TUE AM News: Stronger economic growth predicted for first half of 2022 than second; UW System president search selects finalists

— An investment strategist for Bank of America predicts stronger economic growth in the United States and globally over the first half of this year than the second. 

“I always describe it as we’re kind of coming off the sugar high of COVID relief and COVID stimulus, particularly here in the U.S.,” said Marcy McGregor, senior investment strategist and managing director at the North Carolina-based bank. 

She spoke last week as part of the Madison International Trade Association’s 2022 Economic Forecast webinar. In her remarks, she pointed to business innovation as the “hallmark of this economic cycle,” as companies respond to new challenges posed by the pandemic. 

“The way I think about the start of 2022 is we’ve actually been calling it a new dawn, and I think we are actually turning the page in the U.S. economy,” she said. “We’re seeing a bit of regime change … where there is plenty of demand in the U.S. economy, but what is in short supply is supply.” 

She described a “mismatch” in which strong demand for goods and services persist despite the ongoing pandemic, while inflation continues and the supply side struggles to keep pace. Based on credit and debit card data collected from the bank’s customers, McGregor noted spending began to escalate in the summer of 2020 as consumers stuck at home purchased electronics, home furnishings and other household goods. 

More recently, she noted spending has begun to pick up at restaurants, hotels and airlines. Amid the current wave of omicron cases, she noted consumers are “less content to limit their activities” for a number of reasons, including the attitude that omicron poses less of a threat to health and safety. She said credit card spending for the last several months of 2021 was increasing at a two-year growth rate of 19.5 percent, more than doubling the rate seen pre-pandemic. 

“The consumer I think is going to be critical to this story and to the economy,” McGregor said. “Wages are going to kind of keep seeing a boost for the U.S. consumer. Upward wage pressure is going to continue through 2022 — that’s because when you factor in inflation, real wages have actually not kept up.” 

She highlighted “a lot more upward price movement” at restaurants and grocery stores, while airlines and clothing are “not seeing the same inflationary pressures we’re seeing in other sectors.” 

“It’s our view that the main shock of this COVID wave is probably going to roll through each region on probably a two-month timeline,” she said. “So it’s going to be a rolling impact to the economy, but pretty short in nature.” 

Meanwhile, she said supply chain problems continue to worsen with manufacturers and other businesses seeing slow delivery times. But she added “it’s not worsening as quickly as it was before.” Still, omicron and potential future COVID-19 waves could draw out the supply chain recovery if labor isn’t available to match rising demand, she said. 

Watch a video of the MITA webinar: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c0zjOD3JZfc 

— The committee tasked with finding a new UW System president has selected two finalists: the leader of a top Wisconsin law firm; and the chancellor of the Eau Claire campus.

Jay Rothman has been chair and CEO of Foley & Lardner since June 2011. 

Meanwhile, James Schmidt has been chancellor of the Eau Claire campus since July 2013.

“We have identified two excellent candidates, each of whom would be an outstanding leader for our university system,” Regent President Edmund Manydeeds III, chair of the Special Regent Committee, said. 

“We believe their qualifications and experience provide the committee a great opportunity to pick a future leader for the UW System.”

Schmidt and Rothman fielded questions from reporters about their eligibility and plans if nominated in separate virtual Q&As. 

Rothman cited his experience as a CEO at Foley and Lardner as a strength in his potential role as system president. 

“I’ve had the privilege, for the last nearly 11 years of leading a large, complex organization and in that I think I’ve learned a lot around how to lead and to manage people,” Rothman said. 

In his separate conversation with reporters, Schmidt emphasized his experience within the world of higher education. 

“During my later roles as vice president for Student Affairs, vice president for University Advancement and now chancellor, I have developed a reputation for innovation, community engagement, strategic partnerships and successful fundraising, and always as a passionate advocate for students,” Schmidt said

See more on the candidates in the WisPolitics.com Friday Report: https://www.wispolitics.com/2022/220114report/#story-3 

— Disparities in COVID-19 vaccination rates based on race and ethnicity have narrowed in Wisconsin, mirroring the trend seen across much of the country. 

A recent report from the Kaiser Family Foundation shows 60 percent of the state’s white population had received a COVID-19 vaccination dose as of Jan. 10. That’s compared to 49 percent of the state’s Black population, 56 percent of the Hispanic population and 72 percent of the Asian population in Wisconsin, per the report. 

KFF notes that Black and Hispanic people in the United States have been less likely than white people to get a COVID-19 vaccine shot, though the gap has become smaller over the course of pandemic, “particularly for Hispanic people.” 

Across the 42 states included in the analysis, 60 percent of the white population had gotten a vaccine dose by Jan. 10, compared to 54 percent for the Black population, 60 percent for the Hispanic population and 81 percent for the Asian population. 

Data from the state Department of Health Services illustrate the reduced disparities seen in Wisconsin. The DHS site shows 555.4 per 1,000 Asian or Pacific Islander residents have been fully vaccinated — slightly higher than the rate for white residents, which is 554.2 per 1,000. 

That number is 505.3 for American Indian residents, 471.6 for Hispanic or Latino residents, and 366.9 for Black residents. Compared to numbers from June 2021, the difference between the rate for white residents and those of other groups has decreased. 

Despite the improvement seen over the past six months or so, vaccination rates aren’t equal across racial and ethnic groups in the state. And disparities persist in other measures including overall case numbers, deaths and hospitalizations due to COVID-19. 

