New U.S. COVID-19 cases drop for fifth week in a row, deaths decline

(Reuters) – The number of new cases of the novel coronavirus reported in the United States fell 17% last week, the fifth straight week of declines, according to a Reuters tally of state and county reports.

Nearly 1,000 people a day continue to die from COVID-19, though last week’s total of more than 6,700 deaths was down 9% from the previous seven days.

The United States posted 297,000 new cases for the week ended Aug. 23, down from a weekly peak of over 468,000 cases in mid-July. The country is now averaging less than 50,000 new infections a day for the first time since early June.

The United States still has the worst outbreak in the world, accounting for a quarter of the global total of 23 million cases.

The state with the biggest percentage increase in new cases last week was South Dakota at 50%. Infections have been rising since the annual motorcycle rally in Sturgis, which drew more than 100,000 people from all over the country from Aug. 7 to 16. The South Dakota health department was not immediately available for comment.

Cases rose by 30% in nearby North Dakota and by 24% in Wyoming.

The United States tested on average 675,000 people a day last week, down from a peak in late July of over 800,000 people a day.

Nationally, the share of all tests that came back positive for the new virus was 6.3%, down from 7% the prior week and below a peak of 9% in mid-July, according to data from The COVID Tracking Project, a volunteer-run effort to track the outbreak.

South Carolina had the highest positivity rate in the nation at 22%, followed by Texas, Nevada and Idaho at 16%.

At least 29 states reported a positivity rate above 5%, the level the World Health Organization considers concerning because it suggests there are more cases in the community that have not yet been uncovered.

(Writing by Lisa Shumaker; Graphic by Chris Canipe; Editing by Tiffany Wu)

U.S. postal chaos prompts Democrats to reassess mail-ballot plan

By Jarrett Renshaw and Andy Sullivan

(Reuters) – Turmoil at the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) is causing some Democrats and local election officials to rethink their vote-by-mail strategies for November’s presidential election, shifting emphasis to drop boxes and early voting that bypass the post office.

The 2020 contest promises to be the nation’s largest test of voting by mail. But U.S. President Donald Trump’s relentless, unsubstantiated attacks on mail balloting, along with cost-cutting that has delayed mail service nationwide, have sown worry and confusion among many voters.

Democratic officials who just weeks ago were touting their dominance in mail balloting during a recent rash of primaries are now cautioning supporters of presidential challenger Joe Biden to be wary. Operatives in battleground states, including Pennsylvania, are particularly concerned about ballots arriving too late to count for the Nov. 3 election.

“We are considering telling voters that if they haven’t mailed out their complete ballot by Oct. 15, don’t bother. Instead, vote in person or drop off the ballot” at an elections office, said Joe Foster, the chairman of the Democratic Party in Montgomery County, the most populous of Philadelphia’s suburban counties. “We want to make sure every vote counts.”

Other local Democratic leaders, from states like Florida and North Carolina, told Reuters they also are weighing urging voters to submit mail ballots weeks ahead of the election or else vote in person.

On Tuesday, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy announced he was suspending cost-cutting measures he had put in place in recent weeks that had led to widespread service disruptions. Those changes included limits on employee overtime, orders for trucks to depart on schedule even if there was mail still to be loaded, and the removal of some mail sorting machines.

“The Postal Service is ready today to handle whatever volume of election mail it receives this fall,” DeJoy said in a statement. He also promised to deploy “standby resources” beginning Oct. 1 to satisfy any unforeseen demand.

But some Democrats said the damage is already done. Many don’t trust DeJoy – who was a major Trump campaign donor before becoming postal chief – to restore service at the independent government agency amid a presidential race that polls say Biden is leading.

“Return the mailboxes you removed,” Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island said on Twitter. “Return the sorting machines you took out. Restore the regular hours of post offices you cut short. Return postal vehicles you took. The list goes on.”

A USPS spokesman declined to comment. DeJoy is expected to provide more detail on his plans in testimony before the Senate on Friday and the House of Representatives on Monday.

White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said Tuesday that Trump never told the Postal Service to change its operations.

Democrats asked for $25 billion to shore up the balance sheet of the USPS in a massive virus aid package that passed the House of Representatives in May. Republicans have balked at that figure, and Trump last week said he opposed that funding because it might be used to encourage mail voting. But administration officials in recent days have said they are open to additional funding as public outrage over the USPS drama has grown.

Local Democratic officials, operatives and campaign workers said they are not waiting for a Washington solution.

In the competitive state of Michigan, Democratic voter outreach volunteer Karen McJimpson, 64, is phoning voters to encourage them to hand-deliver their absentee ballots directly to specified drop boxes or elections offices in light of concerns about mail delivery. She said Tuesday’s news about restored service gave her no comfort.“I don’t trust it,” said McJimpson, who volunteers with a nonprofit called Michigan United. “There has been too much noise around this, and someone is clearly pulling the strings. We are going to proceed as planned: drop the ballots off.”

