U.S. consumer confidence hits one-year high; house prices soar

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. consumer confidence raced in March to its highest level since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, supporting views that economic growth will accelerate in the coming months, driven by more fiscal stimulus and an improving public health situation.

The survey from the Conference Board on Tuesday also showed consumers were fairly upbeat about the labor market, with a measure of household employment rebounding after declining in February. Restrictions on non-essential businesses are being rolled back as more Americans get vaccinated against COVID-19.

That, along with the White House’s massive $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package, has led economists to predict the economy will this year experience it best performance in nearly four decades. The survey showed more consumers intended to buy homes, cars and household appliances over the next six months.

“Consumers finally are fully on board with the pending expansion,” said Robert Frick, corporate economist with Navy Federal Credit Union in Vienna, Virginia. “What remains to be seen is how quickly services industries such as travel and leisure will open up, allowing venues for consumers to release their pent-up demand.”

The Conference Board’s consumer confidence index jumped 19.3 points to a reading of 109.7 this month, the highest level since the onset of the pandemic in March 2020. The increase was the largest since April 2003. Confidence remains well below its lofty reading of 132.6 in February 2020. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast the index would rise to 96.9.

The survey’s present situation measure, based on consumers’ assessment of current business and labor market conditions, soared to a reading of 110.0 from 89.6 last month. The expectations index, based on consumers’ short-term outlook for income, business and labor market conditions increased to 109.6 from a reading of 90.9 in February.

Stocks on Wall Street were trading lower. The dollar rose against a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices were largely lower.


The survey’s so-called labor market differential, derived from data on respondents’ views on whether jobs are plentiful or hard to get, rebounded to a reading of 7.8 this month from -0.8 in February. That measure closely correlates to the unemployment rate in the Labor Department’s employment report.

That fits in with expectations for a sharp acceleration in job growth this month. According to a Reuters survey of economists, nonfarm payrolls likely increased by 639,000 jobs in March after rising by 379,000 in February. The government is due to publish its closely-watched employment report for March on Friday.

The share of consumers expecting an increase in income over the next six months rose to 15.5% from 14.8% last month. The proportion anticipating a drop increased to 13.3% from 12.9% in February. More consumers expected to purchase homes, motor vehicles and major household appliances compared to February.

Consumers’ inflation expectations over the next 12 months increased to 6.7% from 6.5% in February.

“Consumers’ renewed optimism boosted their purchasing intentions for homes, autos and several big-ticket items,” said Lynn Franco, senior director of economic indicators at the Conference Board. “However, concerns of inflation in the short-term rose, most likely due to rising prices at the pump, and may temper spending intentions in the months ahead.”

The rise in house-buying intentions suggests demand for homes could remain strong and continue to drive up prices as supply remains tight. The housing market is being powered by demand for more spacious accommodations for home offices and schooling. It remains strong despite a rise in mortgage rates this year.

A separate report on Tuesday showed the S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller 20-metro-area house price index soared 11.1% in January from a year ago, the fastest in 15 years, after increasing 10.2% in December.

“A wave of eager buyers is being forced to act swiftly and face heightened competition for the few homes available,” said Matthew Speakman, an economist at Zillow. “The combined dynamic is pushing prices upward at their strongest pace in years, and it doesn’t appear that there is an end in sight.”

(Reporting by Lucia MutikaniEditing by Chizu Nomiyama and Paul Simao)

FDA to make emergency use authorization data public for COVID-19 vaccines

(Reuters) – The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said on Tuesday it would make public reviews of all data and information regarding the emergency use authorization (EUA) granted to COVID-19 drugs and vaccines.

“Today’s transparency action is just one of a number of steps we are taking to ensure public confidence in our EUA review process for drugs and biological products, especially any potential COVID-19 vaccines,” FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn said in a statement.

Hahn said all FDA drug and biological product centers intend, “to the extent appropriate and permitted by law,” to share information about scientific review documents supporting the issuance, revision or revocation of EUAs.

Countries around the world are racing to develop COVID-19 vaccines and treatments, and the rapid pace of development has had doctors and experts concerned about transparency and regulatory reviews.

The FDA said it recognizes disclosing such information would also contribute to the public’s confidence in the agency’s rigorous review of scientific data.

“We will also continue to follow the science and ensure that science remains the driver of the agency’s regulatory decision-making in our fight against COVID-19 and beyond on behalf of public health,” Hahn said.

