In U.S. Supreme Court case, the past could be the future on abortion

By Lawrence Hurley

OXFORD, Miss. (Reuters) – Just months before she was set to start law school in the summer of 1973, Barbara Phillips was shocked to learn she was pregnant.

Then 24, she wanted an abortion. The U.S. Supreme Court had legalized abortion nationwide months earlier with its landmark Roe v. Wade ruling recognizing a woman’s constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy. But abortions were not legally available at the time in Mississippi, where she lived in the small town of Port Gibson.

Phillips, a Black woman enmeshed in the civil rights movement, could feel her dream of becoming a lawyer slipping away.

“It was devastating. I was desperate,” Phillips said, sitting on the patio of her cozy one-story house in Oxford, a college town about 160 miles (260 km) north of Jackson, Mississippi’s capital.

At the time of the Roe ruling, 46 of the 50 U.S. states had some sort of criminal prohibitions on abortion. Access often was limited to wealthy and well-connected women, who tended to be white.

With a feminist group’s help, Phillips located a doctor in New York willing to provide an abortion. New York before Roe was the only state that let out-of-state women obtain abortions. She flew there for the procedure.

Now 72, Phillips does not regret her abortion. She went on to attend Northwestern law school in Chicago and realize her goal of becoming a civil rights lawyer, with a long career. Years later, she had a son when she felt the time was right.

“I was determined to decide for myself what I wanted to do with my life and my body,” Phillips said.

U.S. abortion rights are under attack unlike any time since the Roe ruling, with Republican-backed restrictions being passed in numerous states. The Supreme Court on Dec. 1 is set to hear arguments in a case in which Mississippi is seeking to revive its law, blocked by lower courts, banning abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Mississippi has raised the stakes by explicitly asking the court, which has a 6-3 conservative majority, to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Such a ruling could turn back the clock in Mississippi, which currently has just one abortion clinic, and other states to the kind of environment on abortion access that Phillips experienced nearly a half century ago.

Large swathes of America could return to an era in which women who want to end a pregnancy face the choice of undergoing a potentially dangerous illegal abortion, traveling long distances to a state where the procedure remains legal and available or buying abortion pills online.

Mississippi’s abortion law is not the only one being tested at the Supreme Court. The justices on Nov. 1 heard arguments in challenges to a Texas law banning abortion at about six weeks of pregnancy, but have not yet ruled.

TRIGGER LAWS

Mississippi is one of a dozen states with so-called trigger laws that would immediately ban abortion in all or most cases if Roe is overturned, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights.

Many are in the South, so a Mississippi woman would be unable to obtain an abortion in neighboring Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee or Alabama. The nearest states where abortion would remain legal, at least in the short term, would be Illinois and Florida.

The average distance a Mississippi woman would need to drive to reach a clinic would increase from 78 miles to 380 miles (125 to 610 km) each way, according to Guttmacher.

While some abortion rights advocates fear a return to grisly illegal back-alley abortions, there has been an important development since the pre-Roe era: abortion pills. Mississippi is among 19 states imposing restrictions on medication-induced abortions.

Mississippi officials are cagey on what a post-Roe world might look like. Republican Attorney General Lynn Fitch, who asked the court to overturn Roe, declined an interview request, as did Republican Governor Tate Reeves.

Mississippi Commissioner of Agriculture and Commerce Andy Gipson, who as a Republican state legislator helped shepherd the 2018 passage of the 15-week ban, called Roe v. Wade “antiquated, old law based on antiquated and old science.”

Gipson in an interview declined to answer questions about what Mississippi – or the southeastern United States – would be like without abortion rights, focusing on the specifics of the 15-week ban.

“It’s a false narrative to paint this as a picture of an outright ban throughout the southeast,” Gipson said, noting that the Supreme Court does not have to formally overturn Roe to uphold Mississippi’s law.

In court papers, Fitch said scientific advances, including contested claims that a fetus can detect pain early in a pregnancy, emphasize how Roe and a subsequent 1992 decision that reaffirmed abortion rights are “decades out of date.”

Abortion rights advocates have said any ruling upholding Mississippi’s law would effectively gut Roe, giving states unfettered power to limit or ban the procedure.

Phillips worries about a revival of dangerous, unregulated abortions that imperil women’s lives.

“I’m afraid that many more women and girls will be in back alleys,” Phillips said. “I’m worried we are going to find them in country roads, dead.”

