Biden administration to distribute more than 25 million masks

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Biden administration will deliver more than 25 million masks to community health centers, food pantries and soup kitchens this spring as part of its battle against the coronavirus pandemic, the White House said on Wednesday.

U.S. health authorities recommend mask wearing as a critical measure to help slow the spread of disease and the White House said low-income Americans still don’t have access to masks.

The government will deliver the masks to more than 1,300 community health centers and 60,000 food pantries and soup kitchens between March and May, the White House said.

The masks are expected to reach between 12 million and 15 million Americans, it said.

Democratic President Joe Biden issued a mask mandate when he took office in January as the pandemic raged on, requiring masks and physical distancing in all federal buildings and the development of a testing program for federal employees for COVID-19.

Shortly afterward, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a sweeping order requiring the use of face masks on nearly all forms of public transportation.

The White House said two-thirds of the people served by community health Centers live in poverty, 60% are racial and/or ethnic minorities, and nearly 1.4 million are homeless.

“These masks will be no cost, high-quality, washable, and consistent with the mask guidance from the CDC. All of these masks will be made in America, and will not impact availability of masks for health care workers,” the statement said.

(Reporting by Makini Brice and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. public power/natgas groups urge Biden to cap prices in last week’s freeze

(Reuters) – Trade groups representing U.S. public power and natural gas companies urged President Joe Biden to declare a gas emergency for last week’s extreme weather and authorize the secretary of energy to cap the price of gas.

In a Feb. 19 letter to Biden, the American Public Power Association (APPA) and the American Public Gas Association (APGA) said the recent cold weather in the Midwest and Texas boosted demand for electricity at the same time power generation was constrained due to freezing gas wells and pipelines.

Officials at APPA, APGA and the U.S Department of Energy were not immediately available for comment on whether the administration could or would retroactively change gas prices.

That forced utilities and other energy suppliers to pay billions of dollars to buy gas and power for their customers. In addition to heating homes and businesses, gas also powers much of the power generation in Texas and other states affected by the freeze.

Gas prices, which usually trade around $3 per million British thermal units (mmBtu), rocketed to over $300 per mmBtu at some hubs, while power prices, which usually trade around $25 per megawatt hour in Texas, soared to over $10,000 at times.

One public-owned power plant spent $78 million for four days of gas supply, the groups said, noting the fuel for that plant cost only $18 million for all of 2020.

“If no relief is provided, these staggering costs will ultimately have to be borne by utility customers,” the groups said.

(Reporting by Scott DiSavino in New York and Timothy Gardner in Washington; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Jonathan Oatis)

Israel aims to resolve Iran disputes with Biden at adviser level

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel hopes to prevent personal tension between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Joe Biden over their differences on the Iranian nuclear question by delegating talks on the topic to their senior staff, an Israeli official said.

Netanyahu’s foreign-policy fortunes have waned since Biden succeeded Republican president Donald Trump, who withdrew the United States from world powers’ 2015 Iranian nuclear deal, deeming it too advantageous for Tehran – a view Israel shared.

Biden, a Democrat, wants to rejoin the deal. That has set the stage for possible new strains in the U.S.-Israel alliance.

On Monday, Netanyahu conferred with Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi to present a united Israeli front on Iran – even as the conservative premier runs against the two centrists in a March election.

An official briefed on Monday’s meeting said it was agreed that Israeli misgivings about, and proposed improvements to, the deal would be relayed by Netanyahu’s National Security Council to the counterpart National Security Council in the White House.

“The intent is to work everything out at that level, and to keep that communication channel open,” the official told Reuters on Tuesday on condition on anonymity. “Obviously this has benefits where there is a risk of a ‘cold shoulder’ at chief-executive level.”

Citing unnamed sources involved in the meeting, Israel’s Army Radio reported the Netanyahu and the other ministers had decided to keep disputes with Biden “under the radar” for now.

Netanyahu’s office declined comment.

When the 2015 deal was being put together, Netanyahu’s opposition – including in a speech he delivered to the U.S. Congress – led to feuds with the then Democratic administration of Barack Obama, whom Biden served as vice president.

