A daughter learns in voicemails that coronavirus has killed her mother

By Tim Reid

(Reuters) – Debbie de los Angeles woke up on March 3 to two voicemails from nurses at the Seattle-area care home that housed her 85-year-old mother, Twilla Morin.

In the first one, left at 4:15 a.m., a nurse asked a troubling question – whether the “do not resuscitate” instructions for her mother’s end-of-life care were still in force.

“We anticipate that she, too, has coronavirus, and she’s running a fever of 104,” the woman on the recording said. “We do not anticipate her fighting, so we just want to make sure that your goal of care would be just to keep her here and comfortable.”

The nursing home in Kirkland, Washington was dealing with the beginnings of an outbreak that has since been linked to more than 30 deaths. De los Angeles had not yet fully grasped the grave threat; she comforted herself with the thought that her mother had made it through flu outbreaks at the center before.

Then she took in the next voicemail, left three hours after the first by a different nurse.

“Hi Debbie, my name is Chelsey … I need to talk to you about your Mom if you could give us a call. Her condition is declining, so if you can call us soon as possible that would be great. Thanks. Bye.”

De los Angeles called the home immediately. Her mom was comfortable, she was told. She did not change the “do not resuscitate” instruction. She wanted to visit, but held off: She is 65, and her husband Bob is 67; both have underlying medical conditions that pose serious risks if they contract coronavirus. She thought they had more time to find the best way to comfort her mother in what might be her final hours.

At 3 a.m. the next morning, Wednesday, March 4, de los Angeles woke up and reached for her phone. Life Care Center had called – leaving another voice message just a few minutes earlier, at 2:39 a.m.

“I know it’s early in the morning but Twilla did pass away at 2:10 because of the unique situation,” the nurse said. “The remains will be picked up from the coroner’s office. They’ve got your contact.”

The “unique situation” has of course become tragically common worldwide, as thousands of families have been separated from their loved ones in the last days before they died in isolation, often after deteriorating quickly. The three voicemails – eerily routine and matter-of-fact – would be de los Angeles’ final connection to her mother. She had gone from knowing relatively little about the threat of COVID-19 to becoming a bereaved daughter in the span of one day.

The hurried voicemails with such sensitive information were one sign of the chaos inside the facility at the time, as nurses worked feverishly to contain the outbreak while residents died from a virus that was just hitting the United States. One of the nurses who called de los Angeles, Chelsey Earnest, had been director of nursing at another Life Care facility and volunteered to come to Kirkland to care for patients through the outbreak. She never expected the disease would cause dozens of deaths and the mass infection of patients and staff.

Earnest worked the night shift, when patients with the disease seemed to struggle the most, and many, like Morin, succumbed to the disease. Infected patients developed a redness in and around their eyes. The center’s phones rang constantly as worried families called for updates. About a third of the center’s 180 staff members started showing symptoms of the disease; the rest started a triage operation.

“There were no protocols,” said Life Care spokesman Tim Killian, as nurses found themselves thrust into a situation more dire than any faced by an elderly care facility “in the history of this country.”

The center’s nurses, he said, would not normally leave such sensitive information about dying relatives in voicemails, but they had little time to do anything else – and did not want anyone to hear about a loved one’s condition in the news before the center could inform them. Outside the home, journalists and family members gathered for the latest scraps of information on the home’s fight against the virus. Many relatives, barred from going inside for safety reasons, stood outside the windows of their loved ones’ rooms, looking at them through the glass as they conversed over the phone.

Leaving the emergency voicemails, Killian said, made “the best of a difficult situation.”

From the outside, the messages appear abrupt and impersonal, but may well have been the best or only way to properly notify families in such a crisis, said Ruth Faden, professor of biomedical ethics at John Hopkins University’s Berman Institute of Bioethics. While medical professionals should normally aim to impart such urgent information in person, the circumstances – an overwhelmed staff, dealing with dozens of dying patients – likely made that impossible, she said.

“The way to find out is difficult, always,” Faden said. “What people remember is how much the nurse cared about the person.”

When de Los Angeles heard of her mother’s death in one of those voicemails, she immediately called one of the nurses back, looking for any bits of information about her mother’s final hours. The nurse sounded upset.

“She told me my Mom was one of her favorite people there; she was going to miss seeing my Mom going up and down the hallway in her wheelchair,” de los Angeles said.

They had given her mother morphine and Ativan to keep her calm and comfortable, the nurse told her.

“My Mom was asleep, and then she just went to sleep permanently,” de los Angeles said.

De los Angeles, an only child, aches over not having spoken to her mother before she died. Morin had been a bookkeeper for several companies. De los Angeles fondly remembers doing household chores with her mother on Saturday mornings, then going to the local mall or to Woolworth’s for lunch.

The separation continued even after her mother’s death. De los Angeles telephoned the crematorium where her mother had been taken, as Morin had arranged years earlier, to ask if she could view the body.

