New York nurse given COVID-19 vaccine as U.S. rollout begins

By Jonathan Allen and Gabriella Borter

NEW YORK (Reuters) -An intensive care unit nurse became the first person in New York state to receive the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine on Monday, marking a pivotal turn in the U.S. effort to control the deadly virus.

Sandra Lindsay, who has treated some of the sickest COVID-19 patients for months, was given the vaccine at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in the New York City borough of Queens, an early epicenter of the country’s COVID-19 outbreak, receiving applause on a livestream with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.

“It didn’t feel any different from taking any other vaccine,” Lindsay said. “I feel hopeful today, relieved. I feel like healing is coming. I hope this marks the beginning of the end of a very painful time in our history. I want to instill public confidence that the vaccine is safe.”

Minutes after Lindsay received the injection, President Donald Trump sent a tweet: “First Vaccine Administered. Congratulations USA! Congratulations WORLD!”

Northwell Health, the largest health system in New York state, operates some of the select hospitals in the United States that were administering the country’s first inoculations of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine outside trials on Monday.

The vaccine, developed by Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech, won emergency-use approval from federal regulators on Friday after it was found to be 95% effective in preventing illness in a large clinical trial.

The first 2.9 million doses began to be shipped to distribution centers around the country on Sunday, just 11 months after the United States documented its first COVID-19 infections.

As of Monday, the United States had registered more than 16 million cases and nearly 300,000 deaths from the virus.

Health officials in Texas, Utah, South Dakota, Ohio and Minnesota said they also anticipated the first doses of the vaccine would be received at select hospitals on Monday and be administered right away.

LOGISTICAL CHALLENGE

The first U.S. shipments of coronavirus vaccine departed from Pfizer’s facility in Kalamazoo, Michigan, on Sunday, packed into trucks with dry-ice to maintain the necessary sub-Arctic temperatures, and then were transported to UPS and FedEx planes waiting at air fields in Lansing and Grand Rapids, kicking off a national immunization endeavor of unprecedented complexity.

The jets delivered the shipments to UPS and FedEx cargo hubs in Louisville and Memphis, from where they were loaded onto planes and trucks to be distributed to the first 145 of 636 vaccine-staging areas across the country. Second and third waves of vaccine shipments were due to go out to the remaining sites on Tuesday and Wednesday.

“This is the most difficult vaccine rollout in history. There will be hiccups undoubtedly but we’ve done everything from a federal level and working with partners to make it go as smoothly as possible. Please be patient with us,” U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams told Fox News on Monday, adding that he would get the shot as soon as he could.

The logistical effort is further complicated by the need to transport and store the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine at minus 70 Celsius (minus 94 Fahrenheit), requiring enormous quantities of dry ice or specialized ultra-cold freezers.

Workers clapped and whistled as the first boxes were loaded onto trucks at the Pfizer factory on Sunday.

“We know how much people are hurting,” UPS Healthcare President Wes Wheeler said on Sunday from the company’s command center in Louisville, Kentucky. “It’s not lost on us at all how important this is.”

MORE DOSES ON THE WAY

More than 100 million people, or about 30% of the U.S. population, could be immunized by the end of March, Moncef Slaoui, the chief advisor to the U.S. government’s Operation Warp Speed coronavirus vaccine initiative, said in an interview on Sunday.

Healthcare workers and elderly residents of long-term care homes will be first in line to get the inoculations of a two-dose regimen given about three weeks apart. That would still leave the country far short of the herd immunity that would halt virus transmission, so health officials have warned that masks and social distancing will be needed for months to control the currently rampaging outbreak. Pfizer Chief Executive Officer Albert Bourla told CNN in an interview on Monday that most of the 50 million vaccine doses the company will provide this year have been manufactured, adding that it plans on producing 1.3 billion doses next year. Approximately half will be allocated to the United States, he said. But Bourla said Pfizer is “working very diligently” to increase the amount of doses available because demand is very high. At the same time, he said, the company has not reached an agreement with the U.S. government on when to provide an additional 100 million doses next year. “We can provide them the additional 100 million doses, but right now most of that we can provide in the third quarter,” Bourla said. “The U.S. government wants them in the second quarter so are working very collaboratively with them to make sure that we can find ways to produce more or allocate the doses in the second quarter.” Slaoui said the United States hopes to have about 40 million vaccine doses – enough for 20 million people – distributed by the end of this month. That would include vaccines from both Pfizer and Moderna Inc. An outside U.S. Food and Drug Administration advisory panel is scheduled to consider the Moderna vaccine on Thursday, with emergency use expected to be granted shortly after. On Friday, Moderna announced it had struck a deal with the U.S. government to deliver 100 million additional doses in the second quarter.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen, Gabriella Borter, Lisa Lambert, Lisa Baertlein and Brendan O’Brien; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Paul Simao)

