Firefighters move in on Southern California canyon blaze despite high winds

By Dan Whitcomb and Gabriella Borter

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Firefighters battling a blaze in a Southern California canyon made some progress toward containment but were up against more high winds and low humidity on Friday, which threatened to stoke the flames as they tore through wooded hillsides.

The Bond Fire, which had forced some 25,000 people in Orange County to evacuate, broke out around 10 p.m. on Wednesday night on the street for which it is named and quickly engulfed Silverado Canyon, egged on by strong Santa Ana winds.

“Firefighters worked through the night extinguishing hot spots, mopping up around structures and stopping the forward spread of this fire,” Captain Paul Holaday of Orange County Fire Authority said in a video posted to Twitter on Friday.

Air and ground units were focused on protecting the canyon communities of Silverado, Santiago, Williams and Modjesca on Friday, Holaday said.

In a Friday morning bulletin, the National Weather Service said a red flag warning for high gusty winds was in effect until 10 p.m. Saturday for the inland portion of Orange County, where officials said the Bond Fire still held claim to some 6,400 acres. The strongest winds were expected Friday morning.

Two firefighters involved in the effort were injured and transported to a local hospital for further treatment, the Orange County Fire Authority said on Twitter on Thursday.

The blaze was 10% contained as of Friday morning.

Woodsy Silverado Canyon, miles from Southern California’s suburban sprawl up a single winding road, is home to an eclectic mix of residents including artists, horse owners and ranchers.

Fire officials have not yet said what they believe to be the cause of the fire, although Silverado Canyon and Bond Road resident Giovanna Gibson, 60, told Reuters that neighbors believed the blaze ignited when the owners of a home without power tried to start their generator and it exploded.

Since the start of the year, wildfires have scorched more than 6,500 square miles (17,000 square km) of California land, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The yearly land area burned in the western United States has grown eight times larger in less than four decades, the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station said in research published last month.

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles and Gabriella Borter in New York; Editing by Bill Berkrot and Diane Craft)

U.S. job growth slows sharply; long-term unemployment rises

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. economy added the fewest workers in six months in November, hindered by a resurgence in new COVID-19 cases that, together with a lack of more government relief money, threatens to reverse the recovery from the pandemic recession.

The closely watched employment report also showed a surge in people experiencing long periods of joblessness, putting pressure on Congress to come up with another rescue package.

The report only covered the first two weeks of November, when the current wave of coronavirus infections started. Infections, hospitalizations and death rates have sky-rocketed, leading some economists to anticipate a drop in employment in December or January as more jurisdictions impose restrictions on businesses and consumers shun crowded places like restaurants.

“This is a disappointing report, and one that shows the third wave of the pandemic is having a bigger effect on hiring than had been thought,” said Brad McMillan, chief investment officer for Commonwealth Financial Network. “Prospects for a continued strong recovery in consumer spending may be at risk. This is a wake-up call for the Congress and should support more Federal stimulus.”

Nonfarm payrolls increased by 245,000 jobs last month after rising by 610,000 in October, the Labor Department said on Friday. That was the smallest gain since the jobs recovery started in May. The fifth straight monthly slowdown in job gains left employment 9.8 million below its February peak.

Job growth last month was held back by further departures of temporary workers hired for the 2020 Census. States and local governments are also expected to have shed more workers, leaving overall government payrolls to drop by 99,000 jobs, the second straight monthly decline. The private sector added 344,000 jobs.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast payrolls would increase by 469,000 jobs in November. Hiring peaked at 4.781 million jobs in June. Reports on consumer spending, manufacturing and services industries have suggested a slowdown in the recovery from the worst recession since the Great Depression.

The United States is in the midst of a fresh wave of COVID-19 infections. Nearly 200,000 new cases were reported on Wednesday and hospitalizations approached a record 100,000 patients, according to a Reuters tally of official data.

A bipartisan, $908 billion coronavirus aid plan gained momentum in Congress on Thursday as conservative lawmakers expressed their support and leaders in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives huddled together.

More than $3 trillion in government COVID-19 relief helped millions of unemployed Americans cover daily expenses and companies keep workers on payrolls, leading to record economic growth in the third quarter. The uncontrolled pandemic and lack of additional fiscal stimulus could result in the economy contracting in the first quarter of 2021.