“Absolutely not,” the woman told her, out of concern de los Angeles could be infected.

Morin had been tested for coronavirus shortly after she died, on March 4. The results confirmed her coronavirus infection a week later. Soon afterwards, she was cremated.

“We picked up her ashes on Saturday,” she said. “I never saw or spoke to mom. It’s put off the closure.”

It’s also put off the funeral. De los Angeles had planned the ceremony for April 4 – the birthday of her father, who died ten years ago. Her ashes would be placed next to his. But the service will have to wait because Washington’s governor, Jay Inslee, has banned gatherings of 10 people or more.

In the meantime, de los Angeles has worked to make sure her mother’s death certificate records her as a causality of the pandemic. The doctor who signed it did not have confirmed test results showing a COVID-19 infection at the time of her death, de los Angeles said, and listed the cause as “a viral illness, coronary artery disease and a respiratory disorder.” But the doctor has since moved to include coronavirus as a cause, at de los Angeles’ request.

As she waits for the funeral, de los Angeles has put the urn holding her mother’s ashes behind some flowers on the mantle in her living room. She says she can’t bear to look at it.

(Reporting by Tim Reid; Editing by Brian Thevenot)

Coronavirus impact spreads across U.S. as Congress readies aid

By Susan Heavey

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The burden caused by the fast-spreading coronavirus accelerated across the United States on Wednesday beyond the hot spots of New York, California and Washington state as Louisiana and others faced a severe crush on their healthcare systems.

U.S. President Donald Trump issued the latest major federal disaster declarations for Louisiana and Iowa late on Tuesday, freeing up federal funds to help states cope with the increasing number of cases of the dangerous respiratory disease caused by the virus that threaten to overwhelm state and local resources.

That brings to five the number of states receiving major disaster declarations from the Republican president. New York – the state with by far the most infections and deaths – was given such status last weekend as well as California and Washington state.

Louisiana, where large crowds recently celebrated Mardi Gras in New Orleans and other locations, has reported a spike in infections with 1,388 total confirmed cases and 46 deaths as of midday Tuesday, according to the Louisiana Department of Health.

“I have determined that this incident is of such severity and magnitude that effective response is beyond the capabilities of state and local governments,” the state’s governor wrote the White House this week in seeking the declaration.

It was not immediately clear why Trump granted Iowa federal disaster relief and not some other states with many more cases. Iowa, where officials announced the state’s first death from the coronavirus on Tuesday, has reported 124 confirmed cases. (https://tmsnrt.rs/2w7hX9T)

A number of other U.S. states have also applied for major disaster relief status in recent days including Florida, Texas and New Jersey.

Nationwide, more than 53,000 people have been diagnosed with COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus that is particularly perilous to the elderly and people with pre-existing medical conditions, with at least 720 deaths. World Health Organization officials have said the United States could become the global epicenter of the pandemic, which first emerged late last year in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

The governors of at least 18 states have issued stay-at-home directives affecting about half the U.S. population of roughly 330 million people. The sweeping orders are aimed at slowing the spread of the pathogen but have upended daily life as schools and businesses shutter indefinitely.

Trump on Tuesday said he wanted to re-open the country by Easter Sunday, but later told reporters he would listen to recommendations from the nation’s top health officials.

The closures have rocked the U.S. economy with global markets rattled by the pandemic. Wall Street on Wednesday extended its gains from the previous session as lawmakers and the Trump administration reached a deal for a $2 trillion stimulus package to help businesses and millions of Americans hit by the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.

The measure in Congress would provide a massive infusion of aid, including $150 billion in state and local governments to fight the outbreak, and could be passed by the Senate later on Wednesday. The measure would still have to pass the House of Representatives before Trump could sign it into law.

The plan also includes loan programs for hard-hit industries and small businesses, direct payments of up to $3,000 to millions of U.S. families, expanded unemployment aid and billions of dollars for hospitals and health systems.

National Guard troops have been activated to assist with the virus fight, while two U.S. Navy hospital ships have been directed to head to Los Angeles and New York City to help relieve the strain on local hospitals. The U.S. military is preparing field hospitals in New York and Seattle.

NEW YORK UNDER SIEGE

With more than 8 million people densely packed in New York City, New York has become the epicenter of the U.S. outbreak as the number of COVID-19 cases threatens to overwhelm its healthcare system.

The White House on Tuesday advised anyone who has visited or left New York to isolate themselves as the number of cases in the state swelled to more than 25,600 confirmed infections and 210 deaths.

Officials from the state have pleaded for more equipment and hospital beds and lamented a lack of urgency by federal officials in recent weeks as the threat grew increasingly dire.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, and Trump have clashed in recent days over the federal government’s response. Cuomo has called for thousands of new ventilators and urged the president to utilize his federal powers to speed up manufacturing for critical health equipment.

Trump, in a Fox News interview on Tuesday, defended his response, adding: “It’s a two-way street. They have to treat us well also.”

