Three states in U.S. South report record rises in COVID-19 deaths

By Lisa Shumaker

(Reuters) – Alabama, Florida and North Carolina reported record daily increases in COVID-19 deaths on Tuesday, a trio of grim milestones that follows the first nationwide increase in fatalities since mid-April as some U.S. states rushed to reopen.

The number of new cases reported daily began rising about six weeks ago, especially in southern and western states such as Arizona, California, Florida and Texas, which have been quick to lift restrictions meant to control the spread of the virus.

New coronavirus cases rose in 46 of 50 U.S. states last week over the previous week, according to a Reuters analysis of data from The COVID Tracking Project. So far in July, 28 states have reported record daily increases in new cases.

With more than 3.3 million cases, the United States ranks first in the world in cases per capita along with Peru. With more than 135,000 deaths, the United States ranks seventh in fatalities per capita among the 20 countries with the most cases.

Florida on Tuesday reported 133 new COVID-19 deaths, raising the state’s death toll to more than 4,500. Its previous record increase was 120 on July 9. Alabama reported a record increase of 40 deaths and North Carolina 35 deaths, bringing each state’s total to over 1,100.

The rising cases and deaths have left educators from California to Wisconsin opting for online learning rather than a return to classrooms when the school year begins in a few weeks.

Schools from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to Fort Bend County, Texas, joined California’s two largest school districts, Los Angeles and San Diego, in announcing plans to keep teachers and students from the close contact that classrooms demand.

The decision puts the districts at odds with U.S. President Donald Trump, who has threatened to withhold federal funds or remove tax-exempt status if they refuse to reopen classrooms, even though most schools are financed by state and local taxes.

Trump’s campaign views the reopening of classrooms, enabling parents to get back to work, as a key to economic recovery and a boost to his re-election chances on Nov. 3.

New York state plans to reopen its schools in areas where the daily infection rate is below 5% of all COVID tests. The state has averaged an infection rate of about 1% for several weeks and is one of only four states where cases fell last week, according to a Reuters analysis. New York City, where social distancing and mask wearing are widely practiced, recently reported no new COVID deaths in a 24-hour period for the first time since March.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday added Minnesota, New Mexico, Ohio and Wisconsin to the state’s quarantine list. Travelers arriving in New York from a total of 22 U.S. states are now required to quarantine for 14 days.

Florida still plans for its schools to resume in-person learning in August. The state recorded over 9,000 new cases on Tuesday, down from 12,000 on Monday and a record increase of 15,000 on Sunday.

Teachers in Loudoun County, Virginia, protested outside school headquarters on Monday with one woman fully enclosed in a white lab suit and face shield holding a sign that said, “Our new school uniform.” To keep physically distant, the teachers honked their car horns in unison, according to a video.

Faculty members were protesting against a school board plan for hybrid instruction that would include two days of in-person teaching, according to local media.

(Reporting by Maria Caspani and Gabriella Borter in New York; Writing by Lisa Shumaker; Editing by Howard Goller)

California shuts down businesses, schools as coronavirus outbreak grows

By Sharon Bernstein and Dan Whitcomb

SACRAMENTO (Reuters) – California’s governor on Monday clamped new restrictions on businesses as coronavirus cases and hospitalizations soared, and the state’s two largest school districts, in Los Angeles and San Diego, said children would be made to stay home in August.

Governor Gavin Newsom ordered bars closed and restaurants, movie theaters, zoos and museums across the nation’s most populous state to cease indoor operations. Gyms, churches and hair salons must close in the 30 hardest-hit counties.

“It’s incumbent upon all of us to recognize soberly that COVID-19 is not going away any time soon, until there is a vaccine and/or an effective therapy,” Newsom said at a news briefing.

The governor called the move critical to stemming a surge in COVID-19 cases that have strained hospitals in several of California’s rural counties.

The public school districts for Los Angeles and San Diego, which instruct a combined 706,000 students and employ 88,000 people, said in a joint statement they would teach only online when school resumes in August, citing “vague and contradictory” science and government guidelines.

The districts said countries that have safely reopened schools have done so only after establishing declining infection rates and on-demand coronavirus testing.

“California has neither,” the statement said, adding, “The sky-rocketing infection rates of the past few weeks make it clear the pandemic is not under control.”

The union representing Los Angeles teachers applauded the strategy in a separate statement released shortly after the school shutdowns were announced.

“In the face of the alarming spike in COVID cases, the lack of necessary funding from the government to open schools safely and the outsized threat of death faced by working-class communities of color, there really is no other choice that doesn’t put thousands of lives at risk,” United Teachers Los Angeles said.

