conservative who joined them. It might be possible to win certain cases with a 6-3 majority, she added, but it will be harder.

“Those occasions are likely to be fairly idiosyncratic and mostly unpredictable,” Shapiro said.

One area where liberal votes may still be key is on LGBT rights. In June, the court to the dismay of conservatives ruled 6-3 that federal law that outlaws sex discrimination in the workplace applies to gay, lesbian and transgender people.

In that case, both Roberts and Gorsuch were in the majority with the liberals, so even with Ginsburg’s absence, five of the votes in favor of LGBT workers remain on the court. Other cases on the definition of sex discrimination under other federal laws are likely to reach the court soon.

Shannon Minter, a lawyer with the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said he is “hopeful” that the majority remains intact but noted that every time there is a change in personnel on the court it can change the internal dynamic in unpredictable ways.

As such, he added, “Ginsburg’s absence is a significant factor.”

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Mary Milliken and Alistair Bell)

Oklahoma governor becomes first U.S. state governor to test positive for coronavirus

(Reuters) – Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt announced on Wednesday that he had tested positive for the coronavirus, believed to be the first governor of a U.S. state to do so.

“I got tested yesterday for COVID-19 and the results came back positive,” Stitt said in a video conference call with reporters. “I feel fine, really, I mean you might say I’m asymptomatic or just slightly kind of a little bit achy.”

Stitt was one of the guests at President Donald Trump’s rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma on June 20.

The first-term Republican governor said he had worked with contact tracers on when his symptoms developed and they believed he would not have been contagious before Saturday.

Oklahoma is among a number of U.S. sunbelt states suffering a surge in COVID-19. On Wednesday, it reported a daily record increase in positive cases for the second day in a row, rising by 1,075 to over 22,000.

Stitt, 47, encourages Oklahomans to wear masks but rarely wears one in public and has not issued a statewide mask mandate.

He said he would be isolating away from his family and working from home until it was safe to “get back to normal.”

(Reporting by Karen Pierog in Chicago and Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico, Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Rosalba O’Brien)

U.S. Supreme Court deems half of Oklahoma a Native American reservation

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday recognized about half of Oklahoma as Native American reservation land and overturned a tribe member’s rape conviction because the location where the crime was committed should have been considered outside the reach of state criminal law.

The justices ruled 5-4 in favor of a man named Jimcy McGirt and agreed that the site of the rape should have been recognized as part of a reservation based on the historical claim of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation – beyond the jurisdiction of state authorities. Conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch joined the court’s four liberals in the majority.

The ruling means that for the first time much of eastern Oklahoma is legally considered reservation land. More than 1.8 million people live in the land at issue, including roughly 400,000 in Tulsa, Oklahoma’s second-largest city.

Tribe members who live within the boundaries are now set to become exempt from certain state obligations such as paying state taxes, while certain Native Americans found guilty in state courts may be able to challenge their convictions on jurisdictional grounds. The tribe also may obtain more power to regulate alcohol sales and expand casino gambling.

The ruling could affect the other four of the “Five Tribes” in Oklahoma: the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Seminole tribes.

The ruling voided McGirt’s sentence of 1,000 years in prison but he could face a new trial in federal court rather than state court.

Under U.S. law, tribe members who commit crimes on tribal land cannot be prosecuted in state courts and instead are subject to federal prosecution, which sometimes can be beneficial to defendants. Reservations were established beginning in the 19th century after U.S. authorities expelled Native Americans from their traditional lands.

McGirt, 71, has served more than two decades in prison after being convicted in 1997 in Wagoner County in eastern Oklahoma of rape, lewd molestation and forcible sodomy of a 4-year-old girl. McGirt, who did not contest his guilt in the case before the justices, had appealed a 2019 ruling by a state appeals court in favor of Oklahoma.

McGirt is a member of the Seminole Nation. The crime occurred on land historically claimed by the Creek Nation.