On Wednesday, Trump fired back against the reported tensions, tweeting: “I am working very hard to help New York City & State. Dealing with both Mayor & Governor and producing tremendously for them, including four new medical centers and four new hospitals. Fake News that I won’t help them because I don’t like Cuomo (I do). Just sent 4000 ventilators!”

A Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted from March 18-24 showed that 68% of U.S. adults agreed that the coronavirus was a serious existential threat, up 14 percentage points from a similar poll from a week earlier. This includes majorities of Democrats and Republicans, whites, minorities, young, old, urban, suburban and rural residents. The poll found that 33% now said they think it is very or somewhat likely they will be infected within the next year, up 5 percentage points from last week.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Will Dunham)

Washington considers actions to bolster U.S. economy as COVID-19 cases mount to over 1025

Reuters
By Steve Holland and Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – As U.S. coronavirus cases rose steadily, the White House and Congress negotiated measures on Tuesday to bolster the U.S. economy and Americans’ paychecks against the outbreak’s impact, although there was no immediate sign of a deal.

The rise in the number of U.S. cases of COVID-19, a highly contagious and sometimes fatal respiratory illness, has concerned health officials and spurred calls within Congress for action to expand testing and avert an economic meltdown.

“We had a good reception on Capitol Hill. We’re going to be working with Republican and Democratic leadership to move a legislative package,” Vice President Mike Pence, who is leading the White House’s coronavirus task force, told a White House briefing.

Almost three-quarters of U.S. states have confirmed cases of COVID-19. A running national tally kept by the Johns Hopkins University center tracking the outbreak puts the number of cases at 1,025, with 28 deaths. Washington state’s governor warned of tens of thousands more cases without “real action,” and New York’s governor deployed National Guard troops as a containment measure in a hard-hit New York City suburb.

U.S. stocks rebounded in their largest daily gain since late 2018 on hopes that a government stimulus package was in the making. In Asia, though, on Wednesday, Asian shares and Wall Street futures fell as growing scepticism about Washington’s stimulus knocked the steam out of the rally.

A central feature of the administration’s legislative proposal is payroll tax relief, although the extent and duration of the proposal were unclear.

White House officials have also said the administration could undertake executive action to help small businesses and workers, including those who do not receive paid sick leave.

Trump is scheduled to meet with bank executives at the White House on Wednesday.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who is leading negotiations on behalf of Republican President Donald Trump, met with Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to discuss a possible deal.

“We’re going to work together on a bipartisan basis to figure out how we can get things done quickly that are going to help the Americans that are most impacted by this and small and medium-sized businesses that are impacted,” he said.

Pelosi said the meeting was aimed at seeing “where our common ground was” on a set of legislative proposals.

In remarks to reporters, she warned that any package should not contain “trickle-down solutions that only help a few.”

Democrats are challenging the Trump administration to tightly target new measures at people directly affected by the coronavirus. Any measure would need to pass the Democratic-controlled House as well as the Republican-controlled Senate before reaching Trump’s desk.

“I hope we don’t play politics with this. Mixing politics with a pandemic is not good. It’s terribly counterproductive,” said Republican Senator Pat Roberts.

‘MIXED REVIEWS’

All three major U.S. benchmark stock indexes on Tuesday rose nearly 5%, one day after suffering their largest losses since the 2008 financial crisis.

Prospects for a second day of gains on Wednesday dimmed as U.S. equity index futures slid 1% after the overnight trading session got under way.

Trump met with Republican lawmakers and again downplayed the risks from the coronavirus. “It will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away,” he said.

A senior Senate Republican aide said Trump’s payroll tax proposal got “mixed reviews” among Republican senators who attended.

Some Senate Republicans said a potential deal could include $300 billion in payroll tax relief that could help people make rent and mortgage payments, or pay medical bills if family members’ work hours are reduced during the outbreak.

Democrats accused Trump of being more focused on soothing Wall Street’s nerves than on protecting the public from the health and economic fallout of the fast-spreading epidemic. The White House has been accused of inadequate preparation for the outbreak and a slow rollout of coronavirus testing.

“President Trump and his administration should be putting people before corporations, and they should be focused on taking appropriate steps to keep the American people and their economic security safe,” Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said.

Democrats are pushing for paid sick leave, expanded and free testing for the coronavirus and other measures.

OUTBREAK EXPANDS

More than 116,000 people have contracted the coronavirus worldwide since it surfaced in China late last year, according to the World Health Organization. More than 4,000 people have died.

Italy, which has the highest death toll outside of China, has put its entire population of 60 million on virtual lockdown.

At least 35 U.S. states and the District of Columbia have reported infections of COVID-19. New Jersey on Tuesday reported its first death.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said schools would be closed and public gatherings suspended in a coronavirus “hot zone” in New Rochelle, a New York City suburb, and deployed National Guard troops there.

The United Nations said it would be closing its headquarters in New York to the public until further notice.