Utah governor declares new state of emergency as coronavirus spreads

(Reuters) – The governor of the U.S. state of Utah, Gary Herbert, declared late on Sunday a new state of emergency to address hospital overcrowding in response to weeks of stress on its hospital networks due to a surge of novel coronavirus cases.

“Due to the alarming rate of COVID infections within our state, tonight I issued a new state of emergency with several critical changes to our response”, Herbert said on Twitter.

“These changes are not shutting down our economy, but are absolutely necessary to save lives and hospital capacity,” he said.

The governor said the entire state was being placed under a mask mandate until further notice and casual social gatherings were being limited to household-only for the next two weeks.

All extracurricular activities were being put on hold, he said.

The total number of coronavirus infections in the United States rose past 10 million late on Sunday, according to a Reuters tally.

Utah has had 132,621 total confirmed cases and 659 deaths from COVID-19 since the pandemic began.

(Reporting by Kanishka Singh in Bengaluru; Editing by Robert Birsel)

‘We don’t give up really easy’: Navajo ranchers battle climate change

By Stephanie Keith and Andrew Hay

CEDAR RIDGE, Ariz. (Reuters) – Two decades into a severe drought on the Navajo reservation, the open range around Maybelle Sloan’s sheep farm stretches out in a brown expanse of earth and sagebrush.

A dry wind blows dust across the high-desert plateau, smoke from wildfires in Arizona and California shrouding the nearby rim of the Grand Canyon.

The summer monsoon rains have failed again, and stock ponds meant to collect rainwater for the hot summer months are dry.

With no ground water for her animals, Sloan, 59, fills an animal trough with water from a 1,200-gallon white plastic tank. She and her husband, Leonard, have to pay up to $300 to have the tank filled as her pickup truck has broken down. When it’s working, she hauls water herself every two days, spending $80 a week on fuel.

The cost of hauling water has made their ranch unprofitable.

The Navajo Nation – covering a 27,000 square mile area straddling the U.S. states of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah — competes with growing cities including Phoenix and Los Angeles for its water supply.

And as climate change dries out the U.S. West, that supply is becoming increasingly precarious.

In decades past, “we got rain every year around June, July, August,” said Leonard Sloan. The 64-year-old rancher pointed toward the dry ponds in the ground near a local butte named Missing Tooth Rock. “When we had that storm, there would be water and they would be full. And now due to global warming, we don’t get no rain, just a little.”

To keep their ranch alive the Sloans have to get water, which is free, from the sole livestock well in the area some 15 miles to the east.

They spend between $3,000 and $4,000 a year on hay to supplement their animals’ feed as the open range no longer produces enough grass to sustain them.

Maybelle has cut her sheep herd down to 24 head, and Leonard tells her to get rid of them and her 18 goats to focus on their 42 cattle, which bring more money at market.

But Maybelle bristles at the thought of giving up sheep herding learned from her mother, and grandmother before her. Maybelle’s mother, father and sister all died in April from coronavirus.

“I’m doing it for my parents,” Maybelle said, wiping tears away as she sat on the metal railing of a corral while her cattle licked salt blocks and drank water.

GRADUAL DISASTER

The Sloans remember grass growing as high as the belly of a horse as recently as the 1980’s.

But drought conditions on the reservation have become largely relentless since the mid-1990’s.

Annual average temperatures rose by 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit in the reservation’s Navajo County area over the 100 years to 2019, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data.

