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Virus takes deadlier turn

NEW YORK — A long-expected upturn in U.S. coronavirus deaths has begun, driven by fatalities in states in the South and West, according to data on the pandemic.

The number of deaths per day from the virus had been falling for months, and even remained down as states like Florida and Texas saw explosions in cases and hospitalizations — and reported daily U.S. infections broke records several times in recent days.

Scientists warned it wouldn’t last. A coronavirus death, when it occurs, typically comes several weeks after a person is first infected. And experts predicted states that saw increases in cases and hospitalizations would, at some point, see deaths rise too. Now that’s happening.

“It’s consistently picking up. And it’s picking up at the time you’d expect it to,” said William Hanage, a Harvard University infectious diseases researcher.

According to an Associated Press analysis of data from Johns Hopkins University, the seven-day rolling average for daily reported deaths in the U.S. has increased from 578 two weeks ago to 664 on July 10 — still well below the heights hit in April. Daily reported deaths increased in 27 states over that time period, but the majority of those states are averaging under 15 new deaths per day. A smaller group of states has been driving the nationwide increase in deaths.

California is averaging 91 reported deaths per day while Texas is close behind with 66, but Florida, Arizona, Illinois, New Jersey and South Carolina also saw sizable rises. New Jersey’s recent jump is thought to be partially attributable to its less frequent reporting of probable deaths.

The impact has already been felt by families who lost kin — and by the health care workers who tried to save them.

Rublas Ruiz, a Miami intensive care unit nurse, recently broke down in tears during a birthday dinner with his wife and daughter. He said he was overcome by the number of patients who have died in his care.

“I counted like 10 patients in less than four days in our ICU and then I stopped doing that because there were so many,” said the 41-year-old nurse at Kendall Regional Medical Center who lost another patient Monday.

The virus has killed more than 130,000 people in the U.S. and more than a half-million worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University, though the true numbers are believed to be higher.

Deaths first began mounting in the U.S. in March. About two dozen deaths were being reported daily in the middle of that month. By late in the month, hundreds were being reported each day, and in April thousands. Most happened in New York, New Jersey and elsewhere in the Northeast.

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump wore a mask during a visit to a military hospital on Saturday, the first time the president has been seen in public with the type of facial covering recommended by health officials as a precaution against spreading or becoming infected by the novel coronavirus.

Trump flew by helicopter to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in suburban Washington to meet wounded servicemembers and health care providers caring for COVID-19 patients. As he left the White House, he told reporters: “When you’re in a hospital, especially ... I think it’s a great thing to wear a mask.”

Trump was wearing a mask in Walter Reed’s hallway as he began his visit. He was not wearing one when he stepped off the helicopter at the facility.

Most prominent Republicans, including Vice President Mike Pence, endorsed wearing masks as the coronavirus gained ground this summer.

Trump, however, has declined to wear a mask at news conferences, coronavirus task force updates, rallies and other public events. People close to him have told The Associated Press that the president feared a mask would make him look weak and was concerned that it shifted focus to the public health crisis rather than the economic recovery. They spoke on condition of anonymity to describe private matters.

In other virus-related developments:

  • South Africa’s confirmed coronavirus cases have doubled in just two weeks to a quarter-million, and India on Saturday saw its biggest daily spike as its infections passed 800,000. The surging cases are raising sharp concerns about unequal treatment in the pandemic, as the wealthy hoard medical equipment and use private hospitals and the poor crowd into overwhelmed public facilities.
  • Dozens of U.S. Marines at two bases on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa have been infected with the coronavirus in what is feared to be a massive outbreak, Okinawan Gov. Denny Tamaki said Saturday, demanding an adequate explanation from the U.S. military.
  • Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom reopened Saturday; Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios will follow four days later. The move comes as there has been a surge in the number of Floridians testing positive for the coronavirus and the state set a record of nearly 500 confirmed deaths in a week.
  • Nevada lawmakers pumped the brakes on an emergency special session to balance the state budget because someone in the legislative building tested positive for the coronavirus. On Saturday, lawmakers decided to participate remotely in the emergency session and both chambers agreed to recess until Monday.

A photographic journey through cities in the Magic Valley

Many times, the location of an image can say a lot about the person in the photo. The towns we hail from help define us. As our adventure of exploring the Magic Valley progresses, think about the stories you’re seeing and who these people are.

Photographs are moments frozen in time. Our job as photojournalists is to share these moments with the world, to preserve them for future generations to see. Sometimes we are drawn by the lighting or the color, but the heart of every great image is the subject. It’s their story to tell. Our goal is to give the viewer a better understanding of who that person is.

While the purpose of this project is to highlight the cities, we cannot do that without acknowledging the many wonderful people that inhabit them.

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Idaho started shaking March 31. Why hasn’t it stopped? Geologists research Sawtooth fault

The shaking started March 31.