As the outbreak spreads, daily life in the United States has been increasingly disrupted, with concerts and conferences canceled and universities telling students to stay home and take classes online.

Democratic presidential contenders Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders both canceled rallies in Ohio on Tuesday night, citing warnings from public health officials, as six states voted in the party’s nominating contests.

The Democratic National Committee said its presidential debate in Arizona on Sunday would be conducted without a live audience because of health concerns.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan, Susan Cornwell, Susan Heavey, Andrea Shalal, David Lawder and Lisa Lambert in Washington, Deborah Bloom in Olympia, Washington and Nathan Layne and Gabriella Borter in New York; Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien, Eric Beech and Makini Brice, Rama Venkat in Bengaluru; Writing by Paul Simao and Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Bill Berkrot, Cynthia Osterman and Peter Cooney)

‘Perfect Storm’: Washington virus deaths highlight risk at nursing homes

By Laila Kearney and Maria Caspani

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Less than a year after Constantine Valhouli moved his 85-year-old father into a Massachusetts elder-care facility, he is considering bringing his dad back home, his confidence rattled by a deadly coronavirus outbreak at a Washington state nursing home.

The deaths of four residents at the LifeCare long-term care facility in Kirkland has stoked Valhouli’s fears that the virus could spread quickly and quietly in facilities such as the home where his father resides after a series of strokes.

“You’ve got this perfect storm of conditions – the density of residents, the age of residents and the health concerns,” said Valhouli, a Boston resident who works in real estate analytics. “The terrifying part of it is that you can worry about it from a distance, but the minute you’ve got a case, it’s almost too late.”

Virus outbreaks are especially problematic in nursing homes because residents live in close quarters, so infections can spread easily. Older residents also tend to have weaker immune systems and underlying health conditions, making illnesses easier to catch and more dangerous if contracted.

As COVID-19 cases begin to spread across the United States, the Washington deaths have highlighted the vulnerability of older people in general. The elderly are considered the most at risk of dying from the virus, with deaths in China disproportionately affecting people over the age of 80.

“One thing that is clear is that nursing homes and hospitals are potentially at greater risk, and we are really going to have to think hard about what can be done to protect them,” Tom Frieden, a former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told a media briefing on Monday.

If the outbreak spreads, Frieden said, U.S. officials might have to consider new steps to protect the more than 1.3 million Americans in nursing homes, such as curtailing visits to reduce the risk of introducing the virus to them.

At LifeCare in Kirkland, a resident in his 70s died over the weekend after contracting coronavirus, becoming the fourth person at the facility to have passed away from the virus as of Monday. Another 27 residents and 25 staff members were reporting symptoms, which can be similar to that of the common flu.

To be sure, the outbreak is not widespread in the United States so far, with only about 100 people across the country testing positive for the virus as of Sunday and six deaths. That compares with more than 87,000 cases worldwide and nearly 3,000 deaths in 60 countries, the World Health Organization said.

Even so, some senior living facilities have already started taking steps to limit their residents’ exposure to the virus.

Era Living, which manages eight independent and assisted living communities in the Seattle area, has begun restricting visitors, the group said on its website.

For now, facilities are working to prevent COVID-19 infections in similar ways that they guard against the flu, David Gifford, chief medical officer for the Agency For Health Care Administration, a non-profit federation of about 13,500 nursing homes and other care facilities, said on a conference call.

One essential weapon that nursing homes have against the flu is not available for coronavirus.

“There is no vaccine for coronavirus, and we know that when we have flu outbreaks, they are just huge. They just sweep through an entire nursing home,” Frieden said.

Keeping the virus away from nursing homes and other facilities with vulnerable residents will likely take restrictions on who can enter the buildings, with no sick people allowed inside, said Frieden. In the meantime, he said more outbreaks similar to the one in Washington are likely.

“This is a sentinel event. We are going to see this elsewhere,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Nathan Layne; Editing by Frank McGurty and Richard Pullin)

Six dead of coronavirus in Seattle area, U.S. officials scramble to prepare for more cases

By Steve Holland and Michael Erman

(Reuters) – Six people in the Seattle area have died of illness caused by the new coronavirus, health officials said on Monday, as authorities across the United States scrambled to prepare for more infections, with the emphasis on ratcheting up the number of available test kits.

Dr. Jeff Duchin, chief health officer for Seattle and King County Public Health agency, announced the increase in fatalities from the previous two in Washington state. He told a news conference that the county was not recommending school closures or cancellation of any events at this point, but they do expect the increase in cases to continue.

The total number of cases in Washington state was now at 18. Five of the deaths were in King County and one from Snohomish County, also in the Puget Sound region just north of Seattle.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, whose state has one confirmed case, welcomed the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) allowing New York to test for the virus that has killed more than 3,000 people worldwide since it emerged in China in December.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio deliver remarks at a news conference regarding the first confirmed case of coronavirus in New York State in Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., March 2, 2020. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

“I would like to have a goal of 1,000 tests per day capacity within one week because again the more testing the better,” Cuomo said at a briefing on Monday.