The months of June to August this year were the driest on record in the area for the three-month period, according to drought monitoring data studied by climate scientist David Simeral of the Desert Research Institute in Nevada. Three of the five driest July-August rainy seasons in the area have occurred since the late 1990’s.

The warming trend has prompted desertification, with sand dunes now covering about a third of the reservation, according to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

All but one of the reservation’s rivers have stopped running year-round, said Margaret Redsteer, a scientist at the University of Washington in Bothell.

“That’s the really tricky thing about droughts, and climate change is like that too,” Redsteer said. “It’s a gradual disaster.”

DETERMINED PEOPLE

On paper, the Navajo Nation has extensive water rights based on the federal “reserved rights” doctrine which holds that Native American nations have rights to land and resources in treaties they signed with the United States.

In practice, the Navajos and other tribes were left out of many 20th century negotiations divvying up the West’s water.

There are signs some of the next generation are keeping up ranching traditions.

Some youths simply help their grandparents haul water each day from the sole well for livestock in the Bodaway-Gap area. Still others, including Maybelle’s children, send money from their work off the reservation to help fund their families’ ranches.

“Us Indians, we don’t give up really easy,” Maybelle said. “We’re really determined people.”

(Reporting by Stephanie Keith and Andrew Hay; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

Meatpackers deny workers benefits for COVID-19 deaths, illnesses

By Tom Hals and Tom Polansek

(Reuters) – Saul Sanchez died in April, one of six workers with fatal COVID-19 infections at meatpacker JBS USA’s slaughterhouse in Greeley, Colorado, the site of one of the earliest and deadliest coronavirus outbreaks at a U.S. meatpacking plant.

Before getting sick, the 78-year-old Sanchez only left home to work on the fabrication line, where cattle carcasses are sliced into cuts of beef, and to go to his church, with its five-person congregation, said his daughter, Betty Rangel. She said no one else got infected in the family or at Bible Missionary Church, which could not be reached for comment.

JBS, the world’s largest meatpacker, denied the family’s application for workers’ compensation benefits, along with those filed by the families of two other Greeley workers who died of COVID-19, said lawyers handling the three claims. Families of the three other Greeley workers who died also sought compensation, a union representative said, but Reuters could not determine the status of their claims.

JBS has said the employees’ COVID-19 infections were not work-related in denying the claims, according to responses the company gave to employees, which were reviewed by Reuters.

As more Americans return to workplaces, the experience of JBS employees shows the difficulty of linking infections to employment and getting compensation for medical care and lost wages.

“That is the ultimate question: How can you prove it?” said Nick Fogel, an attorney specializing in workers’ compensation at the firm Burg Simpson in Colorado.

The meatpacking industry has suffered severe coronavirus outbreaks, in part because production-line workers often work side-by-side for long shifts. Companies including JBS, Tyson Foods Inc and WH Group Ltd’s Smithfield Foods closed about 20 plants this spring after outbreaks, prompting President Donald Trump in April to order the plants to stay open to ensure the nation’s meat supply. The White House declined to comment on the industry’s rejections of workers’ claims. The U.S. Department of Labor did not respond to a request for comment.

Tyson has also denied workers’ compensation claims stemming from a big outbreak in Iowa, workers’ attorneys told Reuters. Smithfield workers at a plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, also hit by a major outbreak, have generally not filed claims, a union official said, in part because the company has paid infected workers’ wages and medical bills.

Smithfield declined to comment on workers’ compensation. Tyson said it reviews claims on a case-by-case basis, but declined to disclose how often it rejects them. JBS acknowledged rejecting claims but declined to say how often. It called the denials consistent with the law, without elaborating.

Workers can challenge companies’ denials in an administrative process that varies by state but typically resembles a court hearing. The burden of proof, however, usually falls on the worker to prove a claim was wrongfully denied.

The full picture of how the meatpacking industry has handled COVID-related workers’ compensation remains murky because of a lack of national claims data. Reuters requested data from seven states where JBS or its affiliates have plants that had coronavirus outbreaks. Only three states provided data in any detail; all show a pattern of rejections.