That’s when the Sawtooth mountain range in central Idaho trembled with a 6.5-magnitude earthquake — the second strongest ever recorded in Idaho.

From that very moment, geologists rushed to the epicenter area — 45 miles west of Challis — to start collecting valuable information that could help them understand what happened.

Three months later, the rumbling still hasn’t subsided as aftershocks continue to jar the area. But now scientists have a better idea of what may have led to the major earthquake — and it’s helping them uncover some other secrets buried under Idaho’s soil.

Idaho fault discovered only a decade ago

Idaho sits on the northern end of an area that is geologically very active, known by geologists as the Basin and Range Province. The earth crust in this area is constantly stretching and breaking in multiple places, creating hundreds of geological faults over long periods of time.

“Most of those faults are very old faults, and they’re no longer moving,” said Glenn Thackray, a geoscience professor at Idaho State University who specializes in studying faults. “The fault that that broke in that first earthquake in March was thought to maybe be active but not known to be active.”

Thackray refers to a 40-mile long fault that runs north to south from Stanley Lake to Alturas Lake. He discovered the Sawtooth fault — which gets its name from the Sawtooth mountain range — only about a decade ago.

His initial thoughts after the magnitude-6.5 earthquake were that the Sawtooth fault was involved, but many questions remained to be answered.

Initial difficulties come with difficult terrain

The Central Idaho region is geologically active and interesting, but it’s poorly understood. Thackray said research funding usually goes to places that are more densely populated — where more people are at risk if a large earthquake happens.

That’s why there are not many permanent seismometers in Central Idaho.

The Stanley earthquake created a unique opportunity for Idaho geologists to understand what is happening on the surface of the earth and beneath it. They rushed to the area and deployed more than 30 seismometers that could capture the movements of the aftershocks — in spite of deep snow, difficult access and pandemic-related travel restrictions in the area.

Thackray’s initial hunch was that the Sawtooth fault was involved in the earthquake, but at that time, two pieces of information didn’t quite fit with this scenario.

First, the epicenter of the earthquake was located some 16 miles north of where they thought the Sawtooth fault ended. Second, its movement pattern was not typical of the region.

“The way that the rocks moved is very unusual for this part of the country, (which is) mostly up and down. … The main shock moved almost perfectly left to right, almost kind of a California style” earthquake, said Claudio Berti, director of the Idaho Geological Survey.

Aftershocks are 1st clue for solving earthquake puzzle

Aftershocks — the continued movements of the broken fault as it settles — usually happen along the same fault that caused the main earthquake.

Seismometers have been collecting data on the location and motion of aftershocks over the past three months, which is allowing geologists to get some answers. It’s a “connect the dots kind of game,” Berti said.

“We think that (the Sawtooth fault) actually now extends further north than what we thought before the earthquake,” said Boise State University seismologist Dylan Mikesell. He can tell because most of the aftershocks are happening in a north-south line, filling in the space between the north end of the fault and the epicenter.

Berti has a slightly different idea. He thinks that the Sawtooth fault might be expanding to the north, using other weak spots in the earth’s crust to grow.

Another set of aftershocks happening on an east-west line suggest that there might be another fault that runs in that direction.

“There could have been some (energy) transfer from the Sawtooth fault on to this other fault — which I don’t think that we knew about before,” Mikesell said.

Liquefaction at Stanley Lake

In May, officials of the Sawtooth National Forest announced that Stanley Lake’s beach — a popular fishing and swimming location — had collapsed after the earthquake.

That’s where Berti headed in late June to continue cataloging the quickly disappearing signs of the quakes. Berti conducted an aerial survey of the area by drone to compare the lake’s appearance to previous photographs. Then, pulling on rubber waders up to his thighs, he sloshed through Stanley Lake looking for the various disruptions the earthquake caused.


A boat launch site on Stanley Lake is flooded by deep water and is being studied by geologists to assess if the March 31, 2020 earthquake played a part in sinking the boat launch.

Many of the marks of the earthquake are subtle: a half-inch crack near the boardwalk that once led to the beach, a circle of fresh white sand where water jetted up and disrupted the sediment. Then there’s the obvious evidence: feet of water where a beach once stood.

The beach and delta sunk into the lake because of a physical process called liquefaction. When this happens, the soil behaves as a liquid for a short time.

Liquefaction is a relatively rare process, Berti said. It “happens when you have the right composition of sand and silt and clay, and the soil is completely saturated with water.” This is exactly what the soil looks like in Stanley Lake.

Berti compared the event with what happens when a baker measures sugar for a recipe. To ensure they have the right amount, they shake the container so sugar grains can accommodate and fill the empty spaces between them.

Similarly, the sand grains in the bottom of the lake are not particularly well-packed. Berti explained that when the earth shakes, grains “try to set into pores and spaces that are occupied by water. (When) the grains try to push on the water, the water pushes back,” disintegrating and mixing sand grains — and the soil effectively behaves like a liquid.

