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First Ex Drug Execs Indicted in Opioid Crisis

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  • Rochester Drug Co-Operative and two of its executives were charged for supplying drugs that they knew were likely being misused for the purpose of increasing their profits.
  • These are the first charges filed against a company or executives in the opioid epidemic.
  • RDC will pay a fine of 20 million dollars as a result.

What Are the Charges?

A major drug distribution company and two of its executives were indicted on Tuesday, marking the first criminal charges related to the opioid crisis for a company of this kind.

Rochester Drug Co-Operative (RDC), along with former C.E.O., Laurence Doud III, and former chief of compliance, William Pietruszewski, are being accused of supplying drugs they knew were likely being misused.

RDC is one of the top ten drug distributors in the United States. The company has an estimated annual revenue of one billion dollars.

According to the indictment against them, RDC allegedly “supplied large quantities of oxycodone, fentanyl, and other dangerous opioids to pharmacy customers that its own compliance personnel determined were dispensing those drugs to individuals who had no legitimate medical need for them.”

Both Doud and Pietruszewski are being charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States and conspiracy to distribute controlled substances. The latter of the charges carries a mandatory 10-year sentence and has a maximum life sentence.

Pietruszewski is also being charged with willfully failing to file suspicious order reports to the Drug Enforcement Administration. He has already pled guilty. Doud has surrendered to authorities, but entered a not guilty plea.

RDC is being charged with conspiracy to violate narcotics laws, conspiracy to defraud the United States, and willfully failing to file suspicious order reports. They are also being sued in a civil complaint related to underreporting suspicious orders.

Between 2012 and 2016, the company filled 1.5 million orders, and only reported four suspicious orders to the DEA. However, the complaint alleges that RDC failed to report 2,000 orders to the DEA.

According to the indictment, the company and its executives had the goal of maximizing RDC’s revenues, as well as their own salaries. Between 2012 and 2016, their sales of oxycodone tablets increased by 800 percent. Doud’s salary also more than doubled, landing him with an annual income of $1.5 million by 2016.

What Does this Mean for the Opioid Crisis?

A U.S. Attorney involved in the case, Geoffrey S. Berman, released a statement saying that this prosecution is the “first of its kind.”  

“Executives of a pharmaceutical distributor and the distributor itself have been charged with drug trafficking, trafficking the same drugs that are fueling the opioid epidemic that is ravaging this country,” he added. “ Our Office will do everything in its power to combat this epidemic.”

A DEA Special Agent, Ray Donovan, also said that these charges “should send shock waves throughout the pharmaceutical industry.”

“The distribution of life-saving medication is paramount to public health,” he said. “Similarly, so is identifying rogue members of the pharmaceutical and medical fields whose diversion contributes to the record-breaking drug overdoses in America.”

The epidemic and overdoses that Berman and Donovan reference are part of a serious problem in America. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than 130 people in the U.S. die every single day from an opioid overdose.

A spokesperson for RDC, Jeff Eller, released a statement acknowledging that the company “made mistakes.”

“RDC understands that these mistakes, directed by former management, have serious consequences,” said Elder. “One element of the opioid epidemic is a dramatic increase in the volume of prescriptions for opioids and all narcotics. From 2012 to 2017, we did not have adequate systems in place nor were our compliance team and practices rigorous enough to provide adequate controls and oversight.”

RDC has agreed to pay a fine of $20 million dollars. They will also be under independent compliance monitoring for three years.

See what others are saying: (Associated Press) (NPR) (Axios)

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Millions of Mail-in Ballots Have Still Not Been Returned as USPS Delays Continue

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  • Current data shows that millions of absentee ballots sent to voters have yet to be returned, and with mail delays continuing, many Americans are now unable to mail in their ballots and still be sure their vote counts.
  • While officials and the USPS are warning people not to send in ballots less than a week before their state’s deadline, there have been some mixed messages.
  • A postmaster in Michigan directly contradicted the Secretary of State and told voters it was still safe to mail in their ballot. In Texas, a county administrator admitted that many absentee ballots have not even been delivered to those who requested them yet.
  • At the same time, the USPS is reporting incredibly alarming delays, with some key battleground states reporting on-time mail delivery rates lower than 60%.

