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    12 (fake) trees of Christmas

    Seasonable, reasonable evergreen decor

    Twinkling lights and wintry festivities create an atmosphere that's hard to beat. Whether you're planning to host a small celebration this year or just want to pump up the holiday vibes, an artificial Christmas tree is the way to go.

    The ConsumerAffairs research team considered hundreds of options in a range of styles and price points. When selecting our favorites, we looked for trees made from high-quality, safe and eco-friendly materials. We further narrowed it down by giving preferences to artificial evergreens with overall positive customer ratings on Amazon, Target and Overstock.

    1. Pre-lit Montclair Spruce

    Sure to “spruce” up any entryway or smaller room, this artificial tree comes with pre-strung white lights and a stylish gold urn base. Its crush-resistant branch tips are designed to be realistic and durable. The materials are sturdy enough to also make it suitable for outdoors.

    • Height: 5 feet
    • Diameter: 22 inches
    • Price: $75.99*

    Shop on Amazon

    *As of publishing date

    2. Wondershop Pre-lit Douglas Fir

    If you're going for that snow-laden look, then check out these flocked tree branches. They’re hinged, making the tree easier to set up and store. It comes pre-wired with 350 clear light bulbs and includes an iron stand. This fake tree could be the centerpiece of many real memories.

    • Height: 7 feet
    • Diameter: 48 inches
    • Price: $350*

    Shop on Target

    *As of publishing date

    3. Woodland Ornamental Christmas Tree

    Are you looking to save time and money when decorating? This Christmas tree kit comes with a classic PVC tree, a stand, two sets of 59-feet LED light strings and 172 decorations, including ribbons, snowflakes, pine cones and assorted wood hanging ornaments — all for around $200.

    • Height: 7 feet
    • Diameter: 47 inches
    • Price: $199.99*

    Shop on Amazon

    *As of publishing date

    4. Artificial North Valley Spruce

    If you prefer the stately spruces, this is an excellent Christmas tree pick for you. This tree has a slightly narrower profile than others to accommodate harder-to-fit spaces. Although not pre-lit, this tree offers easy assembly in three parts.

    • Height: 7 feet
    • Diameter: 47 inches
    • Price: $144.99*

    Shop on Target

    *As of publishing date

    5. Sparkly Champagne Tinsel Tree

    If you want a little glitz and glam this season, this decorative tree is sure to add a pop of sparkle to your home. The tree features 520 lush branch tips and comes with a stand. According to reviews on Amazon, it’s simple to set up and great for small spaces. We like that it doesn’t scream “Christmas,” so you could leave it up all year long.

    • Height: 6 feet
    • Diameter: 20 inches
    • Price: $45.71*

    Shop on Amazon

    *As of publishing date

    6. Pre-lit Flocked Balsam Tree

    If you're looking for a fake Christmas tree to really wow your family and friends, this could be the one for you. At 9 feet tall, this flocked balsam fir is the perfect centerpiece for holiday decorations and parties. It would look spectacular in front of a large window.

    • Height: 9 feet
    • Diameter: 61 inches
    • Price: $427.97*

    Shop on Overstock

    *As of publishing date

    7. Pink Faux Pine Tree

    This eye-catching pink artificial tree has nearly 2,000 fluffy branches. The package also includes a firm brace. The tree is foldable, which makes it easy to assemble, disassemble and store. Some shoppers get these not just around Christmas but also for weddings.

    • Height: 7.5 feet
    • Diameter: 53 inches
    • Price: $109.99*

    Shop on Amazon

    *As of publishing date

    8. Cactus Christmas Tree

    Another unusual Christmas tree pick, this cactus tree is just too fun. It's pre-lit with LED lights, and assembly takes only a few minutes. We like that it’s made from eco-friendly materials and comes with plenty of ball ornaments and a metal stand. The Christmas cactus is sure to be a conversation starter at any holiday party.

    • Height: 6 feet
    • Diameter: 31 inches
    • Price: $79.99*

    Shop on Amazon

    *As of publishing date

    9. Pre-lit Poinsettia Pull-up Tree

    Poinsettias are a beautiful Christmas tradition. The red and white flowers have been associated with Christmas since the 17th century when Franciscan friars in Mexico planted them to symbolize the Star of Bethlehem. This tree comes with twinkling white lights, red and gold ornaments, snowflakes and — of course — faux poinsettias.

    • Height: 4 feet
    • Diameter: 20 inches
    • Price: $116.77*

    Shop on Amazon

    *As of publishing date

    10. Hairui Pre-Lit Birch Tree

    A simple, elegant alternative to the traditional Christmas installment, the Hairui birth tree is pre-lit with hundred of warm-light LEDs. You can plug it in outdoors or inside and set the lights to on, twinkle or off. The bulbs have an estimated life of 30,000 hours.