U.S. stock index futures sharply pared gains on the jobs report. The dollar was trading lower against a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices were lower.

LONG-TERM UNEMPLOYED

The unemployment rate fell to 6.7% from 6.9% in October. It, however, has been biased down by people misclassifying themselves as being “employed but absent from work.” Without this error, the government estimated the jobless rate would have been about 7.1% in November.

The number of people unemployed for 27 weeks or more jumped 385,000 in November to 3.9 million. These long-term unemployed accounted for 36.9% of the 10.7 million unemployed last month. The number of people working part-time for economic reasons was steady at 6.7 million.

Despite the ample slack in the labor market, average hourly earnings rose 0.3% after nudging up 0.1% in October. That left the year-on-year increase in wages at 4.4%. The average workweek was steady at 34.8 hours.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Paul Simao)

Coronavirus claims 1.5 million lives globally with 10,000 dying each day

By Shaina Ahluwalia and Sangameswaran S

(Reuters) – Over 1.5 million people have lost their lives due to COVID-19 with one death reported every nine seconds on a weekly average, as vaccinations are set to begin in December in a handful of developed nations.

Half a million deaths occurred in just the last two months, indicating that the severity of the pandemic is far from over. Nearly 65 million people globally have been infected by the disease and the worst affected country, United States, is currently battling a third wave of coronavirus infections.

In the last week alone, more than 10,000 people in the world died on average every single day, which has been steadily rising each passing week. Many countries across the world are now fighting second and third waves even greater than the first, forcing new restrictions on everyday life.

The novel coronavirus caused more deaths in the past year than tuberculosis in 2019 and nearly four times the number of deaths due to malaria, according to the World Health Organization.

Robert Redfield, the head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, warned on Wednesday that the pandemic will pose the country’s grimmest health crisis yet over the next few months, before vaccines become widely available.

“I actually believe they’re going to be the most difficult time in the public health history of this nation,” Redfield told a livestream presentation hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.

The United States continues to lead in terms of fatalities, with over 273,000 deaths alone. North America and Latin American regions combined have more than 50% of all coronavirus deaths that have been reported.

The Latin American region, the worst-affected globally in terms of fatalities, recently surpassed over 450,000 deaths.

VACCINE HOPES

On Wednesday, Britain became the first country to approve the vaccine candidate developed by Germany’s BioNTech and Pfizer Inc, jumping ahead of the rest of the world in the race to begin a crucial mass inoculation program.

However, supplies are expected to be very limited in the early stages which means that every country beginning the drive will have to prioritize based on risk factors.

U.S. health regulators are expected to approve distribution and administration of the vaccine in mid-December.

Africa aims to have 60% of its population vaccinated against COVID-19 within the next two to three years, the African Union’s disease control group said on Thursday. The continent of 1.3 billion people has recorded more than 2.2 million confirmed coronavirus infections, according to a Reuters tally.

(Reporting by Shaina Ahluwalia and Sangameswaran S in Bengaluru; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

U.S. pandemic death toll mounts as danger season approaches

By Susan Heavey

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. deaths from the coronavirus pandemic have surged past 2,000 for two days in a row as the most dangerous season of the year approached, taxing an overwhelmed healthcare system with U.S. political leadership in disarray.

The toll from COVID-19 reached its second-highest level ever on Wednesday with 2,811 lives lost, according to a Reuters tally of official data, one short of the record from April 15.

Nearly 200,000 new U.S. cases were reported on Wednesday, with record hospitalizations approaching 100,000 patients.

The sobering data came as the head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday warned that December, January and February were likely to be “the most difficult time in the public health history of this nation.”

CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield told an event hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that the United States could start losing around 3,000 people – roughly the number that died in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 – each day over the next two months.

“The mortality concerns are real and I do think unfortunately before we see February, we could be close to 450,000 Americans that have died from this virus,” Redfield said. The U.S. death toll since the start of the pandemic stands at around 273,000.

Hospitals are filling up with COVID-19 patients, reducing care for people needing treatment for other ailments. Redfield said 90% of U.S. hospitals were in areas designated as coronavirus “hot zones.”

Rural and suburban hospitals were particularly affected, threatening their economic viability, Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told MSNBC on Thursday.

“There’s no end in sight because there’s so much community spread,” Adalja said, warning that the pandemic could force hospital closures.