Brenda Del Hierro, who has two children in Los Angeles schools, said resuming traditional instruction was important but the hazards had to be considered. “For their social and emotional well being they need to go back to school. But at the end of the day there is too much of a risk,” she said.

DISTRICTS CLASH WITH TRUMP

The decision to cancel in-person classes puts the districts at odds with U.S. President Donald Trump, who has said he might withhold federal funding or remove tax-exempt status from school systems that refuse to reopen. Most education funding comes from state and local governments.

Administration officials have said data does not suggest attending school would be dangerous for children because their infection rates are far lower than the population at large.

In response to the California districts’ announcement, the White House reiterated that the ideal scenario is for students to go to school. “Hopefully Los Angeles and San Diego can get there soon as well, as that is what is best for children.” spokesman Judd Deer said.

Newsom, who has said during the pandemic that it was up to local school districts to determine how best to educate their students, cheered the announcements by Los Angeles and San Diego.

But Republicans criticized the governor for failing to issue statewide guidelines for schools during the health crisis.

“While he continues to blame Californians for his failure in leadership, his demands to close our small businesses and lack of direction on opening schools will further harm California’s school children and the small businesses that fuel our economy,” Jessica Millan Patterson, chairwoman of the California Republican Party, said in a written statement.

California, along with Florida, Arizona and Texas have emerged as the new U.S. epicenters of the pandemic. Infections have risen rapidly in about 40 of the 50 states over the last two weeks, according to a Reuters analysis.

Despite nearly 28,000 new COVID-19 cases in the last two days in Florida, Disney World in Orlando welcomed the public on Saturday for the first time since March with guests required to wear masks, undergo temperature checks and keep physically apart.

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento, Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles, Steve Gorman in Eureka, California, Rich McKay in Atlanta, Lisa Lambert and Doina Chiacu in Washington, and Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut; Writing by Lisa Shumaker and Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Howard Goller, Bill Tarrant and Cynthia Osterman)

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)

3M, MIT partner to make rapid COVID-19 antigen test

By Carl O’Donnell

(Reuters) – U.S. industrial conglomerate 3M Co has partnered with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to develop a rapid antigen test for COVID-19, the company said on Tuesday.

The test would produce results within minutes and could be administered on a low-cost, paper-based device, similar to a home pregnancy test, that could be delivered at the point of care.

“We are seeking to improve the speed, accessibility and affordability of testing for the virus, a major step in helping to prevent its spread,” said John Banovetz, the chief technology officer at 3M.

The research effort is being aided by a grant from the National Institutes of Health, which is running a project called Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics (RADx) that funds the development of new testing technologies in academia and business.

The program aims to have the new tests available for use by late summer or early fall.

Antigen tests scan for proteins that can be found on or inside a virus. They can detect the virus very quickly and can potentially be produced at a lower cost than other tests.

3M says it could scale manufacturing to millions of tests per day once it is developed.

(Reporting by Carl O’Donnell; Editing by Leslie Adler)

Ukraine: it’s too early to blame human error for downing of passenger plane in Iran

KYIV (Reuters) – Ukraine’s foreign minister said on Tuesday it was soon to blame human error for the shooting down of a Ukrainian passenger airliner near Tehran in January, challenging the findings of Iran’s Civil Aviation Organisation (CAO).

The CAO said in an interim report that the plane was accidentally downed, killing 176 people on board, because of a misalignment of a radar system and lack of communication between the air defense operator and his commanders.

But Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told an online briefing that many questions remained unanswered.

“I want to clearly emphasize: it is early to say that the plane was shot down as a result of human error, as the Iranian side claims,” he said. “We have many questions, and we need a large number of authoritative, unbiased, objective answers about what happened.”

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards shot down the Ukraine International Airlines flight with a ground-to-air missile on Jan. 8 shortly after the plane took off from Tehran. Iran later called it a “disastrous mistake” by forces who were on high alert during a confrontation with the United States.

Tehran last month said it would send the black box flight recorders from the downed airliner to France for analysis and that experts from the United States, Canada, France, Britain and Ukraine would take part in the decoding.

Kuleba said an Iranian delegation was due to arrive in Kiev later this month to discuss compensation. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in February Kiev was not satisfied with the size of compensation Iran had offered.

(Reporting by Pavel Polityuk, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

U.S. rejects China’s claims in South China Sea, adding to tensions

By Humeyra Pamuk, Arshad Mohammed and Yew Lun Tian

WASHINGTON/BEIJING (Reuters) – The United States on Monday rejected China’s claims to offshore resources in most of the South China Sea, drawing criticism from China which said the U.S. position raised tension in the region, highlighting an increasingly testy relationship.

