India ‘on war footing’ as coronavirus infections pass 24 million

By Tanvi Mehta and Shilpa Jamkhandikar

NEW DELHI (Reuters) -Prime Minister Narendra Modi sounded the alarm over the rapid spread of COVID-19 through India’s vast countryside on Friday, as 4,000 people died from the virus for the third straight day and total infections crossed 24 million.

India is in the grip of the highly transmissible B.1.617 variant of the coronavirus, first detected there and now appearing across the globe. Modi said his government was “on a war footing” to try to contain it.

“The outbreak is reaching rural areas with great speed,” he said, addressing farmers in a virtual conference. “I want to once again warn all … those who live in villages about corona.”

Although about two-thirds of Indians live in rural towns and villages where healthcare facilities are limited, it was the first time Modi has specifically referred to the virus’s spread through the countryside since a second wave erupted in February.

“All departments of the government, all resources, our armed forces, our scientists, everyone is working day and night to counter COVID, together,” he said.

Eid festivities celebrated by India’s around 200 million Muslims to mark the end of Ramadan were generally subdued on Friday. Most states have imposed full or partial lockdowns and many mosques were either shut or following social distancing measures during prayers.

“The good thing is that everyone is following and celebrating Eid inside their homes,” Maulana Khalid Rashid, a cleric in the city of Lucknow, told ANI news agency, a partner of Reuters.

Television has broadcast images of families weeping over the dead in rural hospitals or camping in wards to tend the sick, while bodies have washed up in the Ganges as crematoriums are overwhelmed and wood for funeral pyres is in short supply.

Medical journal The Lancet said restrictions on movement along with international support measures were urgently needed to stem “an unprecedented public health crisis”.

Modi has been under pressure to impose a national lockdown, though on Thursday the president of the Public Health Foundation of India questioned whether that would be effective in India.

“We recognize … the anxieties that are displayed by international observers… but you can’t wrap all of India into one blanket,” K. Srinath Reddy told a panel discussion.

Health ministry data recorded 4,000 deaths and 343,144 new infections over the last 24 hours, below last week’s peak of 414,188. Total infections since the pandemic struck India more than a year ago crossed 24 million, with 262,317 dead. Experts say the true figures are much higher, with a lack of access to tests and treatment meaning many cases go uncounted.

Modi has faced criticism over his leadership during the pandemic, having allowed a huge Hindu gathering to take place in northern India in February and addressed political rallies in April, blamed for spreading the virus to rural areas.

FAST-SPREADING VARIANT

The fast-spreading variant first found in India has caused alarm around the globe. It has led to big outbreaks in neighboring states such as Nepal, and has also been detected far afield in Britain, the Americas and elsewhere in Asia.

Yamini Mishra, Asia-Pacific director of rights group Amnesty International, said the virus was “spreading and transcending borders at a frightening speed” and would hit the region’s most marginalized populations hardest.

The catastrophe unfolding in India and Nepal should also be a warning to other countries the region “to invest heavily in surge capacity for an emergency response,” she said.

Modi allowed all Indian adults to request vaccines from May 1. But while India is the world’s largest vaccine producer, the huge demand has left it low on stocks and vaccinations have slowed down.

As of Friday, it had fully vaccinated just over 39.4 million people, or around 2.9% of the population. The government has promised to accelerate the vaccine program dramatically in coming months.

More than 2 billion doses of vaccine are likely to be available between August and December, government adviser V.K. Paul told reporters. Those would include 750 million doses of AstraZeneca’s vaccine, which is made by Serum Institute of India, as well as 550 million of Covaxin, developed by domestic producer Bharat Biotech.

Dr. Reddy’s Laboratories Ltd said a first batch of Sputnik V vaccine imported from Russia received regulatory clearance on Thursday and the first dose was administered on Friday as part of a pilot.

(Additional reporting by Anuron Kumar Mitra and Susan Mathew in Bengaluru; Writing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and John Stonestreet; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Simon Cameron-Moore and Peter Graff)

WHO urges rich countries to donate shots instead of vaccinating children

GENEVA (Reuters) – The World Health Organization urged rich countries on Friday to reconsider plans to vaccinate children and instead donate COVID-19 shots to the COVAX scheme for poorer countries.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus also said the second year of the pandemic was set to be more deadly than the first, with India a huge concern.

