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Social insurance programs cushioned the blow of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020

Even in normal times, public safety net spending and social insurance programs are effective policy tools to reduce poverty and alleviate the economic distress of families.

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Even in normal times, public safety net spending and social insurance programs are effective policy tools to reduce poverty and alleviate the economic distress of families. Census data released today also show that these programs kept tens of millions of people from severe economic deprivation during the first half of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Remarkably, poverty rates were significantly lower last year than they were in 2019, after accounting for the scale of public assistance provided in 2020.

The poverty rate reduction highlights how much poverty the nation and its policymakers tolerate is a choice. It should not have taken a pandemic to make us realize this.

Last year, Economic Impact Payments (stimulus checks) and unemployment insurance (UI) benefits played larger than usual roles in reducing poverty. The Census Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) data show that the first two Economic Impact Payments and UI benefits reduced poverty by 11.7 and 5.5 million people, respectively (see Figure A).

Figure A

Social Security remained the largest anti-poverty program in 2020. Primarily reducing poverty among families with older individuals, Social Security reduced poverty by 26.5 million people. Without Supplemental Nutrition assistance and school lunch benefits, 3.2 million more people would be in poverty, many of them children.

Historically the UI system has played a limited role in poverty reduction, with uneven state-based implementation, restrictive eligibility requirements, and relatively stingy benefits blunting its effectiveness as a poverty-reducer. But as job loss accelerated last year, Congress temporarily strengthened the UI system in March 2020 and expanded eligibility to previously excluded workers—like independent contractors and those with low incomes—and provided an additional $600 weekly unemployment benefit for three months.

As a result of the increased federal funding and extensions, 10 times as many people were kept out of poverty by UI in 2020 than was the case in 2019.

The Economic Impact Payments (EIP) reduced poverty by an even larger amount than UI. This is largely a function of the fact that the EIP program simply spent more money—about 44% more over the relevant period, according to Bureau of Economic Analysis data. Had Congress not let the $600 UI payments lapse in late July 2020, the UI program would have generated even larger reductions in poverty than it did.

While Congress eventually extended pandemic UI programs in January 2021, these programs have been terminated entirely, first in June 2021 by about two dozen states, and then at the beginning of this month by the rest of the nation.

Existing evidence shows that these programs substantially increased incomes and consumer spending, with little negative cost to employment opportunities. Today’s Census data underscore that the pandemic UI programs were essential to cushioning the blow of the pandemic in 2020, and that social assistance programs, when well-funded, can dramatically reduce hardship. Congress should reinstate the extensions and reform UI systems immediately, as the spread of COVID-19 continues to sharply limit growth and job opportunities for millions of workers.

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The Bloc’s Secrets of Success: 5 Ways The Health Creative Agency Won 200 Awards

As a global pandemic has reshaped society, The Bloc has been at the forefront of changing not just what stories get told about healthcare, but how they are told. In doing so, the health creative agency has won more than 200 film and advertising awards…

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The Bloc’s Secrets of Success: 5 Ways The Health Creative Agency Won 200 Awards

The Bloc achieved unprecedented levels of acclaim and recognition by embracing creativity, racial justice, technology, new practices, and people

New York, NY, September 22 – Over the past two years, The Bloc has redefined health creative to become one of America’s most talked about agencies. As a global pandemic has reshaped society, The Bloc has been at the forefront of changing not just what stories get told about healthcare, but how they’re told. In doing so, they’ve won over 200 film and advertising awards in 2020 and 2021. Recently, The Bloc became the first ever health agency listed on the “Of The Year” ranking for the entire Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. In addition, The Bloc is a founding member of The BlocPartners, the acclaimed global network of independent health creative agencies. The BlocPartners recently placed second in the “Health Network of the Festival” category at the Cannes Lions Health Festival.

The Bloc CEO Jennifer Matthews (PRNewsfoto/The Bloc)

“The work we’ve been so awarded for lately has been a natural extension of our motto ‘Be Great to Do Good,’” said Jennifer Matthews, CEO at The Bloc. “Health is life. It deserves the very best in creative excellence.”