Federal health officials have said the number of test kits for coronavirus would be radically expanded in coming weeks. The United States appeared poised for a spike in cases, partly because there would be more testing to confirm infections.

The number of cases in the United States as of March 1 had risen to 91, according to the CDC. There has been a jump in presumed cases reported by the states to 27 from seven. The CDC will confirm the tests sent by states with their own diagnostics. So far, 10 states including California and New York have confirmed or presumed coronavirus cases.

Protective gear and test kits were being distributed to U.S. military facilities with a priority on distribution to the Korean Peninsula, U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley said at a briefing.

South Korea is one of the hardest hit countries with 4,335 cases and 26 deaths.

U.S. government military laboratories were working to develop a vaccine, Milley said.

President Donald Trump said his administration has asked pharmaceutical companies to accelerate work on the development of a coronavirus vaccine, but provided no details.

Top U.S. health officials have said any vaccine is up to 18 months away and there is no treatment for the respiratory disease, although patients can receive supportive care.

Trump and his task force on the outbreak will meet with drug company executives on Monday afternoon. Executives from GlaxoSmithKline Kline Plc, Sanofi SA , Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer Inc will attend the meeting, according to representatives for the companies.

The White House is also expected to meet this week with top executives from U.S. airlines and the cruise industry over the impact of the virus to their businesses, two people briefed on the matter said.

There have been more than 87,000 cases worldwide and nearly 3,000 deaths in 60 countries, the World Health Organization said. The global death toll was up to 3,044, according to a Reuters tally.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the infectious diseases unit at the U.S. National Institutes of Health, said he was concerned the number of U.S. cases could jump in coming weeks.

“When you have a number of cases that you’ve identified and they’ve been in the community for a while, you’re going to wind up seeing a lot more cases than you would have predicted,” he told CNN.

The U.S. Congress is expected to take up a spending measure in coming days that could allocate billions more dollars for the virus response.

World stock markets, after a week-long slide, on Monday regained a measure of calm amid hope of a possible stimulus, while U.S. stocks were up around 3%. [MKTS/GLOB]

(Reporting by Steve Holland, David Shepardson, Susan Heavey, Lisa Lambert, Makini Brice, David Morgan, Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart in Washington, Michael Erman and Caroline Humer in New York and Manas Mishra in Bengaluru, Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Writing by Grant McCool; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

Health officials confirm first U.S. case of China coronavirus, expand screening

By Julie Steenhuysen

(Reuters) – A U.S. resident who recently traveled to China has been diagnosed with the newly identified coronavirus that has sickened more than 300 people and killed at least six in China, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said on Tuesday.

The U.S. patient is responding well to treatment and was not severely ill, CDC and Washington State health officials said.

CDC officials said the agency is preparing for more U.S. cases of the coronavirus that originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan, and raised its travel alert for Wuhan to a level 2, calling for enhanced precautions. Under that alert level, the CDC recommends travelers to Wuhan should avoid contact with sick people, animals or animal markets.

“We do expect additional cases in the United States and globally,” Dr. Nancy Messonnier, a CDC respiratory diseases expert said on a conference call with reporters.

CDC officials said they have begun tracking down individuals who came in contact with the patient to check them for symptoms.

Last week, the CDC began screening travelers from China at U.S. airports in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. On Tuesday, the agency said it will expand screening for the virus to the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta and O’Hare International Airport in Chicago.

Besides the United States, cases outside of China have been reported in South Korea, Thailand and Japan.

“I don’t think looking at what we know so far that this it on the scale of SARS and MERS, the two most significant coronavirus outbreaks that we know from history,” Dr. Amesh Adalja, from the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, said in a phone interview.

“It is early days in this outbreak and we don’t have a good handle on the severity of illness,” Adalja added.

On the call, CDC officials said they have screened more than 1,200 passengers since Jan. 17. None of them have been sent on for additional testing.

The U.S. traveler from Washington state had returned on Jan. 15, arriving at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, which is not on the U.S. list for enhanced screening.

The patient sought care at a medical facility in Everett, Washington, and was treated for the illness. Based on his travel history and symptoms, healthcare professionals suspected the new coronavirus.

Specimens were taken from the patient and sent to the CDC for testing. The agency said it has developed a new test that allowed it to identify the presence of the virus in a traveler.

Washington state health officials said they are taking steps to protect the public and continue to believe the risk is low. Healthcare personnel are taking precautions to prevent the infection from spreading to hospital staff, they added.

As is often the case, preliminary information suggests older adults with underlying health conditions may be at increased risk of severe disease, CDC’s Messonnier said.

The agency is working with health officials in China and globally to better understand the virus and any potential treatments.

Messonnier confirmed that the CDC is working with the U.S. National Institutes of Health to develop diagnostics and a vaccine. U.S. officials have said it could take at least a year of testing before any vaccine could be used on the public.