“I understand why some countries want to vaccinate their children and adolescents, but right now I urge them to reconsider and to instead donate vaccines to #COVAX,” he told a virtual meeting in Geneva.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi sounded the alarm over the rapid spread of the coronavirus through India’s vast countryside on Friday, as the country’s official tally of infections crossed 24 million and over 4,000 people died for the third straight day.

More than 160.71 million people have been reported to be infected by the coronavirus globally and 3,477,379​ have died, according to a Reuters tally.

Infections have been reported in more than 210 countries and territories since the first cases were identified in China in December 2019.

(Reporting by Emma Farge in Geneva and Michael Shields and John Miller in Zurich; Writing by Nick Macfie; Editing by Catherine Evans)

‘U.S. Welcome Patrol’: how some border agents are struggling with Biden’s policy shift

By Ted Hesson, Kristina Cooke and Mica Rosenberg

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Some U.S. border patrol agents are so frustrated with President Joe Biden’s more liberal border policies that they are considering early retirement, while other disgruntled colleagues are buying unofficial coins that say ‘U.S. Welcome Patrol.’

Interviews with a dozen current and former agents highlight growing dissatisfaction among some rank and file members of the agency over Biden’s swift reversal of some of former President Donald Trump’s hardline immigration policies. Since Biden took office, border apprehensions have risen sharply.

Some of that frustration is coalescing into opposition to Biden’s pick to lead the border patrol’s parent agency, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). The nominee is Tucson Police Chief Chris Magnus, who still needs to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

The discontent was partly reflected in an unusual memo from the acting Border Patrol chief last month, who objected to a new directive to stop using the term ‘alien’ when referring to migrants, saying it would hurt agents’ morale.

The interviews provide an anecdotal snapshot of the mood within border patrol and, as such, do not represent the views of all agents. One agent who spoke to Reuters on the condition of anonymity said “there are always going to be changes” between presidential administrations and that agents are “used to it.”

But any internal strife could complicate plans Magnus may have to implement and reshape border and asylum policy. Criticism from even a small number of agents could also bolster Republican efforts to use concerns over illegal immigration to rally supporters ahead of the 2022 congressional elections.

Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council, the labor union that represents three-quarters of the roughly 20,000 border patrol agents, sharply criticized Biden in a news conference with Republican senators on Capitol Hill on Wednesday. The union endorsed Trump in the 2020 election and still supports his restrictionist policies.

“I can confidently say that President Biden owns this crisis,” Judd said, referring to the recent spike in border crossers. “It is his fault.”

The 97-year-old border patrol agency has been whipsawed by policy changes under Republican and Democratic administrations that have required them to frequently modify their approach to migrants they encounter at the border.

But a number of the agents interviewed said they had never experienced such a dramatic pendulum swing.

Discontent in the ranks has already led some agents to consider early retirement, six of them said. Voluntary retirements within border patrol are set to outpace last year if they continue at the current rate, according to agency data.

Rosemarie Pepperdine, a border patrol agent working in Casa Grande, Arizona, is one of those who said she was considering taking early retirement.

“We have so many people coming across, and then we’re out there killing ourselves to catch them, rescue them or whatever it is, and then they’re being released,” she said. “Why even bother?”

Asked about the agents’ frustration, a Biden administration official said the president’s approach was rooted in solutions and effective management.

HOSPITAL ESCAPE

The opposition to Magnus from within the agency derives in part from an incident in 2017, when a Honduran migrant escaped from a Tucson hospital while a border agent was looking at his phone.

Magnus’ police department dispatched search teams and helicopters, police records show. After they determined the migrant had likely left the area, they called off the manhunt, according to Tucson’s assistant police chief, Kevin Hall.

The border patrol wanted to use a police station to set up a command post to aid the search. But that was rejected by police, who according to Hall felt that was unnecessary because the border patrol had their own facilities. He said police also wanted to avoid attracting pro-immigrant protesters who were congregating at the hospital.

Border patrol union officials were outraged, writing on Facebook at the time that Magnus’ police department “put politics over rule of law and oath of office.”

Magnus “refused to work with the agency that he’s going to be overseeing,” Judd, the union president, said in an interview with Reuters. “That alone, in my opinion, should be disqualification.”