  1. Invest in Hollywood Level Filmmaking 

A man walks through a futuristic train station, suffering from a cough, and decides to seek help from an automated doctor. That’s the premise of The Bloc’s award-winning short film Instant Doctor. Made so as to give thanks to doctors and released on National Doctor’s Day (March 30, 2020), the film highlighted the importance of the human element in healthcare by showing a world where medicine is done via machines.  

Instant Doctor won the Grand Jury Award for Best Short at the New York International Film Awards and was declared the Best Sci-fi Short Film at the 2020 Rhode Island International Film Festival.

“Instant Doctor has shown the industry that healthcare advertising can have not just the production quality but also the storytelling excellence of Hollywood movies,” said Bernardo Romero, Chief Creative Officer at The Bloc. “Healthcare has never been more important, which means health creative should be of the same quality as what you would see in a movie theatre or stream on Netflix.”

  1. Tackle the Biggest Issues – Including Racism and Racial Bias in Healthcare

Some of The Bloc’s most acclaimed recent work has centered around racial justice, both in healthcare and in the broader world. 

In early 2020, The Bloc, in partnership with acclaimed ballet dancer Ingrid Silva’s EmpowHer New York, released “The Call,” a short film where an actress went undercover on nursing advice hotlines to expose racial disparities in healthcare treatment. 

The Bloc went on to work with Ingrid on two more films. First came Skindeep, an animated story about racial trauma told through watercolor frames by Black women illustrators. Skindeep was followed by Making Space, a documentary about Ingrid’s life journey which premiered at Cannes Lions. 

In partnership with the National Black Child Development Institute, The Bloc created ABC’s of Survival, a tear-apart book for black children and their parents. The book aims to support mental health and change laws by including postcards that can be sent to congress. The ebook can be found at abcsofsurvival.com.

  1. Hire and Promote the Best People

The Bloc continues to grow rapidly and has recently hired Stuart Goldstein as COO and promoted Antoinette Bobbitt to EVP, strategy director. Stuart will be The Bloc’s first COO, and he’ll oversee the management for over 4,500 projects a year, with the goal of increasing efficiency and profitability. Meanwhile, Antoinette will ensure that The Bloc’s competitive differentiation is present in all client work.

The Bloc’s commitment to its employees was underscored this summer when Fortune magazine listed it as one of the best workplaces in New York for 2021. The Bloc is one of three advertising agencies on the list, and the only health creative agency focused exclusively on health.

  1. Get High Tech

More and more agencies are realizing that their creative skills can be used to power tech innovations, and The Bloc has focused on the development of tech to address pressing health needs. At the beginning of the pandemic, The Bloc pioneered SafeCode, a device concept which combined a bar-code scanner with UV light to help stop the spread of disease on delivery packages. 

The Bloc has also created a tool to aid mental health. At the end of 2020, they worked with Rockwell Ventures to create Scrollaby, an app which takes the habit of “doomscrolling” and turns it into a sleep aid, with over 1,000 pieces of custom content that support rest and relaxation.

  1. Rethink Agency Practices

To expand upon the capabilities it has developed, The Bloc has established new practice areas that distinguish it in the healthcare agency space.

One new practice area is The Bloc Science Foundry, which applies behavioral science and scientific expertise to medical communications. The other is The Bloc Storytellers

And this year, The Bloc announced its Storytellers department, which is dedicated to bringing unsurpassed production and narrative quality to healthcare creative. Storytellers seeks to replicate the success The Bloc has had with The Call, Skindeep, and Instant Doctor. The Bloc is currently searching for the best creative minds from the film, theater, and TV industries to join their team. Resumes can be sent to storytellers@thebloc.com.

 

About The Bloc

The Bloc is a leading independent health creative agency in the United States. Celebrating 21 years in 2021, The Bloc delivers comprehensive omnichannel communications for audiences across the health spectrum and partners with innovative clients who are doing some of the most meaningful and exciting work in health today. A founding member of The BlocPartners, the leading global network of independent health creative agencies, The Bloc’s work has been globally recognized for creativity and innovation. For more information, visit www.thebloc.com.

