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Coronavirus cases are rising in US, sparking worries that next big wave has begun

WASHINGTON — The United States’ coronavirus cases are rising again, driven by rapid transmission in Midwestern states and sparking fears that a forewarned wave of infections this fall and winter has begun.

For almost a month, new U.S. cases have been trending upward. Monday, 17 states hit a new high in their seven-day average of case counts, and eight of those states hit records by Tuesday afternoon.

The rising numbers are especially concerning because they set the stage for an even greater surge this winter, when the virus will be helped by drier conditions and people spending more time indoors. The upward trend comes before the increased mingling of people expected to arrive with Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas.

The virus has become especially rampant in Midwestern states after dominating America’s coastal and urban areas this spring, according to data tracked by The Washington Post.

It is unclear what factors are driving the recent increase — whether it is the long-feared winter effect already taking place or the resumption of business and schools, or simply fatigue and people letting down their guard on social distancing efforts.

Because of day-to-day fluctuations in the reporting of cases, experts often look at the seven-day average of case counts to accurately spot trends.

In 40 states, cases are higher when compared with the week before.

Indiana, Minnesota and North Dakota have set a new average high for cases each of the past eight days. More than a dozen other states have set new average highs in recent days.

“A lot of the places being hit are Midwest states that were spared in the beginning,” said William Hanage, a Harvard University infectious-diseases researcher. “That’s of particular concern because a lot of these smaller regions don’t have the ICU beds and capacity that the urban centers had.”

The District of Columbia and some Northeastern states — including Connecticut, New Jersey and New York — are beginning to see case counts creep back up.

Hospitalizations for COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus, have begun rising in almost a dozen states — including Ohio and Pennsylvania — raising the worry that increasing death counts will soon follow.

On Tuesday, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, warned in a tweet, “In all likelihood, things will get worse before they get better. This virus is sneaky and cunning and won’t give up. It has a mind of its own.”

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said on Monday he hopes the numbers “jolt the American public into a realization that we really can’t let this happen because it’s on a trajectory of getting worse and worse.” In a CNN interview, he called the rising numbers “the worst possible thing that could happen as we get into the cooler months.”

At least 215,000 people in the United States have died of COVID-19, according to an analysis by The Post.

One prominent model — by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington — forecasts that U.S. deaths could rise to more than 394,000 by Feb. 1.

The U.S. trajectory highlights the need for action by federal and state leaders as well as everyday Americans before transmission grows out of control, experts said.

Many experts, including Fauci, have emphasized that such actions don’t have to be as drastic as the shutdowns the country saw in the spring. Public health experts say that if Americans adopt even the simplest measures discussed for months, it could make a big difference. That includes universal mask-wearing, social distancing, hand-washing and avoiding crowds.

“The earlier you do it the better, because it requires less time and less severe interventions,” Hanage said. “The later you wait, the more difficult it becomes because of the exponential growth of the virus.”

Other countries have seen alarming increases in recent weeks, including England, France, Germany and Italy. European leaders have told their residents to brace themselves, warning of a “decisive moment” and “perilous turning point.”

The warnings have come in contrast to President Donald Trump’s downplaying of the severity of the U.S. outbreak, which has been the worst in the world by many measures.

In recent weeks, U.S. public health experts have grown concerned that a sense of fatalism and resignation about the virus is setting in among the American public.

“My biggest concern is around the continued vigilance that prevention requires — the distancing, masking, avoidance of crowded indoor areas, etc. The fatigue factor sets in,” said Saskia Popescu, an epidemiologist at the University of Arizona.

The intensifying politicization of public health efforts amid the election has not helped, Popescu said.

“Political leaders pushing that we’ve controlled the outbreak encourages people to relax their prevention efforts,” Popescu said.

The trails and summit of Mount Monadnock were alive with many a happy hikers last Friday, overseen by birds riding the air currents.

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Keene State professor's research on 3-D printing to support human organ growth wins funding

More than 91,000 people in the United States are waiting for a kidney transplant right now, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Keene State College professor MD Ahasan Habib envisions a future in which every single one of those patients could receive a new kidney, made of their own cells, within a few months. The key to unlocking this potential, he said, is 3D printing.

Habib, an assistant professor of sustainable product design and architecture, recently received funding from a University of New Hampshire-led project to advance his research into bioprinting. This process, Habib said, uses biomaterials, which include any natural or synthetic substance that interacts with biological systems, to print 3D models called scaffolds.