Hall said he felt the police department had done everything they could to find the man. “We were all a bit surprised,” Hall said of the union’s outrage about the 2017 incident, “because the facts as we saw them were not exactly aligning with the facts as they saw them.”

Magnus declined to comment for this story.

The son of an immigrant father from Norway, Magnus, 60, has not publicly spoken about what his plan would be for CBP.

His backers in police and policy circles say he is a strong supporter of his employees and is open to a wide range of views.

Claudia Jasso, chief development officer at the Tucson-based nonprofit Amistades, said one of the first things Magnus did as head of the city’s police department was to meet with the Latino community to listen to their concerns. “He was humble and asked a lot of questions,” she said.

Gil Kerlikowske, who was CBP commissioner for three years under former President Barack Obama, said there are people within the agency who disagree with the politically outspoken union but who may not speak out.

If Magnus is confirmed to head CBP, Kerlikowske said, “empathy and compassion will be a standard.”

Many immigration advocates have been deeply critical of border patrol and say it is time for reform.

In 2019, the agency came under fire when the nonprofit news site ProPublica revealed a private Facebook group in which border patrol agents aired racist and misogynistic views. Then-acting CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said at the time that the posts did not reflect the views of the agency’s employees.

‘U.S. WELCOME PATROL’

Border apprehensions have been rising since Biden took office in January, reaching about 173,000 in April – the highest monthly level in more than 20 years.

The Biden administration initially struggled to process the border crossers fast enough, resulting in thousands of children being stuck in overcrowded border stations and forcing some agents to take on caretaker roles instead of patrolling for drugs and smugglers.

While the administration made changes that helped empty out the crowded stations, agents said they and their colleagues remain frustrated that many families are being released into the United States to pursue asylum cases, even as a Trump-era policy of quick expulsions at the border during the pandemic is still in place.

In at least one part of the southern border, some agents have started calling Biden ‘Let ‘Em Go Joe,’ according to a border patrol agent who asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Gil Maza, a former agent who retired in March, runs a website selling an unofficial coin that refashions the U.S. Border Patrol logo to read ‘U.S. Welcome Patrol.’ Maza said he had sold 78 of the coins in four days to current and former agents.

“It sheds a little humor on the situation,” he said of the coins. “And it’s something that helps us, I guess, mentally and emotionally cope with the situation because especially right now, the situation is pretty dire out there.”

Some agents echoed a grievance aired by Border Patrol Chief Rodney Scott in an April 16 memo seen by Reuters that criticized the Biden administration’s directive to use the terms ‘undocumented non-citizen’ or ‘migrant’ and stop using the phrase ‘illegal alien.’

“Over the years many outside forces on both extremes of the political spectrum have intentionally, or unintentionally, politicized our agency and our mission,” Scott wrote in the memo to acting CBP Commissioner Troy Miller.

The memo was first leaked to the right-wing news site Breitbart.

The Biden administration official defended the new terminology, saying that choice of words mattered and that those in custody deserved to be treated with dignity.

(Reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington, Kristina Cooke in San Francisco and Mica Rosenberg in New York, editing by Ross Colvin and Rosalba O’Brien)

U.S. capital running out of gas, even as Colonial Pipeline recovers

By Stephanie Kelly and Jessica Resnick-Ault

NEW YORK (Reuters) -The U.S. capital was running out of gasoline on Friday even as the top U.S. fuel pipeline ramped up deliveries following a cyberattack and Washington officials assured motorists that supplies would return to normal soon.

The six-day Colonial Pipeline shutdown was the most disruptive cyberattack on record, which underscored the vulnerability of vital U.S. infrastructure to cybercriminals.

Widespread panic buying continued two days after the nation’s largest fuel pipeline network restarted, leaving filling stations across the U.S. Southeast out of gas even in areas far from the pipeline.

U.S. pump prices are at their highest in years, just two weeks before the peak summer driving season kicks off and as traffic continues to recover from mobility restrictions during the Covid-19 pandemic. The average national gasoline price has climbed to almost $3.04, the most expensive since October 2014, the American Automobile Association said.

On Friday gas station outages in Washington, D.C., climbed to 87%, from 79% the day before, tracking firm GasBuddy said.

“Most of these states/areas with outages have continued to see panicked buying, which is likely a contributing factor to the slow-ish recovery thus far,” said GasBuddy’s Patrick De Haan. “It will take a few weeks.”