 

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As inflation fears spike, 1build raises $14M to help construction firms optimize their cost estimates

It’s an extraordinarily exhausting time to estimate costs in the construction industry. Lumber prices skyrocketed during the post-pandemic construction spree, only to come hurtling back down to Earth in recent weeks. Copper, concrete, and steel have…

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It’s an extraordinarily exhausting time to estimate costs in the construction industry. Lumber prices skyrocketed during the post-pandemic construction spree, only to come hurtling back down to Earth in recent weeks. Copper, concrete, and steel have also seen wild price swings as supply chain breakages, workers shortages, border restrictions and more plague price stability.

Construction is among the world’s largest industries, with firms planning and building projects valued at trillions of dollars at pretty much any time. Yet, it’s also one of the most archaic industries, with a heavy reliance on paper even as IT has increasingly filtered into more of the industry’s processes. Paper though can’t match the extreme volatility in materials and labor happening today, and that means construction firms need better and more real-time software tools to handle cost estimates.

1build has a bold vision to own not just cost estimating, but everything that it takes to get a building under construction. “We are going to occupy the whitespace niche of pre-construction — your planing, your estimating, up until you break ground on your building,” CEO and founder Dmitry Alexin said.

Alexin had been scouting around for startup ideas in the real estate sector in 2018 and 2019, having previously worked in finance. He worked briefly at a stealth startup in the space, where he “helped to select real estate with data science.” He discovered a problem when it came to modeling the development of a property though: it wasn’t easy to determine what could be built or how much it would cost. “I just assumed you can just use an API to figure out the cost to build,” he said.

That led him into the rabbit hole that is the math of the construction industry. He discovered “this analog industry … three times as large as ecommerce and still in this offline, non-digitized way to consume,” he said. He wanted to automate more of these processes, but even that ran into challenges. “When I was forming 1build, it was creating a data standard for the construction industry,” he explained. Eventually, he zeroed in on cost estimating.

Alexin is a solo founder, who has since built up a management team around him. He and a few early employees joined the YC Winter 2020 batch, where 1build was identified as one of TechCrunch’s 20 most exciting startups in the batch out of several hundred (the company was my selection).

The startup’s timing, though, was horrific. “COVID happened right as we were graduating,” Alexin said. The company suffered a “50% reduction in usage in the first 30 days.” The company was still small and it hunkered down, but then something surprising happened: the construction industry just zoomed forward as millions of people moved to new homes and offices with the rise of remote work.

The company raised a previously undisclosed $5.5 million seed round from Initialized Capital and kept building. It focused on building a single platform (that’s the “1build”) around all aspects of estimating costs and handling the planning phase of construction. It’s “almost an experience that feels like interacting a spreadsheet, but we pull in the latest materials rate, the latest labor rates,” Alexin said. From there, you can “develop your estimate yourself, line item by line item.” He says that integrating all construction planning in one location can massively save time and money, and is particularly valuable for smaller contractors and construction firms who don’t have the scaled-up planning teams of their larger brethren.

1build’s team, with CEO and founder Dmitry Alexin sitting in center of first row. Image Credits: 1build

Alexin said that subscription revenues have risen 7x in the past 10 months, and 10x since April when we talked a few weeks ago. That excitement led it to a quick, $14.5 million Series A led by Brent Baltimore at Greycroft. Alexin said that Baltimore has been engaged in construction tech for a long time, and said that “we felt that they were the one firm that understood what we are doing.”

The team, as is typical these days, is spread out, with the majority in the U.S. and others in Canada and Europe.

1build wants to be the one stop for the construction industry, and hopes that the industry standardizes on a universal set of data formats. “The more and more builders that adapt that, the more we can build into the product,” he said.

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Long COVID: double vaccination halves risk of developing long-lasting symptoms

Want to avoid long COVID? Get vaccinated.

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Studio Romantic/Shutterstock

In unvaccinated people, around one in 20 who get symptomatic COVID-19 experience symptoms for at least eight weeks. Around one in 50 have symptoms that drag out for three months or more.