Still, rapid vaccine development, aided by the Trump administration’s “Operation Warp Speed” program, offered a ray of hope.

Britain on Wednesday gave emergency approval to Pfizer Inc’s COVID-19 vaccine, a sign that U.S. regulators may soon follow suit and allow inoculations within weeks.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey and Daniel Trotta; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

U.S. plans for first COVID vaccines as pandemic deaths surge again

By Julie Steenhuysen and Doina Chiacu

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Top U.S. health officials announced plans on Tuesday to begin vaccinating Americans against the coronavirus as early as mid-December, as nationwide deaths hit the highest number for a single day in six months.

Some 20 million people could be inoculated against COVID-19 by the end of 2020 and most Americans will have access to highly effective vaccines by mid-2021, the chief adviser of President Donald Trump’s Operation Warp Speed program said.

“Within 24 hours, maybe at most 36 to 48 hours, from the approval, the vaccine can be in people’s arms,” Moncef Slaoui, a former GlaxoSmithKline executive who is overseeing the vaccine portion of the U.S. program, said at an event conducted by The Washington Post newspaper.

His comments came on the same day that another 2,295 fatalities nationwide were linked to COVID-19, even before California, the most populous U.S. state, reported full results. Officials in several states said numbers were higher in part due to a backlog from the Thanksgiving holiday.

A statement from the public health director for Los Angeles County highlighted the ravages of the surging pandemic. Barbara Ferrer, the public health director, said that while Tuesday was the county’s “worst day thus far” of the pandemic, “…it will likely not remain the worst day of the pandemic in Los Angeles County. That will be tomorrow, and the next day and the next as cases, hospitalizations and deaths increase.”

Health officials pleaded with Americans to stick with coronavirus restrictions even with a vaccine in sight.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is moving to shorten the length of self-quarantine recommended after potential exposure to the coronavirus to 10 days, or seven days with a negative test, a federal spokesperson said on Tuesday. The CDC currently recommends a 14-day quarantine in order to curb the transmission of the virus.

TIMELINE ON A VACCINE

Some 60 million to 70 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine could be available per month beginning in January, after the expected regulatory approval of products from Pfizer Inc and Moderna Inc, Slaoui said.

A Food and Drug Administration panel of outside advisers will meet on Dec. 10 to discuss whether to recommend emergency use authorization of the Pfizer vaccine, developed with German partner BioNTech SE. Moderna’s vaccine candidate is expected to be reviewed a week later.

The timeline described by Slaoui and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar appeared to assume that the FDA’s authorization of the first vaccine would come within days of the Dec. 10 meeting.

But the head of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, Dr. Peter Marks, told patient advocacy groups last week that it might take “a few days to a few weeks.”

FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn, likewise, has said the process could take longer.

The U.S. Transportation Department said on Tuesday it has made preparations to enable the “immediate mass shipment” of COVID-19 vaccines and completed all necessary regulatory measures.

An estimated 21 million healthcare workers and 3 million residents of long-term care facilities should be first in line to receive a vaccine, according to a recommendation voted on by a CDC panel of advisers on Tuesday.

Nursing homes are experiencing the worst outbreak of weekly coronavirus cases since the spring, according to the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living.

HOLIDAY TRAVEL SPIKE

State and local officials have returned to imposing restrictions on businesses and activities in response to the latest surge of a pandemic that killed 37,000 people in November.

A record nearly 96,000 COVID-19 patients were reported in U.S. hospitals on Tuesday, according to a Reuters tally.

Hospitalizations and deaths are expected to spike even higher during the holiday travel season, a trend that officials warn could overwhelm already strained healthcare systems.

The monthly death toll from COVID-19 is projected to nearly double in December to a pandemic-high of more than 70,000 and surpass 76,000 in January before ebbing in February, according to a widely cited model from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

Pandemic-related restrictions have ravaged the U.S. economy. A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers on Tuesday unveiled a $908 billion COVID-19 relief bill aimed at breaking a deadlock over emergency assistance for small businesses, industries and the unemployed.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu and Julie Steenhuysen; Additional reporting by Lisa Shumaker, Maria Caspani, Peter Szekely, Jonathan Allen, David Shepardson, Steve Gorman and Dan Whitcomb; Writing by Daniel Trotta and Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Bill Berkrot, Bill Tarrant and Leslie Adler)

Canada PM Trudeau indicates U.S. border restrictions to last a long time

OTTAWA (Reuters) – Canada will not agree to lifting a ban on non-essential travel with the United States until the coronavirus outbreak is significantly under control around the world, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Tuesday.