Colonial Pipeline announced late Thursday it had restarted its entire pipeline system linking refineries on the Gulf Coast to markets along the eastern seaboard.

President Joe Biden also reassured U.S. motorists that fuel supplies should start returning to normal by this weekend.

Some states experienced modest improvements in gas outages but still saw a high amount. About 70% of gas stations in North Carolina were without fuel, while around 50% of stations in Virginia, South Carolina and Georgia had outages.

The hacking group believed to be responsible for the attack, DarkSide, said it had hacked four other companies including a Toshiba subsidiary in Germany.

Colonial Pipeline, which is owned by pension funds, private equity and energy firms, has not determined how the initial breach occurred, a spokeswoman said on Thursday. The company has focused on cleaning its networks, restoring data and reopening the pipeline.

Colonial has not disclosed how much money the hackers were seeking or whether it paid. However, Bloomberg News reported that it paid nearly $5 million to hackers.

To stem fuel shortages, four states and federal regulators relaxed fuel driver restrictions to speed deliveries of fresh supplies. Washington also issued a waiver to U.S. refiner Valero Energy Corp <VLO.N> allowing it to transport gasoline and diesel from the U.S. Gulf Coast to East Coast ports on foreign-flagged vessels. The U.S. normally limits deliveries between domestic ports to U.S.-built and crewed vessels.

Gulf Coast refiners that send their fuel to market through the Colonial Pipeline have had to cut production because they have not been able to move their gasoline, diesel and jet fuel through the pipeline. A smaller, alternative pipeline filled to capacity quickly after Colonial announced its network was shut last Friday.

(Reporting by Stephanie Kelly and Jessica Resnick-Ault in New York; additional reporting by Joseph Menn; Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Simon Webb and Steve Orlofsky)

Israel pounds Gaza to curb Palestinian militants but rockets still fly

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Stephen Farrell

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel pummeled Gaza with artillery fire and air strikes on Friday as it targeted Palestinian militant tunnels to try to stop persistent rocket attacks on Israeli towns.

The 40-minute, pre-dawn offensive killed 13 Palestinians, including a mother and her three children whose bodies were pulled from the rubble of their home, health officials in Gaza said.

The Israeli operation included 160 aircraft as well as tanks and artillery firing from outside the Gaza Strip, Israeli military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus said.

Palestinian rocket barrages against southern Israel swiftly followed on the fifth day of the most serious fighting between Israel and Gaza militants since 2014.

Egypt was leading international efforts to secure a ceasefire and ensure the conflict does not spread. Security sources said neither side appeared amenable so far but a Palestinian official said negotiations intensified on Friday.

French President Emmanuel Macron spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday, urging a return to peace in the region.

Hamas, the Islamist group that rules Gaza, launched the rocket attacks on Monday, in retaliation for Israeli police clashes with Palestinians near al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third holiest site, in East Jerusalem.

Violence has since spread to cities where Jews and Israel’s minority Arab community live side by side. There have also been clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli security forces in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where health officials said seven Palestinians were killed on Friday.

At least 122 people have been killed since Monday in Gaza, including 31 children and 20 women, and 900 others wounded, Palestinian medical officials said.

Among eight dead in Israel were a soldier patrolling the Gaza border, six Israeli civilians – including two children, an elderly woman and an Indian worker, Israeli authorities said.

SYSTEM OF TUNNELS

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said there were reports of more than 200 housing units destroyed or severely damaged in Gaza and hundreds of people seeking shelter in schools in the north of the coastal enclave.

Israel says it makes every effort to preserve civilian life, including warning in advance of attacks.

“What we were targeting is an elaborate system of tunnels that spans underneath Gaza, mostly in the north but not limited to, and is a network that the operatives of Hamas use in order to move, in order to hide, for cover,” Conricus told foreign reporters, adding that the network was known as “the Metro”.

Israeli warplanes bombed the houses of three senior Hamas military commanders in central Gaza on Friday that had already been evacuated, local residents said.

An Israeli plane also bombed the building that housed the National Production Bank in Gaza City, with bricks and debris sent flying and windows shattered in some nearby buildings, witnesses said.

Dozens of mourners took part in the funeral of six people – members of two families whose houses were hit by Israeli air strikes on Thursday – in the southern Gaza town of Rafah.