    • Height: 8 feet
    • Diameter: 19 inches
    • Price: $149.99*

    Shop on Amazon

    *As of publishing date

    11. Wrought Iron Ornament Display Tree

    If you like to think outside the box when it comes to holiday decor, this could be just the tree for you. This wrought iron Christmas tree features elegant branches that will keep your ornaments safe. Priced under $100, this is an attractive and affordable option to display a collection of ornaments.

    • Height: 6 feet
    • Diameter: 35 inches
    • Price: $79.99*

    Shop on Amazon

    *As of publishing date

    12. Upside-down Christmas Tree

    An upside-down tree for an upside-down year. Packaging includes a stand and a box of ornaments. According to reviews on Amazon, the tree is a good value and simple to set up. It also has hinges to make disassembly and storage easier.

    • Height: 5.5 feet
    • Diameter: 15.7 inches
    • Price: $39.99*

    Shop on Amazon

    *As of publishing date

    Benefits of a fake Christmas tree

    Christmas might be the most magical season of all, but it can also be the most stressful. Along with all the extra planning and shopping, taking care of a real tree can feel like an unnecessary burden. That's one of the reasons artificial trees might be the perfect option for your Christmas decor. Plus, there’s a huge selection of styles and prices.

    Here are some more pros for getting a reusable tree over a real one this year:

    • Easy to buy
    • Doesn't require watering
    • No daily needle cleanup
    • Saves money year over year
    • No hassle for disposal
    • Won’t trigger allergies

    Bottom line

    Life isn’t a Hallmark movie. Do fake Christmas trees smell like fresh pine? No, but that's why we have candles. With so many options available, from faux firs to pre-lit spruces, in a variety of colors, style and prices, there’s bound to be an organic fit for every home.

    Now, all you need are the presents. Savvy shoppers will want to keep an eye on the latest holiday spending trends. For more “evergreen” content, check out how to find the best credit card for you.

    12 (fake) trees of Christmas...

    Coronavirus update: Deaths and hospitalizations set new records, rising hope for stimulus

    New claims for unemployment benefits were lower than expected

    Coronavirus (COVID-19) tally as compiled by Johns Hopkins University. (Previous numbers in parentheses.)

    Total U.S. confirmed cases: 13,943,627 (13,751,282)

    Total U.S. deaths: 273,920 (271,064)

    Total global cases: 64,723,945 (64,097,151)

    Total global deaths: 1,497,093 (1,485,330)

    Deaths, hospitalizations set records

    The U.S. set all kinds of records on Wednesday, and not the good kind. Health officials recorded more than 2,800 coronavirus (COVID-19) deaths, the most the nation has suffered on a single day of the pandemic so far.

    The total number of people hospitalized for treatment of the virus hit an all-time high of 100,226, the first time the total has exceeded 100,000. All across the country, hospital staff are struggling to treat the growing number of patients.

    Health officials are concerned that conditions will only get worse. They say any new cases spread from Thanksgiving holiday gatherings will begin to be seen in the coming days.

    More stimulus may be possible by the end of the month

    Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle have taken flack recently for their inability to reach a compromise that would extend financial relief to individuals and businesses by the end of the year. Sometimes, applying heat gets results.

    This week, lawmakers have worked behind the scenes to craft a measure both sides can agree on. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said this week that they would support a $900 billion measure. Today, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he believed an agreement is within reach.

    “Compromise is within reach,” McConnell said in a speech on the Senate floor. “We know where we agree. We can do this.” 

    Unemployment claims were less than expected, but still high

    The Labor Department reports that initial claims for unemployment benefits totaled 710,000 last week, less than the 780,00 Wall Street was expecting. But the high toll is still worrying economists as more states restrict businesses to counter the surge in coronavirus cases.

    The total was a decrease of 75,000 from the previous week's revised level. The previous week's level was revised up by 9,000 from 778,000 to 787,000. 

    The four-week moving average was 739,500, a decrease of 11,250 from the previous week's revised average. 

    Millions of community health center patients qualify for early vaccinations

    Researchers at George Washington University report that almost half of all patients served by community health centers (CHCs) qualify for phase one COVID-19 immunizations under priority guidelines established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

    The researchers found that among the 29.8 million people served by CHCs in 2019, an estimated 14.1 million adult health center patients -- who account for 47 percent of all patients served -- could be expected to qualify for phase one priority vaccination because of their advanced age or because underlying health conditions put them at higher risk. 

    The researchers say those 14.1 million CHC patients will require 28.2 million vaccine doses in order to protect them from COVID-19.

    Fewer flu cases reported

    Because of COVID-19 mitigation efforts, the international flu season has been a shadow of its former self. In the southern hemisphere, where it’s winter during our summer, the CDC said flu cases were minimal.

    In the U.S. and Europe, a similar encouraging pattern is emerging, though it is still early in the flu season. The dramatic drop in flu cases has been attributed to social distancing, masks, school closures, remote learning, and other safeguards used to prevent COVID-19.

    Still, health officials are warning against complacency. They say if you haven’t yet gotten a flu shot, it’s not too late. 