(Reporting by Vishwadha Chander in Bengaluru; Editing by Sriraj Kalluvila)

Drinking, drug use largely down among U.S. teens in 2016

By Dan Whitcomb

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – The use of alcohol, marijuana, prescription medications and illicit substances declined among U.S. teens again in 2016, continuing a long-term trend, according to a study released on Tuesday by the National Institutes of Health.

But the research found that high school seniors were still using cannabis at nearly the same levels as in 2015, with 22.5 percent saying that had smoked or ingested the drug at least once within the past month and 6 percent reporting daily use.

“Clearly our public health prevention efforts, as well as policy changes to reduce availability, are working to reduce teen drug use, especially among eighth graders,” Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said in a statement accompanying the study results.

“However, when 6 percent of high school seniors are using marijuana daily, and new synthetics are continually flooding the illegal marketplace, we cannot be complacent,” Volkow said.

The annual survey, part of a series called Monitoring the Future which has tracked drug, alcohol and tobacco use among teens since 1975, also found that during 2016 there was a higher use of pot among 12th graders in states with medical marijuana laws.

According to the study, marijuana and e-cigarettes are more popular among teens than regular tobacco, with a large drop in the use of tobacco cigarettes among 8th, 10th and 12th graders.

In 2016, 1.8 percent of high school seniors smoked half a pack or more of tobacco cigarettes per day, compared with 10.7 percent in 1991.

The use of alcohol has seen similar declines, according to the research, with 37.3 percent of 12th graders reporting this year that they had been drunk at least once, down from a peak of 53.2 percent in 2001.

The analysis found that the use of illicit drugs other than marijuana by teens was at its lowest levels since tracking began.

The study, which is sponsored by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, surveyed 45,473 students from 372 public and private schools.

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

U.S. health officials outline Zika spending priorities

County vector sprays neighborhood for mosquitos with Zika

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. health officials outlined on Tuesday how they planned to divide up $1.1 billion in funds approved by Congress to fight the Zika virus, including repaying $44.25 million they were forced to borrow from a fund allocated for other emergencies.

The funds were borrowed from the Public Health Emergency Preparedness cooperative, which helps state and local public health departments develop response plans to emergencies, while Congress battled over whether to supply the funds.

President Barack Obama in February requested $1.9 billion in emergency Zika funding. Congress approved $1.1 billion in September after months of political bickering.

On a conference call with reporters, health officials said$394 million would go to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, $152 million to the National Institutes of Health and $387 million for the Public Health and Social Services Emergency Fund, which supports the nation’s ability to respond to public health emergencies.

A further $40 million is aimed at expanding primary healthcare services in Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories, and $20 million for projects of national and regional significance in those areas.

Puerto Rico has been particularly hard hit by Zika, a mosquito-borne virus that has been linked with a rare birth defect known as microcephaly. The virus has spread to almost 60 countries and territories since the current outbreak was identified last year in Brazil.

As of Oct. 12, more than 29,000 cases of Zika infection had been reported in the United States and territories. Of those, more than 2,600 cases are in pregnant women. Nearly 26,000 of those cases are in Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories.

The government will be allocating funds, based on a competitive process, to support Zika virus surveillance and other programs. The funds will also be used to expand mosquito control, continue vaccine development and begin studies on the effect of Zika on babies born to infected mothers.

(Reporting by Toni Clarke in Washington; Editing by Peter Cooney)

Chipotle E. Coli outbreaks appear to be over, CDC says

Two E. Coli outbreaks linked to Chipotle restaurants appear to be over, officials said Monday.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said it still doesn’t know what specific ingredient was behind the outbreaks, though it hasn’t received word of any illnesses since Dec. 1.

The CDC said 60 people in 14 states fell ill last October and November, and 22 were hospitalized. The organization interviewed 59 of those people, and 52 of them said they had eaten at Chipotle.

The CDC collected food from several Chipotle restaurants, though none of its tests showed signs of the bacteria. The organization said a food source is only identified in 46 percent of outbreaks, and it can be hard to determine the exact item responsible for the illnesses in cases where restaurants cook several ingredients together and serve them in different menu items.

According to the CDC, the first E. Coli outbreak affected 55 people in Washington, Oregon, California, Delaware, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Minnesota, New York Ohio and Pennsylvania. The second outbreak, which featured a different strain of the bacteria, sickened five people in Kansas, Oklahoma and North Dakota. None of the 60 people died or developed hemolytic uremic syndrome, a type of kidney failure that sometimes occurs following E. Coli infections.

