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 Matthew 24:42  “Therefore be on alert, for you do not know which day your Lord is coming!"

The U.S. Government Has Authorized More Than $10,000 Per Person in Stimulus Spending This Year

Over the course of five relief bills, including the CARES Act and the new $900 billion package signed by President Trump on Sunday, the federal government has now authorized some $3.5 trillion in new legislative spending to shore up the economy during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic-that shakes out to an average of more than $10,000 per person for each of the 330 million people in the United States. Here's how it all breaks down.

KEY FACTS

  • The CARES Act (worth about $2.1 trillion, according to the federal government'sData Lab) was the biggest stimulus package in American history and accounts for about 60% of that $3.5 trillion total.
  • The rest comes from the new $900 billion package, two smaller bills that passed before the CARES Act, and a $484 billion bill that re-upped the Paycheck Protection Program for small businesses after it exhausted its first round of CARES Act funding.
  • Some $1.2 trillion of that legislative spending was earmarked for individuals-about $944 billion in the first four bills for direct payments (which went to 160 million people in the first round), expanded federal unemployment benefits, tax changes and other income support programs,according tothe Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, plus another $286 billion for stimulus checks and unemployment benefits in the newest bill.
  • Of course, stimulus allocations went far beyond individual checking accounts, from $1.7 trillion set aside for small businesses aid over the course of five bills to tens of billions of dollars for vaccine development and distribution to a$175 billion fundfor hospitals and healthcare providers to help them respond to the crisis.
  • That's not to mention a host of other provisions in the five rescue bills, from money for nutrition programs to student loan relief to tax credits and aid for state and local governments, that were designed to keep the economy humming.

WHAT WE DON'T KNOW

The outcome of a push by President Trump and Congressional Democrats to bump the second round of direct stimulus payments up from $600 to $2,000. The Democratic-led House on Monday passed a bill that would increase the size of the payments, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Tuesday blocked a vote on the matter in the Senate. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has said he will filibuster a separate Senate vote on an annual defense spending bill on Wednesday if McConnell does not bring the direct payment bill to the floor. If the measure eventually succeeds in the Senate (and it's too soon to tell if it will), it will cost Congress another $463.8 billion, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation.

BIG NUMBER

$7.3 trillion. That's how much all the emergency actions taken by the Federal Reserve-completely separate from the $3.5 trillion in spending authorized by legislation from Congress-are worth, according to the CRFB. That's an eye-watering $22,000 for each of the 330 million people in the United States that was set aside for central bank actions including new asset purchasing programs for securities, municipal bonds and riskier corporate bonds, new loans to banks, and new emergency facilities like the Main Street Lending

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

Some experts are warning that the $900 billion plan, passed by Congress and signed by President Trump in the final days of 2020 as crucial relief programs from the CARES Act had already lapsed or were on the verge of expiring, won't be enough to stem the economic damage the pandemic has already caused. President-elect Joe Biden has been adamant that his administration will enact more emergency relief measures once he takes office in January. He has referred to the new $900 billion package as a "down payment" and has asked lawmakers to be prepared to negotiate another aid bill next year.

From "Forbes.com"

 

Vaccine Passports May Be the Future of Travel - Here's Everything You Need to Know

These days, anyone looking to leave the country, or even their state, has to consider everything from available flights to pre-or-post-travel testing requirements. But as the prospect of a rebounding travel industry is increasingly looking like an eventual reality - as vaccines begin to roll out in the U.S. and elsewhere - a new question emerges: what will be required to travel in the future? Many experts have pointed to the concept of a "vaccine passport," or a (likely digital) way to store health information that would allow travelers to easily show immunization records when entering countries or even when moving between states.