(Reporting by Manas Mishra in Bengaluru and Julie Steenhuysen in Chicago; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

Oil, safe havens surge as U.S. strikes kill Iranian commander

By Herbert Lash and Marc Jones

NEW YORK/LONDON (Reuters) – Oil prices surged as much as $3 a barrel as gold, the yen and safe-haven bonds all rallied on Friday after the U.S. killing of Iran’s top military commander in an air strike in Iraq ratcheted up tensions between Washington and Tehran.

Traders were spooked after the death of Major General Qassem Soleimani, head of the elite Quds Force who was also one of Iran’s most influential figures, and by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s vow of revenge.

Mideast-focused oil markets saw the most dramatic moves, with Brent oil futures leaping as much 4.5% to $69.20 a barrel. That was the highest since the attacks on Saudi crude facilities in September, though the impact hit almost every asset class.

Europe’s broad STOXX 600 index fell as much as 1% and shares on Wall Street almost the same as New Year optimism, which had pushed equity markets to new records, evaporated.

The yen rose half a percent against the dollar to a two-month high, the Swiss franc hit its highest against the euro since September and gold prices  climbed to a four-month peak, racing past the key $1,550 an ounce level.

“Geopolitics has come back to the table, and this is something that could have major cross-asset implications,” said Salman Ahmed, Lombard Odier’s chief investment strategist.

“What is critical is how it pans out in the next few days,” Ahmed said. “Whether it turns into a theme depends on Iran’s reaction and then the U.S. response.”

Iran promised harsh revenge. Soleimani’s Quds Force and its paramilitary proxies, ranging from Lebanon’s Hizbollah to the PMF in Iraq, have ample means to mount a response.

In September, U.S. officials blamed Iran for attacking the oil installations of Saudi Aramco, the state energy giant and the world’s largest oil exporter. Iran has denied responsibility for the strikes and accused Washington of war-mongering.

The Trump administration then did not respond, beyond heated rhetoric and threats, and markets settled down within a week after Brent surged 14.6%, its biggest one-day percentage gain since at least 1988.

The U.S. government and others on Friday urged their citizens in the region either to return home or to stay away from potential targets and public gatherings.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a round of TV interviews that the United States remained committed to de-escalation with Iran but that it had needed to defend itself.

“He (Soleimani) was actively plotting in the region to take actions – a big action as he described it – that would have put dozens if not hundreds of American lives at risk. We know it was imminent,” Pompeo told CNN.

MSCI’s gauge of stocks across the globe shed 0.43%, while its emerging markets index lost 0.32%.

On Wall Street, the Dow Jones Industrial Average  fell 210.81 points, or 0.73%, to 28,657.99. The S&P 500  lost 18.86 points, or 0.58%, to 3,238.99 and the Nasdaq Composite <.IXIC> dropped 58.26 points, or 0.64%, to 9,033.93.

The global gauge and Wall Street indices set record closing highs on Thursday, extending the year-end rally in equities.

Brent  hit a peak of $69.50 a barrel, its highest since mid-September, though it later traded up $2.40 to $68.65.

West Texas Intermediate  crude  rose $2.20 to $63.38 a barrel, after earlier spiking to $64.09 a barrel, its highest since April 2019.

SCRAMBLE TO SAFETY

Yields on German Bunds and U.S. Treasuries – the world’s benchmark government bonds that are typically seen as the safest assets – fell sharply.

 

The 10-year Bund  yield fell 7 basis points to a two-week low of -0.299%, while Bund futures  were up 0.51 percent, at 172.13 euros.

Benchmark 10-year Treasury notes rose 23/32 in price to yield 1.802%, from 1.882% late on Monday.

The dollar index fell 0.08%, with the euro up 0.06% to $1.1177. The Japanese yen  strengthened 0.59% versus the greenback at 107.94 per dollar.

The focus on geopolitics meant markets paid little attention to stronger-than-expected data from France, where inflation rose 1.6% year-on-year in December, beating analysts’ expectations for a 1.4% rise.

German inflation figures were also higher, although unemployment in Europe’s largest economy rose more than expected.

The U.S. manufacturing sector contracted in December by the most in more than a decade, with order volumes crashing to near an 11-year low and factory employment falling for a fifth straight month, the Institute for Supply Management said.

Investors also were looking forward to the minutes of the U.S. Federal Reserve’s Dec. 10-11 meeting due at 2 p.m. (1900 GMT).

(Reporting by Herbert Lash, additional reporting by Sujata Rao and Dhara Ranasinghe in London and Diptendu Lahiri in Bengaluru; Editing by Dan Grebler)

Turkey’s Erdogan may call off U.S. trip after Congress votes: officials

Turkey’s Erdogan may call off U.S. trip after Congress votes: officials
By Orhan Coskun and Dominic Evans

ANKARA (Reuters) – President Tayyip Erdogan may call off a visit to Washington next week in protest at votes in the House of Representatives to recognize mass killings of Armenians a century ago as genocide and to seek sanctions on Turkey, three Turkish officials said.