    Around the nation

    • Florida: Florida has become the third state to pass a grim milestone, recording more than 1 million cases of the coronavirus. Texas and California are the other two states to reach that mark.

    • South Dakota: State health officials say the state will abide by new COVID-19 quarantine guidelines from the federal government, reducing the amount of time that many people will be required to self isolate. Officials also say they plan to step up testing across the state.

    • Oregon: The Oregon Health Agency has issued a list of 108 workplaces in the state where COVID-19 cases are classified as an “outbreak.” The agency said there have been 61 deaths and 11,139 cases associated with workplace outbreaks in Oregon during the pandemic.

    Coronavirus (COVID-19) tally as compiled by Johns Hopkins University. (Previous numbers in parentheses.)Total U.S. confirmed cases: 13,943,627 (13,751,...

    Cyberattackers are trying to upset the distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine

    The U.S. appears safe for the moment, but companies worldwide are on high alert

    IBM’s cybersecurity division X-Force has discovered that a string of cyberattacks has been launched targeting the companies and government organizations distributing COVID-19 vaccines. 

    The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) says the attacks are centered on the vaccine distribution network’s “cold chain,” a key component in delivering the vaccine at safe temperatures.

    Who’s behind this?

    In the New York Times’ coverage of the story, experts expressed doubt that the attacks came from China, which has been already implicated for trying to steal vaccine information from universities, hospitals, and medical researchers. 

    If China is out, that leaves Russia and North Korea as the next best bets. Earlier, Microsoft security engineers found that hackers from both countries attacked COVID-19 vaccine makers hoping to disrupt the vaccine’s path.

    IBM-X researchers concluded that it’s likely that the adversary is intimately aware of critical components and participants of the cold chain. The likely targets in that chain include everyone from solar panel manufacturers to petrochemical manufacturers responsible for the production of dry ice, a key element of the cold chain.

    Homeland Security says the attackers’ M.O. is to impersonate a biomedical company and send phishing emails to corporate executives and global organizations involved in vaccine storage and transport. The sum and substance of those emails is couched as requests for quotations for participation in a vaccine program, but the real intent is to try to obtain the account credentials of the recipients.

    What is it they want?

    Knowing exactly what the attackers want is difficult. They may be trying to steal the technology used to move large amounts of a vaccine across long distances at the low temperatures they require. If that’s the case, it’s nothing more than intellectual property theft.

    However, the Times reports that some cybersecurity experts suspect something more sinister. They think the main goal may be to interfere with vaccine distribution or to use ransomware to essentially hold the vaccines hostage until they’re paid off to let go of their grip on the distribution network. One analyst said the ransomware theory is solid. 

    “There is no intelligence advantage in spying on a refrigerator,” James Lewis, who runs the cybersecurity programs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told the Times. “My suspicion is that they are setting up for a ransomware play. But we won’t know how these stolen credentials will be used until after the vaccine distribution begins.”

    The U.S. appears safe…for now

    IBM disclosed that many of the attackers’ targets are in Asia and Europe, but, to date, it did not list any U.S. companies or organizations. The biggest target on its list was the European Commission’s Directorate General for Taxation and Customs Union, which has “direct ties to multiple national government networks.” 

    IBM also named a South Korean software development firm and a German website development company that supports clients potentially involved in the cold chain, including pharmaceutical manufacturers, container transport, communications networks, and manufacturers of electrical components enabling sea, land, and air navigation.

    IBM’s cybersecurity division X-Force has discovered that a string of cyberattacks has been launched targeting the companies and government organizations di...

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      Youth vaping rates have declined during the COVID-19 pandemic

      Lung health concerns were a key factor for teens who decided to cut back or quit

      Youth vaping rates plunged during the COVID-19 lockdown period, according to a new survey published Thursday in JAMA Network Online. 

      Roughly two-thirds (35 percent) of teen and young adult e-cigarette users said they reduced their use of the products or stopped using them altogether (32 percent). The survey found that concerns about lung health were a key factor for 1 in 4 respondents who said they either cut back or quit. 

      Concerns about COVID-19 (which affects the lungs) have combined with concerns stemming from last year’s nationwide outbreak of a condition dubbed “EVALI,” short for “e-cigarette- or vaping-associated lung injury.” 

      "One of the main reasons they quit is that they were worried about lung health, and we think that's important, that they thought they could hurt their lungs," said lead researcher Bonnie Halpern-Felsher, a developmental psychologist and professor of pediatrics at Stanford University in California.

      Kids adhered to stay-at-home orders were 50 percent more likely to quit or reduce their vaping, researchers found. However, only 15 percent of respondents said they were motivated to quit for fear of their parents finding out about their vaping.  

      Emphasizing adverse health effects

      Doctors and health officials say the study results suggest that emphasizing the health risks of vaping is an effective way to get younger users to stop using the products. Although teen vaping has become less of a concern in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, experts say it’s still a major problem. 

