- - Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Health officials say they’re convinced this will be the worst year for West Nile virus deaths and severe illnesses since the disease hit America’s shores in 1999.

Officials on Wednesday said 1,405 serious illnesses and 118 deaths have been reported, the bulk of them in Texas. Infections are expected to continue into October, even though the height of the mosquito season is over.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicts the numbers will surpass the 2002 record of nearly 3,000 severe cases and 284 deaths.

OKLAHOMA

Hobby Lobby sues over morning-after pill coverage

OKLAHOMA CITY — Christian-oriented Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday challenging a mandate in the nation’s health care overhaul law that requires employers to provide coverage for the morning-after pill and similar drugs.

The lawsuit by the Oklahoma City-based chain claims the government mandate is forcing the company’s owners “to violate their deeply held religious beliefs under threat of heavy fines, penalties and lawsuits.” Failure to provide the drugs in the company’s health insurance plan could lead to fines of up to $1.3 million a day, the company said.

“By being required to make a choice between sacrificing our faith or paying millions of dollars in fines, we essentially must choose which poison pill to swallow,” CEO and founder David Green said. “We simply cannot abandon our religious beliefs to comply with this mandate.”

NEW JERSEY

‘Teacher of the year’ denies sex charge

NEWARK — A New Jersey woman recently named a county’s teacher of the year was in court Wednesday to answer charges that she had sex with a 15-year-old boy enrolled in an honors class she taught.

An attorney for Erica DePalo, 33, of Montclair, entered a not guilty plea on her behalf during a hearing in Superior Court in Newark. Ms. DePalo faces aggravated sexual assault, sexual assault and child endangerment charges. The boy was in her honors English class and the two carried on what prosecutors describe as a “sexual relationship” from June until recently.

Ms. DePalo has been indefinitely suspended from her teaching job at West Orange High School, according to school officials. Her attorney said she had been a teacher for nearly a decade. She was named Essex County’s teacher of the year in 2011.

CALIFORNIA

Pipe wall in refinery firewas thin as penny, feds say

RICHMOND — A corroded pipe that failed and triggered a leak and massive fire at one of California’s largest refineries had walls as thin as a penny in some areas, federal investigators said.

U.S. Chemical Safety Board officials said late Tuesday that a key part of their probe into the fire at the plant in Richmond is why Chevron Corp. didn’t replace the pipe during a routine inspection a year ago.

The board previously found that Chevron had replaced a larger, corroded 12-inch pipe connected to the smaller one that failed Aug. 6.

OREGON

Portland OKs adding fluoride to water

PORTLAND — The City Council has voted to add fluoride to Portland’s water, meaning Oregon’s largest city is no longer the biggest holdout in the U.S.

The ordinance approved Wednesday morning calls for the city water to be fluoridated by March 2014.

Health experts say fluoride is effective against tooth decay. Opponents of public fluoridation say it’s unsafe and violates an individual’s right to consent to medicine.

IOWA

Ex-egg farm manager pleads guilty to bribery

IOWA CITY — A manager at the Iowa egg farms linked to the nationwide salmonella outbreak in 2010 pleaded guilty Wednesday for his role in a conspiracy to bribe a federal inspector to allow the sale of unapproved eggs.

Former DeCoster Farms manager Tony Wasmund acknowledged during a plea hearing in Sioux City that he conspired with at least one other person to bribe a public official in order to sell restricted eggs and misbranded food, prosecutors said.

Wasmund, 61, of Wilmar, Minn., is a former manager in the network of companies owned by Jack DeCoster, whose huge egg production operations in rural Northern Iowa were blamed for the outbreak that caused the recall of 550 million eggs and sickened roughly 2,000 people. He is the first to face charges from the government’s criminal investigation.

From wire dispatches and staff reports