Erdogan is due in Washington on Nov. 13 at President Donald Trump’s invitation, but said last week that the votes put a “question mark” over the plans.

“These steps seriously overshadow ties between the two countries. Due to these decisions, Erdogan’s visit has been put on hold,” a senior Turkish official said, adding that a final decision had not been taken.

Turkish sources say Trump and Erdogan have a strong bond despite anger in Congress over Turkey’s Syria offensive and its purchase of Russian air defenses, and despite what Ankara sees as Trump’s own erratic pronouncements.

Those personal ties could be crucial given NATO member Turkey’s purchase of Moscow’s S-400 missile defense system, which under U.S. law should trigger sanctions.

Turkey is already suspended from the F-35 fighter jet program in which it was both joint producer and customer, and the offensive it launched against Kurdish forces in northeast Syria on Oct. 9 set the stage for further U.S. retaliation.

Although Trump appeared to clear the way for the incursion by withdrawing troops, the White House briefly imposed sanctions before lifting them after a deal to halt the fighting and clear the Kurdish fighters from the border.

Then, two weeks after that deal, the Congressional votes infuriated Turkey once more.

‘POLITICAL TIMING’

Turkey accepts that many Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire were killed in clashes with Ottoman forces during World War One, but contests the figures and denies that the killings were orchestrated or constitute genocide.

“They took advantage of the current political climate against Turkey in Washington to pass this resolution,” a source close to the presidency said. Like the other officials, he spoke on condition of anonymity.

Trump has expressed sympathy for Turkey over its purchase of Russian defense systems, blaming his predecessor for not selling Ankara U.S. Patriot missiles. His eagerness to pull U.S. forces out of Syria also aligned with Erdogan’s plan to send troops across the border to drive back the Kurdish YPG.

However, last month Trump threatened to “obliterate” Turkey’s economy, and Trump sent Erdogan a letter on the day the offensive started warning him he could be responsible for “slaughtering thousands of people”.

“Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool!” Trump wrote.

A Turkish security official cited Trump’s letter, along with the votes in Congress, as damaging: “If the atmosphere doesn’t change, there won’t be any point to this visit”.

Erdogan himself said three weeks ago he could no longer keep up with Trump’s blizzard of tweets.

Still, for Ankara, Trump remains the best hope of salvaging a partnership between two countries that, despite their difficulties, want to quadruple their annual trade to $100 billion.

“The two leaders have a good relationship,” the source close to the presidency said. “President Trump wants to have good relations with Turkey in spite of his own establishment.”

(Editing by Kevin Liffey)

North Korea breaks off nuclear talks with U.S. in Sweden

By Johan Ahlander and Philip O’Connor

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) – Working-level nuclear talks in Sweden between officials from Pyongyang and Washington have broken off, North Korea’s top negotiator said late on Saturday, dashing prospects for an end to months of stalemate.

The talks, at an isolated conference center on the outskirts of Stockholm, were the first such formal discussion since U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met in June and agreed to restart negotiations that stalled after a failed summit in Vietnam in February.

The North’s chief nuclear negotiator, Kim Myong Gil, who spent much of the day in talks with an American delegation, cast the blame on what he portrayed as U.S. inflexibility, saying the other side’s negotiators would not “give up their old viewpoint and attitude.”

“The negotiations have not fulfilled our expectation and finally broke off,” Kim told reporters outside the North Korean embassy, speaking through an interpreter.

The U.S. State Department said Kim’s comments did not reflect “the content or spirit” of more than 8-1/2 hours of talks, and Washington had accepted Sweden’s invitation to return for more discussions with Pyongyang in two weeks.

“The U.S. brought creative ideas and had good discussions with its DPRK counterparts,” spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said in a statement. North Korea is also known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

She said the U.S. delegation had previewed a number of new initiatives that would pave the way for progress in the talks, and underscored the importance of more intensive engagement.

“The United States and the DPRK will not overcome a legacy of 70 years of war and hostility on the Korean peninsula through the course of a single Saturday,” she added.

“These are weighty issues, and they require a strong commitment by both countries. The United States has that commitment.”

North Korea’s Kim downplayed the U.S. gestures.

“The U.S. raised expectations by offering suggestions like a flexible approach, new method and creative solutions, but they have disappointed us greatly and dampened our enthusiasm for negotiation by bringing nothing to the negotiation table,” he said.

Swedish broadcaster TV4 said the U.S. Special Representative for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, who led the team, had arrived back at the U.S. embassy in central Stockholm.

The Swedish foreign office declined to give details on the invitation for new talks, or whether Pyongyang had accepted.

Since June, U.S. officials had struggled to persuade North Korea, which is under sanctions banning much of its trade, due to its nuclear program, to return to the table, but that appeared to change this week when the North abruptly announced it had agreed to talks.

