Crude Oil Prices Are Running Hot, Threatening The Post-Pandemic Economic Recovery

Crude Oil Prices Are Running Hot, Threatening The Post-Pandemic Economic Recovery

The decline in commercial crude oil inventories and the lack of success in bringing production back online in the Gulf of Mexico is raising greater concerns about a supply squeeze, one analyst told Zenger.  (Photo by Dave Einsel/Getty Images)

By Daniel James Graeber

Crude oil prices remain high on the back of storm-related supply pressures, and if the situation holds it may hinder a post-pandemic economic recovery, analysts told Zenger.

Operators are still on their back foot more than three weeks after Hurricane Ida made landfall as a category 4 storm on Aug. 29. As of Wednesday, federal estimates showed about 16 percent of the crude oil production and 24 percent of the natural gas production from the Gulf of Mexico was still offline because of storm-related issues.

The U.S. government reported that total commercial crude oil inventories decreased by 3.5 million barrels from the previous week, a figure skewed by the recent storms but which would normally indicate healthy economic demand. It was closely in line with estimates from S&P Global Platts, which said it expected more of the same in the coming weeks.

Federal data on crude oil inventories are still skewed by the impact of storms in the Gulf of Mexico. (Wikimedia Commons)

“Crude stock draw aligned with our expectations given the large increase in refinery runs as plants bounce back from adverse impact of Hurricane Ida,” David Zinamon, a senior manager for refining analytics at Platts, told Zenger. “Platts Analytics expects crude runs to continue increasing with another stock draw anticipated for the next week.”

Crude oil prices have been on the rise since operators began making preparations for Ida’s landfall in late August, with West Texas Intermediate up some 15 percent since then. WTI closed trading Wednesday at $71.97 per barrel, up 2 percent on the day.

Energy prices are increasing at a far greater pace than other consumer goods, forcing some segments of the energy sector to shy away from the so-called energy transition.

Coal, for example, is gaining traction due to the extraordinarily high natural gas prices that are a concern for a European economy bracing for winter.

Al Salazar, the managing director at energy data firm Enverus, said the supply-side pressures driving at least part of the bull run for commodities in general could ease once operators return to normal levels.

“Conversely, if prices continue to be sustained at current levels, or go higher as some other prognosticators suggest, it would not be constructive for a U.S., or global, economic recovery,” he said. “Consumers are already struggling with widespread inflationary pressures. Therefore, sustaining higher oil prices for longer periods appears unlikely, as demand will react.”

U.S. Fed Chair Jerome Powell acknowledges inflationary pressures in the nation's economy. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
U.S. Fed Chair Jerome Powell acknowledges inflationary pressures in the nation’s economy. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Inflationary pressures in general are a developing concern. The U.S. Federal Reserve suggested Wednesday that it may start raising its benchmark interest rate next year in an effort to keep inflation from running away.

Inflation is elevated, according to minutes from the Federal Reserve, but the bank stuck with its message that this is a transitory factor related to economic recovery from last year.

But as with retail gasoline prices, there is no shortage of bullish pressures building up behind crude oil. Phil Flynn, an energy analyst at The PRICE Futures Group in Chicago, told Zenger the U.S. economy is developing something of a supply-side problem.

“Oil inventories are at the lowest level we’ve seen in three years,” he said. “The decline in commercial crude oil inventories and the lack of success in bringing production back online in the Gulf of Mexico is raising greater concerns about a supply squeeze.”

Edited by Bryan Wilkes and Alex Willemyns

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These Teens Are Listening: New App Offers Safe Space For Airing Tough Issues

These Teens Are Listening: New App Offers Safe Space For Airing Tough Issues

Using the Teen Talk app on a cellphone gives teens greater privacy and less risk of being overheard by a parent, versus using a traditional help hotline. (Daria Nepriakhina/Unsplash)

By Evan T. Henerson

Sometimes it is easier to let the tech do the talking.

