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Northam crashes Hampton Roads' parties to reverse surge in coronavirus cases

Last call for late-night partying in Hampton Roads is midnight Thursday.

Starting Friday, sales of alcohol will be cut off at 10 p.m. at all restaurants, breweries, wineries and distilleries, under Gov. Ralph Northam’s latest executive order aimed at stopping the surge of coronavirus cases in Virginia Beach and neighboring communities.

Public gatherings and private parties — indoors and out — will be capped at 50 people.

“We all know alcohol changes your judgment. You just don’t care as much about social distancing after you’ve had a couple of drinks,” Northam said during a news briefing Tuesday. “That’s when the virus gets spread.”

Northam said the restrictions could be lifted in a few weeks if cases counts go down. Case counts in the Health Department’s Eastern region have risen from about 100 a day at the start of the month to nearly 500 a day this week, and represent about half of people testing positive for the virus in the state.

Northam said he’s prepared to impose more restrictions in Hampton Roads and extend them elsewhere if cases surge.

He said he watches the numbers daily, looking at the percentage of people getting positive results from tests in each region. He said data from the northern, northwestern and central regions look encouraging. Southwest Virginia’s numbers are increasing, but stable, he said.

Northam said he would also consider quarantines for people coming into Virginia or for residents returning from vacation.

“All options are on the table, and I’m taking it one step at a time,” he said.

The governor and health and government officials met earlier Tuesday with Dr. Deborah Birx, a top White House official working on the country’s pandemic response.

Northam said they talked about the ongoing problems with access to personal protective equipment and lengthening time for test results.

He acknowledged that Birx asked him to impose statewide restrictions to shut down bars as more and more younger people become infected with the virus, but he said he would watch the numbers and take action where needed.

Gatherings of up to 250 people are allowed in the rest of Virginia.

Dr. Molly O’Dell, who is leading the Roanoke and Alleghany Health District’s pandemic response, also held her weekly briefing Tuesday.

She said that young people gathering closely at outdoor venues are at risk of infections.

“Even when we are outdoors, we need to practice social distancing,” she said. The nearness of people coupled with time spent together increases likelihood of spreading the virus.

She said local cases are still climbing but not as fast as they had earlier this month once restrictions on many businesses were lifted.

“What we are seeing as we have progressed through the phases, coupled by people getting so fatigued by the chore of social distancing, hygiene and the use of face coverings, cases have gone up,” O’Dell said. “So it makes sense that if we don’t want the cases to continue going up, something is going to have to be managed.”

O’Dell said she has noticed businesses are more likely now than three weeks ago to require distancing and face coverings.

As of Tuesday, 1,938 people living in the Roanoke and Alleghany Health Districts have tested positive for the virus. O’Dell said two people who had it months ago, and then went for testing before surgery, were found to be positive again. She said they did not have symptoms the second time and are considered re-infections and not new cases.

She said while they were unable to trace how they were re-infected, the health department had to investigate and trace the patients’ new contacts as they could again spread the virus.

O’Dell’s count is 404 cases higher than the Virginia Department of Health is reporting. About 300 of those additional cases are in Roanoke and 100 in Roanoke County. The numbers have differed throughout the pandemic, and there has yet to be an explanation other than lag of reporting by the state.

Of the local cases, 264 are active infections, 26 people are in the local hospitals and 27 people have died. Also Tuesday, the Roanoke City Sheriff’s Office said 12 of its employees have tested positive for COVID-19, although it didn’t specify over what time period. It also said that no inmates have tested positive.

When asked about people who imply that public health officials are fear-mongering because the case counts are low in comparison to the population, O’Dell said, “I don’t know how to respond, except to say that doesn’t feel very compassionate.”

O’Dell has during her weekly briefings talked about finding the balance between commerce and safety and consistently pushing for facial coverings, hand -washing and distancing, even outdoors.

“When I look at we just had the 27th death, and I think about that person’s family, and that individual who suffered because of the burden of disease, I feel like my job is definitely to protect everyone in the community,” she said.

As of Tuesday, 2,095 Virginians have died because of COVID-19.

Northam also had a message for those who think the virus is a hoax.

“If you don’t think this is real, take some time and go sit down and talk to the family of one of these individuals who have lost their lives,” Northam said. “We have health care providers, for example, who are working around the clock in our emergency rooms and ICUs who are covered up in PPE from the time they get to work until the time they leave.