“A scaffold is basically a house for cells, and I am trying to make a safe house for cells,” Habib said of his research, which ultimately aims to optimize the 3D printing process for scaffolds, using biomaterials. In his research, Habib said he uses only naturally occurring biomaterials, primarily cellulose-based natural polymers, which can be extracted from trees.

In the example of a kidney patient, Habib said a sample of the patient’s stem cells would be combined with a kidney-shaped scaffold to allow for the organ to grow.

“And the idea is, over time, the cells will convert into kidney tissue,” he said in a phone interview this week. “And then I can just put it in my body, because I took the cells from my body, so there is less amount of chance that the body will reject that tissue.”

Currently, bioprinting cannot create scaffolds large enough to support something such as an entire organ.

“But my goal is to make it larger scale,” Habib said, adding that researchers in the field hope to advance the technology within the next 15 years to the point where it can facilitate the growth of organs such as a kidney.

Habib’s specific research focuses on finding and developing materials that are compatible with the human body and will support large-scale tissue growth, according to a news release from the New Hampshire Center for Multiscale Modeling and Manufacturing of Biomaterials. The organization, also known as NH BioMade, provided the funding for Habib’s current project.

NH BioMade, which is supported by the National Science Foundation, seeks “to advance the design and manufacture of biomaterials used in medical applications” such as orthopedic implants and scaffolds such as those Habib works on, according to the release.

Habib, who is originally from Bangladesh and came to Keene State last fall after earning his Ph.D. from the Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering at North Dakota State University, said he received about $50,000 from NH BioMade. Five other projects from UNH and Dartmouth College also received funding after a competitive review process, according to the news release.

Habib said he plans to complete his research project, with the help of two Keene State student research assistants, by the end of the year, after which he intends to present his findings in a paper and at various scientific conferences. And as the field of bioprinting continues to advance, Habib said the possible medical applications are virtually endless, ranging from growing skin cells to help wounds heal faster, to generating entire organs.

“So it can apply to any kind of body part,” Habib said.

Barrett: Past criticisms of abortion, Obamacare rulings meaningless

WASHINGTON — Judge Amy Coney Barrett spent most of the second day of her Supreme Court confirmation hearing batting away Democrats’ predictions that she would provide the final vote needed to invalidate the Affordable Care Act and substantially rein in abortion rights, but she struggled to reconcile assurances that she had an open mind with her past writings that demonstrated strong opinions.

“I am standing before the committee today saying that I have the integrity to act consistently with my oath and apply the law,” she told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Throughout the day, Barrett — as most other Supreme Court nominees have done — consistently refused to comment about her views on issues that were likely to come before the court. She insisted she had “no agenda” other than to respect the rule of law.

But unlike most other recent high court nominees, Barrett has an unusually long record of public writings and letters on hot-button issues, such as abortion. And Democrats pressed her to explain them.

As an appellate court judge in 2018, Barrett she joined a dissent in support of an Indiana law that would have banned abortions based on a disability or deformity.

While a Notre Dame law professor in 2013, Barrett signed a public letter criticizing the landmark abortion ruling Roe vs. Wade and calling for “the unborn to be protected in law.” In 2006, she signed on to an ad that called for an “end to the barbaric legacy of Roe vs. Wade.”

Barrett said Tuesday she signed onto the ad on the “way out of church,” as a private citizen, and that it was “consistent” with the church’s views and a “pro-life” viewpoint. While she said she has “personal feelings about abortion,” she told Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the committee chairman, she would set aside her Catholic beliefs on the bench.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., repeatedly pressed Barrett to give her opinion of the 1973 Roe case, and the 1992 ruling in Planned Parenthood vs. Casey. The two cases are the bedrock of Americans’ right to access abortion.

“It would actually be wrong — a violation of the canons — for me to do that as a sitting judge,” Barrett said. “So if I express a view on a precedent one way or another, whether I say I love it or I hate it, it signals to litigants that I might tilt one way or another on a pending case.”

In response to questions from Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Barrett acknowledged that she doesn’t view Roe as a “super-precedent,” a scholarly term used to describe a Supreme Court decision that is so widely accepted that it is at no risk of being overturned.

Barrett said that while she viewed the anti-discrimination ruling Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka as a super-precedent, she wouldn’t put Roe in that category because the public is divided on the issue and calls to overturn the abortion decision continue.

“I’m answering a lot of questions about Roe, which I think indicates that Roe does not fall into that category,” Barrett said.