      “Vaping is still an important issue just as I think smoking is still an important issue … We've sort of forgotten about it because we've had a bigger health concern to worry about,” Dr. Nancy Rigotti, director of the Tobacco Research and Treatment Center at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, told TODAY.

      Experts say vaping use among teens could rise again after the pandemic is over and normal social events are cleared to resume. Halpern-Felsher said e-cigarette use among minors is largely socially driven, so the problem could resurface once kids can congregate safely.

      "The concern is that as soon as youth are not having sheltering in place and they're all back in school, whether we're going to see more social use again and the uptick will happen," she said.

      Highlighting research showing the health effects of vaping can be an effective way to get e-cigarette users to re-think their decision to start using the products in the first place. 

      "If we can emphasize that vaping is not healthy and make it appear unattractive, we will win over this generation of e-cigarette users. We'll get them to stop,” said Dr. Panagis Galiatsatos, director of the Johns Hopkins Tobacco Treatment Clinic in Baltimore.

      Youth vaping rates plunged during the COVID-19 lockdown period, according to a new survey published Thursday in JAMA Network Online. Roughly two-thirds...

      Delta introduces industry’s first contact tracing for travelers returning to the U.S.

      The airline hopes the move will speed up the identification process for confirmed COVID-19 cases

      As airlines continue their quest of giving travelers ways to feel comfortable enough to fly in the new pandemic normal, Delta Air Lines on Wednesday announced that it’s rolling out the first contract tracing program for passengers returning to the U.S.

      Delta is partnering with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in this effort, along with the airline’s nine global airline partners -- AeroMexico, Air France, Alitalia, China Eastern, KLM, Korean Air, LATAM, Virgin Atlantic, and Virgin Australia. It will also work closely with government agencies, health officials, and aviation authorities to offer safer travel at every point in a traveler’s international journey.

      The program begins on December 15, and participation is open to foreign nationals and/or U.S. passport holders traveling to the United States as their final destination.

      Easy and completely voluntary

      Keeping things as simple as possible, Delta says that the process will only require sharing five pieces of information -- passengers’ full name, email address, stateside address, primary phone, and secondary phone. Once a passenger fills out their form, Delta will securely forward that personal information to the Customs and Border Protection office, which, in turn, will pass it along to the CDC.

      When a traveler has tested positive for the coronavirus, those five pieces of information allow Delta to expedite the process of informing the CDC and passengers who were in close proximity with a confirmed case. Currently, Delta provides the CDC with a passenger manifest that identifies all customers seated two seats around the confirmed case, This information is then transmitted to the appropriate local health departments for follow-up, with each department taking responsibility for passengers in their own jurisdiction..

      One important note: the program is completely voluntary, but Delta hopes all travelers will realize its value and take part. 

      “Independent studies have shown that the many layers of protection Delta has already put in place are effectively minimizing the risk of COVID-19 transmission, and contact tracing adds one more important layer to our efforts to ensure safety throughout travel,” said Bill Lentsch, Delta’s Chief Customer Experience Officer. “We want customers to feel safe when they return to travel, and this voluntary program is another way we can provide additional reassurance to customers and employees alike.”  

      As airlines continue their quest of giving travelers ways to feel comfortable enough to fly in the new pandemic normal, Delta Air Lines on Wednesday announ...

      Walmart to give hourly workers another bonus this month

      Workers will get a Christmas Eve bonus in appreciation for their work during the pandemic

      Walmart has announced that it will give its hourly workers another pandemic-related bonus, this time on Christmas Eve. Full-time hourly employees will receive $300 on December 24, and part-time and temporary employees will get $150. 

      The retailer has given out three other bonuses to its employees since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to the fourth bonus, Walmart also announced that it will be extending its COVID-19 emergency leave policy to July of 2021. 

      Factoring in the fourth round of employee bonuses, Walmart will have paid a total of $2.8 billion in quarterly and special bonuses to its hourly employees this year. The company said it has done so in appreciation of workers who have helped stock shelves, ship online orders, transport goods, and serve customers during the pandemic. 

      “As we come to a close on this historic year, I’m filled with gratitude for how our associates have led through one of the most trying periods for our company and country,” said John Furner, president and CEO of Walmart U.S.

      Cold weather surge in COVID-19 cases 

      The end-of-year bonuses are coming during a surge in coronavirus hospitalizations and deaths across the nation. Health officials have warned that hospitalization and death rates could increase further in connection with indoor gatherings during the colder months. 

      Grocery and food retail workers, who are often forced to be in relatively close proximity to customers, have risked their health by going to work. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has acknowledged that these workers face unique risks. 

      The agency recommends that grocery store workers “encourage customers to use touchless payment options, when available.” Additionally, these workers are advised to “minimize handling cash, credit cards, reward cards, and mobile devices, where possible” and to wipe down counters between each customer at checkout. 