However, as widespread vaccination is still a while off, and what's required for traveling varies from country to country, Daniel Burnham, an operations specialist with Scott's Cheap Flights, told Travel + Leisure that he doesn't expect traveling to be "easy" until at least 2022. "It doesn't necessarily mean all the restrictions at your destination in terms of eating out or not wearing a mask will disappear," Burnham said of a vaccine passport. "There will still be a patchwork for a long time. There's not going to be a single vaccine or vaccine passport... I think it's going to be rocky in the short term." Additionally, Burnham said there will need to be "a very big educational push" from airlines and tourism boards to inform travelers of their options. While fully-implemented vaccine passports may be a while off, we got some expert insight on everything a travel lover - who misses even the thought of getting on a plane - will need to know.

 What is a vaccine passport?

At its core, a vaccine passport allows travelers to prove they have immunization against a contagious virus or infection. The record could be on paper or it could be digital. But experts told T+L the biggest problem with using proof of immunology to cross borders is that vaccines could vary from country to country - and that's even more true with brand new vaccines like for COVID-19. While The New York Times reported data from the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine trial suggest it may reduce transmission (participants who were given one shot of the two-dose vaccine were found less likely to be asymptomatic carriers than those in the placebo group), the data is not yet available for the Pfizer vaccine. "Everything hinges on the vaccines being shown to eliminate transmission risk or markedly reduce transmission risk," Dr. Scott Weisenberg, the director of the travel medicine program at NYU Langone Health, told T+L. "Most likely there's going to be differences in effectiveness in one vaccine vs another... Whether [countries] still require these tests before travel or tests on arrival... there will probably be some evolving strategies that different countries use." There are several candidates for COVID-19 vaccine passports like The CommonPass, or the International Air Transport Association's IATA travel pass that will show information about a user's test results, eventual proof of inoculation, and a link to an electronic copy of their passport. Security firm International SOS has also developed a similar app itself called the AOKpass. "On one level, [the CommonPass] is an app that lets you collect, manage, and share your health information on a private level. On another level, it's a global trust network," Thomas Crampton, the chief marketing and communications officer for The Commons Project, said. "You have the ability for a government in one country to trust the test results from an entity in another country."

Is the concept of a vaccine passport new?

No. Vaccine passports have actually been used for a long time - required in some form to participate in public life since the 1800s, Crampton said. A prominent example of this is yellow fever. Several countries in Africa actually require proof travelers have received a yellow fever vaccination, written inside an international certificate of vaccination or prophylaxis (or a "yellow card"). "The original concept was actually a digital yellow card," Crampton said of the CommonPass. "The way that they have proved that is through pieces of paper that are non-standardized and regularly counterfeited and tampered with... if on the other hand you have a system with someone who is tied into this network... it's an entirely different story." The CommonPass did a trial with Cathay Pacific Airways and United Airlines and has partnered with JetBlue, Lufthansa, Swiss International Air Lines, and Virgin Atlantic, as well as the government of Aruba.

 

From "Travel + Leisure.com"

 

COVID-19 Pandemic Is Taking a Toll on the Mental Health of Frontline Healthcare Workers

As the number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise across the nation at record-breaking speed and as hospitals become overwhelmed, the pandemic is taking a dangerous toll on the mental health of frontline healthcare workers, according to a new survey conducted by the nonprofit Mental Health America with funding from the Johnson and Johnson Foundation. With exposure to a potentially deadly virus and skyrocketing numbers of new coronavirus cases, healthcare workers are becoming frustrated, anxious, overwhelmed, burned out and worried about exposing their loved ones to the disease, findings showed. This suggests healthcare workers need more care and support on the front lines.

WHAT'S THE IMPACT?

In all, 93% of healthcare workers were experiencing stress; 86% reported experiencing anxiety; 77% reported frustration; 76% reported exhaustion and burnout; and 75% said they were overwhelmed. Slightly more than three-quarters reported that they were worried about exposing their child to COVID-19, nearly half were worried about exposing their spouse or partner and 47% were worried about exposing their older adult family members.