Millions of Votes Yet to Be Cast

With less than a week until the election, nearly 40 million of the 90 million mail-in ballots that American voters have requested have not yet been returned, according to data reported Thursday by the U.S. Elections Project, a nonpartisan vote tracking site.

The number of unreturned ballots are especially high in several key swing states like Florida, where over 1.7 million requested ballots have not yet been sent back. Nearly 1 million requested ballots in Pennsylvania have also not been returned.

While experts say it is possible that many people who requested ballots have since decided to vote in person instead, these numbers are still significant because for many of those millions who have not yet returned their ballot, their options are now much more limited.

The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) has warned that voters should mail in their ballots a full week ahead of the deadline for counting set by their state in order to ensure that their vote will be counted. 

In other words, if you live in one of the roughly 30 states that require ballots to be received by Election Day and have not yet voted, it is too late to safely mail in your ballot. To ensure your vote is counted, vote in person or use a ballot drop box if your state offers them. For more information on how to vote in your state, go to vote.org.

The USPS and many election officials have been issuing these same warnings, but there are still mixed messages being sent in some key states. 

For example, on Tuesday, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson warned voters that it was too late for them to safely rely on the Postal Service. The next day, however, Grand Rapids Postmaster William Rowe contradicted the state’s top election official and encouraged voters to trust the Postal Service.

Rowe said that he himself mailed his own ballot the same day he received it, which was a day later than the USPS recommendation. Notably, the fact that he received his ballot less than a week before the deadline to mail it in is also something that is cause for alarm.

If the city’s postmaster did not get his ballot until then, how many others also did not get their ballots until a week before the election? That concern is also not just limited to Grand Rapids or Michigan. Plenty of voters all over the country have not yet received their mail-in ballots, and in some places, that is not an accident.

In Texas, election officials have outright said mail-in ballots are still being sent to voters through the end of this week, even though their votes will not be counted unless they are postmarked by Election Day and arrive no later than Nov. 4.

In an interview with the Texas Tribune, Jacque Callanen, the elections administrator in Bexar County, which includes San Antonio, said that some voters might not even get their ballots until Halloween. Callanen even acknowledged that this is a “tight window,” for many voters adding, “We’re pushing it. But that’s how it works.”

Continued Slow-Downs

For many voters “that’s just how it works” is an entirely unacceptable argument, especially in a state like Texas, which limits absentee requests to people who are genuinely limited in their ability to vote in-person like the elderly, people with disabilities, and overseas voters.

On top of that, the delay in getting voters their absentee ballots is also troubling because the USPS is still experiencing slow-downs as a result of the changes that Postmaster Louis DeJoy implemented over the summer.

According to The Washington Post, before DeJoy took office in June, the USPS delivered upward of 90% of first-class mail on time. After DeJoy implemented his so-called “cost-cutting” measures in July, those numbers plummeted, and they still remain alarmingly low, even after many of the policies were rolled back. 

DeJoy, for his part, has promised to make election mail his main priority and supply additional resources, but the current data seems to indicate that he has not followed through at all. 

The agency has repeatedly missed its goal to have more than 95% of first-class mail delivered within five days. In fact, according to USPS data filed in court as part of a lawsuit and accessed by The Post, as of Tuesday, exactly one week before the election, the office reported that only 69.8% of mail was on time nationally.

That is just the national average. Key postal districts in many swing states failed to reach even that mark. According to The Post, 17 postal districts that represent 10 battleground states reported the average on-time delivery rate for first-class mail was just 64%. That is nearly 30% lower than the delivery rate at the beginning of this year.

In some areas, the Postal Service reported that delivery rates fell below 60%, with one of the most extreme examples being the Philadelphia Metro postal district, where only 43% of Tuesday’s mail was delivered on time. 

According to the Los Angeles Times in certain parts of the country, on-time delivery rates have dropped to levels lower than July, “when millions of Americans went days, even weeks, without mail.” 

In an attempt to address these concerning numbers, Federal Judge Emmet G. Sullivan of the District of Columbia on Tuesday ordered DeJoy to boost mail services in the week before the election. Under the order, the postmaster is required to increase the number of late mail trips and extra deliveries, in order to ensure election mail is on time. 

