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'Coming back and biting us': US sees virus resurgence

HOUSTON — A coronavirus resurgence is wiping out two months of progress in the U.S. and sending infections to dire new levels across the South and West, with hospital administrators and health experts warning Wednesday that politicians and a tired-of-being-cooped-up public are letting a disaster unfold.

The U.S. recorded a one-day total of 34,700 new confirmed COVID-19 cases, the highest level since late April, when the number peaked at 36,400, according to a count kept by Johns Hopkins University.

While newly confirmed infections have been declining steadily in early hot spots such as New York and New Jersey, several other states set single-day records this week, including Arizona, California, Mississippi, Nevada, Texas and Oklahoma. Some of them also broke hospitalization records, as did North Carolina and South Carolina.

“People got complacent,” said Dr. Marc Boom, CEO of the Houston Methodist hospital system. “And it’s coming back and biting us, quite frankly.”

Stocks slid on Wall Street as the news dampened hopes for a quick economic turnaround. The Dow Jones Industrial Average lost over 700 points for a drop of 2.7%. The broader S&P 500 fell 2.6%.

The virus has been blamed for over 120,000 U.S. deaths — the highest toll in the world — and more than 2.3 million confirmed infections nationwide. On Wednesday, the widely cited University of Washington computer model of the outbreak projected nearly 180,000 deaths by Oct. 1.

California reported over 7,100 new cases, and Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom said he would withhold pandemic-related funding from local governments that brush off state requirements on masks and other anti-virus measures. Florida’s single-day count surged to 5,500, a 25% jump from the record set last week.

In Texas, which began lifting its shutdowns on May 1, hospitalizations have doubled and new cases have tripled in two weeks. Gov. Greg Abbott told KFDA-TV the state is facing a “massive outbreak” and might need new local restrictions to preserve hospital space.

The Houston area’s intensive care units are nearly full, and two public hospitals are running at capacity, Mayor Sylvester Turner said.

Houston Methodist’s Boom said Texans need to “behave perfectly and work together perfectly” to slow the infection rate.

“When I look at a restaurant or a business where people ... are not following the guidelines, where people are just throwing caution to the wind, it makes me angry,” he said.

Just 17% of intensive-care beds were available Wednesday in Alabama — including just one in Montgomery — though hospitals can add more, said Dr. Don Williamson, head of the Alabama Hospital Association.

“There is nothing that I’m seeing that makes me think we are getting ahead of this,” he said.

In Arizona, emergency rooms are seeing about 1,200 suspected COVID-19 patients a day, compared with around 500 a month ago. If the trends continue, hospitals will probably exceed capacity within the next several weeks, said Dr. Joseph Gerald, a University of Arizona public health policy professor.

“We are in deep trouble,” said Gerald, urging the state to impose new restrictions on businesses, which Gov. Doug Ducey has refused to do.

Dr. Peter Hotez, an infectious-disease expert at the Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, said he worries that states will squander what time they have to head off a much larger crisis.

“We’re still talking about subtlety, still arguing whether or not we should wear masks, and still not understanding that a vaccine is not going to rescue us,” he said.

The Texas governor initially barred local officials from fining or penalizing anyone for not wearing a mask as the state reopened. After cases began spiking, Abbott said last week that cities and counties could allow businesses to require masks. So did Arizona’s Ducey, who is a Republican, as is Abbott.

Some business owners are frustrated that officials didn’t do more, and sooner, to require masks.

“I can’t risk my staff, my clientele, myself, my family and everybody else in that chain just because other people are too inconvenienced to wear a piece of cloth on their face,” said Michael Neff, an owner of the Cottonmouth Club in Houston. He closed it this week so staffers could get tested after one had contact with an infected person.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, ordered people to wear masks in public as the daily count of hospitalizations and new cases hovered near records. In Florida, several counties and cities recently enacted mask requirements.

In a sign of the shift in the outbreak, New York, Connecticut and New Jersey announced they will ask visitors from states with high infection rates to quarantine themselves for 14 days. In March, Florida issued such an order for visitors from the New York City area, where cases were soaring.