At issue was whether the Muscogee (Creek) Nation territory where the crime was committed should be considered a Native American reservation or whether Congress eliminated that status around the time Oklahoma became a state in 1907.

Oklahoma argued that the Creek Nation never had a reservation. But even if one existed, the state and President Donald Trump’s administration argued it long ago was eliminated by Congress.

The justices weighed a complex historical record that started with the forced relocation by the U.S. government of Native Americans, including the Creek Nation, to Oklahoma in a traumatic 19th century event known as the “trail of tears.”

A reservation is land managed by a tribe under the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs and generally exempt from state jurisdiction including taxation.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

U.S. tops 3 million known infections as coronavirus surges

By Callaghan O’Hare and Lisa Shumaker

HOUSTON (Reuters) – The U.S. coronavirus outbreak crossed a grim milestone of over 3 million confirmed cases on Tuesday as more states reported record numbers of new infections, and Florida faced an impending shortage of intensive care unit hospital beds.

Authorities have reported alarming upswings of daily caseloads in roughly two dozen states over the past two weeks, a sign that efforts to control transmission of the novel coronavirus have failed in large swaths of the country.

California, Hawaii, Idaho, Missouri, Montana, Oklahoma and Texas on Tuesday shattered their previous daily record highs for new cases. The biggest jumps occurred in Texas and California, the two largest U.S. states, with more than 10,000 each. About 24 states have reported disturbingly high infection rates as a percentage of diagnostic tests conducted over the past week.

In Texas alone, the number of hospitalized patients more than doubled in just two weeks.

The trend has driven many more Americans to seek out COVID-19 screenings. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said on Tuesday it was adding short-term “surge” testing sites in three metropolitan areas in Florida, Louisiana and Texas.

In Houston, a line of more than 200 cars snaked around the United Memorial Medical Center as people waited hours in sweltering heat to get tested. Some had arrived the night before to secure a place in line at the drive-through site.

“I got tested because my younger brother got positive,” said Fred Robles, 32, who spent the night in his car. “There’s so many people that need to get tested, there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Dean Davis, 32, who lost his job due to the pandemic, said he arrived at the testing site at 3 a.m. Tuesday after he waited for hours on Monday but failed to make the cutoff.

“I was like, let me get here at 3, maybe nobody will be here,” Davis said. “I got here, there was a line already.”

In Florida, more than four dozen hospitals across 25 of 67 counties reported their intensive care units had reached full capacity, according to the state’s Agency for Health Care Administration. Only 17% of the total 6,010 adult ICU beds statewide were available on Tuesday, down from 20% three days earlier.

Additional hospitalizations could strain healthcare systems in many areas, leading to an uptick in lives lost from the respiratory illness that has killed more than 131,000 Americans to date. At least 923 of those deaths were reported Tuesday, the biggest single-day toll since June 10 but still far fewer than the record 2,806 tallied back in April.

A widely cited mortality model from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) projected on Tuesday that U.S. deaths would reach 208,000 by Nov. 1, with the outbreak expected to gain new momentum heading into the fall.

A hoped-for summertime decline in transmission of the virus never materialized, the IHME said.

“The U.S. didn’t experience a true end of the first wave of the pandemic,” the IHME’s director, Dr. Christopher Murray, said in a statement. “This will not spare us from a second surge in the fall, which will hit particularly hard in states currently seeing high levels of infections.”

‘PRESSURE ON GOVERNORS’

President Donald Trump, who has pushed for restarting the U.S. economy and urged Americans to return to their normal routines, said on Tuesday he would lean on state governors to open schools in the fall.

Speaking at the White House, Trump said some people wanted to keep schools closed for political reasons. “No way, so we’re very much going to put pressure on governors and everybody else to open the schools.”

New COVID-19 infections are rising in 42 states, based on a Reuters analysis of the past two weeks. By Tuesday afternoon, the number of confirmed U.S. cases had surpassed 3 million, affecting nearly one of every 100 Americans and a population roughly equal to Nevada’s.