Holding the cloth-bound body of his 19-month-old nephew in his arms, Khamees al-Rantissi said their house was bombed without prior warning. “What was this child doing? What threat did he pose for the state of Israel?” Rantissi asked.

Netanyahu said on Thursday the campaign “will take more time”. Israeli officials said Hamas must be dealt a strong deterring blow before any ceasefire.

The Israeli military’s build-up of forces on the Gaza border has raised speculation about a possible repeat of ground invasions during Israel-Gaza wars in 2014 and 2009, but Israel is loath to risk a sharp increase in military casualties.

FLURRY OF DIPLOMACY

Egypt was pushing for both sides to cease fire from midnight on Friday pending further negotiations, two Egyptian security sources said, with Cairo leaning on Hamas and others, including the United States, trying to reach an agreement with Israel.

“The talks have taken a real and serious path on Friday,” a Palestinian official said. “The mediators from Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations are stepping up their contacts with all sides in a bid to restore calm, but a deal hasn’t yet been reached.”

The hostilities have fueled tension between Israeli Jews and the country’s 21% Arab minority. Violence continued in mixed communities overnight after street fighting and tit-for-tat attacks that prompted Israel’s president to warn of civil war.

Sheikh Ikrima Sabri, who led Friday prayers at al-Aqsa Mosque, decried the treatment of the mosque by Israeli forces. He said its “sanctity has been violated several times during the holy month of Ramadan” in what he called violations “unprecedented” since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Israel’s military said a Palestinian tried to stab a soldier near the West Bank city of Ramallah. The soldier shot the attacker. Palestinian health officials said the man was killed.

Major airlines have suspended flights to Israel and at least two owners of tankers delivering crude oil asked to divert from Ashkelon to the port of Haifa, farther north of Gaza, because of the conflict, shipping sources said on Friday.

There were pro-Palestinian protests in Jordan and Lebanon, on the borders of the West Bank and Israel, and in Bangladesh, where thousands marched from Dhaka’s national mosque.

But the broader picture across the Middle East and the Islamic world, where Muslims are marking the Eid al-Fitr holiday and where restrictions on movement due to COVID-19 are in place in some countries, was noticeably muted.

The U.N. Security Council will publicly discuss the worsening violence on Sunday, diplomats said after the United States had objected to a meeting on Friday.

The Israeli military has put the number of militants killed in Israeli attacks at between 80 and 90. It said that so far, some 1,800 rockets have been fired at Israel, of which 430 fell short in Gaza or malfunctioned.

(Additional reporting by Rami Ayyub, Dan Williams and Ari Rabinovitch in Israel; Aidan Lewis in Cairo, Nandita Bose and Steve Holland in Washington, Michelle Nichols in New York and Emma Farge in Geneva; Editing by Philippa Fletcher, Mark Heinrich and Frances Kerry)

Vaccine waiver talks a chance for WTO to show its relevance -U.S. trade chief Tai

By David Lawder

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai said on Thursday that World Trade Organization negotiations over intellectual property waivers for COVID-19 vaccines is a chance for the deeply divided trade body to make itself relevant to the world’s needs.

Tai, speaking to the House Ways and Means Committee, said she was committed to entering negotiations that take into account concerns from all sides, including drug companies.

“The WTO has not got a record of moving quickly, or getting to yes, across 164 members who must all agree, very often,” Tai said. “This is the opportunity for the WTO to show its relevance for mankind.”

For a second day in a row, Tai heard criticism from Republican lawmakers that the intellectual property rights waiver will give critical biopharmaceutical technology to China, Russia and other strategic rivals while failing to increase vaccine supplies.

Republican Representative Devin Nunes told Tai that he is concerned China is one of the few countries that could quickly manufacture messenger RNA vaccines, a technology partly developed with U.S. tax dollars.

“It really seems like they (China) want to steal this very new technology, especially as it relates to the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines.”

Tai said the administration was working to exercise leadership on the issue to try to reach a solution that saves lives and puts the world back on a faster growth track, which will benefit the United States.

India and South Africa, the proponents of the original, much broader proposal are expressing “that they feel extremely vulnerable in not having access to vaccines and not being able to make them either,” Tai said,

On Wednesday, Tai told a Senate hearing that companies making vaccines could be “a hero” by helping the world gain increased access to COVID-19 vaccines.