An innovative new app is helping teens communicate via text about the difficult issues they face.

The Teen Talk app, developed by Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters of Los Angeles, gives teens a safe space to connect with peers. The cellphone app gives teens greater privacy and lower risk of being overheard by a parent, versus using a traditional help hotline.

When volunteer Shira Schlessinger, a 17-year-old high school senior, logs on to help her peers, she knows their concerns are diverse. She could be texting with someone who had a fight with a parent, a crippling case of COVID fatigue or even someone who is struggling with thoughts of suicide.

Schlessinger is trained to deal with these situations and many others.

Teen Talk App adviser Shira Schlessinger, 17, says peers feel more comfortable talking to someone their own age. (Courtesy of Jewish Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Los Angeles)

“Now, more so than ever, my generation is going through something similar. … A lot of the time, that could be my friend from school. It could be your peer. And we’re all going through something really hard. It’s really crazy how close to home it could be,” she said.

When the pandemic lockdown began in March 2020, daily posts on the app quickly increased. Over the course of the pandemic, the number of unique individuals logging in for at least five minutes daily jumped from around 100 to more than 200.  The app now averages 155-170 posts per day.

“We had not prepared for that kind of spike in usage and the app crashed,” Cari Uslan, the agency’s CEO, said of the early days of the pandemic. “We got some emergency funding and support to build up the back end to meet the growing need, increase usage and create more capacity for the app to sustain itself.”

Posts related to isolation and loneliness have remained steady. Uslan said the majority deal with users experiencing depression followed by discussions of relationships, both family and romantic.

Trained teen advisers like Schlessinger are available nightly, though teens can post anytime and will receive a response when advisers come online.

Because users post anonymously, Schlessinger and her fellow teen advisers never know how literally “close to home” the users are.

The majority of the users are in the United States and Canada, according to app administrators, though the app can be downloaded and used on Android or iOS phones from all over the world. The app, which launched in 2018, is free and nonsectarian.

The teen advisers get 50 hours of specialized training and are supervised at all times by adult mental-health professionals. Teens turn to these professionals when there is a perceived risk users might hurt themselves.

During her first day as an adviser, Schlessinger said she needed to refer a user to a suicide hotline. As she reached out to her supervisor for support, Schlessinger — who describes herself as “the therapist friend” within her circle — was struck by the enormity of the situation.

“I thought this is real. This is someone’s life. This isn’t my training anymore,” Schlessinger said. “And I remember feeling very humbled that I was being trusted literally with these kids’ lives, even though I was 16 at the time and still a kid myself.”

Self-harm is another consistent topic on the app.

September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. The National Alliance on Mental Illness states that suicide is the second leading cause of death among people ages 10 to 34.

In the United States, 11.8 percent of young adults ages 18 to 25 have serious thoughts of suicide each year. Among high school students, the prevalence is 18.8 percent according to the alliance.

Andrea Sonnenberg, an attorney and mental health advocate in Los Angeles, said the mental health crisis is “the pandemic without a vaccine.”

Young people are at particularly high risk, which magnifies the need to boost awareness and reach those in need, she said.

“Something that is innovative like this app, we can try to reach people in new ways,” Sonnenberg said of Teen Talk. “Because it’s so important for people to be connected, for people to feel not alone, to feel that other people are going through similar struggles and to learn from other people what might be working for them.”

Sonnenberg said the Gen Z generation has less of a stigma about receiving treatment for mental health. She is developing a podcast called “Getting Thru” for young people to talk about their experiences with mental-health issues and techniques that have helped them.

Her commitment is personal.

In 2017, following the death of their 21-year-old son who had struggled with mental health issues, Sonnenberg and her husband, Glenn, established the Bradley Sonnenberg Wellness Initiative at the University of Southern California Hillel to help college students confronting similar challenges.

“Because I have experience with these challenges, people have felt comfortable talking to me,” said Sonnenberg. “That’s really one of the things I feel so strongly about: the need to talk about these issues. The more we talk about it, the more comfortable we get, and the more commonplace we realize it really is.”