Scientists know very well when liquefaction happens since it leaves evident signs. One is the formation of sand boils — also known as sand blows, or sand volcanoes — which happen when the pressure built beneath the surface is released, leaving those circles of white wet sand.

Another sign is the presence of fallen trees or sunken structures. It happens because their roots — or foundations — lose grip with the soil that sustains them when it becomes liquid.

What are scientists still hoping to find?

Scientists are eager for more upcoming data that will help them reconstruct the missing pieces of Central Idaho’s geology puzzle.

Their main goal is to reconstruct the geometry of the faults in the area, especially between the north end of the Sawtooth fault and the epicenter. Apart from the data they are gathering from beneath the ground with the seismometers, they can also understand the area using satellites and airplanes.

“There’s a bunch of satellites right now that are collecting what we call InSAR data – Synthetic Aperture Radar – and that will allow us to actually see which part of the surface of the Earth has moved since the big earthquake,” Mikesell explained.

Another technique that will be applied to this area in the coming months is called LIDAR, which is key to identify faults in forested areas. “An airplane (flying at low altitude) with a laser scanner is really what it is,” Thackray said.

Using LIDAR, researchers can remove the trees digitally and recognize faults that are not evident to the naked eye.

Berti mentioned they’re also hoping to dig trenches along the newly identified faults, which allows them to see how many times similar events have happened in the past. “That gives you a better idea of the recurrence time of those main, large, surface-breaking events.”

Idahoans should prepare for more aftershocks

Big earthquakes like March’s one trigger a sequence of smaller quakes – aftershocks – that can last for a long time.

As of June 24, the USGS had registered 211 earthquakes of magnitude 3 or higher. “The aftershocks will slow down over the next, let’s say decades, but then they won’t completely disappear,” Mikesell said.

He added that “nothing is strange about this earthquake, and the aftershock sequence seems to be pretty normal as well. It’s just (that) we don’t have these earthquakes very often, (maybe) every couple of decades.”

Although predicting the exact time, place or strength of an earthquake is impossible, the USGS estimates a 99% chance of having earthquakes of magnitude 3 or higher over the next month and a 12% chance of earthquakes of magnitude 5 or higher.

Roger Stone arrives for his sentencing Feb. 20 at federal court in Washington.

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Chobani oat drink selling like hotcakes, already second in oat drink sales

TWIN FALLS — Not too long ago, Chobani just made yogurt out of milk.

Yogurt is still the company’s bread and butter, but in recent years Chobani has been branching out into other categories. Now you can drink Chobani or pour Chobani creamers into your coffee.

Chobani started selling oat drinks in November. Now the company is the second-largest American oat drink company by sales, behind Planet Oat and ahead of Oatly. Chobani says it already has a fifth of the oat drink market.

“We’re exceeding our plan for the year and we’re now the number two oat manufacturer in the country,” Chobani President Peter McGuinness said. “We’re super pleased.”

Oat drinks are especially popular among vegans and lactose-intolerant individuals. A lot of people like to use oat drinks with coffee, and many say they taste better than other milk substitutes.

Chobani made a significant investment in oat and other products last year. According to Twin Falls building permit reports, the company spent at least $3.1 million on additions in the fall. Those additions enabled the Twin Falls plant to process and package new product lines. McGuinness said there were 350 workers on-site daily building the additions.

So far oats appear to have been a wise investment. According to Nielsen data, oat milk sales are up 250% in the past year. McGuinness said oat is growing far more rapidly than almond milk, while soy milk is declining.

“The big bet seems to be paying off,” he said. “Oat is definitely the darling of plant-based.”

Chobani will be ramping up distribution of its existing oat products this month and in August, as well as introducing new oat products this summer and winter.

According to Nielsen data, oat milk saw a dramatic spike in demand in March when consumers stocked their cupboards and refrigerators in anticipation of the pandemic — depending on the week, oat milk sales were as much as quadruple what they’d been the year before. Oat drinks are more shelf-stable than traditional dairy products.

McGuiness said he thinks there are a few reasons oat drinks are doing so well. For one, they’re more environmentally friendly than almond drinks — almond production requires huge amounts of water.

On top of that, oat tastes better than almond and cashew, McGuinness said.

Chobani’s quick success with oat beverages is partly due to the Twin Falls factory. A lot of oat beverage companies are co-manufacturing their products, McGuinness explained, while Chobani is making its foods in-house. Brand recognition is playing a role, too. There are a lot of oat drink companies that no one’s ever heard of, he said, so when they see Chobani on the label, they trust it.

Another role? Taste, McGuiness said, noting that “his kids are addicted” to the drink. Because it’s tasty, people tend to buy it again after they try it.

“It’s delicious,” he said. “Our product’s chuggable.”

Got too much milk?

Milk prices are good today, but five years of low prices have taken a toll on the dairy industry and Idaho dairies are feeling the pain.