She declined to discuss details of her consultations with drug companies before announcing the decision to join WTO waiver negotiations last week, but said that some are driven by more than their obligations to shareholders.

“Some of them do see themselves as important actors in the public health ecosystem in the world.”

Tai said that the intellectual property waiver was just one of a number of actions that would be required to increase manufacturing and equitable distribution of vaccines around the world.

(Reporting by David LawderEditing by Marguerita Choy)

U.S. weekly jobless claims at 14-month low; inflation heating up

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits dropped to a 14-month low last week as companies held onto their workers amid a growing labor shortage that helped to curb employment growth in April.

The scramble for workers comes as the reopening economy is experiencing a boom in demand, resulting in widespread shortages of inputs at factories and fanning inflation. Producer prices increased more than expected in April, leading to the biggest annual gain since 2010, other data showed on Thursday.

The worker shortage is despite nearly 10 million Americans being officially unemployed, a disconnect that economists expect will resolve in the coming months as increased vaccinations ease COVID-19 stress and enhanced unemployment benefits expire, allowing some workers to return to the labor market.

“With demand for workers high and layoffs relatively low, we should see strong hiring in the months to come, as barriers to employment, such as lack of childcare, lessen,” said Robert Frick, corporate economist at Navy Federal Credit Union in Vienna, Virginia. “For many, especially low-wage workers, returning to a job is a puzzle in which several pieces, such as transportation, wage levels and benefits must fall into place.”

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits dropped 34,000 to a seasonally adjusted 473,000 for the week ended May 8, the Labor Department said. That was the lowest since mid-March 2020, when mandatory closures of nonessential businesses were enforced to slow the first wave of COVID-19 infections.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast 490,000 applications for the latest week. The decrease in claims was led by Michigan, New York and Florida.

Claims have dropped from a record 6.149 million in early April 2020, but remain well above the 200,000 to 250,000 range that is viewed as consistent with a healthy labor market.

Some economists believe the enhanced unemployment benefits programs, including a weekly $300 government subsidy, could be encouraging some people to attempt to file a claim for assistance, though not every application is approved.

The economy created 266,000 jobs in April after adding 770,000 in March, which was partly blamed on the generous unemployment benefits. There are a record 8.1 million open jobs.

Several states in the South and Midwest, such as Tennessee and Missouri, that have unemployment rates below the national average of 6.1% have recently announced they will end federally funded pandemic unemployment benefits next month.

Economists cite the still-bloated jobless rolls as supporting the thesis that unemployment checks were keeping some workers home. There were 3.655 million people receiving benefits after an initial week in the week ended May 1, down 45,000 from the prior week. A total 16.9 million people were collecting unemployment checks under all programs at the end of April.

The government-funded benefits end in early September.

Richmond Federal Reserve president Thomas Barkin said on Thursday, “the question of how to unclog the labor market is going to be a critical one,” in keeping the recovery on track.

Stocks on Wall Street rebounded on the claims data after declining for three straight sessions. The dollar was steady against a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices rose.

DEMAND BOOM

The government has provided nearly $6 trillion in pandemic relief over the past year. More than a third of the population has been fully vaccinated, leading many states to lift most capacity restrictions on businesses.

The resulting pent-up demand is pushing against supply constraints. In another report on Thursday, the Labor Department said its producer price index for final demand rose 0.6% in April after surging 1.0% in March.

A 0.6% increase in the cost of services accounted for about two-thirds of the rise in the PPI. Services, which increased 0.7% in March, were last month driven by higher prices for portfolio management, airline tickets and food retailing as well as physician care.

Goods prices gained 0.6%, lifted by an 18.4% jump in steel mill products. In the 12 months through April, the PPI shot up 6.2%. That was the biggest year-on-year rise since the series was revamped in November 2010 and followed a 4.2% jump in March.

Part of acceleration in the PPI was due to last spring’s weak readings dropping out of the calculation. The report followed on the heels of news on Wednesday that consumer prices increased by the most in nearly 12 years in April.

Though rising prices have spooked investors, the Federal Reserve has signaled it could tolerate higher inflation for some time to offset years in which inflation was lodged below its 2% target, a flexible average.

Fed Vice Chair Richard Clarida said on Wednesday it would be “some time” before the economy is healed enough for the U.S. central bank to consider scaling back its support. The Fed slashed its benchmark overnight interest rate to near zero last year and is pumping money into the economy through monthly bond purchases. Its preferred inflation measure, the core personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index is at 1.8%.