The U.S. Justice Department took aim at Hawaii’s quarantine requirement for visitors, saying it discriminates against out-of-state residents. The Hawaii attorney general’s office says there’s no merit to the government’s arguments and a related lawsuit from out-of-state property owners.

Cases also are surging in some other parts of the world. India reported a record-breaking one-day increase of nearly 16,000 cases. Mexico and Iraq hit new highs as well.

But China appears to have tamed a new outbreak in Beijing, again demonstrating its ability to mobilize vast resources by testing nearly 2.5 million people in 11 days. China on Wednesday reported 12 cases nationwide, down from 22 the day before.

Worldwide, over 9.3 million people have been confirmed infected, and nearly 500,000 have died, by Johns Hopkins’ count.

Bayer paying up to $10.9B to settle Monsanto weedkiller case

Associated Press

BERLIN — Bayer said Wednesday that it will pay up to $10.9 billion to settle litigation over the weedkiller Roundup, which has faced thousands of lawsuits over claims it causes cancer.

Bayer said it was also paying up $1.22 billion to settle two additional areas of intense litigation, one involving toxic chemical PCB in water, and one involving dicamba, another weedkiller.

The company said the settlement over Roundup, which is made by its Monsanto subsidiary, involves about 125,000 filed and unfiled claims. Under the agreement, Bayer will make a payment of $8.8 billion to $9.6 billion to resolve current litigation, and $1.25 billion to address potential future litigation, even as the company continues to maintain that Roundup is safe.

“In short, this is the right action at the right time for Bayer,” CEO Werner Baumann said during a conference call with reporters. In a statement, he called the settlement “financially reasonable when viewed against the significant financial risks of continued, multi-year litigation and the related impacts to our reputation and to our business.”

Monsanto developed glyphosate — a key ingredient in Roundup — in the 1970s. The weedkiller has been sold in more than 160 countries and widely used in the U.S. Bayer, which bought St. Louis-based Monsanto in 2018, said last year that all government regulators that have looked at the issue have rejected a link between cancer and glyphosate.

The herbicide came under increasing scrutiny after the France-based International Agency for Research on Cancer, which is part of the World Health Organization, classified it as a “probable human carcinogen” in 2015.

Lawsuits against Monsanto followed. Monsanto has attacked the international research agency’s opinion as an outlier. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says glyphosate is safe for people when used in accordance with label directions.

Attorney Robin Greenwald of the New York law firm Weitz & Luxenberg, which represented several people who filed suit against Monsanto, welcomed the settlement.

“It has been a long journey, but we are very pleased that we’ve achieved justice for the tens of thousands of people who, through no fault of their own, are suffering from Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma after using a product Monsanto assured them was safe,” Greenwald said in a statement.

In August, a California jury ordered Monsanto to pay $86.7 million to a couple claiming that Roundup Ready caused their cancers. It was the third such courtroom loss for Monsanto in California since August 2018.

Bayer said Wednesday that the appeals process will continue for those three cases, which are not covered by the settlement.

The new agreement establishes creation of an independent panel for any future lawsuits. Bayer said the panel will determine whether Roundup can cause non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and if so, at what minimum exposure levels.

Werner said Bayer is confident that a scientific review would support its contention that the product does not cause cancer.

Bayer said it would also pay up to $400 million to settle cases claiming that dicamba drifted onto plants that weren’t bred to resist it, killing them. Claimants will be required to provide proof their crop yields were damaged by dicamba, Bayer said.

The company said it expects contributions from co-defendant BASF toward the dicamba settlement.

Bayer separately agreed to pay about $170 million to resolve PCB claims filed by attorneys general in New Mexico, Washington state and the District of Columbia. The company also said it would pay $650 million to a group of local governments with claims of PCB pollution — a settlement that requires federal court approval.

That settlement provides money to help officials clean up major waterways polluted with PCBs that were carried there by stormwater runoff, said Scott Summy, whose law firm represented government entities.