      Walmart has announced that it will give its hourly workers another pandemic-related bonus, this time on Christmas Eve. Full-time hourly employees will rece...

      Housing demand likely to remain high ‘for years to come,’ industry report finds

      Here’s what it means for both buyers and sellers

      Demand for single-family homes is rising, along with prices, while inventory levels continue to fall. A new report from Zillow suggests that trend will continue “for years to come.”

      For buyers, it means it may be harder to find an affordable home. For sellers, it means getting more money for your home as supply keeps falling behind demand.

      It’s true that the current coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has contributed to the imbalance, but the researchers at Zillow say a significant cause goes back more than a decade, to the housing crash associated with the 2008 financial crisis.

      They point to low rates of household formation since the Great Recession -- what they call “missing households.” People graduating from college after 2009 were slow to move out of their parents’ home because it was hard to find a job.

      As the economy recovered and they have been better able to afford apartments and houses, there has been a long and sustained increase in demand for housing. At the same time, builders are constructing houses at about half the rate they did before the financial crisis.

      High demand for the foreseeable future

      According to Zillow, the missing households from the past 15 years and the large millennial generation aging into peak homebuying age should keep housing demand high for the foreseeable future. 

      “The last two years showed that when the economy is firing on all cylinders and most Americans have access to decent jobs, more of them will be able to find a home of their own,” said Zillow senior economist Jeff Tucker. “The sooner we can put the pandemic and 2020 recession behind us, the sooner access to housing can resume its expansion."

      But the pandemic has affected housing in unforeseen ways. It has spurred a wave of home buying as many apartment dwellers in America’s cities sought for more space in the suburbs. Working remotely allowed millions of people to think about moving much farther away from the office because it was no longer necessary to make the commute.

      The Zillow report highlights a fundamental problem for the housing market going forward -- the basic economic principle of supply and demand. There are simply more people trying to buy a home right now than there are available homes.

      "Solid fundamentals remain for the housing market, including low interest rates and high consumer demand. However, financing to invest in lots, land and inventory has been a significant challenge for private builders," said Todd Pyatt, owner of Pyatt Builders.

      Shrinking inventory

      According to the National Association of Realtors (NAR), total housing inventory at the end of October totaled 1.42 million units, down 2.7 percent from September and down nearly 20 percent from one year ago. 

      "Homebuilders' confidence has soared even though the actual production has not," said Lawrence Yun, NAR’s chief economist. "All measures, such as reduction to lumber tariffs and expansion of vocational training, need to be considered to significantly boost supply and construct new housing."

      Builders in recent years have focused on building more expensive luxury homes because lower-priced entry-level homes have a much smaller profit margin. Making inventory levels even tighter, current homeowners are not selling as often as in the past.

      Zillow concludes this dynamic is probably not going to change anytime soon. Even with record-low mortgage rates, buyers will find it challenging to find and pay for a home.

      Demand for single-family homes is rising, along with prices, while inventory levels continue to fall. A new report from Zillow suggests that trend will con...

      Survey finds consumers’ data breach concerns are growing

      With credit card usage rising, a card’s fraud protection is increasingly important

      With so many consumer purchases shifting to online channels this year, it should come as no surprise that credit card usage is much higher than in past years. For that reason, using the right card for your particular needs and protecting the card from data thieves are two important considerations.

      A new survey from Generali Global Assistance (GGA) found that 86 percent of consumers plan to do most of their holiday shopping online this year and 62 percent of shoppers plan on using just one card to make purchases.

      Not only does using a single card make it easier to keep track of spending, security experts say it’s also safer.

      "The pandemic has created the perfect environment for scammers, who are exploiting uncertainty and our more digitally focused reality, said Paige Schaffer, CEO, Global Identity and Cyber Protection Services at GGA. “Thirty-six percent of shoppers we surveyed this year indicated that their credit card provider experiencing a data breach was a top concern this holiday season.”

      Best cards for security

      If you’re using a single card, having one with robust fraud protection, as well as other consumer-friendly features, will work to your advantage. The personal finance site MoneyUnder30.com recently ranked credit cards for their security features.

      It rated Wells Fargo Cash Wise Visa Card as best for fraud protection. It singled out the Discover It Cash Back card as best for security and cashback.

      While security is very important, consumers also consider perks and benefits when choosing a credit card. But consumers should consider their needs. Do they need to transfer a balance or do they need cashback? In the era of COVID-19, travel rewards may be less important than they used to be.

      Rating the cards

      In its recent analysis of the best credit cards for 2021, CardRatings.com offered choices in 11 different categories. Some of the picks for next year include:

      • Best Flat-Rate Cash-Back Rewards – Citi Double Cash Card

      • Best for Families – Blue Cash Preferred Card from American Express

      • Best General Travel Rewards – Chase Sapphire Preferred

      • Best Balance Transfer Offer – Citi Diamond Preferred

      • Best Student Credit Card – Discover it Student Cash Back

      • Best for Small Business – Ink Business Preferred

      The editors say they consulted consumers as well as experts, scoring cards on customer service, rewards, usability, and other factors.