Carys McKenzie, a high school senior in Los Angeles, was drawn to Teen Talk after seeing notices about it at her school. The idea of speaking anonymously to a peer was appealing. For McKenzie, advice from someone her own age was more likely to be of value.

She found the experience of using Teen Talk so useful she decided to become an adviser. Being on the other side of the chat has been rewarding, she said.

She recalled an encounter at the end of a shift, after she asked the teen she had been advising how she was feeling.

“I got the most genuine response from her saying, ‘Thank you so much. You’ve been so helpful, and I had the first non-stress-related kind of cry,’” McKenzie said.

“It was so nice to hear that and to be part of that exchange.”

The Teen Talk app is available at the Apple Store and on Google Play.

Edited by Judith Isacoff and Fern Siegel

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Beware Of Parasite: Drug-Resistant Dog Hookworm Is Now Untreatable

Beware Of Parasite: Drug-Resistant Dog Hookworm Is Now Untreatable

Researchers say dog parks can be risky for your pet now that hookworms have become resistant to common deworming drugs. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

By Martin M Barillas

Dogs plagued by hookworms — bloodsucking parasites — may have longer to wait for relief as research has found these parasites are resistant to all drugs commonly used to treat the infection.

Ancylostoma caninum is a nematode parasite that uses its hook-like mouth to fasten itself to a host animal’s intestines. It sucks blood and tissue fluids, causing dramatic weight loss, as well as lethargy, bloody stools, anemia and other symptoms in both dogs and humans.

A team of researchers at the University of Georgia reported in a study published in the International Journal for Parasitology that 79 percent of greyhounds at racetracks are infected by multiple-drug-resistant (MDR) hookworms.

This study draws on previous research on MDR hookworms, first reported by the university’s College of Veterinary Medicine in 2019, and delves into where the problem emerged and how widespread it has become.

The hook-like mouth of an adult dog hookworm is used to latch onto the intestines of the infected animal. (University of Georgia)

Ray Kaplan, study co-author and leader of the research team, said the infection would spread from the dogs at the racetrack to other pet dogs once they get adopted.

Kaplan, who once owned a greyhound, warned against taking pets to the dog park because of the risk of picking up the parasite. “If your dog picks up these resistant hookworms, [a cure is] not as easy as just treating them with medication anymore. Until new types of drugs [become] available, taking your dog to a dog park has to be considered a risky activity,” he said.

Dogs don’t need to ingest hookworm larvae, which live in soil, to get infected. The larvae can burrow through the dog’s skin and paws. Female dogs can also pass the parasite to their puppies through their milk. At racetracks, the researchers determined that the sandy ground easily transmits hookworms and is an ideal breeding ground for these parasites.

Currently, veterinarians use three types of deworming drugs to kill hookworms, and racing dogs are usually given deworming medicine every three to four weeks.

However, an analysis of fecal samples from greyhound adoption kennels revealed hookworms in four out of every five greyhounds tested. Those that tested negative, Kaplan said, were probably also infected because hookworms sometimes lodge in the body’s tissues and don’t reproduce or shed eggs until the infection worsens and spreads to the dog’s intestines.

The frequent deworming of racing dogs at kennels and breeding farms has led to a multi-drug-resistant hookworm that can’t currently be treated, researchers say. (Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images)

Nearly all the fecal samples tested positive for MDR hookworms that can survive treatment with benzimidazoles, a deworming drug used in animals and humans, among other drugs.

Racing-dog breeding farms and kennels, where many infected dogs are kept, allow parasites to mutate and survive treatment. Parasites that survive frequent deworming procedures pass their drug-resistant mutations to successive generations. Over time, the resistant worms are all that remain.

MDR hookworms go undetected if veterinarians don’t perform the necessary tests on dogs during a check-up. These hookworms typically only become obvious once the infection has grown serious.