“We have individuals who are working on the front lines who can’t go back to their homes because of the risk of spreading the virus to those loved ones. Talk to those people. Talk to them and listen to their stories and then see if you think this is real or not,” he said.


State
AP
Scientists get closer to blood test for Alzheimer's disease

An experimental blood test was highly accurate at distinguishing people with Alzheimer’s disease from those without it in several studies, boosting hopes that there soon may be a simple way to help diagnose this most common form of dementia.

Developing such a test has been a long-sought goal, and scientists warn that the new approach still needs more validation and is not yet ready for wide use.

But Tuesday’s results suggest they’re on the right track. The testing identified people with Alzheimer’s vs. no dementia or other types of it with accuracy ranging from 89% to 98%.

“That’s pretty good. We’ve never seen that” much precision in previous efforts, said Maria Carrillo, the Alzheimer’s Association’s chief science officer.

Dr. Eliezer Masliah, neuroscience chief at the U.S. National Institute on Aging, agreed.

“The data looks very encouraging,” he said. The new testing “appears to be even more sensitive and more reliable” than earlier methods, but it needs to be tried in larger, more diverse populations, he said.

The institute had no role in these studies but financed earlier, basic research toward blood test development.

Results were discussed at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference taking place online because of the coronavirus pandemic. Some results also were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

More than 5 million people in the United States and many more worldwide have Alzheimer’s. Current drugs only temporarily ease symptoms and do not slow mental decline.

The disease is usually diagnosed through tests of memory and thinking skills, but that’s very imprecise and usually involves a referral to a neurologist. More reliable methods such as spinal fluid tests and brain scans are invasive or expensive, so a simple blood test that could be done in a family doctor’s office would be a big advance.

Last year, scientists reported encouraging results from experimental blood tests that measure abnormal versions of amyloid, one of two proteins that build up and damage Alzheimer’s patients’ brains. The new work focuses on the other protein — tau — and finds that one form of it called p-tau217 is a more reliable indicator. Several companies and universities have developed experimental p-tau217 tests.

Dr. Oskar Hansson of Lund University in Sweden led a study of Eli Lilly’s test on more than 1,400 people already enrolled in dementia studies in Sweden, Arizona and Colombia. They included people with no impairment, mild impairment, Alzheimer’s and other neurological diseases.

The p-tau217 test outperformed a host of other measures for indicating which patients had Alzheimer’s as verified by brain scans. It also was comparable to the brain scans and some spinal tests in accuracy.

The Arizona portion of the study included 81 people who had donated their brains upon death, so researchers were able to show that blood testing while they were alive closely matched evidence of disease later.

The Colombia part of the study included people with a rare gene that virtually destines them to develop Alzheimer’s at a young age, typically in their 40s. In those with the gene, p-tau217 blood levels started to rise “around 20 years before symptoms,” Hansson said.

The study’s sponsors include the U.S. National Institutes of Health, Swedish government health groups, the Alzheimer’s Association, many foundations and several companies. Some study leaders work for Lilly or consult for the company.

Two other research groups independently reported evidence for p-tau217 testing at the conference.

Scientists at the University of California, San Francisco, found it helped distinguish people with Alzheimer’s from those with another neurological disease — frontotemporal lobar degeneration — with 96% accuracy in a study of 617 people.

Dr. Suzanne Schindler of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, also found p-tau217 better than some other indicators for revealing which patients had plaques in the brain — the hallmark of Alzheimer’s.

“When patients come to me with changes in their memory and thinking, one of the major questions is, what’s the cause? Is it Alzheimer’s disease or is it something else?” she said. If tau testing bears out, “it would help us diagnose people earlier and more accurately.”

Schindler has already launched a larger study in a diverse population in St. Louis. Researchers have done the same in Sweden.

If benefits are confirmed, Masliah, Carrillo and others say they hope a commercial test would be ready for wide use in about two years.


Politics
AP
Barr says unrest not linked to Floyd, defends feds' response

WASHINGTON — Attorney General William Barr defended the aggressive federal law enforcement response to civil unrest in America, saying on Tuesday “violent rioters and anarchists have hijacked legitimate protests” sparked by George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police.