On a statewide basis, 62.7 percent of Wisconsin residents have gotten at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, while 58.7 percent have completed the vaccine series. 

See the latest vaccination numbers: https://www.dhs.wisconsin.gov/covid-19/vaccine-data.htm 

See data on racial and ethnic disparities: https://www.dhs.wisconsin.gov/covid-19/disparities.htm 

— DHS has announced a change to the Wisconsin Electronic Disease Surveillance System that will enable COVID-19 test results to be automatically imported, providing more up-to-date data. 

In a release, DHS says COVID-19 numbers will be “temporarily elevated” in the next few days as back-logged cases are added to the system.

The latest seven-day average for new COVID-19 cases has reached 10,985 as the ongoing surge caused by the omicron variant continues. Despite the rapid increase in case numbers, the seven-day average for new deaths from the virus has remained relatively low, at 24 deaths per day at latest count. 

But hospital capacity continues to be strained, the DHS site shows. The trajectory of COVID-19 patient hospitalizations is rising in all but two of the state’s regions, ranging from 11 percent in the north central region to 29 percent in the Fox Valley region. 

The Wisconsin Hospital Association dashboard shows 2,219 COVID-19 patients are currently hospitalized in the state, including 479 intensive care patients. WHA reports 76 of the state’s 1,353 ICU beds are immediately available. 

See the DHS release: https://www.dhs.wisconsin.gov/news/releases/011422.htm 

See the latest case numbers: https://www.dhs.wisconsin.gov/covid-19/cases.htm 

— SSM Health says an internal memo sent to doctors in Wisconsin “inadvertently referenced” an outdated risk-scoring calculator for distributing COVID-19 therapeutics after the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty accused the health system of race-based discrimination. 

WILL sent a letter to SSM Health on Friday referencing a December email that included a framework for distributing these therapeutics, which gave patients a higher score for being non-white or Hispanic. To qualify for the therapeutics, patients had to score above a certain number, according to a release from WILL. 

“Race discrimination has no place in healthcare, especially when policies prevent the distribution of life-saving treatments to patients based on the color of their skin,” WILL Deputy Counsel Dan Lennington said. “A patient’s race is not a disease, co-morbidity, or a treatable symptom. SSM should reverse course immediately and comply with the law.”

But SSM Health says race and gender criteria are “no longer utilized” now that understanding of the virus has improved. In a statement provided to WisBusiness.com, SSM Health noted that risk-scoring calculators were created as one tool to help clinicians to provide “high-quality, evidence-based care.” 

“While early versions of risk calculators across the nation appropriately included race and gender criteria based on initial outcomes, SSM Health has continued to evaluate and update our protocols weekly to reflect the most up-to-date clinical evidence available. As a result, race and gender criteria are no longer utilized. The internal memo cited by WILL inadvertently referenced an expired calculator,” the health system said in the statement. 

SSM Health, based in Missouri, operates 23 hospitals in four states including Wisconsin. It has a presence in Madison, Janesville, Baraboo, Waupun, Fond du Lac and Ripon. 

See WILL’s release: https://will-law.org/will-urges-midwest-health-system-to-suspend-race-discrimination-in-covid-treatment/ 

See the letter: https://will-law.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/FINAL-Letter-to-SSM-re-Race-Discrimination-for-COVID-19-Therapeutics-v-8.pdf 

— Researchers at UW-Madison have found that boosting expression of a gene in mice experiments slowed down the mental and physical decline associated with Alzheimer’s disease. 

According to a release from the university, the researchers found that increasing levels of a gene called Nrf2 in supportive cells known as astrocytes “helped neurons greatly reduce the accumulation of two disordered proteins at the heart of Alzheimer’s.” 

Nrf2 had previously been selected as a therapeutic target for Parkinson’s disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. Increasing the activity of this gene could lead scientists to a potential therapy for Alzheimer’s, the release shows. 

UW-Madison School of Pharmacy Professor Jeffrey Johnson worked on the study with researchers at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. They published their findings last week in the journal Nature Communications. Johnson had previously helped identify the protective role played by Nrf2 in other neurodegenerative diseases. 

The development of Alzheimer’s disease is thought to be related to the buildup of tau and beta-amyloid proteins, creating “tangles and plaques” that contribute to neuron death and cognitive decline. In their study, researchers found that mice with higher levels of Nrf2 expression performed better in physical and memory tests. 

When compared to unaltered mice, those with higher levels of gene expression had nearly 90 percent less beta-amyloid in their brains, and “far fewer” beta-amyloid plaques. The release also notes these mice had a reduced genetic signature of Alzheimer’s, indicating the greater expression of the gene had a “widespread normalizing effect” beyond simply addressing the protein buildup. 

“The extent of the reduction in beta-amyloid and tau and the nearly complete reversal of the genetic changes is very significant,” Johnson said in the release. “Over 2,300 genes change in one part of the brain in the Alzheimer’s model. And almost all 2,300 go back to normal. I was stunned. I never thought we’d get that outcome.” 

The release notes that while the gene represents an “attractive candidate” for treating Alzheimer’s, it has “proven difficult to activate in the brain.” Johnson says gene therapies and other therapeutic measures may enable activation of the helpful gene. 

See the study: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-021-27702-w 


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