Chipotle has said it has since implemented new food safety protocols, and announced earlier this month that it will close all of its restaurants for four hours on Feb. 8 for a food safety meeting.

The outbreaks were just a part of the recent struggles for Chipotle.

The restaurant also told investors earlier this month that it was subpoenaed by a federal grand jury in connection with an “isolated norovirus incident” in August at a California restaurant. The same message indicated a norovirus outbreak in December at a Boston restaurant “worsened the adverse financial and operating impacts” Chipotle experienced from the E. Coli outbreaks.

Norovirus and E. Coli are both foodborne illnesses that can cause vomiting, diarrhea and stomach cramps, according to the CDC.

Chipotle’s stock was trading at $750.42 on Oct. 13, near an all-time high, but tumbled to $404.26 on Jan. 12 amid the E. Coli and norovirus concerns. That was a 54 percent drop.

The stock has rebounded slightly and was trading at $472.64 on Monday afternoon.

U.S. on high alert for bird flu after Indiana poultry outbreak

The Avian influenza virus is harvested from a chicken egg as part of a diagnostic process in this undated U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) handout image. REUTERS / Erica Spackman / USDA / Handout via Reuters

CHICAGO (Reuters) – In the two weeks since bird flu reappeared in Indiana, U.S. veterinarians have swabbed the mouths of chickens and turkeys across the country, racing to uncover any more infections and contain the virus before it causes mass death and damage like last year.

Biologists also are running tests on feces collected from wild birds, which are suspected of spreading the disease to farms.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture confirmed on Jan. 15 that a turkey flock in Dubois County, Indiana, was infected with the H7N8 strain of the virus. It was the first new case of bird flu in U.S. poultry flocks since June.

More poultry flocks will likely fall ill in the coming months, veterinarians said, following an unprecedented outbreak last year that caused more than 48 million chickens and turkeys to die from sickness or because they had to be culled to contain the disease.

Anxiety over that risk is fueling vigilance among U.S. poultry producers and government officials looking for signs of infections. Increased testing could help limit the spread if new cases are detected quickly.

“Everybody’s testing everything,” said John Glisson, vice-president of research for the U.S. Poultry and Egg Association, an industry group.

In the days after the latest outbreak, when winter weather was hampering travel, the USDA arranged for a plane to fly poultry samples from farms near the infected site in Indiana to an Iowa lab to speed up testing, said Denise Derrer, spokeswoman for the Indiana Board of Animal Health.

Typically, the samples would be driven across Illinois.

State and federal authorities culled more than 400,000 birds near the infected farm to contain the outbreak. About 350,000 in the area were killed even though they were diagnosed with a less lethal form of bird flu or tested negative for the disease.

Officials said they wanted to be aggressive to avoid a repeat of last year’s losses. USDA believes the less lethal virus type mutated into a more deadly strain in one flock.

Indiana has required testing in flocks as far as 12.4 miles from the infected farm at least every five to seven days, exceeding the USDA’s standard requirement for testing confined to a zone half that size.

Last year showed the passage of a few weeks without a new infection did not mean the end of the virus.

Minnesota, the nation’s top turkey producing state, confirmed its first infection in poultry on March 5. Its next case was not detected until March 27, and the state subsequently lost 5 million turkeys.

“We’re constantly reminded of what happened in Minnesota last year,” Derrer said.

(Editing by Jo Winterbottom and Matthew Lewis)

Special prosecutor appointed to investigate Flint water crisis

(Reuters) – Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette on Monday named a special prosecutor and investigator to look into possible crimes in the city of Flint’s water crisis.

Todd Flood, a former prosecutor for Detroit’s Wayne County, and retired Detroit FBI head Andrew Arena will conduct the independent investigation into the lead contamination in Flint after water supplies were switched to save money, Schuette said.

Governor Rick Snyder apologized last week for the delay in addressing Flint’s problems, which have become a national scandal. Residents of the city of 100,000 people had complained for months about discolored water, but officials moved slowly to address the problem.

“Without fear and without favor, this independent investigation will be high-performance and let the chips fall where they may,” Schuette told reporters at a news conference.

State Representative LaTanya Garrett, a Democrat from Detroit, filed a petition with U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch to remove Schuette and his team from the investigation, citing conflicts of interest. Schuette and Snyder are Republicans.