Bayer said it would start making payments this year and these would be financed from existing liquidity, future income, proceeds from the sale of its animal health business and the issuance of additional bonds.

Local entities receive CARES grant funding

Three area nonprofit institutions have received federal CARES Act grants through the National Endowment for the Humanities to help retain staff.

Hastings College, Hastings Museum and the National Willa Cather Center received a total of more than $550,000 in supplemental grant funding included in the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.

Hastings College received a $300,000 grant. Funds from the grant will be used to support the Languages and Literatures Department and the Hastings College Arts and Humanities Division, which includes the history, religion and philosophy departments, according to a news release from the college issued Tuesday.

Grant funds will help support full- and part-time humanities faculty, prepare humanities faculty to offer interactive hybrid and online courses, and redesign several foundational humanities courses for hybrid and online instruction. A hybrid course is one that’s partly in-person and partly online.

Robert Babcock is a Hastings College history professor who wrote the grant application and will serve as the project’s director.

“Our goal isn’t to re-create online courses you could get at any other college or university but rather to create courses that replicate the faculty and student interaction Hastings College is known for,” Babcock said in the release.

When the pandemic pushed Hastings College courses online, one challenge the college faced was transitioning humanities classes online. To create more effective hybrid and online courses, the grant will fund professional development workshops offered this summer by a consultant with extensive experience in online humanities education.

Hastings College will work with Matthew Duperon, director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Susquehanna University, to design a one-day professional development workshop for the humanities faculty. The workshop will employ a set of guidelines for online courses developed by a consortium of educators to outline and discuss the critical components of successful online courses. Duperon will work with each faculty participant to develop ideas for use in hybrid and online courses.

Faculty in the humanities division then will spend the following month redesigning at least one foundational humanities course to be offered in the hybrid or online modalities.

“The humanities at Hastings College are an essential resource for the education of our students, and I am thankful we received this grant to help maintain faculty and to create new, engaging courses,” Babcock said.

The Hastings Museum, which is owned and operated by the city of Hastings, received a $123,027 grant that will be used to support staff involved in the second-floor comprehensive exhibit plan.

The project includes verifying the existing collections by taking a full inventory and determining what stories the museum is best equipped to tell. The plan will consider structural strengths and limitations of the physical space and determine the best way to relocate the Kool-Aid exhibit to the top floor. The project will define the elements of a new permanent exhibit to tell the story of the U.S. Naval Ammunition Depot, a nearly 49,000-acre facility in Adams and Clay counties that was of great significance during World War II.

Becky Matticks, Hastings Museum executive director, said the National Endowment for the Humanities grant will allow the museum to keep staff working on the project.

“This is big for us,” she said. “We didn’t want to lose anyone involved in the redesign of second floor.”

While the project itself is being funded by the half-cent sales tax, Matticks said, the shutdown caused by the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, pandemic put the employment of staff involved in the project in jeopardy. The grant will allow the museum to retain five staff members who are working on the project.

“These funds are an amazing complement to the support coming our way locally from the half-cent sales tax,” Matticks said.

The museum also received another $8,900 grant from the Humanities Nebraska CARES Grant.

The National Willa Cather Center in Red Cloud, operated by the Willa Cather Foundation, received a grant of $134,060 to retain five staff members and diversify its offerings.

Funds will be used to create new online and mobile app virtual/audio tours, increase digital accessibility to a selection of collection materials, and erect new outdoor interpretation, according to a statement from the center. The award also supports planning for a phased re-opening. The center’s education director and archivist, Tracy Tucker, will be project director of the initiatives.

“We are so very grateful to the National Endowment for the Humanities for their generous grant as part of the CARES Act which provides assistance for projects with nonprofit cultural organizations like the National Willa Cather Center,” according to the statement. “Their support, often in collaboration with Humanities Nebraska, allows us to do what we do in the arts and museum world in furthering Willa Cather’s extraordinary legacy.”

