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National
Dense smoke smothers Pacific Northwest, shutting residents indoors and complicating fire response

Massive clouds of smoke from the Pacific Northwest wildfires lingered over the region Sunday, posing serious health risks for millions of people and complicating firefighting efforts even as crews reported progress in containing some of the blazes.

Air quality across Oregon was listed as “hazardous” or “very unhealthy” by state environmental officials, and a dense smoke advisory from the National Weather Service remained in effect for much of the state until at least 6 p.m. local time Sunday. Similar warnings were in place in Washington state.

The thick haze smothering the landscape has deepened the crisis brought on by the blazes, which officials have linked to at least nine deaths in Oregon. In Portland, the air quality ranked among the worst in the world. Even indoors, some residents were left coughing and fighting for breath.

In Michael Warner’s home in the backwoods of Marion County, the smoke was so bad he had to wear a mask inside. Over the weekend, the 50-year-old fled to the Oregon State Fairgrounds to take shelter. “My throat burns,” Warner said as he ambled around the evacuation site with his dog, his eyes swollen and watering.

Officials and health experts urged residents to stay indoors unless absolutely necessary, keep doors and windows closed and use fans and air conditioners to keep air circulating in their homes.

Visibility was a quarter-mile or less in some places, according to the National Weather Service, making it dangerous to drive and hindering firefighters.

“Our challenges remain reduced visibility, limiting our aerial reconnaissance, and rapidly changing fire conditions,” Clackmas County fire officials said in a statement Saturday.

The wildfires have engulfed more than 1 million acres of land in Oregon and displaced tens of thousands of people in what officials have called an unprecedented disaster. The death toll reported so far was likely to rise as emergency crews began sifting through the wreckage, officials said.

In California, record-shattering wildfires have charred more than 3.2 million acres and have been linked to 22 deaths. In Washington state, blazes have burned more than 665,000 acres of land and clogged the skies with smoke.

President Donald Trump is slated to visit California on Monday for a briefing with emergency officials.

Aside from a Friday night tweet thanking responders for their work, the president has said little publicly about the blazes that have wiped out entire neighborhoods and towns and destroyed vast tracts of land.

At a speech in Nevada over the weekend, Trump blamed the fires on poor forest management and boasted about the United States leaving the international climate agreement. He made a similar remark at a rally in August, saying, “You’ve got to clean your floors, you’ve got to clean your forests.”

On Sunday, Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., pushed back on Trump’s characterizations, telling ABC News’s “This Week” that the devastation was the result of a combination of ills, including rising temperatures caused by global climate change. “It’s just a big and devastating lie,” Merkley said of Trump’s statements. “The Cascade snowpacks have gotten smaller. Our forests have gotten drier. Our ocean has gotten warmer and more acidic.” The changes, Merkley added, are the “consequences of a warming planet.”

“We need to have to have a president follow the science,” he said.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, a Democrat, also accused Trump of negligence in responding to the fires. In an interview with CNN, he suggested the president was reluctant to help California, Oregon and Washington because they have Democratic governors.

“Leadership at the very top needs to be stronger, earlier,” Garcetti said, alleging that Trump’s “blaming of blue states over red states” in how he handles natural disasters hurts the federal response. “We need leadership that is equal across this country, instead of being partisan and divisive,” Garcetti said.

As the fires raged, emergency crews got some reprieve over the weekend as strong winds died down and cooler, moister weather moved in over some of the region.

The Riverside Fire in Clackamas County near Portland had blackened more than 132,000 acres as of Sunday morning, but officials said its growth had slowed. Evacuation warnings in Oregon City, Sandy and Canby were downgraded from Level 2 to Level 1, meaning the imminent risks were lower but that residents should be prepared to evacuate if the flames start encroaching again.

Elsewhere, the weather showed signs of worsening. In rural Jackson County, Ore., the National Weather Service issued a red flag warning for Sunday, with warm temperatures, low humidity and strong winds creating tinderbox conditions in the area along the state’s southern border. “This will help alleviate some of the smoke in the region, but will also increase fire danger,” the service said.

The South Obenchain Fire had burned roughly 30,000 acres in the central part of the county and was menacing several small towns, including Eagle Point and Butte Falls. Another active fire was burning near Medford, Ore., the county seat. Residents were under evacuation orders or warnings.

“Residents in these areas should continue to take precautions by keeping defensible space around their homes free of flammable materials, gutters clear etc.,” the National Weather Service said in a technical forecast discussion posted online “If you don‘t have a ‘go bag’ ready, now is a great time to prepare.”

Dry, windy conditions were also forecast in northeastern California and western Nevada, according to the National Weather Service.