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

Tennessee supermarket shooting leaves 2 dead, including gunman, 12 injured

(Reuters) – One person was killed and at least 12 were injured when a lone gunman opened fire on Thursday at a supermarket in suburban Memphis, Tennessee, before the suspect was found dead from an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound, the police chief said.

Law enforcement officers swarmed to the scene just after the shooting unfolded at a Kroger grocery store in Collierville, Tennessee, and began helping victims and others found hiding inside the supermarket, chief Dale Lane told reporters.

“We found people hiding in freezers and in locked offices,” Lane said.

The gunman, who was believed to have acted alone, was found dead in a parking lot outside the store, Lane said. Local media reported the suspect’s body was discovered inside his vehicle.

“We are waiting for some special equipment to search that vehicle as well as the property that is on him,” Lane said about two hours after the shooting, which erupted at about 1:30 p.m. local time.

He called the gun violence “the most horrific event that has occurred in Collierville history.” The town is located about 30 miles (50 km) east of Memphis in southwestern Tennessee.

No immediate explanation for a possible motive was offered by authorities.

Lane said some of the surviving victims sustained “very serious” injuries. All were taken to area hospitals, he said.

(Reporting by Peter Szekely and Barbara Goldberg in New York; Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Aurora Ellis and Sonya Hepinstall)

Tennessee flooding was more destructive than first estimated

By Rich McKay

(Reuters) -The weekend flooding in Tennessee that killed at least 21 people was more destructive than originally estimated, with about 120 homes washed off foundations, destroyed or simply “gone,” officials said Tuesday.

The scope of the damage came into sharper focus in hardest hit Humphreys County, as rescue teams continue to search house-to-house with trained dogs for dozens believed still missing.

“Our damage is much more massive than what we thought,” Humphreys County Sheriff Chris Davis told NPR in an interview Tuesday.

It was already believed that hundreds of homes were water-damaged and uninhabitable, officials said after the storm brought 17 inches of rain in just three hours.

Davis and other officials surveyed the damage from a helicopter late Monday, focusing largely on the hardest hit town of Waverly, about 55 miles west of Nashville.

“Yesterday we thought it was 20-something houses that had been removed from the foundations,” Davis said. “That’s not even close. Well over 100 – 120 houses have been moved, or are gone, no longer exist.”

Displaced residents found shelter with relatives, local churches and with housing provided by the American Red Cross, the sheriff said.

Officials who had been seeking federal aid were granted it late Monday as President Joe Biden declared a major disaster in the state of Tennessee and ordered federal aid, the White House said in a statement.

Local officials said that those killed in the flooding ranged in age from babies to the elderly. The Washington Post, citing family members, reported that 7-month-old twins died after they were swept away from their parents’ arms.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta and Bhargav Acharya in Bengaluru; Editing by Kim Coghill and Chizu Nomiyama)

At least 21 dead, 50 missing in Tennessee flooding

(Reuters) – At least 21 people have died and 50 others are reported missing after heavy flooding hit parts of Tennessee, authorities said on Sunday.

A dispatcher at the Humphreys County Sheriff’s Office confirmed the number of those killed and missing and said authorities were working to conduct house-to-house searches of the area.

Record rainfall of up to 17 inches (43 cm) in some areas sparked massive flooding on Saturday afternoon and evening. Especially hard hit was the town of Waverly, about 55 miles (88 km) west of Nashville. Hundreds of homes were left uninhabitable.

Waverly Mayor Wallace Frazier told the Tennessean newspaper that those killed in flooding ranged in age from babies to the elderly. The Washington Post, citing family members, reported that 7-month-old twins died after they were swept away from their parents’ arms.

The flooding uprooted massive trees, tore through homes and tossed cars and pickup trucks into ditches and atop sheds and other structures.

Cindy Dunn, 48, told the Tennessean that she and her husband had been stranded in their attic for several hours after floodwaters rose to 6 feet (1.8 m) high in their home. The pair were saved by a rescue crew that raised the bucket of a bulldozer up to a window they could get through.

“Hell. That’s what we had to go through,” Dunn told the newspaper.

(Reporting by Brad Brooks in Lubbock, Texas; Editing by Peter Cooney)

One million Americans vaccinated for COVID; Tennessee new epicenter

By Gabriella Borter and Dan Whitcomb

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Tennessee emerged alongside California on Wednesday as an epicenter of the latest COVID-19 surge even while more than 1 million Americans have been vaccinated as U.S. political leaders sought to guard against a highly contagious coronavirus variant sweeping across Britain.