Trudeau’s comments were a clear indication that the border restrictions will last well into 2021. The two neighbors agreed to the ban in March and have rolled it over on a monthly basis ever since.

The ban does not affect trade. The two countries have highly integrated economies and Canada sends 75% of its goods exports to the United States every month.

“Until the virus is significantly more under control everywhere around the world, we’re not going to be releasing the restrictions at the border,” Trudeau told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. when asked about the issue.

“We are incredibly lucky that trade in essential goods, in agricultural products, in pharmaceuticals is flowing back and forth as it always has. It’s just not people traveling, which I think is the important thing,” he said.

The restrictions are opposed by the travel industry, which says they are suffering as tourist flows dry up.

But the premiers of Canada’s major provinces have repeatedly said they have no interest in reopening the border as long as cases of COVID-19 continue to escalate in the United States.

A second wave is also sweeping across Canada, where authorities are starting to reimpose restrictions on businesses and limiting the size of gatherings.

(Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

4.2 million COVID-19 cases in November

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States entered the final month of the year hoping that promising vaccine candidates will soon be approved to halt the rapidly spreading novel coronavirus after 4.2 million new cases were reported in November.

The new COVID-19 cases were more than double the previous monthly record set in October, as large numbers of Americans still refuse to refuse to wear masks and continue to gather in holiday crowds, against the recommendation of experts.

A Food and Drug Administration panel of outside advisers will meet on Dec. 10 to discuss whether to recommend the FDA authorize emergency use of a vaccine developed by Pfizer Inc.

A second candidate from Moderna Inc could follow a week later, officials have said, raising hopes that Americans could start receiving inoculations before the end the year, although widespread vaccinations could take months.

Other global pharmaceuticals including AstraZeneca PLC and Johnson & Johnson also have vaccines in the works, leading a member of the Trump administration’s “Operation Warp Speed” program to predict the country could be vaccinated by June.

“One hundred percent of the Americans that want the vaccine will have the vaccine by (June). We will have over 300 million doses available to the American public well before then,” Paul Ostrowski, the vaccine program’s director of supply, production and distribution, told MSNBC television on Monday.

In the meantime, leading health officials are pleading with Americans to follow their recommendations and help arrest a pandemic that killed more than 36,000 people in November, pushing hospitalizations to a record high of nearly 93,000 on Sunday, according to a Reuters tally.

The widespread impact of the pandemic has led Merriam-Webster to choose “pandemic” as the Word of the Year after it racked up the most online dictionary lookups of any word.

“Sometimes a single word defines an era, and it’s fitting that in this exceptional – and exceptionally difficult – year, a single word came immediately to the fore,” the dictionary publisher said.

In the absence of a federal blueprint to curb the spread of the virus, states are issuing new or revamped restrictions on businesses and social life.

California’s governor said he may renew a stay-at-home order in the coming days, warning that ICU admissions are on track to exceed statewide capacity by mid-December unless public health policies and social behavior change.

“The red flags are flying,” Governor Gavin Newsom told reporters in an online briefing. “If these trends continue, we’re going to have to take much more dramatic, arguably drastic, action.”

(Reporting by Reuters staff; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

U.S. reports over 10,000 coronavirus deaths last week

(Reuters) – The United States recorded 10,000 coronavirus deaths and over 1.1 million new cases last week, although state and health officials have said the Thanksgiving holiday likely caused numbers to be under-reported.

New cases fell 3.8% in the week ended Nov. 29, while deaths fell 3.9%, according to a Reuters analysis of state and county reports. Many testing centers were closed on Thursday for Thanksgiving and some private labs had reduced staffing or were closed on Friday, according to state and health officials.

They said that figures for cases and deaths this week may be abnormally high due to a backlog of data from last week.

Hospitals, which were not closed due to holidays, may provide the most accurate data for last week. Hospitalized COVID-19 patients reached a record high of nearly 93,000 on Sunday, up 11% from last week and double the number reported a month ago, according to the Reuters analysis.

Cases rose by 91% in Washington state last week, the biggest percentage increase in the country, followed by California at 31% and New York with a 25% increase.