National
Dense smoke smothers Pacific Northwest, shutting residents indoors and complicating fire response

PORTLAND, Ore. — Massive clouds of smoke from the Pacific Northwest wildfires lingered over the region Sunday, posing serious health risks for millions of people and complicating firefighting efforts even as crews reported progress in slowing some of the blazes.

Air quality across Oregon was listed as “hazardous” or “very unhealthy” by state environmental officials, and a dense smoke advisory from the National Weather Service remained in effect for much of the state until at least 6 p.m. local time Sunday. Oregon officials said that there were 34 fires burning across the state Sunday afternoon; that dozens remained missing; and that 902,620 acres, an area about the size of Rhode Island, had already been destroyed.

Similar warnings about smoke were in place from California to Washington state. In San Francisco, residents were advised to remain indoors and block air from seeping into their homes. In Seattle, the air quality index topped 200, the level considered “very unhealthy.”

“The sun doesn’t seem to rise or set. The sky gets a little bit brighter and a little bit darker, and that’s how you know the day is starting or ending,” said Eileen Quigley, founder and executive director of the Clean Energy Transition Institute in Seattle.

The thick haze smothering the landscape has deepened the crisis brought on by the blazes, which officials have linked to at least 10 deaths in Oregon.

In many parts of the state, the air quality ranked among the worst in the world, as bad as Beijing’s 2013 bout of pollution that was widely branded as one of the worst in history. The smoke made the air potentially life-threatening for people with respiratory problems to venture outside. Even indoors, some residents were left coughing and fighting for breath. Outside, in some places, residents said they could not see farther than 50 yards.

There were some hopeful signs. The high-speed winds abated, and smoke blocked sunlight, lowering temperatures to the low 50s, well below normal. There is a chance of rain Tuesday.

But people still were suffering.

In Michael Warner’s home in the backwoods of Marion County, the smoke was so bad he had to wear a mask inside. Unaware of evacuation orders, he was walking down his street Friday night when a neighbor drove up and told him to get in the car. With only his dog and the clothes he was wearing, Warner let the neighbor drive him to an evacuation site at the Oregon State Fairgrounds, where he spent the night.

“My throat burns,” Warner said as he ambled around the site with his dog, his eyes swollen and watering.

Thomas Keyzers, 36, had hoped that he’d left behind the worst of the smoke when he, his wife and two children, ages 3 and 5, evacuated their home in Happy Valley. But the smoke followed them to Portland, even inside the hotel where they were staying.

He and his wife have been coughing constantly, and it’s getting worse each day. He’s worried about the health of his kids, he said. “It’s just like a 24-hour campfire,” he said. “You can only take so much of it.”

Officials and health experts urged residents to stay indoors unless absolutely necessary, keep doors and windows closed, and use fans and air conditioners to keep air circulating in their homes.

Bridges, buildings and roadways were shrouded in an eerie gray fog. Visibility was a quarter-mile or less in some places, according to the National Weather Service, making it dangerous to drive and hindering firefighters.

“Our challenges remain reduced visibility, limiting our aerial reconnaissance, and rapidly changing fire conditions,” Clackamas County, Ore., fire officials said in a statement Saturday.

The wildfires have displaced tens of thousands of people in what officials have called an unprecedented disaster. The death toll reported was likely to rise as emergency crews began sifting through the wreckage, officials said.

In California, record-shattering wildfires have charred more than 3.2 million acres and have been linked to 22 deaths. Three of the four biggest-ever California wildfires are burning now, according to the state. In Washington state, blazes have burned more than 665,000 acres of land and clogged the skies with smoke.

The fires come on top of the pandemic, which already had hobbled schools and businesses.

Large numbers of schools in Oregon announced that they would be closed until further notice. Toya Fick, the Oregon executive director of the education group Stand for Children, said the organization has shifted much of its attention from school programs toward “triage” for food security, housing assistance and other emergency needs of families and teachers. The group had secured $500 million in tax revenue marked for education, but with the pandemic all but $150 million has been diverted to other priorities.

President Donald Trump is scheduled to visit California on Monday for a briefing with emergency officials. Aside from a Friday night tweet thanking responders for their work, the president has said little publicly about the blazes that have wiped out entire neighborhoods and towns and destroyed vast tracts of land.

At a speech in Nevada over the weekend, Trump blamed the fires on poor forest management and boasted about the United States leaving the international climate agreement. He made a similar remark at a rally in August, saying, “You’ve got to clean your floors, you’ve got to clean your forests.”

On Sunday, Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., pushed back on Trump’s characterizations, telling ABC News’s “This Week” that the devastation was the result of a combination of ills, including rising temperatures caused by global climate change. “It’s just a big and devastating lie,” Merkley said of Trump’s statements. “The Cascade snowpacks have gotten smaller. Our forests have gotten drier. Our ocean has gotten warmer and more acidic.” The changes, Merkley added, are the “consequences of a warming planet.”