China has offered no coherent legal basis for its ambitions in the South China Sea and for years has been using intimidation against other Southeast Asian coastal states, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.

“We are making clear: Beijing’s claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea are completely unlawful, as is its campaign of bullying to control them,” said Pompeo, a prominent China hawk within the Trump administration.

The United States has long opposed China’s expansive territorial claims on the South China Sea, sending warships regularly through the strategic waterway to demonstrate freedom of navigation there. Monday’s comments reflect a harsher tone.

“The world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire,” Pompeo said.

The U.S. statement supports a ruling four years ago under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) that invalidated most of China’s claims for maritime rights in the South China Sea.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian condemned the U.S. rejection of China’s claim.

“It intentionally stirs up controversy over maritime sovereignty claims, destroys regional peace and stability and is an irresponsible act,” he said at a regular briefing.

“The U.S. has repeatedly sent large fleets of sophisticated military planes and ships to the South China Sea … The U.S. is the troublemaker and destroyer of regional peace and stability.”

China claims 90% of the potentially energy-rich South China Sea, but Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also lay claim to parts of it.

About $3 trillion worth of trade passes through the waterway each year. China has built bases atop atolls in the region but says its intentions are peaceful.

MORE CONFIDENT?

Analysts said it would be important to see if other countries adopted the U.S. stance and what, if anything, Washington might do to reinforce its position and prevent Beijing from creating “facts on the water” to buttress its claims.

“The Southeast Asian claimants, especially Vietnam, will feel more confident in asserting their jurisdictional rights under UNCLOS,” said Ian Storey, senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

The Philippines strongly supported a rules-based order in the South China Sea and urged China to comply with the four-year-old arbitration ruling, its defense minister, Delfin Lorenzana, said.

Taiwan welcomed the U.S. statement.

“Our country opposes any attempt by a claimant state to use intimidation, coercion, or force to resolve disputes,” Taiwan foreign ministry spokeswoman Joanne Ou told reporters.

The relationship between the United States and China has grown increasingly tense recently over various issues including China’s handling of the novel coronavirus and its tightened grip on Hong Kong.

China routinely outlines the scope of its claims in the South China Sea with reference to a so-called nine-dash line on its maps that encompasses about nine-tenths of the 3.5-million-square-kilometer waters.

“This is basically the first time we have called it illegitimate,” Chris Johnson, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said of Pompeo’s statement.

“It’s fine to put out a statement, but what you going to do about it?”

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk, Arshad Mohammed, Matt Spetalnick, Daphne Psaledakis. Additional reporting by Yew Lun Tian in Beijing, Ben Blanchard in Taipei, and Karen Lema in Manila; Editing by Leslie Adler and Lincoln Feast, Robert Birsel)

U.S. executes first prisoner in 17 years after Supreme Court gives OK at 2 a.m.

(Reuters) – The U.S. government on Tuesday carried out its first execution in 17 years, putting to death convicted murderer Daniel Lee after the Supreme Court cleared the way with a ruling issued at two o’clock in the morning.

Lee was pronounced dead at 8:07 a.m. EDT (1207 GMT), U.S. Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman Kristie Breshears said by phone.

The execution had been held up by a U.S. District Court in Washington, which on Monday ordered the U.S. Justice Department to delay four executions scheduled for July and August. The order was later affirmed by an appellate court.

But at 2:10 a.m. (0610 GMT), about 10 hours after Lee’s execution was due to take place in Terre Haute, Indiana, the Supreme Court in a 5-4 vote cleared the way for federal executions to resume.

“The plaintiffs in this case have not made the showing required to justify last-minute intervention by a Federal Court. Last-minute stays like that issued this morning should be the extreme exception, not the norm,” the Supreme Court said.

Lee was convicted of killing three members of an Arkansas family in 1996, but some relatives of his victims opposed him receiving the death sentence.

Strapped to a gurney, Lee was asked if had any last words, according to a media witness present in the viewing chamber.

“I didn’t do it. I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life but I’m not a murderer,” Lee said, according to a reporter who witnessed the execution and issued a report for all media. “You’re killing an innocent man.”

As the drug was being administered, Lee raised his head to look around, and his breathing appeared to become labored, according to the pool report. Soon after, Lee’s chest was no longer moving, his lips turned blue and his fingers became ashy.

Two unnamed Bureau of Prisons officials and Lee’s spiritual adviser could be seen inside the execution chamber.