Schuette pledged the investigation would be independent and said an ethics lawyer would watch out for conflicts.

He gave no timeline for the probe, saying it could take a long time to get all the facts necessary.

Schuette said it was an outrage that people in Flint are billed for water they cannot drink and that he was looking for ways to get people relief from payments.

He said he decided earlier this year that the probe was needed, after the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality admitted errors in Flint water treatment.

Dan Wyant, the head of Michigan’s DEQ, resigned in December. Last week Susan Hedman, the regional director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, also stepped down due to the Flint water problem.

In recent years, financially troubled Flint has been governed by a series of state-appointed emergency managers. A booming car industry town in the first half of the 20th century, the city has been in decline ever since.

In 2014, Flint began using river water, which was more corrosive than its previous supply and caused more lead to leach from its aging pipes.

This in turn led to elevated levels of lead, a neurotoxin that can damage the brain and cause other health problems, in some drinking water and in some children.

A number of lawsuits have been filed against city and state officials.

(Reporting by Fiona Ortiz in Chicago; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)

Dole recalls packaged salads after multi-state listeria outbreak

Dole is temporarily shutting down one of its production facilities and recalling all of the salads that were made there because the facility has been linked to a multi-state outbreak of listeria.

The recall notice was posted on the Food and Drug Administration website on Friday.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which has been investigating the outbreak, said 12 people in six states have been hospitalized since July. One person died.

The CDC determined that salads produced and packaged at Dole’s facility in Springfield, Ohio, were likely behind the illnesses. Dole initiated the recall and decided to temporarily suspend production at the facility “out of an abundance of caution,” according to the recall notice.

The salads in question were sold under a variety of different brand names — including Dole, Fresh Selections, Simple Truth, Marketside, The Little Salad Bar and President’s Choice, the CDC said. However, they all have the letter ‘A’ at the beginning of a product code that appears on the upper-right-hand corner of the package, according to Dole’s recall notice.

Dole said none of its other products or facilities are affected by the recall, and added that packaged salads that have ‘B’ or ‘N’ at the start of their product codes aren’t being recalled. Those salads were produced at different facilities, and the CDC added that it doesn’t currently have any evidence suggesting those salads are linked to the outbreak.

Dole said the recalled salads were sold in Alabama, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Massachusetts, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Mississippi, North Carolina, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin, as well as the Canadian provinces of Ontario, New Brunswick and Quebec.

The company encouraged consumers and stores who still have packaged salads with product codes beginning with ‘A’ to throw them out without eating them.

According to the CDC, listeria is a bacteria that can lead to listeriosis, a rare but life-threatening condition that is often contracted by eating contaminated food. The organization estimates that listeriosis sickens about 1,600 people annually in the United States, killing about 260 of them.

Newborns, older adults people with weak immune systems and pregnant women are generally at risk, the CDC says, and the bacteria can lead to miscarriages or stillbirths. Common symptoms include fever and muscle aches, though the disease can also cause convulsions in certain people.

This particular outbreak sickened people in Michigan, Indiana, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts, according to the CDC, and killed a person from Michigan.

Trader Joe’s recalls cashews amid salmonella concerns

A possible salmonella contamination has prompted Trader Joe’s to recall some cashews.

The grocery store chain issued a statement about the recall late last week, saying that one particular kind of Trader Joe’s Raw Cashew Pieces could be contaminated with the bacteria.

The cashews are marked “BEST BEFORE 07.17.2016TF4,” the company said, and were distributed to stores in 30 states across the country, as well as the District of Columbia.

It wasn’t clear exactly how many packages were included in the recall.

Trader Joe’s said it learned of the possible contamination from a supplier, but didn’t elaborate.

A recall notice on the Food and Drug Administration website says Heritage International (USA) Inc. was voluntarily recalling the cashew lot after routine lab tests found salmonella in it.

The bacteria can cause people to fall ill.

Trader Joe’s said it hasn’t received any reports of anyone getting sick from the cashews, though it has stopped selling all Trader Joe’s Raw Cashew Pieces in its stores pending an investigation.

The grocery chain encourages anyone who bought the cashews marked “BEST BEFORE 07.17.2016TF4” to return them for a full refund or throw them out without eating them.

According to the CDC, salmonella sickens about 1.2 million Americans every year. Symptoms include diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps, and most people fully recover in 4 to 7 days. In extreme cases, though, infections can spread beyond the intestines and become more severe.