“Each big inflation report for the next several months will test the Fed’s approach to seeing through these issues it promises to be transitory,” said Will Compernolle, a senior economist at FHN Financial in New York.

Based on the CPI and PPI data, Goldman Sachs is forecasting that core PCE increased 0.49% in April and 3.38% year-on-year.

(Reporting By Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Andrea Ricci)

U.S. teachers union leader calls for fully in-person school this fall

By Brad Brooks

(Reuters) – The president of the second-largest U.S. teachers’ union on Thursday called for fully reopening schools for in-person classes in the fall.

Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, added in a speech in Washington that just returning to classrooms wasn’t enough.

“We must also put into place the supports to help students recover socially, emotionally and academically,” she said.

Weingarten called this a moment to fully re-imagine the approach to education and push for creative solutions to the educational divide between white, Black and brown students that was exacerbated by the pandemic.

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said of Weingarten’s call for fully opened schools this fall: “We agree.”

School closures have affected every state. As of last week, 32% of students attended public schools that were partially or completely closed, according to Burbio, a service that tracks school openings.

Critics accuse teacher unions of slowing reopenings by demanding virus mitigation practices, such as universal masking, fewer kids in classrooms and social distancing. Teachers have been widely vaccinated and research has shown little evidence that in-person learning was driving COVID-19 infection.

Weingarten pushed back on criticism, saying that creating safe conditions in schools “is not an obstacle to reopening classrooms; it is the pathway to going back.”

She called vaccines a “game changer” for teachers to have confidence that they can safely teach in person and for parents to trust that they can send their kids back.

In an interview, Weingarten said it was paramount that local leaders do everything possible to overcome the hesitancy some parents have in getting their children vaccinated, especially among Black and Latino parents.

Her union will spend $5 million on a nationwide campaign to send activists door to door to convince parents to send kids to school this fall, Weingarten said.

(Reporting by Brad Brooks in Lubbock, Texas; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey in Washington; Editing by Donna Bryson and Cynthia Osterman)

As drought dries California rivers, salmon take truck rides to sea

By Sharon Bernstein

GOLD RIVER, Calif. (Reuters) – During a typical spring, the silver young salmon swimming in long tanks at the Nimbus Fish Hatchery east of Sacramento would be released into the American River and then make their way out to the Pacific Ocean to grow to adulthood.

But with extreme drought now gripping California and much of West Coast, the rivers are too warm for the salmon to survive.

This week, the 3.5-inch (90-mm) smolt, as the young fish are known, embarked on a much different journey when they were loaded on to trucks and driven to the San Francisco Bay for release into cooler waters.

Low amounts of rain and snow led to less water and warmer temperatures in the state’s rivers and reservoirs, said Jason Julienne, who manages several state-run hatcheries in the Sacramento River system, including the Nimbus.

When those conditions occur, “we know we have to really go into high gear to make sure these fish survive,” said Harry Morse, spokesman for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The state plans to truck 17 million of the smolt to the San Francisco Bay this year from various hatcheries, an emergency step not taken since the last major drought in 2014, Morse said.

On Monday, California Governor Gavin Newsom declared a drought emergency for 41 of the state’s 58 counties, including the major watersheds relied on by salmon and other wildlife.

Droughts in California are growing more frequent and more intense as climate change continues, threatening the state’s already tenuous supply of water for wildlife, farmers and urban areas, and creating conditions ripe for dangerous wildfires.

Other portions of the West Coast are also experiencing severe drought. In Oregon, federal officials said on Wednesday that a portion of water from the Klamath River system would not be available to farmers, and that additional protections for salmon and other fish were under consideration.

Even without drought and climate change, salmon and other fish were struggling to survive on the West Coast, as water projects such as dams and reservoirs inhibit their ability to migrate to the sea and back, a natural part of their life cycle that can take about three years.

Two species of Chinook salmon are considered endangered on the West Coast, and seven are considered threatened under the Endangered Species Act, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

In the American River in California where the Nimbus smolt are usually released, water from rain and snow was flowing at just 31% of its average rate on Tuesday, according to state data. The resulting warmer water has created a desperate situation not only for the fish at the hatchery, but for the hundreds of thousands of fry and eggs laid naturally in the rivers themselves.