      ConsumerAffairs has also dug deep into various credit card offers, looking for the best fit for a wide range of needs. You’ll find our results here.

      With so many consumer purchases shifting to online channels this year, it should come as no surprise that credit card usage is much higher than in past yea...

      CDC vaccine advisers vote on which groups should receive COVID-19 vaccine first

      Health care workers and long-term care facility residents are likely to be immunized first

      Vaccine advisers to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have voted to immunize health care workers and people in long-term care facilities against COVID-19 first when a treatment officially becomes available. 

      On Tuesday, the Advisory Committee for Immunization Practices (ACIP) voted 13-1 to include these two groups in “Phase 1a” of the CDC’s proposed COVID-19 vaccine distribution timeline. 

      Officials from the ACIP said these “exceptionally high risk” groups should be first in line to receive any COVID-19 vaccine that gets emergency authorization from the FDA. So far, two vaccines -- one from Pfizer and one from Moderna -- have been found in clinical trials to be both safe and highly effective. 

      If both are approved, the government says 40 million doses could be available in the U.S. by the end of December. However, the CDC said it expects between 5 million and 10 million doses to become available each week for the first few months while manufacturers ramp up production. 

      "We expect a constrained supply environment," the CDC’s Sara Oliver said at Tuesday’s meeting.

      Vaccinating high-risk groups first

      The CDC has defined long-term care facility residents as “adults who reside in facilities that provide a variety of services, including medical and personal care, to persons who are unable to live independently.” These residents account for 40 percent of the deaths linked to COVID-19. 

      While these vulnerable individuals receive COVID-19 vaccines, health officials say it would be practical to also vaccinate those working in the care facilities. Health authorities say anybody who works within a health care facility that could have contact with someone who has the virus should also be immunized as soon as possible. 

      "That includes individuals such as the persons delivering food, those persons in housekeeping who rapidly turn over rooms in the emergency room or who perform cleaning in the patient's rooms,” ACIP chairman Dr. Jose Romero told CNN. 

      According to the four-phase vaccine distribution plan currently being considered by the CDC and ACIP, the next groups in line to receive vaccines after health care workers and long-term care facility residents would be essential workers (such as food production workers), emergency personnel, and people who are likely to experience severe COVID-19 complications or death.

      Vaccine advisers to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have voted to immunize health care workers and people in long-term care facil...

      Coronavirus update: The UK approves a vaccine, CDC sets vaccination priorities

      A cruise line cancels most cruises through March

      Coronavirus (COVID-19) tally as compiled by Johns Hopkins University. (Previous numbers in parentheses.)

      Total U.S. confirmed cases: 13,751,282 (13,566,283)

      Total U.S. deaths: 271,064 (268,262)

      Total global cases: 64,097,151 (63,478,019)

      Total global deaths: 1,485,330 (1,472,917)

      UK regulators approve Pfizer vaccine

      The United Kingdom is the first Western nation to approve a coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine, selecting the drug produced by Pfizer and German biotech firm BioNTech SE. British officials say they expect to start administering the vaccine within days.

      “This will start small and ramp up,” said British Health Secretary Matt Hancock in an interview with the BBC. “The vast majority of vaccinations we expect to be in the New Year.” 

      The Pfizer vaccine, and a candidate produced by Moderna, are under review by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The agency is expected to issue emergency use authorization (EUA) for one or both vaccines later this month.

      CDC announces priorities for administering vaccine

      An advisory committee of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued its top priorities for administering any approved COVID-19 vaccines, and it surprised no one. The CDC said frontline health care workers and nursing home residents and staff will be first in line.

      After those groups are inoculated, the CDC will prioritize other groups. Leading candidates are first responders and essential workers, such as grocery store employees and truck drivers.

      Advisers to the committee say the priorities will be used in the early days, when vaccine supplies are ramping up. It will also promote an orderly rollout of the vaccines.

      Norwegian Cruise Lines cancels most cruises through March

      With a coronavirus vaccine in sight but cases surging around the world, Norwegian Cruise Lines is taking no chances. It’s extending the suspension of most of its scheduled cruises through March.

      The company’s no-sail order had been set to expire at the end of this month. Now, all cruises will be suspended through February, with most of the scheduled cruises canceled until April.

      Norwegian said it adopted the new policy as it “continues to work through its return to service plan to meet the requirements of the Framework for Conditional Sailing Order issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

      Records show larger companies got most of the PPP loans

      Government data, released under a Freedom of Information Act order, confirms what many small business owners suspected: Large companies received the lion’s share of funds from the government’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).

      The records indicate that about 600 companies, many with franchises spread across the country, received a majority of the loans under the CARES Act. The records also show most of the larger companies received the maximum loan amount allowed by the law.