Emotional exhaustion was the most common answer for how healthcare workers were feeling (82%), followed by trouble with sleep (70%), physical exhaustion (68%) and work-related dread (63%). Over half selected change in appetite (57%), physical symptoms like headaches or stomach aches (56%), questioning their career path (55%), compassion fatigue (52%) and heightened awareness or attention to being exposed to COVID-19 (52%). 

Nurses reported having a higher exposure to COVID-19 (41%) and they were more likely to feel too tired (67%) compared to other healthcare workers (61%). Thirty-nine percent of healthcare workers said that they did not feel like they had adequate emotional support. Nurses were even less likely to have emotional support (45%). Among people with children, half reported they are lacking quality time or are unable to support children or be a present parent.

The report said stress, if left untreated, could lead to more severe mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, psychosis and even thoughts of suicide or self-harm. MHA said that the best way to avoid a mental health crisis is to prevent it altogether, and to do this, it's critical to identify signs of anxiety and depression early on and intervene quickly.

THE LARGER TREND

Across the board, MHA has seen alarming increases in reports of depression and anxiety nationwide. A report released in October 2020 showed that more than 1.5 million people who took a screening at MHAscreening.org reported signs of anxiety and/or depression, with September having the highest rate of severity since the start of the pandemic. Anxiety screenings were up by 634% from January, and depression screenings were up 873%.

Back in March, Dr. James Adams of Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, and Dr. Ron Walls of Harvard Medical School, wrote that the combination of stress and possible exposure puts healthcare professionals, from physicians, to nurses, to specialists, at greater risk of contracting COVID-19 and potentially spreading it to others. It's the classic rock-and-a-hard-place scenario -- healthcare workers and caregivers are desperately needed during the global response to the outbreak, but represent one of the most vulnerable populations in terms of contracting the highly virulent disease.

 

From "Healthcare Finance" 

Mutant Coronavirus in the United Kingdom Sets Off Alarms, But Its Importance Remains Unclear

On 8 December, during a regular Tuesday meeting about the spread of the pandemic coronavirus in the United Kingdom, scientists and public health experts saw a diagram that made them sit up straight. Kent, in southeastern England, was experiencing a surge in cases, and a phylogenetic tree showing viral sequences from the county looked very strange, says Nick Loman, a microbial genomicist at the University of Birmingham. Not only were half the cases caused by one specific variant of SARS-CoV-2, but that variant was sitting on a branch of the tree that literally stuck out from the rest of the data. "I've not seen a part of the tree that looks like this before," Loman says.

Less than 2 weeks later, that variant is causing mayhem in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe. Yesterday, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced stricter lockdown measures, saying the strain, which goes by the name B.1.1.7, appears to be better at spreading between people. The news led many Londoners to leave the city today, before the new rules take effect, causing overcrowded railway stations. The Netherlands, Belgium, and Italy announced they were temporarily halting passenger flights from the United Kingdom. The Eurostar train between Brussels and London will stop running tonight at midnight, for at least 24 hours.

Scientists, meanwhile, are hard at work trying to figure out whether B.1.1.7 is really more adept at human-to-human transmission-not everyone is convinced yet-and if so, why. They're also wondering how it evolved so fast. B.1.1.7 has acquired 17 mutations all at once, a feat never seen before. "There's now a frantic push to try and characterize some of these mutations in the lab," says Andrew Rambaut, a molecular evolutionary biologist at the University of Edinburgh.

Researchers have watched SARS-CoV-2 evolve in real time more closely than any other virus in history. So far, it has accumulated mutations at a rate of about one to two changes per month. That means many of the genomes sequenced today differ at about 20 points from the earliest genomes sequenced in China in January, but many variants with fewer changes are also circulating. "Because we have very dense surveillance of genomes, you can almost see every step," Loman says.

But scientists have never seen the virus acquire more than a dozen mutations seemingly at once. They think it happened during a long infection of a single patient that allowed SARS-CoV-2 to go through an extended period of fast evolution, with multiple variants competing for advantage.