Barr told members of the House Judiciary Committee at a much-anticipated election -year hearing the violence taking place in Portland, Oregon, and other cities is disconnected from Floyd’s killing, which he called a “horrible” event that prompted a necessary national reckoning on the relationship between the Black community and law enforcement.

“Largely absent from these scenes of destruction are even superficial attempts by the rioters to connect their actions to George Floyd’s death or any legitimate call for reform,” Barr said of the Portland protests.

The hearing marks Barr’s first appearance before the House Judiciary Committee after 18 months in office, bringing him face to face with a panel that voted last year to hold him in contempt and is holding hearings on what Democrats say is a politicization of the Justice Department under his watch. It comes during a tumultuous stretch in which Barr has taken actions cheered by President Donald Trump but condemned by Democrats and other critics.

Among those actions is the Justice Department’s decision to drop the prosecution of former Trump administration national security adviser Michael Flynn and Barr’s urging for a more lenient sentence for Trump ally Roger Stone, a move that prompted the entire trial team’s departure. Trump later commuted the sentence entirely.

Opening the hearing, committee Chairman Jerry Nadler said the Trump administration had “twisted the Department of Justice into a shadow of its former self,” serving the powerful before average Americans. He said the committee has a responsibility to protect Americans “from that kind of corruption.”

Nadler said Barr had “aided and abetted” Trump’s worst impulses and excoriated him and the Justice Department for turning a blind eye to necessary reforms to police departments, for dismissing Black Lives Matter protests and for flooding streets with federal agents to stop protesters.

Republicans hit back hard in defense of Barr and Trump’s administration. The top Republican on the panel, Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, used his opening statement to show an eight-minute video that spliced together images of violence by protesters around the country, showcasing law enforcement officers under attack in Chicago, Portland and New York. The images were cut from hundreds of hours of racial injustice footage of largely peaceful protests around the nation.

Under combative questioning, Barr acerbically defended himself but revealed little new information about his motivations or the Justice Department’s recent actions on policing or otherwise. Fuming Democrats often used their five minutes to lay out their frustrations and cut him off as he attempted to answer questions.

“Many of the Democrats on this Committee have attempted to discredit me by conjuring up a narrative that I am simply the President’s factotum who disposes of criminal cases according to his instructions,” Barr said in his opening statement. “Judging from the letter inviting me to this hearing, that appears to be your agenda today.”

On policing, Barr’s testimony underscores the Justice Department’s ongoing effort to differentiate between increasing violence in some cities and Floyd’s death, which has led to state charges against four officers and is under investigation by federal authorities. Massive but peaceful demonstrations followed Floyd’s death in May.

The attorney general, speaking as Congress and the public pay respects in the Capitol to the late civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis, acknowledged to lawmakers Floyd’s death struck a chord in the Black community because it reinforced concerns Black people are treated differently by police. But he condemned Americans who he says have responded inappropriately to Floyd’s death through what he said was rioting and anarchy.

“As elected officials of the federal government, every member of this committee — regardless of your political views or your feelings about the Trump administration — should condemn violence against federal officers and destruction of federal property,” Barr said. “So should state and local leaders who have a responsibility to keep their communities safe.”

Civil unrest escalated in Portland after federal agents were accused of whisking people away in unmarked cars without probable cause; the people were detained and later released. And in Washington, D.C., peaceful protesters were violently cleared from the streets by federal officers using smoke bombs and pepper balls last month before a photo op by Trump in front of St. John’s church, where Barr had accompanied him.

Barr defended the broad use of law enforcement power to deal with the situation, noting that protesters had earlier set fire to the church and “it was total consensus that you couldn’t allow that to happen so close to the White House.”

The department’s internal watchdog has opened investigations into use of force and other tactics by agents in Washington and Portland.

He also said the force was used because the protesters would not disperse from the area when law enforcement officials were trying to move back the security perimeter, a decision made the night before. When pressed on details, he pointed to the investigations.

The use of pepper spray is warranted, even if peaceful protesters are also harmed, he said.

Beyond the federal response to the demonstrations, Barr was pressed in detail about his intervention in the Flynn and Stone cases, both of which arose from special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. Democrats criticized him for partly taking into account Stone’s health and age, 67, and said those standards haven’t been used in other similar cases.