      Despite administration arguments that most of the allocated money to keep businesses afloat was loaned in amounts of $150,000 or less, the newly released records show only 28 percent of the money fit in that category.

      How COVID-19 could affect Social Security

      There’s been a lot of discussion about how COVID-19 has affected the economy and the job market, but there’s been little talk focused on how the virus could affect the future of Social Security. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) is now bringing it up.

      A CBO projection shows that strains caused by the pandemic will deplete Social Security’s $2.8 trillion reserve over the next decade unless changes are made. With no action, the CBO said there would be cuts of 20 percent or more to benefits starting in 2031.

      The report says the pandemic’s massive job losses have reduced the amount of money going to Social Security. It also notes that the pandemic caused many Americans to retire earlier than expected.

      Around the nation

      • New York: New York City’s health commissioner says seniors and people with underlying health conditions should limit their activity outside of their home. Those residents are advised to stay in and only leave home to travel to work or school, or for essential purposes including medical care, grocery shopping, or to pick up prescription drugs.

      • Utah: Researchers at the University of Utah Health are planning a study of COVID-19 survivors who continue to suffer the effects of the illness long after they’re recovered. Known as “long-haulers,” these former patients sometimes have lingering symptoms such as memory loss and the loss of their sense of smell.

      • Arizona: A Phoenix-area doctor is reporting the first COVID-19 case that he believes was contracted during a Thanksgiving holiday gathering. "I think we’re going to start to see counts up to 5,000 to 7,000 every day of new cases," said Dr.Andrew Carroll.

      Coronavirus (COVID-19) tally as compiled by Johns Hopkins University. (Previous numbers in parentheses.)Total U.S. confirmed cases: 13,751,282 (13,566,...

      Google researcher demonstrates serious iPhone security flaw

      A since-fixed vulnerability could have given an attacker complete access to an iPhone within Wi-Fi range

      A Google researcher has demonstrated an Apple security vulnerability that could have allowed hackers to gain full access to a person’s iPhone. A cyberattacker could have exploited the flaw without having the user download malware or click on a suspicious link. To fall victim, a user would have only had to be within Wi-Fi range. 

      Ian Beer -- a security researcher with Google’s Project Zero -- explained in a video this week that it was possible for a Raspberry Pi setup with off-the-shelf Wi-Fi adapters to steal photos from an iPhone in a different room in a matter of minutes. The same security vulnerability also allowed Beer to repeatedly reboot 26 iPhones at the same time. 

      Apple fixed the vulnerability in May, but Beer said he spent six months looking into the issue.

      "Imagine the sense of power an attacker with such a capability must feel," Beer said in a blog post. "As we all pour more and more of our souls into these devices, an attacker can gain a treasure trove of information on an unsuspecting target."

      Full access to a device

      Through his extensive research, Beer found a “wormable radio-proximity exploit” that allowed him to gain “complete control over any iPhone in my vicinity.” He said he was able to view phones, read emails, copy private messages, and monitor everything that happens on a device in real-time. 

      “The takeaway from this project should not be: no one will spend six months of their life just to hack my phone, I’m fine,” he wrote. “Instead, it should be: one person, working alone in their bedroom, was able to build a capability which would allow them to seriously compromise iPhone users they’d come into close contact with.”

      Beer said he hadn’t seen any evidence that the flaw was exploited prior to being fixed, but he said consumers can never be too careful when it comes to the security of their mobile devices. Issues like these are likely to surface again. 

      "As things stand now in November 2020, I believe it's still quite possible for a motivated attacker with just one vulnerability to build a sufficiently powerful weird machine to completely, remotely compromise top-of-the-range iPhones," Beer said.

      A Google researcher has demonstrated an Apple security vulnerability that could have allowed hackers to gain full access to a person’s iPhone. A cyberattac...

      Making small talk with coworkers can help you achieve more as a team, study finds

      Taking time to chat about topics outside of work can help workers perform better on tasks

      Creating a positive environment at work is key to employees’ happiness and job performance, and now a new study conducted by researchers from the University of California at Santa Cruz has explored how coworkers can gain the most from simple small talk. 

      According to their findings, making time for small talk between employees that’s unrelated from work-related business can lead to better outcomes in the workplace and also make employees enjoy their tasks more. 

      “An average workday now is getting the team together into a virtual meeting, where there’s a very clear goal and task,” said researcher Andrew Guydish. “You’re not talking to coworkers at their desks or in the hall. Everything is structured, and everything is essentially a task nowadays. So this research highlights the importance of perhaps trying to institute moments throughout the day with unstructured chat time.” 

      Creating reciprocity in conversations

      To understand how the small talk can benefit workers, the researchers analyzed data from a U.C. Santa Cruz dataset known as the Artwalk Corpus. The source has transcripts from nearly 70 different art walks, which required someone in a lab to virtually instruct someone else walking around Santa Cruz on where to look for specific pieces of art to be photographed. 