Hookworms found in a puppy. (University of Georgia)

Kaplan and co-author veterinarian Pablo Jimenez Castro found that these hookworms appear to be treatable with emodepside — a dewormer approved for use only in cats. A national task force on MDR hookworms has since been formed to investigate treatment options.

Although dog hookworms also infect people, the infection is not the same. In people, worms burrow under the skin and cause a red, itchy rash. Children are sometimes infected by walking barefoot or playing in contaminated soil. Physicians treat people with corticosteroid ointment containing a dewormer, but Kaplan believes this is ineffective against MDR hookworms.

Edited by Siân Speakman and Kristen Butler

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VIDEO EXCLUSIVE: Actor Michael K. Williams On Trauma And The Arts, In His Final Message

VIDEO EXCLUSIVE: Actor Michael K. Williams On Trauma And The Arts, In His Final Message

Michael K. Williams recorded an award acceptance speech for the National Council of Black Women in the days before his Sept. 6 death. It may be the late actor's final videotaped message about his life's traumas and how the arts saved him. (NCBW/Zenger)

By Kevin Michael Briscoe

Michael K. Williams has spoken from beyond the grave, thanks to video footage recorded just days before his death.

The late Emmy-nominated actor, known mostly for “The Wire” and “Boardwalk Empire,” left behind a message about his life’s traumas and the character studies he made of them. And an epitaph: “Thank you for seeing me just the way I am.”

He recorded the brief video for the National Congress of Black Women, whose annual awards gala was held Sept. 19. When the organization told him he would be honored with its Dick Gregory Good Brother Award for community service, Williams spoke into a camera for more than a minute, anticipating that the short acceptance speech would be played during the virtual event.

Zenger has obtained a copy of the video, which appears to be Williams’ last before he was found in his Brooklyn, N.Y. penthouse apartment, the apparent victim of a drug overdose at age 54.

Williams wore a black t-shirt to record what he couldn’t have known was a farewell. It read: “Protect Black Women.”

The National Congress of Black Women is a nonpartisan group that advocates for greater participation by black women at all levels of government, civil society organizations and private-sector business.

Williams thanked the group while he downplayed the praise he received for mentoring young people in urban communities of color, and for pressing lawmakers to reform America’s juvenile justice system.

“The work I do deserves no accolades, no pats on the back. In my heart, I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing as a man from the same communities our youth are struggling in today,” said Williams, who grew up in the East Flatbush section of Brooklyn.

“If I don’t come back and bring my goals and my experiences and my knowledge back to the community,” he asked, “what’s it all for?”

Despite a well-chronicled history of drug addiction, childhood sexual abuse and an adolescence peppered with petty crime, Williams channeled his experiences into one of the most memorable and culturally impactful television characters in recent memory.

Michael K. Williams, an actor known for his complex portrayal of Omar Little in “The Wire,” is pictured on March 31, 2021 in Miami, Florida. (Rodrigo Varela/Getty Images)

As Omar Little on “The Wire,” he played a brutal, notorious and gay stick-up man whose sawed-off shotgun added masculinity to a character that Hollywood might have sidelined a generation ago as an explosive contradiction. And in the gritty grime of Baltimore’s drug wars and corruption, Omar’s sensitive private nature gave him complexity that put Williams on the map as a star.

In his final video, he thanked God for talents that allowed him “to exorcise and pour out some of my trauma that I experienced, into the arts. Thank you for seeing me just the way I am.”

Dr. E. Faye Williams, who was not related to the late actor, is the National Congress of Black Women’s national president. She told Zenger that the group’s awards are meant “to honor those people who have made a significant difference in our communities.” She called Michael K. Williams “an activist at heart. Giving back to the community played an important role in his off-camera life.”

This year’s honorees were selected in part because of their efforts to protect voting rights in underserved communities, and for promoting voter registration efforts in parts of the U.S. where those rights are at risk, according to Theresa Buckson, an obstetrician who chaired the 2021 awards committee.