“We need to have to have a president follow the science,” he said.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, a Democrat, also accused Trump of negligence in responding to the fires. In an interview with CNN, he suggested the president was reluctant to help California, Oregon and Washington because they have Democratic governors.

“Leadership at the very top needs to be stronger, earlier,” Garcetti said, alleging that Trump’s “blaming of blue states over red states” in how he handles natural disasters hurts the federal response. “We need leadership that is equal across this country, instead of being partisan and divisive,” Garcetti said.

Police and social media companies have been trying to stamp out false allegations that anti-fascist activists had set the fires. Facebook on Saturday said it would take down erroneous posts with such allegations.

Some climate activists said that even if climate were one of a combination of factors contributing to the fires, that was still disheartening.

“It is most distressing that these impacts are happening so much faster than were predicted,” Quigley said. “We are seeing disruption we thought we would see a decade or more from now, which demonstrates how little we really understand about feedback loops.”

As the fires raged, emergency crews got some reprieve over the weekend as strong winds died down and cooler, moister weather moved in over some of the region.

The Riverside Fire in Clackamas County near Portland had blackened more than 132,000 acres as of Sunday morning, but officials said its growth had slowed. Evacuation warnings in Oregon City, Sandy and Canby were downgraded from Level 2 to Level 1, meaning the imminent risks were lower but that residents should be prepared to evacuate if the flames start encroaching again.

Elsewhere, the weather showed signs of worsening. In rural Jackson County, Ore., the National Weather Service issued a red flag warning for Sunday, with warm temperatures, low humidity and strong winds creating tinderbox conditions in the area along the state’s southern border. “This will help alleviate some of the smoke in the region, but will also increase fire danger,” the service said.

The South Obenchain Fire had burned roughly 30,000 acres in the central part of the county and was menacing several small towns, including Eagle Point and Butte Falls. Another active fire was burning near Medford, Ore., the county seat. Residents were under evacuation orders or warnings.

“Residents in these areas should continue to take precautions by keeping defensible space around their homes free of flammable materials, gutters clear etc.,” the National Weather Service said in a technical forecast discussion posted online “If you don‘t have a ‘go bag’ ready, now is a great time to prepare.”

Dry, windy conditions were also forecast in northeastern California and western Nevada, according to the National Weather Service.

In Portland, 23-year-old Blazedol Howard wore a respirator mask over his face as he walked through the deserted streets downtown to get breakfast at a 7-Eleven. He said he had recently flown into the city from Indiana to march in Black Lives Matter protests and could smell the smoke during the plane’s descent. As he stepped out of the airport, the air felt suffocating. “I felt like I couldn’t breathe,” he said.

When Howard reached the 7-Eleven, it was already boarded up from the riots downtown, along with most businesses in the city. Across the state, other stores, coffee shops and restaurants — some of which had just recently reopened after closing for the pandemic — taped signs on their doors reading, “Closed due to the air quality.”

A few blocks from where Howard was, Christopher Murillo and his husband, Leo Cruz, braved the smoke to walk their three dogs and pick up coffee from Starbucks. The smoke was “excruciating,” said Murillo, 33. “It’s itchy, like a constant dry mouth, like wanting to hack up something and it’s all this white nasty stuff.”

They haven’t seen the sun for days, said Murillo, who grows organic produce and flowers with his husband. The skies are depressing, and the haze is inescapable — even at night, in their bedroom. “It’s like trying to gasp for air while you’re drowning,” he said.

- — -

Hawkins and Mufson reported from Washington. The Washington Post’s Paul Kane and Tom Hamburger contributed to this report.


Workers from Specialty Groups Inc. install a high mast light pole next to the Leon Sullivan Way exit offramp between Piedmont Road and Interstate 64/77 in Charleston Thursday. Dozens of the new light poles have gone up along interstates 64, 77, and 79 in Charleston and Kanawha County during the last year.


Legal_affairs
After Wheeling Hospital reached a $50M settlement in a federal fraud case, WVU Health announced the hospital will be part of its system

In a single week, officials at Wheeling Hospital resolved its immediate future as well as a federal case related to a kickback scheme involving physicians at the hospital.

On Wednesday, hospital officials agreed to pay $50 million to resolve claims that R&V Associates Lt., the company that previously managed the hospital, and Ronald Violi, former CEO of the hospital, defrauded Medicare and Medicaid for “tens of millions of dollars” between 2007 and 2020, according to a news release from the U.S. Department of Justice.

Friday morning, officials from the hospital and West Virginia University Health Services announced Wheeling Hospital would become a full member of WVU Health Services through a letter of intent signed by the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston and WVU Health officials.

Under the terms of the letter, WVU Health will enter into a 50-year long-term lease of Wheeling Hospital and its related facilities, and the hospital will be able to maintain its affiliation with the Catholic church.