The local grant awards were among $40.3 million in new CARES Act economic stabilization grants to support essential operations at more than 300 cultural institutions across the country announced Monday by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

In March, NEH received $75 million in supplemental grant funding through the CARES Act, according to a NEH press release. The agency already had distributed $30 million of that funding to the 56 state and jurisdictional humanities councils to support local cultural nonprofits and educational programming. Through the regranting of federal support, the councils reach an estimated annual audience of 137 million people.

The Humanities Endowment received more than 2,300 eligible applications from cultural organizations requesting more than $370 million in funding for projects between June and December. Only about 14% of the applicants were funded.

Given the highly competitive nature of the grants, Matticks said, the Hastings Museum was fortunate to be among the recipients.

“We are so proud to have submitted one of the projects that was selected,” she said. “It tells us we’re doing the right things.”

Grant for CCC will launch bike share program on Hastings campus

Central Community College-Hastings students and employees will be able to get some exercise on campus while reducing their carbon footprint through a Bike Share program being launched with help from a much-sought grant.

Central Community College announced recently that Second Nature, a nongovernmental organization headquartered in Boston, had awarded the college funding for a new solar-powered Bluetooth docking station on the Hastings campus.

The new docking station will accommodate four bicycles individuals can borrow to make their way around campus without moving their motor vehicles.

Central Community College, which has a 25-county service area, has campuses at Hastings, Grand Island and Columbus. The Grand Island and Columbus campuses already have Bike Share docking stations, which now run on lithium batteries but are being converted to solar power with dollars from the Second Nature grant.

CCC was one of just 10 colleges and universities across the United States to win one of the grants from the Second Nature Climate Solutions Acceleration Fund this spring. More than 50 proposals had been submitted.

CCC was the only institution in the Midwest, and the only community college anywhere, to receive one of the grants.

Ben Newton, CCC environmental sustainability director, said the college appreciates the grant and what it will do for the Hastings campus.

“CCC has Bike Share programs at its Columbus and Grand Island campuses, and because of the grant, our Hastings students and staff will be able to benefit from a free and healthy alternative form of transportation,” Newton said.

Other institutions receiving grants in this round of funding are located in Georgia, New York, California, New Mexico, Arizona, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, respectively.

In addition, six other institutions in the United States and Mexico received honorable mention for their applications. They include the University of Colorado at Boulder and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Second Nature’s mission is to accelerate climate action in and through higher education. The Acceleration Fund was created with support from Bloomberg Philanthropies as part of a larger project to accelerate higher education’s leadership in “cross-sector, place-based climate action.”

Bloomberg Philanthropies encompasses all of the charitable giving of founder Michael R. Bloomberg, an entrepreneur and former mayor of New York City who ran for a time in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary. Bloomberg Philanthropies focuses resources on the environment, public health, the arts, government innovation and education.

Antha Williams, head of environmental programs at Bloomberg Philanthropies, said in a Second Nature news release that the Climate Acceleration Fund grant applications were heartening.

“Local leaders are at the forefront of climate action because they see the vast benefits to their communities, from cutting energy bills to protecting public health,” Williams said. “It’s fantastic to see these forward-thinking colleges and universities advance their bold climate solutions, ensuring continued progress in our fight against the climate crisis.”

According to the Second Nature news release, colleges and universities that are signatories to the Climate Leadership Network and/or members of the University Climate Change Coalition (UC3) were eligible to apply for funding. Projects eligible for funding included those in which the funding would be used for implementation or to support climate action planning activities. The projects needed to be able to advance cross-sector climate action (involving campus and external stakeholders) in some way.

Priority was given to institutions that would foster long-term campus-community partnerships, have potential to scale their work beyond the one-year grant term, and promote climate action that would be inclusive for all segments of the population and promote “equitable and just” outcomes.

Tim Carter, president of Second Nature, added his praise for the pool of applicants who took the time and effort to submit proposals this spring, even amid the turmoil created by the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, public health crisis.

“We were positively overwhelmed and impressed with the quantity and quality of submitted proposals,” Carter said. “It emphasized that even in the midst of a global pandemic, the higher education sector not only understands how crucial it is to continue to accelerate climate action, but is committed to doing so.”