In Arizona, another hot spot, the rate of coronavirus tests coming back positive rose to 26% for the week ended July 5, leading two dozen states with positivity rates exceeding 5%. The World Heath Organization considers a rate over 5% to be troubling.

The surge has forced authorities to backpedal on moves to reopen businesses, such as restaurants and bars, after mandatory lockdowns in March and April reduced economic activity to a virtual standstill and put millions of Americans out of work.

The Texas state fair, which had been scheduled to open on Sept. 25, has been canceled for the first time since World War Two, organizers announced on Tuesday.

In Ohio, Governor Mike DeWine said the state was ordering people in seven counties to wear face coverings in public starting Wednesday evening.

(Reporting by Callaghan O’Hare in Houston and Lisa Shumaker in Chicago; Additional reporting by Maria Caspani, Gabriella Borter, Caroline Humer and Peter Szekely in New York and Susan Heavey and Jeff Mason in Washington Writing by Paul Simao and Steve Gorman; Editing by Bill Berkrot, Cynthia Osterman, Tom Brown and Leslie Adler)

Three more states added to New York governor’s quarantine order

NEW YORK (Reuters) – New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday ordered people arriving from an additional three states to quarantine for 14 days amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The three additional states are Delaware, Kansas and Oklahoma, all of which are seeing ‘significant’ community spread of the virus, Cuomo said in a statement.

Travelers arriving to New York from a total of 19 U.S. states are now required to quarantine for 14 days.

(Reporting by Maria Caspani, Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

Pence says looking at other venues for Trump Tulsa rally

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Officials are considering other venues in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for President Donald Trump’s first campaign rally since the coronavirus shutdown, Vice President Mike Pence said on Tuesday, as virus cases climb in Oklahoma and other states.

Pence acknowledged the health risks of bringing so many people together – the campaign said it had received more than 1 million ticket requests – during an interview with Fox News.

“It’s all a work in progress. We’ve had such an overwhelming response that we’re also looking at another venue. We’re also looking at outside activities, and I know the campaign team will keep the public informed as that goes forward,” Pence said. “But it’s one of the reasons that we’re going to do the temperature screening and we’re going to provide hand sanitizers and provide masks for people that are attending.”

Pence said officials were discussing options with Oklahoma’s governor.

The campaign rally will be Trump’s first since early March, when the coronavirus pandemic led to quarantines and the shuttering of the U.S. economy. Trump is seeking re-election in November against presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

“One of the reasons we chose Oklahoma is because Oklahoma has done such a remarkable job in reopening their state,” Pence said.

However, coronavirus infections are on the rise in the state, particularly around Tulsa. The city’s chief health officer has expressed concern about holding such a large indoor and said he wished the rally could be postponed.

An editorial in Tulsa’s largest newspaper said the rally will risk lives and bring no benefit to the city. It called Trump “a divisive figure” who is likely to attract protests and said there was no reason to think a rally would affect the November election in the state, which is heavily Republican.

“This is the wrong time and Tulsa is the wrong place for a Trump rally,” the Tulsa World said.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

COVID-19 cases surging in Alabama, South Carolina and Oklahoma

By Chris Canipe and Lisa Shumaker

(Reuters) – New cases of COVID-19 nearly doubled in Alabama and South Carolina in the second week of June compared to the prior seven days, a Reuters analysis found, as 17 U.S. states reported weekly increases in the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Alabama’s new cases rose 97% to 5,115 for the week ended June 14, with 14% of COVID-19 tests coming back positive compared to 6% in the prior week, according to the analysis of data from The COVID Tracking Project, a volunteer-run effort to track the outbreak.

New cases in South Carolina rose 86% to 4,509, while the positive test rate rose to about 14% from 9% over the same period, according to the analysis and state data.

When asked to comment on the increases, South Carolina and Alabama health officials said some residents were not following recommendations to maintain social distance, avoid large gatherings and wear a mask in public.