WVU Health has managed operations at Wheeling Hospital since June 2019, when hospital officials reported $37 million in losses during the prior two years.

In December 2017, Louis Longo, former executive vice president of Wheeling Hospital, and federal prosecutors filed a whistleblower lawsuit against Pittsburgh-based R&V Associates and Violi.

In that suit, originally filed in federal court in the Western District of Pennsylvania, Longo said Violi fired him in 2015 after he raised concerns with Violi and a hospital board member about the hospital’s practice of overpaying doctors by defrauding Medicare and Medicaid, and Violi’s management style. Longo will receive $10 million of the $50 million settlement, according to the Department of Justice’s news release.

The case was transferred from Pennsylvania to the Northern District of West Virginia in June 2019. The lawsuit alleged that from 2007 to 2020, under the direction and control of its prior management — R&V Associates and Violi — Wheeling Hospital systematically violated the federal Stark Law and Anti-Kickback Statute, according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s news release.

The Stark Law prohibits hospitals from billing Medicare for certain services referred to the hospital by physicians who have financial relationships with the hospital. The Anti-Kickback Statue prohibits an entity from reimbursing people, in this case hospitals and physicians, for referrals of services or items covered by Medicare, Medicaid and other federally-funded programs.

Under the terms of the settlement, U.S. District Judge John Preston Bailey dismissed the case against Wheeling Hospital with prejudice, meaning it is dismissed permanently.

The case against R&V Associates and Violi were dismissed without prejudice, meaning federal prosecutors can still pursue other legal action against them regarding the circumstances described in the now-closed Longo case.


Finance
AP
Pfizer CEO says Americans could get covid shot before year-end

Pfizer Inc. Chief Executive Officer Albert Bourla said it’s “likely” the U.S. will deploy a COVID-19 vaccine to the public before year-end and that the company is prepared for that scenario, pushing back against more tepid expectations shared by health authorities.

Bourla said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that he’s “quite comfortable” that the vaccine the company is developing in partnership with BioNTech SE is safe and that it could be available to Americans before 2021, contingent on an approval from U.S. regulators at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

“I cannot say what the FDA will do,” Bourla said. “But I think it’s a likely scenario, and we are preparing for it.”

New York-based Pfizer and Germany’s BioNTech are seen as frontrunners in the race to develop a coronavirus vaccine, alongside Moderna Inc. and AstraZeneca Plc.

Bourla said Pfizer and its partner have a 60% chance of knowing the efficacy of its still experimental vaccine by the end of October.

“Of course that doesn’t mean that it works; that means that we’ll know if it works,” Bourla said.

The timing of clinical trial results depends on enough people in the study getting COVID-19 to make a calculation. But positive results could clear the way for approval, he said.

Bourla’s assurances come just as Pfizer and BioNTech have expanded the number of clinical trial participants they’re seeking in order to include more people with diverse backgrounds.

The companies said in a statement Saturday that they expect to enroll the 30,000 patients they originally sought for its final-phase clinical trial this week. They are also expanding that target to 44,000 participants to include people as young as 16, and to allow those with HIV and Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C.

Bourla said on CBS that they will also focus on recruiting more people of color, including African Americans and Latinos, to the late-stage trial in coming weeks. He said the study participants are currently 60% White and 40% people of color, and that older volunteers make up 44% of the cohort.

The companies joined other vaccine developers last week in an unusual pledge to only submit applications with the FDA for vaccine clearance when the drugs have shown to be safe and effective in large clinical trials. That followed concerns that President Donald Trump is pushing the agency to cut corners to get a vaccine to market before the Nov. 3 election.

Bourla said part of the reason Pfizer didn’t accept taxpayer dollars to fund its COVID-19 vaccine research and development was to avoid government bureaucracy and influence. “I wanted to keep Pfizer out of politics,” he said.

Trump has said publicly that a vaccine could be authorized by the November election even though other top U.S. health officials, including National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins, have said they think closer to the end of the year is more realistic. Even then, enough vaccine won’t be available to cover most Americans until well into 2021.

Former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, also speaking on CBS, said it’s “atypical” that the approval process of any drug or vaccine would be discussed within a political context.

“I don’t think we’re going to see an authorization before the election,” said Gottlieb, who sits on Pfizer’s board of directors. He added that American’s distrust in a COVID-19 vaccine will likely dissipate after the election.

The former FDA chief said he expects most Americans won’t be vaccinated until 2021 or later.

“This is likely to be a very staged market entry,” Gottlieb said. He described a process in which regulators will first issue an emergency use approval providing a limited supply of shots to those at high risk of infection, including frontline workers. Then the FDA will “slowly walk down that approval” to make it more broadly available, Gottlieb said.