With conservatives on the cusp of securing a rare 6-3 majority on the nation’s highest court, Democrats also repeatedly warned that she would vote to strike down the 2010 health care law if seated in time to hear arguments in a case scheduled to come before the court a week after the election.

Democratic senators peppered her with questions about a 2017 essay in which she criticized Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.’s 2012 opinion that upheld the Affordable Care Act. In that article, she said Roberts pushed “the Affordable Care Act beyond its plausible meaning to save the statute.”

But she said Tuesday the critique was irrelevant to the pending dispute because it involved different issues about the law.

“I assure you I am not hostile to the ACA. I am not hostile to any statute that you pass,” she said.

The current Supreme Court case is Republicans’ third attempt to invalidate the 2010 health care law through the courts. They are arguing that because Congress in 2017 effectively ended the “individual mandate” that required all Americans to have health insurance, the entire law should fall.

Barrett said the specific issue in that case is severability, or whether the rest of the law stands if the individual mandate provision is gone.

She acknowledged that during a moot court exercise she participated in last month, she “ruled” that the rest of the health care law could stand without the provision. “I voted to say that (the mandate) was unconstitutional, but severable,” she said.

But Barrett cautioned senators that her ruling in the moot exercise does not necessarily reflect her “actual views” or how she would rule if appointed to the Supreme Court because she did not have access to all briefs in the mock proceeding. The moot court was conducted at William & Mary Law School before the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose seat Barrett was subsequently nominated to fill.

Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, said her conclusion in the mock exercise nevertheless provides an “answer, frankly, to a lot of those raising this specter that you’re going to take the whole Affordable Care Act away from everyone because of this very narrow case.”

Barrett would also not commit to recuse herself if disputes arose out of the election. President Donald Trump has said the Senate needed to move quickly to confirm his Supreme Court pick before the election because she could decide the outcome of a challenged 2020 election. Multiple Democrats have demanded that she recuse herself as a result. Barrett said she would weigh what to do if the situation arose.

“I would certainly hope that all members of this committee would have more confidence in my integrity than to think that I would allow myself to be used as a pawn to decide this election for the American people,” Barrett said.

Barrett said she did not commit to anyone about how she would vote on an election dispute, the Affordable Care Act or any other case.

“I have made no commitment to anyone — not in this Senate, not over at the White House — about how I would decide any case,” she said.

On a personal level, Barrett spoke about her frustration over how she had been portrayed in the media, saying she’s avoided coverage of her nomination for her mental health.

“You know you can’t keep yourself walled off from everything,” Barrett said. “And I’m aware of a lot of the caricatures that are floating around.”

Multiple news outlets have examined Barrett’s conservative Catholic faith and her membership in a controversial charismatic Christian group that former members and liberal critics have likened to a cult. The group has become a flashpoint in the nomination because of its teaching that men are the head of the family household, though it has not come up in the hearing.

“We knew that our faith would be caricatured; we knew our family would be attacked,” she said. “So we had to decide whether those difficulties would be worth it because what sane person would go through that if there wasn’t a benefit on the other side.”

One of the most memorable moments of the hearing came when Barrett was asked whether she watched the video showing the death of George Floyd, a handcuffed Black man who died May 25 after a white police officer pressed a knee into his neck for several minutes.

“As you can imagine, given that I have two Black children, that was very, very personal for my family,” Barrett said.

Barrett said her 16-year-old daughter, Vivian, whom she adopted from Haiti, took the death hard because she realized she and her brother, John Peter, who was also adopted from Haiti, might be exposed to such brutality. “It was very difficult for her, and we wept together in my room,” Barrett said.

“I had to explain some of this to them,” she added. “I mean, my children to this point in their lives have had the benefit of growing up in a cocoon where they have not yet experienced hatred or violence … It’s a difficult one for us, like it is for Americans all over the country.”

Supreme Court says Trump administration can end census

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Tuesday allowed the Trump administration to end the 2020 Census count now, concluding a contentious legal battle over the once-in-a-decade household count despite fears of an undercount that would fall hardest on minority groups.

The court put on hold a lower-court order that said the count should continue until the end of the month, because of delays brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. The court did not provide a reason, which is common in disposing of the kind of emergency application filed by the administration.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor was the only justice to note dissent.

“The harms caused by rushing this year’s census count are irreparable,” she wrote. “And respondents will suffer their lasting impact for at least the next 10 years.”

The census count has vast implications for American life, affecting the distribution of federal aid and the size of each state’s congressional delegation. Under President Donald Trump, though, what has usually been a project for the nation’s bureaucrats took on a decidedly partisan tone.