“My biggest fear is that each and every egg that is laid this year is going to die because the temperatures in the rivers are going to be too high,” said Mike Conroy, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations.

His organization is asking the state and federal agencies that apportion water from a complex system of reservoirs to make sure that sufficient cool water is released to prevent the rivers from becoming toxic to young fish, Conroy said.

But others – including a California agricultural sector that produces a third of the country’s vegetables and two-thirds of its fruits and nuts – also rely on that water. As more water is reserved for fish, less is available to irrigate farms and for the state’s 40 million residents.

“The pull of one wrong lever can throw the whole system out of whack,” said Conroy. “It has to be carefully balanced.”

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Lisa Shumaker)

Fully vaccinated people can shed masks in most places and travel -U.S. CDC

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Thursday advised that fully vaccinated people do not need to wear masks outdoors and can avoid wearing them indoors in most places, updated guidance the agency said will allow life to begin to return to normal.

The CDC also said fully vaccinated people will not need to physically distance in most places. The agency also hopes the guidance will prod more Americans to get vaccinated.

President Joe Biden emerged at the White House for remarks without a mask. “I think it’s a great milestone, a great day,” he said.

“If you’re fully vaccinated and can take your mask off, you’ve earned the right to do something that Americans are known for all around the world: greeting others with a smile,” he said, flashing a brief smile himself.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said the new guidance just two weeks after its most recent update, was based on a sharp reduction in cases, expansion of vaccines to younger people and vaccine efficacy against coronavirus variants.

“We followed the science here,” Walensky said adding, “a coalescence of more science that has emerged just in the last week.”

Biden earlier shed his mask during a meeting with lawmakers, Republican Senator Shelly Moore Capito told reporters. “We heard all about it. The president took his off too,” she said.

Some journalists at the White House also shed their masks.

The CDC had faced criticism, even from public health officials, that it has been too cautious in its guidance. Critics have said people need to see more benefit of getting vaccinated in terms of returning to normal activities.

“In the past couple of weeks, we have seen additional data to show these vaccines work in the real world, they stand up to the variants, and vaccinated people are less likely to transmit the virus,” the agency said in a news release.

It added, “We needed to take the time to review the full body of evidence to get this right, and that’s how we came to this decision.”

‘NEED A REWARD’

Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease doctor at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, said he supports the new guidance that many had been calling for.

“People in state health departments and infectious disease doctors have been saying this for some time because they’re so impressed with the effectiveness of the vaccine, and also, they have the feeling that people who are vaccinated need a reward,” he said.

Republican Senator Susan Collins had been critical of the CDC’s delay in revising the guidance.

“Today’s announcement on masks, while overdue, is certainly a step in the right direction,” she said in a statement. “If people find they cannot do anything differently after a vaccine, they will not see the benefit in getting vaccinated.”

The revised guidance is a major step toward returning to pre-pandemic life, but the agency still recommends vaccinated people wear masks on planes and trains, and at airports, transit hubs, mass transit and in places like hospitals and doctor’s offices.

The U.S. government last month extended mask requirements across transportation networks through Sept. 13. Walensky said the CDC plans to soon issued updated guidance for transit.

The new guidance says vaccinated Americans can resume all travel, do not need to quarantine after international trips and do not need to be tested for COVID-19 if exposed to someone who is COVID-19 positive but asymptomatic.

However, Americans still face some international travel restrictions, including non-essential trips to Canada.

Masks became a political issues in the United States with then-President Donald Trump resisting mandating masks while President Joe Biden embraced masks and mandated them for transit hubs. Some U.S. states issued aggressive mask mandates while others declined or dropped them months ago.

The CDC said fully vaccinated people should still wear masks where required by federal, state, local, tribal or territorial laws, and abide by such rules and regulations, including from local businesses and workplace guidance.

In late April, the CDC said fully vaccinated people can safely engage in outdoor activities like walking and hiking without wearing masks, but recommended continuing to use face-coverings in public spaces where they are required.

Walensky said on Thursday immune-compromised individuals should consult doctors before shedding masks and emphasized people who have not been vaccinated should continue to wear them. She added vaccinated people who have COVID-19 symptoms should put masks back on.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Additional reporting by Steve Holland in Washington and Julie Steenhuysen in Chicago; Editing by Franklin Paul and Bill Berkrot)