Netanyahu’s office said on Friday that Israel was “in close contact” with Washington on the issue and asserted that a return to the 2015 deal would “pave Iran’s path to a nuclear arsenal”.

Israel previously hinted it might shun Iran talks with Washington in the event of a new deal that it still opposes, lest such engagement give the impression of consent.

Iran, which denies seeking the bomb, began breaching the deal in 2019, following the U.S. withdrawal. It has recently stepped up violations and was cool to an administration announcement on Thursday that Washington was ready to talk about a mutual return to compliance.

Israel is reputed to have the region’s only nuclear arsenal, something it neither confirms nor denies under an “ambiguity” policy designed to ward off foes while avoiding arms races.

(Writing by Dan Williams, Editing by William Maclean)

Biden to revise small business loans to reach smaller, minority firms

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden will launch changes on Monday to the main U.S. coronavirus aid program for small businesses to try to reach smaller, minority-owned firms and sole proprietors left behind in previous rounds of aid.

Biden administration officials said that for two weeks starting on Wednesday, the Small Business Administration will only accept applications for forgivable Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans from firms with fewer than 20 employees to ensure that they are not crowded out by larger firms.

The changes, to be formally announced by Biden on Monday afternoon, come as small business bankers say demand for Paycheck Protection loans is slowing as firms reopen. The White House released a fact sheet outlining the changes on Monday morning.

When the PPP was launched in April 2020 at the height of coronavirus lockdowns under a $3 trillion relief bill, its initial $349 billion ran out in two weeks. Congress approved another $320 billion in May, but the program expired in August with about $130 billion in unused funds.

The program was re-launched on Jan. 19 with $284 billion in new funds from a coronavirus aid bill passed at the end of December, and a Biden administration official said about $150 billion of PPP money is still available.

But Biden administration officials said there are still many minority and very small firms in low-income areas that have not been able to receive aid.

The changes aim to make it easier for firms with no employees — sole proprietors, independent contractors, and self-employed people such as house cleaners and personal care providers — that could not qualify previously because of business cost deductions.

The Small Business Administration will revise the rules to match the approach used to allow small farmers and ranchers to receive aid, the businesses said.

The officials said the program will also set aside $1 billion for businesses without employees in low- and moderate-income areas, which are 70% owned by women and people of color.

The SBA will provide new guidance making it clear that legal U.S. residents who are not citizens, such as green card holders, cannot be excluded from the program. The Biden Administration will also eliminate exclusions that prohibit a business owner who is delinquent on student loans from participating in the program.

Business owners with non-fraud felony arrests or convictions in the previous year are excluded from the program. However, Biden administration officials said they will adopt bipartisan Senate proposals to remove this restriction, unless the applicant is currently incarcerated.

According to the White House fact sheet, the Biden administration is also improving the program’s operations by strengthening and streamlining fraud checks, revamping the loan application and government web sites that communicate with small businesses, talking more with borrowers about their needs, and deepening the government’s relationship with lenders.

(Reporting by David Lawder; Additional reporting by Lisa Lambert; Editing by Jacqueline Wong and Chizu Nomiyama)

U.S. begins admitting asylum seekers blocked by Trump, with thousands more waiting

By Mimi Dwyer and Ted Hesson

SAN DIEGO, Calif. (Reuters) – The United States will on Friday begin rolling back one of former President Donald Trump’s strictest immigration policies, allowing in the first of thousands of asylum seekers who have been forced to wait in Mexico for their cases to be heard.

President Joe Biden pledged while campaigning to immediately rescind the Trump policy, known as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP). Under the program more than 65,000 non-Mexican asylum seekers were denied entry and sent back across the border pending court hearings. Most returned home but some stayed in Mexico in sometimes squalid or dangerous conditions, vulnerable to kidnapping and other violence.

Now they will be allowed into the United States to wait for their applications to be heard in immigration courts. The effort will start slowly, with only limited numbers of people being admitted on Friday at the port of entry in San Ysidro, California.