While several states conduct executions, the federal government had not done so since 2003.

Attorney General William Barr announced last July that the Justice Department would resume carrying out executions of some of the 62 inmates on federal death row.

(Reporting by Peter Szekely, Daniel Trotta and Jonathan Allen; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Jonathan Oatis)

What you need to know about the coronavirus right now

(Reuters) – Here’s what you need to know about the coronavirus right now:

Restrictions reimposed across Asia-Pacific region

From Melbourne to Manila, Hong Kong and India’s tech capital Bengaluru, lockdowns and strict social distancing restrictions are being reimposed across the Asia-Pacific after a surge in new coronavirus cases fanned fears of a second wave of infections.

Many parts of Asia, the region first hit by the coronavirus that emerged in central China late last year, are finding cause to pause the reopening of their economies, some after winning praise for their initial responses to the outbreak.

The number of coronavirus infections around the world hit 13 million on Monday, according to a Reuters tally, climbing by a million in just five days. Reuters’ global tally, which is based on government reports, shows COVID-19 accelerating fastest in Latin America, the number of deaths there exceeding the figure for North America for the first time on Monday.

Shutdown in California

California’s governor on Monday clamped new restrictions on businesses as coronavirus cases and hospitalizations soared, and the state’s two largest school districts, in Los Angeles and San Diego, said children would be made to stay home in August.

Governor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, ordered bars closed and restaurants, movie theaters, zoos and museums across the nation’s most populous state to cease indoor operations. Gyms, churches and hair salons must close in the 30 hardest-hit counties.

“It’s incumbent upon all of us to recognize soberly that COVID-19 is not going away any time soon, until there is a vaccine and/or an effective therapy,” Newsom said at a news briefing.

The decision to cancel in-person classes puts the districts at odds with U.S. President Donald Trump, who has said he might withhold federal funding or remove tax-exempt status from school systems that refuse to reopen.

‘Worst-case’ winter toll

Britain faces a potentially more deadly second wave of COVID-19 in the coming winter that could kill up to 120,000 people over nine months in a worst-case scenario, health experts said on Tuesday.

With COVID-19 more likely to spread in winter as people spend more time together in enclosed spaces, a second wave of the pandemic “could be more serious than the one we’ve just been through,” said Stephen Holgate, a professor and co-lead author of a report by Britain’s Academy of Medical Sciences.

“This is not a prediction, but it is a possibility,” Holgate told an online briefing. “Deaths could be higher with a new wave of COVID-19 this winter, but the risk of this happening could be reduced if we take action immediately.”

The United Kingdom’s current death toll from confirmed cases of COVID-19 is around 45,000, the highest in Europe.

Good news from hard-hit Belgium

Belgium, which has reined in the coronavirus after becoming the worst-hit mid-sized country in the world, reported zero new coronavirus-related deaths in 24 hours on Tuesday for the first time since March 10.

As in many European countries that were hard-hit by the pandemic in March and April, Belgium sharply reduced infections by imposing a lockdown, which is now being lifted.

The total number of deaths reported by the national public health institute Sciensano remained at 9,787. In the country of 11.5 million people, that works out to around 850 deaths per million, the worst in the world apart from the tiny city state of San Marino. The peak daily death toll was 343 on April 12.

Bastille Day with a difference

France held a scaled-down annual Bastille Day celebration on Tuesday, with none of the usual tanks and troops parading down Paris’s Champs Elysees avenue, in a concession to the COVID-19 epidemic still stalking Europe.

Instead, President Emmanuel Macron, standing in the back of a military jeep, reviewed ranks of socially-distanced troops on the Place de la Concorde square after a flypast by military aircraft.

“I wish, with all the French, with the armies themselves, to pay a vibrant tribute to health workers and those who, in all sectors, have enabled public, social and economic life to continue,” Macron said in message released ahead of the parade.

(Compiled by Linda Noakes and Karishma Singh; editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise)

White House names Kratsios as Pentagon acting tech chief

FILE PHOTO: The Pentagon in Washington, U.S., is seen from aboard Air Force One, March 29, 2018. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas/File Photo

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Pentagon confirmed on Monday that U.S. Chief Technology Officer Michael Kratsios is being tapped to serve as the acting Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering overseeing the U.S. military’s massive R&D efforts.

Kratsios, who is President Donald Trump’s top technology policy advisor, will also serve as the acting Pentagon chief technology officer. Reuters reported the planned move earlier on Monday.