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (The Los Angeles Times) (The Texas Tribune)

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Texas Supreme Court Sides With Gov. Abbott’s Order Limiting Counties to One Ballot Drop Box Each

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  • The Texas Supreme Court sided with Governor Greg Abbott’s order limiting counties to just one ballot drop off box each, arguing that the state has provided voters with plenty of options for the 2020 election. 
  • Also in Texas, a judge ruled against Abbott’s choice to exclude polling locations from the list of places where mask-wearing is mandatory. The judge agreed with critics, who said this discriminates against Black and Latino Texans who are more likely to be harmed by the pandemic. 
  • In other election news, the USPS was ordered to rescind rules limiting mail collection, with a judge saying late and extra trips should be performed to the maximum extent to ensure on-time election deliveries. 

Texas Supreme Court Sides with Abbott

The Texas Supreme Court sided with Governor Greg Abbott on Tuesday, ruling in favor of his order that limited counties to just one absentee ballot drop-off location each. 

Abbott’s order was criticized by Democrats and others who said restricting the number of places voters can drop their ballots off, especially in the midst of a worsening pandemic, amounts to voter suppression.

A judge initially overturned Abbott’s order, saying the limit could confuse voters. Shortly after, a federal judge halted their decision and sided with Abbott. 

The state’s Supreme Court concluded that the order “provides Texas voters more ways to vote in the November 3 election than does the Election Code. It does not disenfranchise anyone.”

While the plaintiffs argued that it will require some voters to travel for a longer period of time, the court said that these voters do have other voting options, including sending their ballot via post. The court acknowledged that some fear the United States Postal Service may not deliver their ballot on time, but said that risk is “small.”

“In any event, the Constitution does not require a state to ‘afford every voter multiple infallible ways to vote,’ nor would it be possible for a state to foresee and eliminate every possible contingency that might prevent a given voter from casting a ballot,” the court said.

The stakes in Texas are growing as polling between President Donald Trump and his opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, are getting tighter. The Cook Political Report moved Texas to its list of toss-up states on Wednesday morning, joining the likes of Florida and Georgia.

Judge Rules in Favor of Mask Wearing at Polls

This was not the only election-related decision handed out in Texas on Tuesday. A federal judge ruled that voters in the state should have to wear masks at polling locations, despite Abbott’s mandate making an exception for them. 

Abbott’s decision to not include polling places on the list of locations where mask wearing is mandatory left a lot of voters in the state feeling uneasy, especially Black and Latino voters. Throughout the country, Black and Latino communities have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. 

In Texas, according to the Texas Tribune, Hispanic Texans made up almost 49% of COVID-19 deaths in the state as of July 30, despite being just under 40% of the population. Black Texans made up 14% of deaths, despite being around 12% of the population. Meanwhile, white Texans have been dying from the disease at a lower rate. 

Because of this, Abbott’s exception was challenged for discriminating against Black and Latino voters. The judge agreed and said that the clause that provided the exception “violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act because it creates a discriminatory burden on Black and Latino voters..

“For this reason, exemption 8 is invalid and void,” the judge wrote. 

Other Election News

Other states have also seen significant rulings when it comes to voting. In Michigan, a judge struck down the Secretary of State’s ban on open carry at the polls on Election Day. The judge argued that Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson did not follow the proper procedure to create an administrative rule when enacting the ban, which the judge believes should be necessary in this case. Benson already plans to overturn it. 

“As the state’s chief elections officer, I have the sworn duty to protect every voter and their right to cast the ballot free from intimidation and harassment,” she said to the Detroit Free Press. “I will continue to protect that right in Michigan.”

In South Carolina, a federal judge ruled that ballots in the state cannot be thrown out over mismatched signatures, claiming that the state does not have a consistent process for matching signatures. According to the Washington Post, the judge said that some counties had already disqualified ballots on signature issues without organization. He said that this is “obviously a significant burden” on voting rights. 

