Weekly Digest – 9 September 2020

After a solid week of number-crunching, a supercomputer at Oak Ridge National Lab in Tennessee analyzed the genetics of the COVID-19 virus to understand why it impacts so many different systems of the body. Analysis of the data resulted in a new theory about how the virus operates and why it causes so much havoc. Unlike many viruses that target just one or two systems in the body, the researchers compare COVID-19 to “a burglar who slips in your unlocked second-floor window and starts to ransack your house.” Once established, the virus appears to attack the systems that control blood pressure and blood vessel permeability, making the blood-brain barrier permeable and allowing immune cells to enter the lungs and increase inflammation. This new model predicts many of the odd symptoms of COVID-19 infection and also suggests some possible treatments using drugs that are already well-tested and widely available, including Vitamin D.

Let’s hope this is the beginning of good ideas for treating patients and putting this disease behind us!

CARES ACT UPDATES

Executive Actions for Pandemic Relief

Of the four executive actions from last month, the one getting the most attention is the memorandum that allows employees to defer a portion of the payroll taxes withheld from their pay. However, the slim guidance from the IRS left more questions than answers. Since employers seem to be the ones responsible for paying the deferred taxes, many small businesses are opting out of participating.

Economic Impact Payments (aka Stimulus Checks)

Congress is due back in session this week, which means a new stimulus package may be in the works. What that will contain is unclear. President Trump signaled support for using unspent funds from the first stimulus to send a second round of checks, but the continuing impasse between Democrats and Republicans means that such payments likely won’t happen quickly.

Paycheck Protection Program (PPP)

While the SBA and banks did manage to get more than $600 billion into the hands of small business owners quickly, that speed may have come at the expense of widespread fraud. Over $1 billion went to businesses that received multiple loans through the program, and another $3 billion went to businesses flagged as being problematic. The SBA’s internal auditors also report indications of fraud.

TAX ISSUES

Have you been working remotely from a different state than your employer due to the pandemic? If so, that may lead to a surprise when you file your 2020 tax return because some states may expect you to pay income tax if you spend more than a minimal amount of time there. That’s just one of several tax surprises that may be lurking in the chaos that 2020 has become. Parents who took money out of a 529 plan to pay for their children’s housing or tuition, but subsequently received a refund need to re-deposit those funds or face penalties. And, even though more people are now required by their employers to work from home, the 2017 tax reform means that only the self-employed and independent contractors can take a home office deduction on their taxes.

Another tax surprise awaits homeowners who lose their home or receive partial loan forgiveness on their mortgage. Even though it feels like nothing was received, cancellation of debt may result in income unless the homeowner qualifies for an exemption. However, the measure that grants homeowners a tax break when they receive loan forgiveness on their principal residence is set to expire at the end of 2020 unless Congress grants another extension.

WORKING FROM HOME

Working from home can lead to psychological stresses from loneliness, anxiety triggered by uncertainty, and the absence of face-to-face communication, which may lead to long-term problems. However, employees who work remotely by choice or who had been working from home prior to the pandemic may be better able to deal with the challenges of remote work. Expanded remote work has brought benefits, including flexibility, less time spent commuting, and increased productivity.

LIVING WITH AND AFTER THE PANDEMIC

Health updates

We’re all anxious to return to normal as soon as possible, but some activities may put you at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 than others. This study by the Texas Medical Association evaluated the relative risks of activities from getting restaurant take-out (lowest risk) to going to a sports stadium (highest risk) on a scale of one to nine.

Work in the post-pandemic world

Leasing whole buildings or floors of buildings in the pricey downtown core may become a thing of the past as companies begin to explore a hub and spoke model for office space. Under this model, a big central office is replaced by a smaller “hub” office in the center of a city and “spoke” offices in the suburbs closer to where people live, and where rent is often less expensive. These new models may also incorporate remote work for part of the week, and dedicated in-office time for various teams.

Even with unemployment at 8.4%, many employers are currently hiring. However, in an era when each day can bring something new, the rules for getting a job have changed, as the Wall Street Journal found when they spoke with executives, career coaches, and people who had just landed jobs. Networking on platforms like LinkedIn and reconnecting with former co-workers and classmates can secure introductions to companies that are hiring. Clarify your employment goals and let everyone know exactly what kind of job you want. Even if a job offers an option for remote work, be upfront about any future plans to relocate. Focus on the sectors that are doing the most hiring, such as health care, retail, and food service. Your interview process will likely be completely virtual, so extra attention to making a human connection even over video is crucial.

Back to school

The founder of Khan Academy, Salman Khan, has been advocating video and distance learning for more than a decade, so he has a few ideas about how to make it work. Here are some of his pointers:

  • Have shorter online meetings with fewer kids. A 20-minute session with 10 kids is better than 55 minutes with 30.
  • Don’t try to do it all – focus on reading, writing, and math. If those hold steady, the other subjects will fall into place easier when regular school resumes.
  • Even though distance learning is difficult, this is the most consistent – and thus needed – social interaction that school-age children get.
  • Explore the free materials that are already out there and that have been well-tested. Cost does not always correlate with cost.
  • Pay attention to how your children are doing. Work with their teachers to try to get their needs met.
  • Set your own boundaries so that your stress level doesn’t become an obstacle to learning.
  • The pandemic will have lasting impact on education, but that impact need not all be negative.

The pandemic will have lasting impact on education, but that impact need not all be negative.

GENERAL RESOURCES

We sincerely hope that you and your family are well and remain well. If you have any questions or concerns, don’t hesitate to reach out to us. We are all in this together!

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