In Minnesota, where JBS had a major outbreak, meatpacking employees filed 930 workers’ compensation claims involving COVID-19 as of Sept. 11, according to the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry. None were accepted, 717 were rejected and 213 were under review. The agency did not identify the employers.

The Minnesota Department of Health said only two meatpacking plants there had significant coronavirus outbreaks: a JBS pork processing plant in Worthington, and a poultry plant in Cold Spring run by Pilgrim’s Pride Corp <PPC.O>, which is majority-owned by JBS.

Tom Atkinson, a Minnesota workers’ compensation attorney who has represented meatpacking workers, estimates up to 100 COVID-19 claims were filed by employees at the Worthington plant.

In Utah, seven JBS workers filed claims related to COVID-19 by Aug. 1 and all were denied, according to the state’s Labor Commission. At least 385 workers at a JBS beef plant in Hyrum, Utah, tested positive for COVID-19.

In Colorado, 69% of the 2,294 worker compensation claims for COVID-19 had been denied as of Sept. 12. Although the state does not break down the denials by industry, a JBS spokesman told Reuters the company is rejecting claims in Colorado and that it uses the same claim-review procedures nationwide.

JBS spokesman Cameron Bruett did not answer the question of whether JBS employees were infected on the job and declined comment on individual workers’ claims. He said the company has outsourced claim reviews to a third-party administrator.

“Given the widespread nature of viral spread, our third-party claims administrator reviews each case thoroughly and independently,” said Bruett.

The administrator, Sedgwick, did not respond to a request for comment. Bruett, also a spokesman for Pilgrim’s Pride, did not respond to questions about infections and claims at its Minnesota plant.

At the JBS plant in Greeley, where Sanchez worked before he died, at least 291 of about 6,000 workers were infected, according to state data. The company, in its written response to the family’s claim, said that his infection was “not work-related,” without spelling out its reasoning. The two sides are now litigating the matter in Colorado’s workers’ compensation system.

Under Colorado law, a workers’ compensation death benefit provides about two-thirds of the deceased worker’s salary to the surviving spouse and pays medical expenses not covered by insurance. If JBS had not denied the Sanchez family’s claim, that would have provided his widow a steady income and paid uncovered medical bills totaling about $10,000, according to his daughter.

“They don’t care,” Rangel said of JBS. “They are all about the big profits, and they are not going to give any money out.”

MASS INFECTIONS, LITTLE COMPENSATION

The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) International Union, which represents 250,000 U.S. meatpacking and food-processing workers, said last week at least 122 meatpacking workers have died of COVID-19 and more than 18,000 had missed work because they were infected or potentially exposed.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) said on Sept. 11 that it had cited JBS for failing to protect workers at the Greeley plant from the virus. OSHA cited Smithfield this month for failing to protect workers at its Sioux Falls, South Dakota, plant, where the agency said nearly 1,300 workers contracted the coronavirus and four died.

Smithfield and JBS said the citations had no merit because they concerned conditions in plants before OSHA issued COVID-19 guidance for the industry. OSHA said it stands by the citations.

Workers’ compensation is generally the only way to recoup medical expenses and lost wages for work-related injuries and deaths. The system protects employers from lawsuits, with few exceptions, and allows workers to collect benefits without having to prove fault or negligence. But the system was designed for factory accidents, not airborne illnesses.

In response to the coronavirus, governors and lawmakers in at least 14 states have made it easier for some employees to collect workers compensation for COVID-19 by putting the burden on companies and insurers to prove an infection did not occur at work. But most of the changes, which vary by state, only apply to workers in healthcare or emergency services. A similar proposal failed to gain support in Colorado.

Mark Dopp, general counsel for the North American Meat Institute, a trade association that represents meatpackers, said it is difficult to determine where workers get infections given extensive sanitation efforts taken by meat plants and workers’ daily travel to and from the plants.

Tyson in April closed its Waterloo, Iowa, pork processing plant due to a COVID-19 outbreak. Ben Roth, a local workers’ compensation attorney, said five families of employees who died filed workers compensation claims for death benefits, and all were denied.

He said meat-processing companies have an incentive to deny every claim because admitting they caused even one infection can expose the firms to liability for all workers contracting COVID-19.