Upheaval at the USPS has reshuffled some Democrats’ plans for other types of election mail as well.

Brad Crone, a Democratic strategist in North Carolina, plans to send up to two million mailers between now and Election Day supporting various state and congressional candidates. The campaign flyers are mailed directly from his printer, who last week sent him a notice: If Crone wants to mail anything beyond Oct. 19, he must sign a waiver acknowledging that it might not get there before Election Day.

Crone said he will now stop his mailings by Oct. 4, three weeks earlier than he had originally planned.

“It’s alarming,” Crone said. “Americans are witnessing major system breakdowns, whether it’s the postal system, COVID testing or their local schools. The average voter is seeing this and is just floored.”

DROP BOX BATTLE

Mail voting has grown steadily since the turn of the century. In the 2016 presidential election, mail ballots accounted for 23.6% of all ballots cast, up from 19.2% in 2008, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

Interest has exploded this year as voters have sought to avoid crowded polling places due to the coronavirus pandemic. Mail ballots accounted for 80% of all votes cast in 16 state primaries this year, including Wisconsin, Nevada and Pennsylvania, according to an estimate by Charles Stewart III, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Some states, such as New York, have struggled to handle the crush.

The surge has sparked a slew of litigation. Republicans in Texas, for example, fended off a recent Democratic effort to make it easier for its citizens to vote by mail in the pandemic. The vast majority of Texans will be required to vote in person in November.

Democrats have prevailed elsewhere. In South Carolina, officials have agreed to provide prepaid postage for absentee ballots, easing a barrier for those who otherwise would have to provide their own stamps. In Minnesota, the state agreed to suspend a requirement that absentee voters get a witness to sign their ballots and to count ballots that are postmarked by Election Day.

The Democratic Party currently has ongoing litigation on mail voting in 14 states, according to Marc Elias, the lawyer overseeing the effort.

Trump has spent the last few weeks making unsupported allegations that mail voting is vulnerable to tampering and would result in Democrats stealing the election. He has sought to distinguish between states that provide mail ballots only to voters who request them – including Florida, where Trump himself votes absentee – and those that are moving to conduct their elections entirely by mail, which he claims could lead to widespread cheating.

Election experts say mail voting is as secure as any other method.

Trump’s attacks have forced state and local Republicans to engage in some damage control. Many of their most reliable supporters, particularly elderly voters, have long used mail balloting. Some Republicans fear the president’s broadsides will depress turnout.

A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll released on Monday found that nearly half of Biden supporters plan to vote by mail in November, while just 11% of Trump supporters plan to do so.

The latest front in the voting battle is the dedicated election drop box, a sealed, sturdily built receptacle that has been a popular option for voters who prefer mail ballots but don’t want to return them via the USPS. Election officials collect those ballots and take them to polling locations for counting.

Election officials in South Carolina, Florida, Virginia, Pennsylvania and elsewhere are seeking to expand drop-off locations or ease requirements such as those mandating that voters show identification to use them.

Those changes have met resistance from Republicans over concerns about fraud. On Monday, Trump turned his fire on drop boxes.

“Some states use ‘drop boxes’ for the collection of Universal Mail-In Ballots. So who is going to ‘collect’ the Ballots, and what might be done to them prior to tabulation?” he wrote on Twitter. “A Rigged Election? So bad for our Country.”

Rob Daniel, chairman of the Charleston County Democratic Party in South Carolina, said there is just one election drop box in the county of roughly 400,0000 people. He said some voters must drive 45 minutes to reach it because of the county’s odd shape.

Daniel said the county board of elections is seeking permission from the state to add more boxes, but that is no certainty. As a backup, the party is urging voters to request their mail ballots early and return them via the USPS as soon as possible.

“Even Trump can’t screw up the Postal Service so much that it can’t deliver mail across town in 30 days,” Daniel said.

Still, Democrats see a bigger worry: Trump has already raised the possibility that he might not accept the results of an election whose outcome could take days to decide because of the quantity of mail ballots that will need to be counted.

“That is absolutely our biggest threat,” Michigan’s Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist said.

(Reporting By Jarrett Renshaw in Pennsylvania and Andy Sullivan in Washington; Additional reporting by Michael Martina in Detroit and David Shepardson in Washington; Editing by Marla Dickerson)

U.S. surpasses 160,000 coronavirus deaths as school openings near

By Aurora Ellis and Maria Caspani

NEW YORK (Reuters) – More than 160,000 people have died from the coronavirus pandemic in the United States, nearly a quarter of the global total, according to a Reuters tally on Friday, as the country debates whether schools are ready to reopen in coming weeks.