It will expand to two additional ports of entry in Texas, including one near a migrant encampment in Matamoros, Mexico, in the coming week, according to a U.S. Department of Homeland Security spokeswoman.

The administration estimates that only 25,000 people out of the more than 65,000 enrolled in MPP still have active immigration court cases and is set to begin processing that group on Friday. But it has cautioned that the efforts will take time.

Biden officials say they expect eventually to process 300 people per day at two of the ports.

The Biden administration is treading carefully, wary that the policy shift could encourage more migrants to trek to the U.S.-Mexico border. U.S. officials say anyone who seeks to enter and is not a member of the MPP program will be immediately expelled.

A group of Republican lawmakers sent a letter to Biden on Feb. 10 that said allowing MPP migrants to enter the United States “sends the signal that our borders are open.”

The United States, Mexico and international organizations have scrambled in recent days to figure out how to register migrants online and by phone, transport them to the border, test them for COVID-19 and get them to their destinations in the United States, people familiar with the effort said.

The fast-moving process and lack of information from U.S. officials has frustrated some advocates eager to assist the effort.

The situation has taken on urgency as a winter storm has brought frigid temperatures to much of the southern United States and northern Mexico.

Migrants in the sprawling Matamoros encampment have reported children and families struggling to stay warm in makeshift tents lacking insulation or other protection from the cold. The camp has grown in recent weeks as migrants anticipate the end of the MPP program, but DHS has said that processing will not begin there until Feb. 22.

On Thursday, Honduran asylum seeker Antonia Maldonado served hot chocolate from a steaming pot on a stove made from the inside of a washing machine to other asylum seekers in Matamoros shivering in the near freezing weather.

She has been taking goodbye photographs and making plans to leave with her partner, Disón Valladares, a fellow asylum seeker she met on the journey to Matamoros.

“He wants me to go first, and I want him to go first,” she said. They are hopeful that once they enter the United States they will be able to marry.

Those seeking asylum may not have their cases resolved for years due to COVID-related immigration court closures and existing backlogs, according to Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy counsel at the pro-immigrant American Immigration Council.

The delay would give the Biden administration time to reverse some Trump policies that sought to make it harder to obtain asylum, he said.

In the meantime, migrants will be released to the United States and enrolled in so-called “alternatives to detention” while awaiting their hearings, a U.S. official said last week. Such programs can include check-ins with immigration authorities as well as ankle bracelet monitoring.

(Reporting by Mimi Dwyer in Los Angeles, Ted Hesson in Washington and Laura Gottesdiener in Matamoros, Mexico; Editing by Ross Colvin and Daniel Wallis)

Democrats roll out Biden immigration bill without Republican backers

By Ted Hesson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Democrats will on Thursday formally introduce President Joe Biden’s sweeping immigration bill in Congress, a measure that would provide a path to U.S. citizenship for an estimated 11 million immigrants in the country illegally, but the proposal faces long odds to passage.

The bill would greatly increase both family-based and employment-based legal immigration and allow certain previously deported immigrants to apply to return for humanitarian reasons. Key elements of the bill were first unveiled in January.

The legislation, which is expected to be hundreds of pages long, takes an aggressive pro-immigration approach. It has not received public support from Republicans, making it unlikely that it will be enacted.

Democrats hold a majority in the House of Representatives, but the Senate is split 50-50, with Vice President Kamala Harris as the tie-breaking vote. Democrats would need to win over 10 Senate Republicans to avoid a “filibuster,” a procedural hurdle that can delay or block legislation from coming to a vote.

“We know the path forward will demand negotiations with others, but we are not going to make concessions out of the gate,” Senator Robert Menendez, who will be the lead sponsor of the bill in the Senate, said on a call with reporters. “We will never win an argument that we don’t have the courage to make.”

Menendez said he had spoken with some Republican senators who are interested in parts of the legislation, but declined to name the lawmakers. Democrats would consider any avenue to accomplish immigration reform, including using a procedural move to pass a bill in the Senate with only 51 votes, he added.

Democrats are simultaneously pushing ahead with several smaller-scale immigration bills, including a measure that would offer a path to citizenship to so-called “Dreamer” immigrants living in the United States illegally after entering as children.