Illinois reported 831 COVID-19 deaths last week, the highest for any state, followed by Texas with 806 deaths.

Across the United States, 9.8% of tests came back positive for the virus for a third week in a row, according to data from The COVID Tracking Project, a volunteer-run effort to track the outbreak. Out of 50 states, 29 had positive test rates above 10%. The highest rates were Iowa at 50%, Idaho at 44% and South Dakota at 41%.

The World Health Organization considers positive test rates above 5% concerning because it suggests there are more cases in the community that have not yet been uncovered.

(Graphic by Chris Canipe, writing by Lisa Shumaker, editing by Tiffany Wu)

U.S. CDC reports 259,005 deaths from coronavirus

(Reuters) – The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Wednesday reported 12,498,734 cases of the new coronavirus, an increase of 165,282 from its previous count, and said that the number of deaths had risen by 1,989 to 259,005.

The CDC reported its tally of cases of the respiratory illness known as COVID-19, caused by a new coronavirus, as of 4 pm ET on Nov. 24 versus its previous report a day earlier.

The CDC figures do not necessarily reflect cases reported by individual states.

(Reporting by Dania Nadeem in Bengaluru)

U.S. hits highest death toll since May with hospitals already full

By Daniel Trotta

(Reuters) -Daily U.S. deaths from COVID-19 surpassed 2,000 for the first time since May and with hospitals across the country already full, portending a surge in mortalities to come as the coronavirus pandemic casts a shadow over the holiday season.

The death toll reached 2,157 on Tuesday – one person every 40 seconds – with another 170,000 people infected, numbers that experts say could grow with millions of Americans disregarding official warnings and traveling for Thursday’s Thanksgiving holiday.

The deadliest day in more than six months was still short of the record of 2,806 deaths on April 14, in the early stages of the pandemic, according to a Reuters tally of official data. That one-day figure is sometimes reported higher due to a backlog of deaths that were not compiled until April 14.

With U.S. hospitalizations for COVID-19 reaching a record high of 87,000 on Tuesday, the nation’s leading infectious diseases official urged people to keep Thanksgiving gatherings as small as possible.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, stressed the need to “hang in there a bit longer” on wearing masks, maintaining distance and avoiding crowds, especially indoors.

“If we do those things, we’re going to get through it. So that’s my final plea before the holiday,” Fauci told the ABC News program “Good Morning America” on Wednesday.

Families with university students have been forced to evaluate the risk of reuniting for Thanksgiving.

Francesca Wimer, a student at Northwestern University in Illinois, flew home to Washington wearing an N95 mask and a face shield and checked into a hotel for 14 days, quarantining to protect her parents and grandparents.

“She was returning to a vulnerable set of people. We didn’t trust that a test was enough,” said her mother, Cynthia Wimer.

Others are just staying put.

Luke Burke, studying at Syracuse University in upstate New York, was planning to spend Thanksgiving with his family in New Jersey until his roommate tested positive last week.

“I’m sorry I can’t be there with my parents, but it’s the right thing to do,” Burke said.

Meanwhile school districts across the United States face pressure from all sides as they grapple with how to educate children during the pandemic, a Reuters survey of 217 districts showed.

Many parents are balking at online instruction, while others worry about sending kids back into classrooms prematurely. Teachers say they are not comfortable teaching in person.

“Every school district across the nation is in the position in which no matter what decision they make and how well thought out it is, it will leave some in the community thinking it’s the wrong decision,” said Larry Rother, senior executive director of pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade educational services in Chandler, Arizona.

Help may be coming with vaccines showing promise.

Officials from the U.S. government’s Operation Warp Speed program told reporters on Tuesday they plan to release 6.4 million COVID-19 vaccine doses nationwide in an initial distribution after the first one is cleared by regulators for emergency use, which could happen as soon as Dec. 10.

If all goes well, 40 million doses will be distributed by the end of the year, they said.

A Food and Drug Administration ruling on emergency use for Pfizer Inc’s vaccine is expected on Dec. 10.

(Reporting by Daniel Trotta, Lisa Shumaker, Gabriella Borter, Lisa Lambert, Kristina Cooke, Benjamin Lesser, M.B. Pell and Simon Lewis; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Andrea Ricci and Jonathan Oatis)