The bacteria leads to about 450 deaths and 19,000 hospitalizations every year, the CDC says. Children, older adults and people with weak immune systems are particularly at risk.

Hawaiian child born with birth defect was infected with Zika virus

A Hawaiian child who was recently born with a rare birth defect called microcephaly had been infected with the mosquito-borne Zika virus, the state Department of Health announced.

Officials made the announcement on Friday, the same day the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued updated travel warnings for regions where Zika outbreaks are present.

The Zika virus usually only causes a mild illness and most people typically recover in a week, the CDC says, but the virus is collecting global attention because scientists are currently working to see if it is responsible for causing birth defects such as the one found in the Hawaiian child.

According to the CDC, children born with microcephaly have smaller-than-usual heads, and the defect may lead to other issues such as seizures, developmental delays and vision problems.

The Brazilian Ministry of Health reported a significant rise in the birth defect since the virus arrived in May. The country used to see fewer than 200 cases per year, but now has about 3,500.

The Hawaiian baby’s mother was living in Brazil last May, the state Department of Health said in a news release, and likely transmitted the virus to her child while he or she was in the womb.

Microcephaly can be caused by a variety of issues including genetic changes, malnutrition, alcohol exposure and certain kinds of infections, according to the CDC, but it’s still a relatively rare defect and only surfaces in about 2-12 babies out of every 10,000 born in the United States.

“We are saddened by the events that have affected this mother and her newborn,” Hawaii Department of Health State Epidemiologist Sarah Park said in a statement.

Hawaii health officials said neither the mother nor the child are currently at risk of transmitting Zika, nor were they ever at risk of spreading the virus throughout Hawaii. The country has yet to see a locally contracted case of Zika, the CDC has said.

However, the Hawaii Department of Health reported six people have gotten infected while visiting foreign countries and returned to the state.

The CDC on Friday sent out updated travel notices for Puerto Rico, Mexico, Central America, South America and the Caribbean, where Zika is found in local mosquitos, asking travelers — especially pregnant women — to “practice enhanced precautions” to prevent mosquito bites. Previously, the CDC had only been asking travelers to “practice usual precautions.”

There isn’t any vaccine against a Zika infection, the CDC says.

“The virus is spreading fairly rapidly throughout the Americas,” Dr. Lyle Petersen, the director of CDC’s division of vector-borne diseases, told reporters during a Friday evening news briefing, according to a transcript posted on the CDC’s website. “We know in populations that it does affect, a large percentage of the population may be become infected. And because of this growing risk of or growing evidence that there’s a link between Zika virus and microcephaly, which is a very severe and devastating outcome, it was important to warn people as soon as possible.”

Petersen told the news briefing that the CDC recently found its “strongest scientific evidence to date” of a link between Zika and “poor pregnancy outcomes” like microcephaly, but more tests and studies were needed to determine the risks the Zika virus may pose to pregnant women.

Common symptoms of Zika include fever, joint pain and rash, the CDC says. However, Petersen told the news briefing that only 1 in 5 people infected with the virus will display those symptoms.

Petersen also told reporters there have been at least eight United States travelers who tested positive for Zika after traveling overseas in the past 15 months, compared to just 12 who tested positive for the virus between 2007 and 2014. And the CDC is also still receiving samples from people displaying symptoms, so that number could increase as more test results come back.

While the specific kind of mosquito that transmit the virus are present in parts of the United States, Petersen told reporters that improvements in housing construction, air conditioning and mosquito control have helped prevent large outbreaks of other mosquito-borne illnesses.

He told the news briefing it would be difficult to determine exactly how Zika may spread in the coming months.

“I think we’re just going to have to wait to see how this all plays out,” he told reporters. “These viruses certainly can spread in populations for some time. But, again, this is new. This is a dynamic and changing situation. I think it’s really impossible for us to speculate what may happen in three or four or even next month for that matter.”

Separately, Hawaii is dealing with another outbreak of a mosquito-borne illness.

The state Department of Health says there have been 223 cases of dengue fever since Sept. 11. It’s the first locally-acquired outbreak of the disease since 2011.

The World Health Organization says dengue, which can cause fevers, headaches, muscle and joint pains and rashes, has become increasingly common in the past 50 years — spreading to more than 100 countries and placing about half the world’s population at risk of an infection.