Tennessee averaged nearly 128 new infections per 100,000 people over the last week, the highest of any U.S. state, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. California stood second at 111 new cases per 100,000 residents.

“Our state is ground zero for a surge in COVID-19 and we need Tennesseans to (do) their part,” Governor Bill Lee said on Twitter, urging residents to wear face masks and gather only with members of their own household over Christmas.

Some public health officials say Americans’ traveling and gathering for Thanksgiving contributed to the latest nationwide explosion in cases.

All told, 31 U.S. states have reported a grim record in new COVID-19 infections for December as hospitalizations and deaths also spiral. More than 194,600 new cases were confirmed on Tuesday alone.

The CDC said that as of Wednesday morning more than 1 million people nationwide had been given the first of the two doses required for the two coronavirus vaccines that have been approved. But most Americans have been told that it could be six months or more before they are eligible for the shots as priority is given to healthcare workers, nursing home residents and in some cases top government officials.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease official, received the Moderna vaccine on live television on Tuesday. Joe Biden was inoculated with the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine in front of cameras on Monday.

CONCERN GROWS OVER MUTANT VARIANT

U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar, a Democrat from Minnesota, earlier this week criticized political leaders for putting themselves at the front of the line for the shot.

“We are not more important then frontline workers, teachers etc. who are making sacrifices everyday. Which is why I won’t take it,” Omar said on Twitter.

The Trump administration said on Wednesday it had reached a $2 billion deal with Pfizer to distribute 100 million additional doses of its vaccine by July.

But Americans who saw a ray of hope in the release of the two vaccines in December learned of an even more transmissible coronavirus variant spreading in the United Kingdom. Drug makers Pfizer and Moderna were testing their vaccines against the variant, but believed the drugs would be effective against the mutant virus.

The United States, unlike many nations worldwide, has not banned travelers from Britain.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city would order international travelers to quarantine for 14 days on arrival and provide contact information to government officials. Sheriff’s deputies will make visits to enforce the order on those arriving from Britain, the mayor said.

Travelers found to violate those orders face fines of $1,000 per day, de Blasio said.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has asked airlines to screen British travelers for COVID-19. The state was an early epicenter of the virus and has recorded more than 36,000 COVID deaths, far more than any other state.

Washington state Governor Jay Inslee this week ordered a 14-day quarantine for travelers arriving from the UK, South Africa or other countries where the new variant had been detected.

In New York City, vaccination programs expanded to the Fire Department, where roughly 6,000 personnel have contracted the virus, Fire Commissioner Dan Nigro told reporters. Some 400 FDNY paramedics lined up to receive their first doses of the Moderna vaccine on Wednesday, including Verena Kansog, advanced life support coordinator for Manhattan, who got her shot at a training center on Randalls Island.

“I feel relieved,” Kansog, who worried about bringing the disease home to her elderly mother, told Reuters in a phone interview. “I was not one single bit nervous.”

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter and Dan Whitcomb; Additional reporting by Anurag Maan, Carlo Allegri, Jonathan Allen, Peter Szekely, Lisa Lambert, Susan Heavey and Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Leslie Adler)

Pfizer to start pilot delivery program for its COVID-19 vaccine in four U.S. states

(Reuters) – Pfizer Inc. has launched a pilot delivery program for its experimental COVID-19 vaccine in four U.S. states, as the U.S. drugmaker seeks to address distribution challenges facing its ultra-cold storage requirements.

Pfizer’s vaccine, which was shown to be more than 90% effective in preventing COVID-19 based on initial data, must be shipped and stored at -70 degrees Celsius (minus 94°F), significantly below the standard for vaccines of 2-8 degrees Celsius (36-46°F).

“We are hopeful that results from this vaccine delivery pilot will serve as the model for other U.S. states and international governments, as they prepare to implement effective COVID-19 vaccine programs,” Pfizer said in a statement on Monday.

It picked Rhode Island, Texas, New Mexico, and Tennessee for the program after taking into account their differences in overall size, diversity of populations, immunization infrastructure, and need to reach individuals in varied urban and rural settings.

The four states will not receive vaccine doses earlier than other states by virtue of the pilot, nor will they receive any differential consideration, Pfizer said.