“I salute the president for putting forth the legislation that he did,” House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi said on Thursday during a separate news conference. “There are others that want to do piecemeal and that may be a good approach, too.”

Some Republican senators have already expressed opposition to major provisions of the Biden bill.

The criticism was echoed on Thursday by Heritage Action, the political wing of the conservative Heritage Foundation.

“This latest move would only further harm American workers already struggling from our health and economic national crises caused by the ongoing pandemic and our government’s response,” said Jessica Anderson, the organization’s executive director.

(Reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington; Additional reporting by Makini Brice in Washington; Editing by Ross Colvin, Aurora Ellis and Howard Goller)

Biden to press for $1.9 trillion COVID relief plan with governors, mayors

By Andrea Shalal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden will meet with a bipartisan group of mayors and governors on Friday as he continues to push for approval of a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan to bolster economic growth and help millions of unemployed workers.

Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris will also receive an economic briefing from Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, shortly after she takes part in the first meeting of the Group of Seven rich economies since the new U.S. administration took office.

Biden’s proposed spending package, coming on top of $4 trillion enacted by his predecessor Donald Trump, will have important consequences for the global economy which is slowly recovering – but very unevenly – after last year suffering its worst downturn since the Great Depression in the 1930s.

Taking part in the Oval Office meeting will be Republican and Democratic elected officials whose states and cities have been hammered by the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout. Many have seen tax revenues fall and costs soar as they race to vaccinate their citizens.

The group includes four governors, including New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, and Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, a Republican, and five mayors, including Jeff Williams of Arlington, Texas, a Republican.

Williams, who met with Yellen virtually last week, said his city urgently needed the federal aid earmarked for state and local governments in Biden’s rescue plan. He said cities were crushed when Congress removed similar aid from a previous relief bill that passed in December.

“We’ve been crippled. We haven’t gotten help,” Williams told Reuters. “Our property taxes are down and costs are way up. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat or a Republican, this is the right solution so we can achieve economic growth much faster.”

Arlington, which is home to the largest General Motors plant in the world, is bracing for a 10% drop in the appraised value of its commercial properties, which would cut revenues by some $30 million after an $18 million loss last year, Williams said.

More than 400 mayors wrote to leaders in Congress earlier this month to urge them to pass Biden’s relief package, but Republicans are backing a far less ambitious plan.

Biden on Thursday said the U.S. coronavirus death toll was likely to reach 500,000 next month, but said the United States was on track to have enough vaccine for 300 million Americans by the end of July.

Yellen, a former Federal Reserve Board Chair, will have a mixed message when she briefs Biden on the economy. While economic growth is picking up, unemployment remains high and many communities of color are not expected to recover for years.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Lincoln Feast.)

In response to Myanmar coup, Biden signs order for sanctions on generals, businesses

(Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden announced on Wednesday he had approved an executive order for new sanctions on those responsible for the military coup in Myanmar and he repeated demands for the generals to give up power and free civilian leaders.

Biden said the executive order would enable his administration “to immediately sanction the military leaders who directed the coup, their business interests as well as close family members.”

He said Washington would identify the first round of targets this week and was taking steps to prevent the generals in Myanmar, which is also known as Burma, having access to $1 billion in funds held in the United States.

“We’re also going to impose strong exports controls. We’re freezing U.S. assets that benefit the Burmese government, while maintaining our support for health care, civil society groups, and other areas that benefit the people of Burma directly,” Biden said at the White House.

“We’ll be ready to impose additional measures, and we’ll continue to work with our international partners to urge other nations to join us in these efforts.”

The Feb. 1 coup, which overthrew elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian-led government, occurred less than two weeks after Biden took office. It presented him with his first major international crisis and an early test of his dual pledges to re-center human rights in foreign policy and work more closely with allies.

Biden said Myanmar was of “deep and bipartisan concern” in the United States.

“I again call on the Burmese military to immediately release the democratic political leaders and activists,” he said. “The military must relinquish power it’s seized.”

U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price told a news briefing Washington was rolling out collective actions with partners on Myanmar and could impose substantial costs on the generals.