“That undercuts the argument that they want to make across the board: that you can’t prove you got it here and not at a grocery store,” Roth said.

Tyson said it follows state laws for workers’ compensation. The company noted that Iowa law states that disease with an equal likelihood of being contracted outside the workplace are “not compensable as an occupational disease.”

In Colorado, Sylvia Martinez runs a group called Latinos Unidos of Greeley and said she knows of more than 20 JBS workers who applied for workers compensation and were denied. Many plant workers are not native English speakers and sought out her group for guidance, she said, adding that many don’t understand their rights and fear being fired. The company’s rejections have discouraged more claims, Martinez said.

“If you deny five or 10, those workers will tell their co-workers,” she said.

‘WHO IS GOING TO HIRE HIM?’

JBS also contested the claim of Alfredo Hernandez, 55, a custodian who worked at the Greeley plant for 31 years. He became infected and was hospitalized in March. He still relies on supplemental oxygen and hasn’t returned to work, said his wife, Rosario Hernandez.

Generall y, companies approve claims if it looks probable that an employee was injured or sickened at work, said Erika Alverson, the attorney representing Hernandez. But JBS, she said, is arguing workers could have contracted COVID-19 anywhere.

“They’re getting into, where did our clients go, what were they doing during that time, who was coming into their house, what did their spouse do, was there any other form of exposure?” said Alverson, of the Denver firm Alverson and O’Brien.

A judge will decide the Hernandez case in an administrative hearing. In the meantime, the Hernandez family has only his disability benefits – a portion of his salary – to cover his medical and insurance costs, Rosario Hernandez said.

“We’re getting bunches of bills,” she said.

(Reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware, and Tom Polansek in Chicago; Editing by Noeleen Walder, Caroline Stauffer and Brian Thevenot)

U.S. Midwest sees surge in COVID-19 cases as four states report record increases

By Anurag Maan and Lisa Shumaker

(Reuters) – Four U.S. states in the Midwest reported record one-day increases in COVID-19 cases on Saturday as infections rise nationally for a second week in a row, according to a Reuters analysis.

Minnesota reported 1,418 new cases, Montana 343 new cases, South Dakota reported 579 and Wisconsin had 2,902 new cases.

In the last week, seven mostly Midwest states have reported record one-day rises in new infections — Minnesota, Montana, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Wisconsin and Wyoming. Minnesota and Utah reported record increases two days in a row.

The United States recorded 58,461 new cases on Friday, the highest one-day increase since Aug. 7. The United States is reporting nearly 46,000 new infections on average each day, compared with 40,000 a week ago and 35,000 two weeks ago.

All Midwest states except Ohio reported more cases in the past four weeks as compared with the prior four weeks, according to a Reuters analysis.

Some of the new cases are likely related to an increase in the number of tests performed. In the last week, the country has performed over 1 million coronavirus tests three out of seven days — a new record, according to data from The COVID Tracking Project, a volunteer-run effort to track the outbreak.

However, hospitalizations have also surged in the Midwest and are not influenced by the number of tests performed.

Wisconsin’s hospitalizations have set new records for six days in a row, rising to 543 on Friday from 342 a week ago. South Dakota’s hospitalizations set records five times this week, rising to 213 on Saturday from 153 last week.

“Wisconsin is now experiencing unprecedented, near-exponential growth of the number of COVID-19 cases in our state,” Governor Tony Evers said in a video posted on social media.

Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota and Wyoming have also seen record numbers of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in the past week.

Cases have also begun rising again in the Northeast, including the early epicenters of New York and New Jersey.

In New York, more than 1,000 people tested positive for COVID-19 on Friday for the first time since June 5, Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Saturday.

The United States recently surpassed 200,000 lives lost from the coronavirus, the highest death toll in the world.

(Reporting by Anurag Maan in Bengaluru and Lisa Shumaker in Chicago; Editing by Daniel Wallis)

Climate change, COVID-19 stoke wildfire’s economic risk, Fed says

(Reuters) – Wildfires threaten the economy of the western United States to a greater extent than the rest of the country, and the coronavirus pandemic and climate change will only make that worse, according to research from the San Francisco Fed on Monday.