In Oklahoma, where President Donald Trump plans to hold an indoor campaign rally on Saturday, new cases rose 68% to 1,081 in the second week of June, while the positive test rate increased to 4%, from 2% the previous week.

Oklahoma officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The three states are among hot spots throughout the South and Southwest that helped push the total number of new infections in the United States up 1% in the week ended June 14, the second increase after five weeks of declines, Reuters found.

(Open https://tmsnrt.rs/2WTOZDR in an external browser for a Reuters interactive)

The state that reported the largest number of new cases was California at 20,043, up 10% from the previous week.

Nationally, the rate of positive tests has hovered around 5% for several weeks, according to the analysis. More than 583,000 tests were reported in a single day last week, a new record.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended states wait for new COVID-19 cases to fall for 14 days before easing social distancing restrictions.

Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have met that criteria, the analysis showed. Pennsylvania and New York lead with nine straight weeks of declines, followed by Rhode Island and Indiana.

Graphic – Tracking the novel coronavirus in the U.S.:

Graphic – World-focused tracker with country-by-country interactive:

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

U.S. states from Minnesota to Mississippi to reopen despite health warnings

By Susan Heavey

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. states from Minnesota to Mississippi this week prepared to join other states that have eased coronavirus restrictions to try to revive their battered economies, although some business owners voiced reluctance in the face of health warnings.

Colorado, Montana and Tennessee were also set to allow some businesses deemed nonessential to reopen after being shut for weeks even as health experts advocated for more diagnostic testing to ensure safety.

Georgia, Oklahoma, Alaska and South Carolina previously restarted their economies following weeks of mandatory lockdowns that have thrown millions of American workers out of their jobs.

The number of known U.S. infections kept climbing on Monday, topping 970,000 as the number of lives lost to COVID-19, the highly contagious respiratory illness caused by the virus, surpassed 54,800.

Public health authorities warn that increasing human interactions and economic activity may spark a new surge of infections just as social-distancing measures appear to be bringing coronavirus outbreaks under control.

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy said in a Twitter message late on Sunday that he would announce a roadmap for “responsibly reopening” the state at a Noon ET (1600 GMT) news conference on Monday.

Although unprecedented stay-at-home orders have put many businesses in jeopardy, many owners have expressed ambivalence about returning to work without more safeguards.

‘I WOULD STAY HOME’

“I would stay home if the government encouraged that, but they’re not. They’re saying, ‘Hey, the best thing to do is go back to work, even though it might be risky,’” Royal Rose, 39, owner of a tattoo studio in Greeley, Colorado, told Reuters.

The state’s Democratic governor, Jared Polis, has given the green light for retail curbside pickup to begin on Monday. Hair salons, barber shops and tattoo parlors may open on Friday, with retail stores, restaurants and movie theaters to follow.

Business shutdowns have led to a record 26.5 million Americans filing for unemployment benefits since mid-March and the White House has forecast a staggering jump in the nation’s monthly jobless rate.

President Donald Trump’s economic adviser Kevin Hassett told reporters on Sunday the jobless rate would likely hit 16% or more in April, and that “the next couple of months are going to look terrible.”

On Monday, White House adviser Peter Navarro said the Trump administration is focusing on protocols to keep U.S. factories open as the country grapples with the coronavirus outbreak, including screening workers for potential cases.

“You’re going to have to reconfigure factories,” Navarro told Fox News. “You’re going to have to use things like thermoscanners to check fever as they come in.”

Trump was scheduled to hold a video call with the country’s governors on Monday afternoon before the White House coronavirus task force’s daily briefing.

The rise in the number of U.S. cases has been attributed in part to increased diagnostic screening. But health authorities also warn that testing and contact tracing must be vastly expanded before shuttered businesses can safely reopen widely.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey, Nicholas Brown and Brendan O’Brien; Writing by Maria Caspani; Editing by Howard Goller)