Protesters returned to the streets of Myanmar on Wednesday despite the shooting of a young woman the previous day, with some deploying humor to emphasize their peaceful opposition to the military takeover.

The protests have been the largest in Myanmar in more than a decade, reviving memories of almost half a century of direct army rule and spasms of bloody uprisings until the military began relinquishing some power in 2011.

The military justified its takeover on the grounds of fraud in a Nov. 8 election that Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party won by a landslide. The electoral commission dismissed the army’s complaints.

The Biden administration has been working to form an international response to the crisis, including by working with allies in Asia who have closer ties to Myanmar and its military.

Western countries have condemned the coup, but despite this, analysts say Myanmar’s military’s is unlikely to be as isolated as it was in the past, with China, India, Southeast Asian neighbors and Japan unlikely to cut ties given the country’s geo-strategic importance.

While Biden did not specify who would be hit with new sanctions, Washington is likely to target coup leader Min Aung Hlaing and other top generals who are already under U.S. sanctions imposed in 2019 over abuses against Rohingya Muslims and other minorities.

It could also blacklist the military’s two major conglomerates, Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited and Myanmar Economic Corp, holding companies with investments spanning sectors including banking, gems, copper, telecoms and clothing.

Japan’s foreign ministry said U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Japanese counterpart Toshimitsu Motegi agreed in a phone call to urge the Myanmar authorities to immediately stop violence against protesters.

There were no reports of violence in Myanmar on Wednesday, and in many places protests took on a festive air, with bare-chested body builders, women in ball gowns and wedding dresses, farmers in tractors and people with their pets.

Thousands joined demonstrations in the main city of Yangon, while in the capital, Naypyitaw, hundreds of government workers marched in support of a growing civil disobedience campaign.

The Biden administration has been working on its Myanmar policy with both fellow Democrats and Republicans in Congress.

U.S. National security adviser Jake Sullivan spoke on Wednesday with Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who has a longstanding interest in the country and a close relationship with Suu Kyi, a McConnell aide said.

Suu Kyi, 75, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for campaigning for democracy and remains hugely popular at home despite damage to her international reputation over the plight of the Muslim Rohingya minority.

She has spent nearly 15 years under house arrest and now faces charges of illegally importing six walkie-talkies and her lawyer said he has not been allowed to see her.

(Reporting by Reuters staff; Writing by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Mary Milliken and Grant McCool)

Congressional Democrats set to back more than $50 billion for transportation sector

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Democrats in the U.S. Congress are to release a sweeping plan on Monday to provide more than $50 billion in additional assistance to U.S. airlines, transit systems, airports and passenger railroad Amtrak and create a $3 billion program to assist aviation manufacturers with payroll costs, according to documents seen by Reuters and sources briefed on the matter.

The $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief proposal will provide $30 billion to transit agencies, $14 billion for passenger airlines, $8 billion to U.S. airports, $1 billion for airline contractors and $1.5 billion to Amtrak, the draft legislation says. U.S. House committees are set to vote on the legislation on Wednesday.

Airline stocks rose sharply on news of the new funding, with American Airlines up 4.2%, while United Airlines gained 5% and Southwest Airlines jumped nearly 6%.

President Joe Biden had proposed $20 billion for struggling U.S. transit agencies – and nothing for airlines – while Democrats had pushed for more transit help, citing the collapse in travel demand as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Transit agencies have previously been awarded $39 billion in emergency assistance by Congress. New York’s Metropolitan Transit Agency says daily subway travel has recently been down 70% or more.

U.S. airlines have been awarded $40 billion in payroll support since March and airline unions had asked Congress for another $15 billion to keep thousands of workers on the payroll past March 31, when the current round of funding expires. The additional $14 billion will keeping nearly 30,000 airline workers on the job through Sept. 30.

A summary of the $14 billion airline payroll proposal from the House Financial Services Committee seen by Reuters noted airlines lost over $35 billion in 2020 and “airlines do not expect to return to profitability until midway through 2021.