Some 52% of economic output in Arizona, California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Washington originates in counties with elevated wildfire hazard, putting the economies of the region in jeopardy as wildfires become more frequent and more destructive, the researchers found. By 2040 that proportion will have risen to 56%, they estimate. By comparison, about 25% to 30% of the Southeast’s economy faces elevated wildfire risk.

The states together account for a bit more than one-fifth of U.S. economic output.

“The portion of real output produced in (the counties of these states) with elevated exposure increases from $2.1 trillion in 2018 to $4.0 trillion in 2040 in the baseline scenario,” the researchers wrote in the regional Fed’s latest Economic Letter. The economic output under particular wildfire threat rises to $4.4 trillion under a more severe climate change scenario, they said.

Wildfire risk is a combination of the likelihood of a big fire happening – which climate scientists have shown has been rising as the planet warms – and the economic destruction, in terms of lives and livelihoods destroyed that it could cause.

The coronavirus pandemic is increasing the latter risk because the fiscal pinch to states and local governments from the drop in sales tax and other revenue means cuts to wildfire suppression and prevention spending, the researchers said.

(Reporting by Ann Saphir; Editing by Tom Brown)

Decriminalization of polygamy in Utah clears key hurdle in state legislature

By Jennifer Dobner

SALT LAKE CITY (Reuters) – Legislation to effectively decriminalize polygamy among consenting adults in Utah overwhelmingly passed the state House of Representatives in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, moving it a step closer to becoming law.

The measure reduces the criminal penalty for plural marriage from a felony to an infraction on par with a traffic ticket. It cleared the House on a vote of 70-3.

The bill, which originated in the Senate, now goes back to that body for a final vote to approve a technical amendment made in the House. Both chambers are controlled by a Republican majority.

Final Senate passage would send the bill to Utah Governor Gary Herbert, also a Republican. He has not indicated whether he would sign the measure into law.

Under current statutes, polygamy – typically involving a man who cohabitates with and purports to marry more than one wife – is classified as a third-degree felony, punishable by up to five years in prison.

If the bill becomes law, punishments for plural marriage would be limited to fines of up to $750 and community service.

However, fraudulent bigamy – in which an individual obtains licenses to marry more than one spouse without their knowledge, or seeks to wed someone underage without her consent – would remain a felony. It would also be treated as a felony if charged in connection with other crimes such as child abuse, fraud, homicide or human trafficking.

The bill’s Republican sponsor, Senator Deidre Henderson, has said her intent is not to legalize polygamy but to decriminalize it so that those from polygamous communities who are victims of crimes can come forward for help or to seek social services without fear of being prosecuted themselves.

Opponents of the bill say current law should not be changed because polygamy is inherently dangerous and harmful to women and children, particularly girls, some of whom have been forced into marriages with older men.

Polygamy is a remnant of the early teachings of the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which officially abandoned the practice in 1890 and now excommunicates members found engaged in the practice.

Fundamentalist Mormons, numbering an estimated 30,000 across the western United States, continue the practice, however, in the belief that if promises glorification in heaven.

(Reporting by Jennifer Dobner in Salt Lake City; Editing by Steve Gorman, Robert Birsel)

Utah Senate votes to decriminalize polygamy among consenting adults

Utah Senate votes to decriminalize polygamy among consenting adults
By Jennifer Dobner

SALT LAKE CITY (Reuters) – The Utah state Senate voted unanimously on Tuesday to effectively decriminalize polygamy among consenting adults, approving a bill to reduce the penalty for plural marriage from a felony to an infraction on par with a traffic ticket.

The Republican-sponsored bill easing the law on polygamy, a practice with deep religious roots in the predominantly Mormon Western state, now moves to the Utah House of Representatives, where it is likely to face greater resistance.

Under current law, the practice of polygamy in Utah – typically involving a man who cohabitates with and purports to marry more than one wife – is treated as a third-degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison.

If the newly passed Senate bill becomes law, punishments for plural marriage would be limited to fines of up to $750 and community service. No jail time could be imposed.