We wanted to know whether COVID-19 vaccines might protect against developing long-lasting symptoms. To find out, we looked at data provided by more than a million regular contributors to the COVID Symptom Study, a project in which members of the public log their symptoms via an app to help with research.

Our latest analysis of the study’s data, covering around 2 million vaccine doses, shows that vaccines significantly reduce the risk of catching COVID-19, with only 0.2% of those fully vaccinated later testing positive for the virus.

Even if you’re unlucky enough to catch the virus after being vaccinated, your chances of falling seriously ill or dying are slashed. Double-vaccinated people are 31% less likely to experience acute COVID-19 symptoms and 73% less likely to be hospitalised – a result that’s borne out in the relatively low hospitalisation and death rates we’re seeing now even as tens of thousands of people are still testing positive every day in the UK.

Reassuringly, for those who did fall ill with COVID-19 after being vaccinated, only around 5% went on to have symptoms that lasted for more than four weeks, meaning their chances of developing long COVID were cut by half. One of the best ways to reduce your risk of getting long COVID is to get fully vaccinated as soon as possible.

However, we did notice that frail older people and those living in more socially deprived areas were more likely to be infected and fall ill with COVID-19 after being vaccinated, especially if they had only had one vaccine dose. This suggests that we should prioritise further vaccination efforts and public health measures such as masking and social distancing among these groups, especially where infection rates are high and people are mixing and moving around.

Vaccines and long COVID

As the UK vaccination programme rolled out, we also started to notice anecdotal reports from people living with long COVID that their symptoms seemed to improve after being vaccinated.

The patient-led LongCovidSOS group chose to investigate this by surveying over 800 long COVID patients early in 2021. More than half of those surveyed noticed an overall improvement in their symptoms after vaccination, which then appeared to be sustained in about half of this group. Around a quarter of the overall respondents reported no difference and one-fifth said their symptoms had got worse. These findings have been released as a preprint, so haven’t yet been reviewed by other scientists, but they’ve been backed up by data from the COVID Symptom Study, which we’ll be publishing soon.

However, while there does seem to be some kind of link between receiving a COVID-19 vaccine and improvements in long COVID, it’s not clear exactly how the two are connected. It could be that the immune response triggered by the vaccine has a direct impact on symptoms.

Alternatively, it could just be that time has continued to pass since these people were originally infected and they’re experiencing a natural recovery from the virus. Or it could be a bit of both. Either way, more research is needed to tease out what’s going on.

A woman with long COVID lying on a bed, covering her face
There isn’t a definitive answer yet on whether vaccines can relieve people’s long COVID symptoms. True Touch Lifestyle/Shutterstock

What we can say is that COVID-19 vaccines certainly aren’t harmful for people with long COVID. What’s more, because we know that it’s possible to be reinfected with the virus, there’s a risk that catching it a second time could exacerbate symptoms for people living with long COVID and set them back even further. It’s therefore vital that we encourage anyone with long COVID who has not been vaccinated to do so as soon as possible, to help protect themselves and those around them.

A serious threat

Although the chances of developing long COVID after being vaccinated are small, this is a numbers game and a small percentage of a big number can still be substantial. As long as we are seeing tens of thousands of cases every day, we can still expect to see a substantial number of people living with lingering symptoms over the coming months.

This is particularly important for younger people, who may be less worried about hospitalisation or death, yet who can still be susceptible to the debilitating long-term effects of the virus. A lot can happen in a few months when you’re young, and long COVID can mean that people miss out on life-changing opportunities, like sitting an exam or taking up a new job, as well as the social activities that bring joy and wellbeing to life.

It’s likely that we’ll all be living with COVID-19 for some time to come. But with a combination of vaccination and public health measures where necessary, we can help to make sure that as few people as possible have to directly live with its life-limiting long-term effects.

Claire Steves consults for ZOE Ltd which is the company which developed the COVID Symptom Study together with King's College London. She receives funding from the Medical Research Council, the National Institute for Health Research, the Wellcome Trust and Chronic Disease Research Foundation.

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