      The researchers were most interested in understanding how often the participants were talking strictly about the task at hand versus how often the conversation veered to unrelated topics. They learned that having reciprocity in interactions, which allows both parties to contribute equally to a conversation, is what yielded the best results. When small talk was balanced with task-related talk, participants reported enjoying the task more. 

      This is important when thinking of work-related projects because usually one employee has a leading role over one or more other employees. This dynamic can create an imbalance in conversations when the designated leader speaks more than others. But by creating time to talk about things unrelated to the project, everyone involved can feel like their voice is heard, which makes the whole experience more enjoyable. 

      When one voice tends to dominate all conversations, this can create an exclusionary environment that makes it more difficult for others to share or feel engaged. 

      “To understand this, you could draw an analogy to a classroom,” explained researcher Jean Fox Tree. “Getting feedback from the class tells the professor how they should be explaining something, and that helps everyone in the class, not just the one who’s asking the question.” 

      While the researchers believe that people tend to go into interactions with the best intentions, finding ways to get everyone involved in conversation -- especially about casual topics -- can yield the best results in the workplace. 

      Creating a positive environment at work is key to employees’ happiness and job performance, and now a new study conducted by researchers from the Universit...

      Kids' immunity and blood vessel strength help protect them from severe cases of COVID-19

      Researchers say these factors make a huge difference when it comes to keeping kids healthy

      A new study conducted by researchers from the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute identified two key factors that have been linked with protecting kids from severe cases of COVID-19: differences in immunity and blood vessel make-up. 

      Though childhood cases of COVID-19 have been on the rise, those cases haven’t been as severe as those in older consumers -- even for kids who are immunosuppressed and are prone to severe infections. According to the researchers, this is because kids have certain benefits working in their favor. 

      “Children have a stronger innate immune response, which is the first-line defense against COVID-19,” said researcher Dr. Petra Zimmerman. 

      “Another important factor is ‘trained immunity’ which primes innate immune cells after mild infections and vaccinations, leading to a type of ‘innate immune memory,’” she added. “Children infected with COVID-19 often have co-infections with other viruses. Recurrent viral infections could lead to improved trained immunity, making kids more effective at clearing COVID-19.” 

      The biological differences between kids and adults

      The researchers analyzed a great deal of COVID-19 literature to better understand why older adults are much more likely to experience the most severe cases of the virus. 

      The researchers learned that several factors contribute to kids’ protection against severe cases of coronavirus. For starters, older people are more likely to suffer from other conditions like obesity or diabetes, which have been found to exacerbate COVID-19. They also found that kids have higher levels of vitamin D than adults, and the anti-inflammatory properties in the vitamin have been associated with reducing the severity of the virus. 

      The researchers also learned that different levels of bacteria live in kids versus adults, which can also serve as a protective agent for children. 

      “The microbiota plays an important role in the regulation of immunity, inflammation, and in the defense against illnesses,” said Dr. Zimmerman. “Children are more likely to have viruses and bacteria, especially in the nose, where these bugs might limit the growth of COVID-19.” 

      Finally, the study revealed that younger, healthier blood vessels give kids another added layer of protection against severe COVID-19 cases. 

      “We know pre-existing blood vessel damage plays an important role in COVID-19 severity and can lead to blood clots, causing strokes and heart attacks,” Curtis said. “COVID-19 can infect these endothelial cells and cause blood vessel inflammation. The endothelium in children has experienced far less damage compared with adults and their clotting system is also different, which makes children less prone to abnormal blood clotting.” 

      Though these findings helped to uncover the biggest differences between kids’ and adults’ COVID-19 cases, the researchers hope that more work is done in this area that seeks to discover more comprehensive treatment options for consumers of all ages. 

      A new study conducted by researchers from the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute identified two key factors that have been linked with protecting kids f...

      CDC officials confirm shortened quarantine period of 7-10 days

      The agency hopes the change will lead to more people isolating for appropriate periods of time

      The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has announced that it’s shortening the COVID-19 quarantine period from 14 days to 7-10 days. 

      Health officials were said to be finalizing the new guidance last week. On Tuesday, CDC director Dr. Robert Redfield confirmed to Vice President Mike Pence and White House Coronavirus Task Force members that his agency is issuing new guidelines that state that individuals should be quarantined for 7-10 days following exposure to a COVID-19 positive person. 

      By reducing the recommended length of quarantine time, health officials are hoping that more people will fully isolate for at least 7 days. 

      “We do think that the work that we’ve done, and some of the studies we have and the modeling data that we have, shows that we can with testing shorten quarantine,” Henry Walke, a senior CDC official told the Journal. “Hopefully, people would be better able to adhere to quarantine if it was, for example, seven to 10 days.”

      Per the new guidelines, individuals can end their isolation period if they receive a negative COVID-19 test on day 7 of their quarantine. Alternately, they could quarantine for 10 days without getting tested. 

      The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has announced that it’s shortening the COVID-19 quarantine period from 14 days to 7-10 days. Healt...