On a federal level, a judge made a decision in hopes of getting more absentee ballots delivered and counted for the election. Judge Emmet Sullivan of the District Court for the District of Columbia ordered that as of Wednesday morning, the USPS must reverse its limitations on mail collection, which were enacted by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, an ardent supporter of President Trump. Those limitations went in place over the summer and limited late or extra trips, significantly slowing down down mail delivery time. These mail lags prompted Sullivan to order that they be rescinded. 

“USPS personnel are instructed to perform late and extra trips to the maximum extent necessary to increase on-time mail deliveries, particularly for Election Mail,” Sullivan wrote.

“To be clear, late and extra trips should be performed to the same or greater degree than they were performed prior to July 2020 when doing so would increase on-time mail deliveries. Any prior communication that is inconsistent with this instruction should be disregarded.”

See what others are saying: (Texas Tribune) (Detroit Free Press) (Washington Post)

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Increased COVID-19 Hospitalizations Are Straining Medical Resources in the U.S.

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  • COVID-19 hospitalizations reached almost 43,000 on Monday, their highest point since August 19. A total of 36 states have seen at least a 5% increase in hospitalizations compared to last week.
  • In Utah, ICU occupancy hit nearly 70% and hospitals are prepared to start rationing ICU space this week or next. In El Paso, Texas, occupancy hit 100% and medical workers are taking patients to field or mobile units for care.
  • On top of this, some hospitals, including ones in Utah, are understaffed right now. Many hospital staffers are battling physical and emotional exhaustiong from dealing with the pandemic for seven months with no end in sight.

Hospitalizations Go Up

As coronavirus cases inch upwards across the country, hospitalizations are following, setting a trend that worries health experts heading into the winter. 

Over the past week, the United States has set its record for the highest single day of cases reported and the highest seven-day average of new cases. Nearly 43,000 hospitalizations were reported on Monday, the highest number since August 19. It is a staggering jump upward from the start of the month when hospitalizations were at 30,700.

CNBC reported that in 36 states, hospitalizations have risen by at least 5% compared to where they were just last week. The caseload is straining hospitals across the country, which are bracing for these spikes to get even worse. 

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, there has been a 157% increase in hospitalizations in Pennsylvania compared to this time last month. New Jersey has seen a 125% jump while Delaware saw 69% growth.

Hospitals and Local Governments Respond to Increases

In Utah, according to the Salt Lake Tribune, 771 people have been hospitalized for the virus in the past two weeks, the highest number of any 14 day period since the start of the pandemic. There, the ICU occupancy hit 68.9% on Monday and state officials and hospital administrators are prepared to ration ICU space this week or next week. This means some ICU patients whose condition is worsening might be forced out of the unit. Older patients, who are more likely to die, will likely be forced out before younger ones. One doctor said capacity is being assessed “on a minute to minute basis, almost.”

The Texas Tribune reported that there has been a 300% increase in hospitalizations in El Paso over the last three weeks. ICU beds have reached 100% capacity and patients are now being taken to mobile and field units to be cared for. The city has put in place a 10:00 p.m. curfew to curb the spread. City officials are also encouraging citizens to stay home as much as possible over the next two weeks. 

Impact on Hospitals and Staff

Experts have long predicted that the virus would pick up in the colder months of the year. With such a steep case increase before winter has even arrived, health officials are worried about this trend. But with all these numbers trending upwards at alarming rates, there are a lot of health officials concerned. 

“This is a harbinger of a very tough winter that’s coming. I think hospitals are going to be very, very stressed this fall and winter,”  Dr. Bill Schaffner, an epidemiologist at Vanderbilt University told CNBC.

On top of this, hospital staffers are suffering from COVID fatigue. Doctors and nurses have been dealing with the pandemic for the majority of the year with no end in sight. This has led to physical and emotional exhaustion. Some hospitals are also understaffed. 

“We’re down 20% to 30%,” Greg Bell, the president of the Utah Hospital Association told the Tribune. “Hundreds and hundreds of nurses are not able to work as they were [before] because of their own disease or infection in the family, or they’re moms and dads with school issues. Some are worn out, some are on leave because they’ve been doing this for seven months.”

See what others are saying: (CNBC) (Salt Lake Tribune) (Vox)

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