One reason to be concerned, Rambaut says, is that among the 17 mutations are eight in the gene that encodes the spike protein on the viral surface, two of which are particularly worrisome. One, called N501Y, has previously been shown to increase how tightly the protein binds to the angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 receptor, its entry point into human cells. The other, named 69-70del, leads to the loss of two amino acids in the spike protein and has been found in viruses that eluded the immune response in some immunocompromised patients.

A fortunate coincidence helped show that B.1.1.7 (also called VUI-202012/01, for the first "variant under investigation" in December 2020), appears to be spreading faster than other variants in the United Kingdom. One of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests used widely in the country, called TaqPath, normally detects pieces of three genes. But viruses with 69-70del lead to a negative signal for the gene encoding the spike gene; instead only two genes show up. That means PCR tests, which the United Kingdom conducts by the hundreds of thousands daily and which are far quicker and cheaper than sequencing the entire virus, can help keep track of B.1.1.7.

In a press conference on Saturday, Chief Science Adviser Patrick Vallance said B.1.1.7, which first appeared in a virus isolated on 20 September, accounted for about 26% of cases in mid-November. "By the week commencing the ninth of December, these figures were much higher," he said. "So, in London, over 60% of all the cases were the new variant." Johnson added that the slew of mutations may have increased the virus' transmissibility by 70%.

From "Science.com"

 

 

Employers Can Bar Unvaccinated Employees From the Workplace, EEOC Says

With the first doses of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine now being administered in the U.S., the federal government is giving employers around the country the green light to require immunization for most workers.

In general, companies have the legal right to mandate that employees get a COVID-19 shot, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) said Wednesday. More specifically, employers are entitled - and required - to ensure a safe workplace in which "an individual shall not pose a direct threat to the health or safety of individuals in the workplace." That can mean a company requiring its workforce to be vaccinated.

The Americans with Disabilities Act limits an employer's ability to require workers to get a medical examination. But the EEOC's latest guidance clarifies that getting vaccinated does not constitute a medical exam. As a result, ordering employees to get a COVID-19 shot would not violate the ADA.

Not all employees must get vaccinated, according to the agency. Employees with either a disability or "sincerely held" religious beliefs that prevent them from getting inoculated are exempt, according to the EEOC, which is charged with enforcing laws against workplace discrimination. 

"If they do require it, an employee can make a request for an accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act or Title VII, and if they do request the accommodation, the employer has an obligation to see if accommodation is possible," said Helen Rella, a workplace attorney at Wilk Auslander, a New York law firm. 

From "CBS News"

 

Israel Hopes For Rapprochement with Fifth Muslim Country Before Trump Exit - Minister

Israel is working towards formalising relations with a fifth Muslim country, possibly in Asia, during U.S. President Donald Trump's term, an Israeli cabinet minister said on Wednesday.

The White House has brokered rapprochements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco this year. Rabat hosted an Israeli-U.S. delegation on Tuesday to flesh out the upgrade in relations. Asked if a fifth country could sign up before Trump steps down on Jan 20, Regional Cooperation Minister Ofir Akunis told Israel's Ynet TV: "We are working in that direction." "I believe ... there will be an American announcement about another country that is going public with the normalisation of relations with Israel and, in essence, with the infrastructure for an accord - a peace accord," he said.

Administration officials have said they are trying to get more countries to recognise Israel or warm existing ties to it. Akunis said there were two main candidate countries to become the next to move towards normal ties with Israel. He did not name either but said one is in the Gulf and could be Oman but would not be Saudi Arabia. The other, further to the east, is a "Muslim country that is not small" but is not Pakistan, Akunis said.

Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country, said last week it would not recognise Israel as long as Palestinian statehood demands remain unmet. Malaysia has signalled a similar policy. "Malaysia's firm stance on the Palestinian issue will not change," Deputy Foreign Minister Kamarudin Jaffar told the country's senate on Wednesday, adding that Kuala Lumpur would not interfere in other nations' decisions on Israel.

From "Reuters" 

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