The Defense Department has the largest research and development budget in the federal government and Kratsios will oversee the Missile Defense Agency, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Defense Innovation Unit, Space Development Agency and the DoD Laboratory enterprise.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper said in a statement the Pentagon sought “someone with experience in identifying and developing new technologies and working closely with a wide range of industry partners. We think Michael is the right person for this job.”

On June 23, the Pentagon said its chief technology officer Mike Griffin, an outspoken advocate for space-based missile defense systems, and his deputy Lisa Porter would resign effective July 10 to set up their own company.

The Pentagon also confirmed Monday that Mark J. Lewis, director of Defense Research and Engineering for Modernization, will serve as Kratsios’ acting deputy at the Pentagon.

Kratsios will also oversee the agency’s Modernization Priorities, which include efforts on 5G, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and microelectronics. Kratsios led the development of the White House’s national strategies for AI, 5G, and quantum computing.

Kratsios has also worked on autonomous vehicles, commercial drones and advanced manufacturing at the White House. He will retain his White House role along with the Pentagon assignment.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Richard Chang)

Florida sets one-day record with over 15,000 new COVID cases, more than most countries

By Lisa Shumaker

(Reuters) – Florida reported a record increase of more than 15,000 new cases of COVID-19 in 24 hours on Sunday, as the Trump administration renewed its push for schools to reopen and anti-mask protests were planned in Michigan and Missouri.

If Florida were a country, it would rank fourth in the world for the most new cases in a day behind the United States, Brazil and India, according to a Reuters analysis.

Florida’s daily increases in cases have already surpassed the highest daily tally reported by any European country during the height of the pandemic there. It has also broken New York state’s record of 12,847 new cases on April 10 when it was the epicenter of the U.S. outbreak.

The latest rise was reported a day after Walt Disney World in Orlando reopened with a limited number of guests who were welcomed with a host of safety measures, including masks and temperature checks.

Anti-mask activists in several states, including Florida and Michigan, have organized protests against local mandates, arguing that the measures infringe upon individual freedom.

Coronavirus infections are rising in about 40 states, according to a Reuters analysis of cases for the past two weeks compared with the prior two weeks. Nationally, the United States has broken global records by registering about 60,000 new cases a day for the last four days in a row, according to a Reuters tally. Hospitalizations and positive test rates are also rising in Arizona, California, Florida and Texas.

Florida reported a record amount of testing, with nearly 143,000 results announced on Sunday compared with an average of 68,000 for the prior seven days.

TRUMP DONS MASK

Facing a battered economy as he seeks re-election in November, President Donald Trump has pressured states to reopen shuttered businesses and schools.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said on Sunday that her department did not have its own safe reopening plans to promote, and each school district and state must devise their own plans based on their local coronavirus infection rates.

Health officials have pleaded with the public to wear masks to limit the spread of the virus, but the issue has become politically divisive in the United States unlike many other countries that have seen far lower rates of infection and death.

Seven months into the pandemic, Trump wore a mask for the first time in public when he visited a Washington D.C.-area military medical center on Saturday. He had previously refused to wear a mask in public or ask Americans to wear face coverings, saying it was a personal choice.

Many Americans still refuse to wear a mask, which health experts say help stop transmission of the virus that has killed more than 134,000 Americans.

Anti-mask activists organized a protest on Saturday at a grilled cheese restaurant and bar in Windermere, Florida, which is in Orange County about 12 miles (19 km) from Walt Disney World.

The restaurant, 33 & Melt, has become a focal point of tension after owner Carrie Hudson said she was not requiring customers to wear masks. County officials have mandated the use of masks in public since June 20.

During Saturday’s protest, no customers wore face coverings inside the restaurant. Agents from the state’s Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco arrived during the rally and served Hudson with a warning, according to a video.

“This is a virus that is very well contained,” said one of the demonstrators, anti-mask activist Tara Hill. “Everyone is responsible for their own health care decisions … We want our choices respected as well.”

In addition to a record 15,000 new cases on Sunday, more than four dozen hospitals in Florida reported that their intensive care units are full due to a surge in COVID-19 patients.

Hundreds were expected to attend a demonstration at the Michigan state capitol on Sunday afternoon, according to a Facebook event, to protest against Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s order that everyone must wear a mask in public, except when outdoors and able to maintain social distance.

Protesters were also planning to gather outside city hall in Springfield, Missouri on Monday, where the city council was due to vote on a mask mandate in response to rising cases and a more than fourfold increase in Greene County’s COVID-19 hospitalizations in the last month.

(Reporting by Gabriella Borters in New York and Octavio Jones in Windermere, Florida; Writing by Lisa Shumaker; Editing by Daniel Wallis)