Buxton, who knew Williams for the last 15 years of his life, told Zenger that his death was “an immeasurable loss,” and he “had a heart for social justice and for being a voice for those who had no voice.”

“He also had a kindness about him that was different,” she said. “And through the years I realized that above all, he wanted to be able to help others. He wanted to ‘do good.’ He was genuine.”

Dr. E. Faye Williams, president of the National Congress of Black Women, is pictured protesting against Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in 2017, ahead of a Senate vote to confirm then-Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama as attorney general. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

The National Congress of Black Women recognized 10 honorees during its Sept. 19 ceremony. Reps. Marilyn Strickland (D-Wash.), Nikema Williams (D-Ga.) and Cori Bush (D-Mo.) jointly received an award named after the late Shirley Chisolm, who was the first African-American woman elected to Congress.

National Education Association president Rebecca Pringle and Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser shared an award named for Harriet Tubman. Kizzmekia Corbett Ph.D., a scientist whose work contributed to COVID-19 vaccine development, received the group’s Humanitarian Award.

Black Voters Matter co-founder LaTosha Brown, former WNBA player and now Atlanta Dream co-owner Renee Montgomery and celebrity fashion designer B. Michael were also honored.

Although it is modestly funded, the National Congress of Black Women’s 2019 tax return shows it spent nearly one-third of its income, about $98,000, on outgoing grants that year, the latest for which IRS records are available. One grant helped to develop urban farming as a form of assistance for “underserved and underprivileged communities that are in desperate need of healthy foods.”

Edited by David Martosko and Kristen Butler

CORRECTION Sept. 23, 2021 11:34 a.m

Because of an editing error, the National Congress of Black Women was incorrectly referred to as the National Council of Black Women. Zenger regrets the error.

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Afraid Of Spiders? This Augmented Reality App Could Help You Beat The Panic

Afraid Of Spiders? This Augmented Reality App Could Help You Beat The Panic

The “Phobys” arachnophobia app uses augmented reality to help users overcome their fear of spiders. (University of Basel/MCN)

Psychologists have a new kind of weapon to help people who wrestle with arachnophobia: smartphone programs that augment reality with virtual spiders.

Researchers at the University of Basel in Switzerland have developed an app that has showed success during a clinical trial, one of several projects there designed to use new technologies to treat old mental health conditions.

People who used the app, called Phobys, demonstrated a reduced fear of spiders after trying it at home a half-dozen times for 30 minutes at a stretch. Users are prompted to scan a tabletop, a floor or their own arm from a few feet away. Then they tap on the screen to see a spider projected onto the surface they chose.

“It’s easier for people with a fear of spiders to face a virtual spider than a real one,” said lead author Anja Zimmer. She called the app approach “a low-threshold and low-cost treatment.” The research completed by Zimmer and her team was published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders.

The augmented reality app Phobys helps people with arachnophobia become desensitized to spiders. This red-knee tarantula is pictured at the London Zoo on January 3, 2013. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Arachnophobia is a common fear that imposes real limitations on sufferers. Fear of spiders, scorpions, ticks and mites can lead some to avoid social gatherings, limit their travel or obsessively check their surroundings for signs of menacing bugs. Even a photograph of a spider or evidence of webs can trigger screaming, fainting, sweating and heart palpitations.

Therapeutic exposure to real spiders can help reduce the effects of arachnophobia, according to the authors, but patients seldom want to expose themselves.

The team, led by Professor Dominique de Quervain at Basel, conducted a two-week clinical trial of Phobys with 66 people who suffered from a fear of spiders. Some completed six half-hour training units with Phobys, and others had no app to help them.

Subjects using the Phobys app showed significantly less fear and disgust when exposed to a real spider. Pictured is a “cerbalus aravensis” spider on the sands of Samar in Israel’s southern Arava desert region. (Yael Olek/University of Haifa/Getty Images)

The subjects approached a real spider in a see-through box before and after each treatment, but got only as close as their fears allowed. The spider drew far less fear and disgust from the group that used the app, and those people were able to get closer to the animal.