On Saturday, negotiator Kim accused the United States of having no intention of solving difficulties through dialogue, but said a complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula was still possible.

It would only happen “when all the obstacles that threaten our safety and check our development are removed completely without a shadow of doubt,” he said, in an apparent reference to North Korea’s desire for Washington to ease economic pressure.

On Sunday, China’s President Xi Jinping and the North’s leader exchanged messages to reaffirm the neighbors’ relationship on the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties. China is the North’s only major ally.

Xi, who has met Kim five times in the past year, said they had “reached a series of important consensuses, leading China-North Korea relations into a new historical era”, the official Xinhua news agency said.

Kim replied the two leaders would “resolutely safeguard the peace and stability of the Korean peninsula and the world,” Xinhua reported.

TENSIONS

The delegation from North Korea arrived in Sweden on Thursday. Analysts have said both countries’ leaders had growing incentives to reach a deal, but it was unclear if common ground could be found after months of tension and deadlock.

The readout from the talks did not sound very promising, said Jenny Town, a managing editor at 38 North, a Washington-based North Korea project.

“I think (North Korea’s) expectations were too high that the removal of Bolton would provide more flexibility on what the U.S. wants as initial steps,” she said, referring to Trump’s hardline former aide John Bolton, abruptly fired last month amid disagreements on how to tackle foreign policy challenges.

“While certainly it removes some pressure for an all or nothing deal, it seems the gap between what the two sides want as a baseline and are willing to reciprocate still has not narrowed,” Town added.

An official at South Korea’s presidential office said the talks in Sweden were nevertheless the beginning of negotiations, and that South Korea hoped the United States and North Korea would keep the momentum of the dialogue.

Only a day after announcing the new talks, North Korea said it had test-fired a new ballistic missile designed for submarine launch, underscoring the need for Washington to move quickly to negotiate limits on Pyongyang’s growing arsenal.

Speaking in Athens on a tour of southern Europe while the talks were still underway, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had said he was hopeful of progress.

“We are mindful this will be the first time that we’ve had a chance to have a discussion in quite some time and that there remains to be a lot of work that will have to be done by the two teams,” he told a news conference.

(Reporting by Anna Ringstrom, Johan Ahlander, Simon Johnson, Niklas Pollard and Philip O’Connor in Stockholm; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom and Michele Kambas in Athens, Joori Roh and Ju-min Park in Seoul, Andrea Shalal and Julia Harte in Washington, Huizhong Wu and Hallie Gu in Beijing; Writing by Niklas Pollard; Editing by Clarence Fernandez; Editing by Christopher Cushing)

China, U.S. to hold trade talks in October; Beijing says phone call went well

FILE PHOTO: Chinese and U.S. flags flutter near The Bund, before U.S. trade delegation meet their Chinese counterparts for talks in Shanghai, China July 30, 2019. REUTERS/Aly Song/File Photo/File Photo

BEIJING (Reuters) – China and the United States on Thursday agreed to hold high-level trade talks in early October in Washington, amid fears that an escalating trade war could trigger a global economic recession.

The talks were agreed to in a phone call between Chinese Vice Premier Liu He and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, China’s commerce ministry said in a statement on its website. China’s central bank governor Yi Gang was also on the call.

“Both sides agreed that they should work together and take practical actions to create good conditions for consultations,” the ministry said.

“Lead negotiators from both sides had a really good phone call this morning,” ministry spokesman Gao Feng said in a weekly briefing. “We’ll strive to achieve substantial progress during the 13th Sino-U.S. high-level negotiations in early October.”

Gao also said Beijing opposes any escalation in the trade war.

Trade teams from the two countries will hold talks in mid-September before the high-level talks next month, the ministry said.

A spokesman for the U.S. Trade Representative’s office confirmed that Lighthizer and Mnuchin spoke with Liu and said they agreed to hold ministerial-level trade talks in Washington “in the coming weeks”.

News of the early October talks lifted most Asian share markets on Thursday, raising hopes these can de-escalate the U.S.-China trade war before it inflicts further damage on the global economy.

On Sunday, Washington began imposing 15% tariffs on an array of Chinese imports, while China began placing duties on U.S. crude oil. China said on Monday it had lodged a complaint against the United States at the World Trade Organization.

The United States plans to increase the tariff rate to 30% from the 25% duty already in place on $250 billion worth of Chinese imports from Oct. 1.

U.S. President Donald Trump had warned on Tuesday he would be tougher on Beijing in a second term if trade talks dragged on, compounding market fears that disputes between the United States and China could trigger a U.S. recession.

Chinese leaders will have a packed schedule next month, gearing up for National Day celebrations scheduled for Oct. 1.

They will also hold a key meeting in October to discuss improving governance and “perfecting” the country’s socialist system, state media has said.

(Reporting by Kevin Yao, Yawen Chen and Beijing Monitoring Desk; Editing by Paul Tait and Richard Borsuk)