The country recorded 160,003 deaths and 4.91 million cases, the highest caseload in the world, caused in part by lingering problems in making rapid testing widely available and resistance in some quarters to masks and social distancing measures.

Coronavirus deaths are rising in 23 states and cases are rising in 20 states, according to a Reuters analysis of data the past two weeks compared with the prior two weeks.

On a per-capita basis, the United States ranks 10th highest in the world for both cases and deaths.

Friday’s grim milestone marks an increase of 10,000 deaths in nine days in the United States.

Many of those died in California, Florida and Texas, the top three U.S. states for total cases. While new infections appear to be declining in those states, new outbreaks are emerging coast to coast.

Dr. Deborah Birx, the lead coordinator for the White House coronavirus response, warned of worrying upticks in the rate of tests coming back positive in several cities, including Boston, Chicago, Detroit and Washington.

Nearly 300,000 U.S. residents could be dead from COVID-19 by Dec. 1, University of Washington health experts said on Thursday, although they said 70,000 lives could be saved if Americans were scrupulous about wearing masks.

Throughout the country, U.S. officials, teachers’ unions, parents and students were debating how to reopen schools safely.

President Donald Trump has urged states to resume in-person classes, saying the virus “will go away like things go away,” but health officials have told states with rising counts to be on guard.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Friday some 700 school districts in the state could reopen classrooms, but insisted schools do extensive consultation with teachers, students and parents beforehand.

“If you look at our infection rate we are probably in the best situation in the country right now,” Cuomo told reporters. “If anybody can open schools, we can open schools.”

In New York City, where 1.1 million children attend the country’s largest network of public schools, Mayor Bill de Blasio has said students’ attendance will be limited to between one and three days each week. Parents in New York City have until Friday to request all-remote learning for their children.

Chicago Public Schools, which make up the country’s third largest school district, reversed course this week, saying students would stick with remote learning when the school year begins.

Some states, including Florida and Iowa, are mandating schools provide at least some in-person learning, while the governors of South Carolina and Missouri have recommended all classrooms reopen.

Texas had initially demanded that schools reopen but has since allowed districts to apply for waivers as the state grapples with a rising caseload. The Houston Independent School District has said that the school year will begin virtually on Sept. 8, but will shift to in-person learning on Oct. 19.

(Reporting by Aurora Ellis and Maria Caspani in New York; Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Howard Goller)

U.S. SEC fines World Acceptance Corp $21.7 million for Mexican bribes

By Pete Schroeder

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission announced on Thursday it had fined World Acceptance Corp, a consumer loan company, $21.7 million for paying bribes in Mexico.

The SEC said in a statement that the company’s Mexican subsidiary paid over $4 million in bribes to Mexican government and union officials in exchange for business lending to government employees.

The South Carolina-based company agreed to the penalty without admitting or denying guilt. The company agreed to overhaul its internal operations, as well as pay $17.8 million in disgorgement, nearly $2 million in interest, and a $2 million penalty.

“This long-running bribe scheme did not happen in a vacuum. Through a lack of adequate internal accounting controls and a culture that undermined its internal audit and compliance functions, World Acceptance Corporation created the perfect environment for illicit activity to occur for nearly a decade,” Charles Cain, a senior SEC enforcement official, said in a statement.

The SEC said that the company’s Mexican subsidiary would deposit money into bank accounts linked to the officials or distribute bags of cash. The expenses were then recorded as legitimate business expenses.

The SEC charged that the company’s internal controls were insufficient to detect the activity, and management “lacked the appropriate tone” on compliance.

In a statement, the company’s general counsel, Luke Umstetter, said he was pleased to have resolved the issue and that the company has addressed those past issues.

(Reporting by Pete Schroeder; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Moderna expects to start late-stage COVID-19 vaccine trial on July 27

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Moderna Inc said on Tuesday it plans to start a late stage clinical trial for its COVID-19 vaccine candidate on or around July 27, according to its listing for the phase 3 study at clinicaltrials.gov.

Moderna said it will conduct the trial at 87 study locations, all in the United States.

The experimental vaccine will be tested in 30 states and Washington, D.C. Around half of the study locations are in hard-hit states like Texas, California, Florida, Georgia, Arizona and North and South Carolina.

The United States has reported record numbers of new coronavirus cases in recent days, with much of the surge coming from those states.

The federal government is supporting Moderna’s vaccine project with nearly half a billion dollars and has chosen it as one of the first to enter large-scale human trials.

Tensions between the company and government scientists contributed to a delay of the trial launch, Reuters reported earlier this month.