The $3 billion aviation manufacturing program would provide a 50% government subsidy to cover costs of pay, benefits and training for employees at risk of being furloughed or who were furloughed due to the pandemic. The grants cover up to 25% of a company’s U.S. workforce.

U.S. airplane manufacturer Boeing and suppliers have cut thousands of manufacturing jobs over the last year as demand for new planes has shrunk amid the collapse in airline travel.

Boeing said last year it recorded severance costs for 26,000 employees in 2020, with 18,000 having left last year and the remainder expected leave in 2021. Boeing did not immediately comment on the program.

International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) President Robert Martinez urged lawmakers to back the effort to provide payroll assistance to “help this critical workforce and supply chain weather the storm of this historic pandemic.”

(Reporting by David Shepardson, Editing by Franklin Paul and Dan Grebler)

Biden’s immense economic challenge: Putting 10 million people back to work

By Jonnelle Marte

(Reuters) – President Joe Biden is presenting his plan on Friday for addressing one of the greatest challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic – how to get millions of out-of-work Americans back on the job.

The labor market regained some minor ground in January when the economy added 49,000 jobs, according to a report released Friday by the Labor Department. But the report showed labor market growth is stalling, doing little to close the huge gap created by the pandemic

“At that rate it’s going to take 10 years before we get to full employment,” Biden said Friday morning from the White House.

Roughly half of the 22 million jobs lost at the height of the pandemic have been recouped. But that still leaves a hole of about 10 million jobs, disproportionately ones held by women and minorities in low-wage roles.

Here is a look at the people who may need the most help as the economy heals:

MINORITIES HIT HARDEST

As the economy reopened last year from widespread shutdowns, many office workers adjusted to working remotely and other industries called people back to their jobs.

But many Black, Hispanic and Asian workers who were overrepresented in the low-wage occupations most affected by the pandemic, including servers, bartenders, cooks and housekeepers, are still unemployed.

The overall unemployment rate dropped to 6.3% in January. But within that rate are huge racial disparities – over 9% of Black workers are unemployed, versus less than 6% of white workers:

WOMEN PUSHED OUT

Before the pandemic, the share of women either working or looking for work was rising, thanks to a record-long economic expansion.

The crisis reversed those gains, in part because the closures of schools and child care centers left working mothers with a weaker support system.

Some 2.5 million woman dropped out of the labor force during the pandemic, compared to 1.8 million men, according to data from the Labor Department.

Biden says he wants to help more women get back to work through policies that reopen schools safely and make childcare more affordable.

SECTOR BY SECTOR

Businesses that rely on travel or on people spending time close to each other indoors have rebounded the slowest, and many people who made their living by staffing kitchens, mixing drinks or cleaning hotel rooms are still out of work.

Employment in leisure and hospitality was down 23% in January from pre-pandemic levels in February 2020, more than any other industry.

Economists expect many of those jobs to return after coronavirus vaccines are distributed widely and consumers feel more comfortable spending money in restaurants, bars and other entertainment venues. But it’s not clear whether employment will return completely to previous levels.

LONG-TERM UNEMPLOYED

Job searches have stretched on for some people, including many in the leisure and hospitality industry.

The “long-term unemployed,” or those who have been out of work for at least six months, now make up about 40% of the total unemployed, or about 4 million people, up from about 20% before the pandemic.

Research shows people who are long-term unemployed can have a harder time finding new jobs, putting them at greater risk of facing pay cuts or of dropping out of the labor market.

Biden wants to create federally subsidized jobs in healthcare, clean energy and other fields that could help the long-term unemployed move into new roles.

ACROSS THE MAP

Designing federal policies to help the out of work may be especially challenging because job losses vary widely from one state to the next.

Employment in Idaho, Utah and Kansas had fully recovered to pre-pandemic levels by December. But the situation was more dire in New York and tourism-dependent Nevada and Hawaii.

This could lead to wide disagreements among lawmakers about how much more aid is needed to nurse the economy, and the labor market, back to health.

(Reporting by Jonnelle Marte; Additional reporting by Howard Schneider. Editing by Heather Timmons and Andrea Ricci)