While Stone’s health was one of the factors considered by senior level officials at the Justice Department, the point of the contention about the sentencing recommendation was over whether a specific sentencing enhancement over witness tampering would apply.

Barr said that enhancement is “traditionally applied to mafiosos” and he didn’t agree that it was warranted in Stone’s case.

Barr said he told the acting U.S. attorney that “we are going to leave it up to the judge” and that he ordered the revised recommendation to be filed when the prosecutors submitted an initial recommendation calling for a sentence of seven to nine years.

“And even though I knew I would get a lot of criticism for doing that, I think at the end of the day my obligation is to be fair to the individual,” Barr said.

Republicans and Democrats also repeatedly revisited Mueller’s probe, with Democrats arguing he downplayed the report to the public before it was released and Republicans pressing him on the origins of the probe.

The department is investigating the department’s decisions as it started investigating Trump’s ties to Russia during the Obama administration in 2016.

In a prepared opening statement released by the department, Barr derisively referred to “the bogus ‘Russiagate’ scandal.” Barr didn’t read that part of his statement in the hearing room, but defended his actions as he has questioned the probe.


Business
Mountain Valley to receive new permit to cross Blue Ridge Parkway

The Mountain Valley Pipeline will be granted a new permit to cross the Blue Ridge Parkway, the first in a string of federal approvals needed before the natural gas pipeline can be completed.

In a letter filed Tuesday with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the National Park Service said it intended to issue a right of way permit for the pipeline to pass under the parkway atop Bent Mountain in Roanoke County.

Construction of that segment of the 303-mile pipeline was completed in January 2019, but Mountain Valley needs the permit to maintain and operate the transmission line.

Parkway Superintendent J.D. Lee wrote in the letter that the approval was “not a wholly new undertaking,” as the initial permit was suspended for technical reasons at the request of Mountain Valley.

The joint venture of five energy companies building the pipeline still lacks three sets of key permits — set aside after lawsuits questioned the wisdom of running such a large pipeline through the mountainous terrain of Southwest Virginia — that must be re-granted if the project is to be finished by early next year.

Mountain Valley has said it expects the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to decide by the end of the month whether the pipeline will jeopardize endangered species along its path from West Virginia to Pittsylvania County.

In 2017, several months before construction began, the agency found that burying the 42-inch diameter pipeline along steep slopes and under steams and rivers would not excessively harm protected fish, bats and plants.

But after new concerns about the Roanoke logperch were raised last year, a coalition of environmental groups brought a legal challenge of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision.

FERC, the lead agency overseeing construction of the $5.7 billion project, then ordered almost all work to halt while the endangered species question was reconsidered.

Meanwhile, the lawsuit was placed on hold. Still pending before the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, it asserts that unexpected levels of land movement and sedimentation caused by construction poses an undue risk to two fish, the Roanoke logperch and the candy darter, and two bats, the Indiana bat and the northern long-eared bat.

Asked Tuesday about the endangered species permit, Mountain Valley spokeswoman Natalie Cox wrote in an email that the company expects it “to be issued soon, and the review process remains ongoing.”

Should Mountain Valley receive a new permit, it would still need authorization to cross nearly 1,000 streams and wetlands.

And finally, the U.S. Forest Service must reconsider its approval for the pipeline to pass through the Jefferson National Forest. That permit was thrown out in 2018 by the 4th Circuit, which found inadequate protections against erosion and sedimentation.

More litigation, which has already delayed the project by two years, is likely if the permits are reissued.

Opponents hope to slow down the process to the point that Mountain Valley is forced to abandon the project, as the Atlantic Coast Pipeline did earlier this month. Mountain Valley says the pipeline is 92% done and slated for completion.

On Monday, one of the environmental groups fighting the pipeline wrote to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, asking it to deny the company a fast-tracked permit for stream and wetland crossings.

David Sligh, conservation director for Wild Virginia, said that widespread problems with muddy runoff from construction sites is enough to require Mountain Valley to obtain individual permits for each crossing, which is a much more detailed and lengthy process.

“The Corps cannot now look at the MVP project as if it has a blank slate,” Sligh said.

“Streams and wetlands are already severely damaged in many places and for the Corps to allow more pollution from waterbody crossings to be piled on top of those existing problems would be irresponsible.”