Shares of Moderna rose about 2.5% on Nasdaq at midday.

(Reporting by Michael Erman, Editing by Franklin Paul and Richard Chang)

Where COVID-19 is spreading fastest as U.S. cases rise 46% in past week

By Chris Canipe and Lisa Shumaker

(Reuters) – The United States saw a 46% increase in new cases of COVID-19 in the week ended June 28 compared to the previous seven days, with 21 states reporting positivity test rates above the level that the World Health Organization has flagged as concerning.

Nationally, 7% of diagnostic tests came back positive last week, up from 5% the prior week, according to a Reuters analysis of data from The COVID Tracking Project, a volunteer-run effort to track the outbreak.

The World Health Organization considers a positivity rate above 5% to be a cause for concern because it suggests there are more cases in the community that have not yet been uncovered.

Arizona’s positivity test rate was 24% last week, Florida’s was 16%, and Nevada, South Carolina and Texas’s were all 15%, according to the analysis.

Thirty-one states, mostly in the U.S. West and South, reported more new cases of COVID-19 last week compared to the previous week, the analysis found. Florida, Louisiana, Idaho and Washington state saw new cases more than double over that period.

In response to the new infections, Louisiana and Washington state have temporarily halted the reopening of their economies. Washington also mandated wearing masks in public.

Florida ordered all bars and some beaches to close. Idaho was not immediately available for comment.

Nationally, new COVID-19 cases have risen every week for four straight weeks. While part of that increase can be attributed to a 9% expansion in testing, health experts have also worried about states relaxing stay-at-home orders that had been credited with curbing the outbreak.

State officials across the country report the same trend in the new cases: People under 35 years old are going to bars, parties and social events without masks, becoming infected, and then spreading the disease to others.

Cases continue to decline in Northeast states, but some Midwest states that had new infections under control are seeing cases once again rise, including Illinois, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

 

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

‘Wear a mask!’ Republicans change tune as COVID-19 surges

By Doina Chiacu

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Republican lawmakers are making a public push for face coverings, splitting with mask-averse U.S. President Donald Trump on the issue as COVID-19 cases surge in some Republican-leaning states.

The top Republican in the House of Representatives, Kevin McCarthy, said on Monday every American has a responsibility to follow recommendations to help slow the spread of the coronavirus.

“They should wear a mask,” McCarthy told CNBC after his home state of California began to roll back efforts to reopen the economy. “If you cannot social distance, you need to be wearing a mask and you need to be respectful to one another.”

Republican Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, where cases are spiking, posted a similar message on Twitter.

“I am encouraging everyone to WEAR YOUR MASKS!” he said.

While a number of Republican politicians have donned masks themselves, some have shied away from insisting Americans cover their faces in public, saying it was a matter of personal choice.

That began to change as coronavirus cases nationwide soar to record levels day after day, prompting Republican-led states like Texas and Florida to re-impose restrictions, such as closing recently reopened bars.

Vice President Mike Pence encouraged Americans to wear masks during a visit to Texas on Sunday.

In one of the more compelling images, U.S. Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming on Friday tweeted a photo of her father, Republican former Vice President Dick Cheney, wearing a surgical mask with the hashtag #realmenwearmasks.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

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)

Where U.S. coronavirus cases are on the rise

By Chris Canipe and Lisa Shumaker

(Reuters) – Several southern U.S. states reported sharp increases in COVID-19 infections, with Alabama, South Carolina and Virginia all seeing new cases rise 35% or more in the week ended May 31 compared with the prior week, according to a Reuters analysis.

South Carolina health officials said they expected more increases in the future due to a lack of social distancing and mask-wearing at protests triggered by the death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minnesota.

“If people don’t follow current recommendations for social distancing and avoiding crowds of any kind, we can anticipate seeing increased numbers,” the South Carolina health department said in a statement to Reuters.

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

South Carolina said the recent rise in its new cases, which have been going up for three weeks, was in part due to the completion of testing in the state’s 194 nursing homes.

Alabama’s health department attributed the state’s steady increase in cases since early May to community transmission, clusters of outbreaks, and more testing.

Virginia officials were not immediately available for comment.

Nationally, new COVID-19 cases fell for a fifth straight week, down 4.7% last week compared with a 0.8% drop the prior week, according to the Reuters analysis of data from The COVID Tracking Project, a volunteer-run effort to track the outbreak.

As all 50 states have partially reopened, cases are rising in 17 states compared with 20 in the prior week. (For an interactive graphic, click here)

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

Thirteen states have met the criteria for the week ended May 31, compared with 14 states and the District of Columbia the prior week, the analysis showed. Pennsylvania and New York lead with seven straight weeks of declines, and new cases are also falling in New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

(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)