The company expects to have enough safety data on the vaccine from the ongoing large scale late-stage trials by the third week of November before proceeding to apply for emergency use authorization (EUA).

Pfizer and its partner BioNTech SE have a $1.95 billion deal to supply 100 million doses of the vaccine to the U.S. government, which has an option to acquire up to an additional 500 million doses.

Earlier on Monday, rival Moderna Inc. said its experimental vaccine was 94.5% effective in preventing COVID-19 based on interim data from a late-stage trial, boosting hopes that vaccines against the disease may be ready for use soon.

Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines use a new technology called synthetic messenger RNA to activate the immune system against the virus.

(Reporting by Shubham Kalia in Bengaluru; Editing by Anil D’Silva and Richard Pullin)

Remnants of Hurricane Laura drench Arkansas as storm heads east

(Reuters) – The remnants of Hurricane Laura were dousing Arkansas on Friday morning and due to bring rain to the East Coast over the weekend.

Now a tropical depression, Laura had proved less damaging than feared, despite arriving in Louisiana this week as one of the most powerful hurricanes recorded in the United States.

The storm killed at least six people in Louisiana, including four who were killed when trees fell into homes, damaged buildings in Louisiana and Texas and knocked out power for hundreds of thousands of residents.

U.S. President Donald Trump is expected to head to the Gulf Coast over the weekend to survey the damage.

The storm was forecast to drop heavy rain over Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Missouri and Kentucky as it headed out to the East Coast, the National Weather Service said.

At its peak upon making landfall on Thursday morning, Laura had maximum sustained winds of 150 miles per hour (241 km per hour), faster than even Hurricane Katrina, which sparked deadly levee breaches in New Orleans in 2005 after arriving with wind speeds of 125 mph.

What would have been a dangerous 20-foot (6-m) storm surge that forecasters had predicted could move 40 miles (64 km) inland was avoided when Laura tacked east just before landfall, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards said. That meant a mighty gush of water was not fully pushed up the Calcasieu Ship Channel, which would have given the storm surge an easy path far inland.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Marguerita Choy)

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

By Andy Sullivan and Jarrett Renshaw

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ONE BOX, 864,000 VOTERS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOT TENSE EVERYWHERE

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

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

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

Drop boxes haven’t been controversial in those states.

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

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

Trump ousts TVA board members over outsourcing jobs; targets CEO salary

By Jeff Mason

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump said on Monday he was formally removing two members from the board of the Tennessee Valley Authority for seeking to outsource U.S. jobs to foreign workers, and criticized its chief executive as overpaid.

In remarks during a White House event, Trump threatened to remove the agency’s chief executive, Jeff Lyash, and called on the board of the nation’s largest public utility to do so. Trump has previously been critical of the agency and threatened firm disciplinary action against it.

“Let this serve as a warning to any federally appointed board. If you betray American workers, then you will hear two simple words ‘you’re fired,'” Trump said, before signing an executive order aimed at preventing federal agencies from using foreign workers and offshore labor to displace U.S. workers.

Trump said he was removing TVA board chairman James Thompson and Richard Howorth from their positions on the board.

U.S. Tech workers, a nonprofit formed to fight the growth of H1-B visas to foreign workers, had criticized TVA in a series of television ads. The group urged Trump, who has the authority to appoint the TVA board, to fire Lyash for laying off U.S. workers and replacing them with contractors hiring foreign workers.

The Chattanooga Free Press reported in June that TVA had laid off 62 IT workers in Chattanooga and Knoxville as it moved to outsource more data and programming work.

A spokesman for the TVA had no immediate comment.

During the meeting, attended by several TVA workers, Trump said he had been informed that Lyash had contacted the White House and indicated a strong willingness to reverse course.

Trump has sparred with the TVA in the past over its efforts to close coal-fired power plants. He has also previously proposed selling parts of the government-owned entity to the private sector.

The U.S. Tech workers’ group aired an ad on cable television that said Lyash received an $8.1 million compensation package, making him the “highest-paid federal employee in America.”

Trump said the position was overpaid, and the CEO should not make more than $500,000 annually. “He gets $8 million a year,” said of Lyash’s package. “That was just a succession of deep swamp things happening and it’s a disgrace.”

(Reporting by Jeff Mason, Pete Schroeder and Andrea Shalal; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Tom Brown)

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

By Susan Heavey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RISING TOLL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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