The Supreme Court in 2019 rejected his plans to add a citizenship question to the census form, which experts said would discourage the count of both legal and undocumented immigrants. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the 5-4 decision, saying the administration did not follow proper procedure for introducing the question, and that its rationale was “contrived.”

This summer, the president said he intended to break with the past and present to Congress census data that did not include undocumented immigrants. Two weeks later, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said he was ending the count early — by the end of September — in order to meet a Dec. 31 deadline.

It is unclear how many Americans are left to be counted. The department said on its website that 99.9 percent of housing units have been accounted for, although others have questioned the figure and said some areas remain undercounted.

Sotomayor said that “even a fraction of a percent of the Nation’s 140 million households amounts to hundreds of thousands of people left uncounted. And significantly, the percentage of nonresponses is likely much higher among marginalized populations and in hard-to-count areas, such as rural and tribal lands.”

A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit had agreed with a district court judge that the Commerce Department could not end the count until Oct. 31. But it also said the department could still try to meet a Dec. 31 deadline for delivering the count to the White House and did not have to wait until April 30 to deliver it, as the district court judge said.

That timing is important. The White House wants to send the population totals to Congress in January.

If Trump is not reelected in November, a delay much beyond Dec. 31 would mean that his Democratic opponent, former vice president Joe Biden, would make decisions about the count.

Plaintiffs, including the National Urban League, several jurisdictions and other groups, contend that a shortened timeline would result in an undercount of harder-to-count populations, including immigrants, minorities and lower-income groups, depriving them of funding and representation.

Those who wanted the count continued said the decision was harmful.

“This decision will result in irreversible damage to the 2020 Census,” said Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “That said, the bureau has indicated that it takes several days to shut down the enumeration process. As we explore options we’ll continue to push undercounted populations in states such as Louisiana and Mississippi to participate while the process remains active.”

If there is a “silver lining,” she said, it is that the count continued for two weeks after Ross’s planned conclusion in September.Julie Menin, director of NYC Census 2020, said the census has “been stolen by the Trump administration, which has interfered at every step of the way, and now, the census has been cut short during a global pandemic in which New York City was the epicenter.”

Sotomayor noted that the Commerce Department itself had once said it needed until Oct. 31 to complete the count. But two weeks after “President Trump announced his intent to exclude undocumented immigrants from the population base for congressional apportionment,” Sotomayor wrote, Ross said the counting would end in September.

U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh agreed with challengers that the count should continue. After the 9th Circuit agreed, the Trump administration went to the Supreme Court.

Acting solicitor general Jeffrey Wall said the court should not worry that the count is incomplete, saying, “The district court disregarded the Bureau’s successful efforts to ensure that the 2020 census will reach levels of accuracy and completeness comparable to other recent censuses while still meeting the deadline.”

Census experts and plaintiffs have said they are concerned that some households were counted inaccurately to reach the completion-rate goals, citing enumerators and supervisors across the country who said they were told to cut corners and skip steps in the rush to bring all states to a 99 percent completion rate.

“As defendants’ own data shows, millions of Americans have now been counted only because of the district court’s injunction,” said the Urban League response to the government suit filed by lawyer Melissa Arbus Sherry. “And critical field work is ongoing, especially for those in hard-to-count populations. Any stay would allow defendants to stop the 2020 Census count, shut down field operations, fire hundreds of thousands of employees, and start processing data the very next day. There is no going back from that.”

The census appeared to be on track at the outset of 2020.

But in March, just as survey forms were appearing in people’s mailboxes, the pandemic hit, shutting down the nation and crippling plans for public events around the census, and delaying the start of door-to-door enumeration by three months.

In response, the administration in April requested approval from Congress to move the statutory deadline to deliver census data to the president for House apportionment, from Dec. 31 to April 30. The House approved the change, but the Senate never acted.

By July, Census Bureau officials were saying the window had closed to be able to deliver an accurate count to the president by year’s end.

Then on July 21, Trump issued a memo saying undocumented immigrants would be excluded from census numbers, an action whose effect would be to reduce the number of seats in Congress for states with higher numbers of immigrants, which also would affect their strength in the electoral college for presidential elections.

Removing undocumented immigrants from the count would be unprecedented in U.S. history. But to implement such a change, Trump would need to receive the data while he was still in office.

On Aug. 3, the administration reversed course on the census schedule, saying the count would end Sept. 30 to deliver the data by the end of the year. And that sparked the ultimate round of litigation.