The chief sponsor of the measure, Senator Diedre Henderson, said the intent of the bill is not to legalize polygamy but to lower the penalties so that those from polygamous communities who are victims of crimes can come forward without fear of being prosecuted themselves.

The legislation also would make it easier for otherwise law-abiding polygamists to obtain access to critical services such as medical or mental health care, education or even employment without fear.

Opponents of decriminalization say the current law should not be changed because polygamy is inherently dangerous and harmful to women and children, particularly young girls, some of whom have been forced into marriages with older men.

Polygamy is a remnant of the early teachings of the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose members fled persecution over the practice to settle the Utah territory in 1847. The church disavowed polygamy in 1890 as a condition of Utah statehood, and today members of the faith found to be practicing plural marriage are excommunicated.

Fundamentalist Mormons, said to number more than 30,000 across the Western United States, believe they are adhering to the truest form of Mormon doctrine, which promises polygamists glorification in heaven.

(Reporting by Jennifer Dobner in Salt Lake City; Editing by Steve Gorman and Matthew Lewis)

Heavy snow in U.S. West and Midwest could disrupt post-Thanksgiving travel

(Reuters) – A major winter storm will lumber across the United States over the weekend, dumping snow as it moves east from the U.S. West and threatening to disrupt millions of people traveling home after celebrating the Thanksgiving holiday.

Over a foot of snow is forecast in mountainous parts of Colorado, Utah and Arizona on Friday before the storm system slips toward the upper Midwest, the National Weather Service said.

Freezing rain will likely turn to snowy blizzards in parts of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan beginning on Friday night, with more than 18 inches of snowfall possible in some mountainous areas, the service said.

Some snow could appear in the Northeast by Sunday morning, the service said. New York City and other places further down the Atlantic Coast can expect a wintry mix of precipitation on Sunday.

More than 4 million Americans were expected to fly and another 49 million expected to drive at least 50 miles or more this week for Thanksgiving, according to the American Automobile Association.

Wintry weather disrupted travel this week ahead of Thursday’s Thanksgiving celebrations, with airports in Minneapolis and Chicago reporting hundreds of delayed or canceled flights.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

Utah man confessed sending letters in ricin scare: court documents

FBI and law enforcement officers in hazmat suites prepare to enter a house, which FBI says was investigating "potentially hazardous chemicals" in Logan, Utah, U.S., October 3, 2018. REUTERS/George Frey

By Alex Dobuzinskis

(Reuters) – A 39-year-old U.S. Navy veteran has confessed to sending letters to U.S. President Donald Trump and other senior officials that were initially feared to contain the poison ricin when they were discovered this week, court documents showed.

William Clyde Allen III appears in a booking photo provided by Davis County Sheriff in Utah, U.S. October 3, 2018. David Country Sheriff/Handout via REUTERS

William Clyde Allen III appears in a booking photo provided by Davis County Sheriff in Utah, U.S. October 3, 2018. David Country Sheriff/Handout via REUTERS

William Clyde Allen III was arrested on Wednesday at his home in Logan, Utah, and will be charged on Friday, said Melodie Rydalch, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Aside from Trump, Allen is believed to have sent the letters containing ground castor seeds to FBI Director Christopher Wray, Defense Secretary James Mattis and Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson, according to a probable cause statement filed in Utah state court on Wednesday.

Allen mailed the envelopes on Sept. 24, the statement said.

The letters were intercepted and no one was hurt, authorities said. The letter addressed to Trump never entered the White House, the U.S. Secret Service has said.

Ricin is found naturally in castor seeds but it takes a deliberate act to convert the seeds into a biological weapon. Ricin can cause death within 36 to 72 hours of exposure to an amount as small as a pinhead. No known antidote exists.

The probable cause statement did not list a motive in the case. It was filed by an officer with the Utah State Bureau of Investigation and listed Allen’s alleged offense as the threat of terrorism.

It was not clear if Allen has obtained an attorney. He was ordered held in jail on bail of $25,000.

Allen served in the U.S. Navy from October 1998 until October 2002, leaving the service as a seaman apprentice, the second-lowest rank, according to the U.S. Navy Office of Information.

(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Editing by Phil Berlowitz and Lisa Shumaker)