The Phobys app has 10 progressively more challenging sets of tasks that allow arachnophobes to see and interact with virtual spiders. An assessment at the end of each level measures the user’s fear and disgust. The app, not the user, “gamifies” the treatment and decides when it’s time to move to the next level.

Users get encouragement in the form of animation and sound effects. Those with mild symptoms can use the app on their own, but researchers say those with more serious problems should use it under professional supervision.

As with many mobile apps, there’s a free version and a paid version. Users can test their phobia levels at no charge by downloading it from the Apple app store or Google Play; treating their condition by breaking down their fears comes with a $4.99 fee that unlocks all the levels. More than 1,000 people downloaded Phobys in its first month.

Edited by Siân Speakman and Kristen Butler

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First Implant Of Total Artificial Heart In A Woman

First Implant Of Total Artificial Heart In A Woman

Surgeons with University of Louisville Health Jewish Hospital and the University of Louisville performed the first Aeson bioprosthetic total artificial heart implantation in a female patient. (University of Louisville)

For the first time, surgeons have successfully implanted an Aeson artificial heart in a woman facing end-stage heart failure.

The surgery was performed by doctors from the University of Louisville and the Jewish Hospital at Louisville, using an implant made by Carmat, a French company.

Carmat CEO Stephane Piat said the surgery, the third of its kind in the United States so far, allowed them to complete patient enrollment in their early feasibility study for the device. It was also the first time the device had ever been used to help a female patient suffering from heart failure, according to Piat.

The 57-year-old Kentucky woman with severe biventricular heart failure received the Aeson device during an eight-hour surgery. She had undergone cardiac surgery several years ago and was referred to the Advanced Heart Failure Therapies Program at Jewish Hospital earlier this year for end-stage heart failure. She is recovering well in the cardiovascular intensive care unit at Jewish Hospital — one of only four programs in the United States approved to perform this clinical trial procedure.

Cardiothoracic surgeons Mark Slaughter and Siddharth Pahwa of the University of Louisville’s School of Medicine carried out the procedure on Sept. 14, announcing its success a week later. They also performed an implant surgery on a male patient last month, also at Jewish Hospital.

Currently, about 3,500 patients in the United States are awaiting heart transplants, of whom 900 are women.

“For the other half of the world’s population, completion of this procedure by the Jewish Hospital team brings new hope for extended life,” said Slaughter. “Size limitations can make it harder to implant artificial hearts in women, but the Aeson artificial heart is compact enough to fit inside the smaller chest cavities more frequently found in women, which gives hope to a wider variety of men and women waiting for a heart transplant and increases the chances for success.”

The Aeson artificial heart pumps blood into both the right and left chambers of the heart, unlike the current left-ventricular assist devices, which pump blood into only one chamber. There are few treatments available for patients suffering biventricular heart disease, where both the right and left chambers of the heart do not pump blood adequately.

Aeson’s sensors estimate the patient’s blood pressure level and automatically adapt the cardiac output based on that information. The bioprosthetic device is implanted as a replacement for the heart and is attached to an external portable power source.

The Aeson artificial heart system is powered by an external portable source. (Carmat)

The Cardiovascular Innovation Institute at University of Louisville tested Aeson’s autoregulation capability, which allows it to adapt the flow of blood by detecting changes in blood pressure. Researchers there have conducted tests on artificial heart components and mechanical assist devices for many years.

“The varying pumping ability of the Aeson device increases its viability [in] more patients,” said Pahwa. “While other devices are set at a fixed rate or create a continuous flow, Carmat has developed the Aeson to automatically adjust the flow, creating an improved performance to meet the body’s changing blood flow needs.”

Aeson is being tested on patients with end-stage biventricular heart failure while they wait for a permanent heart transplant. In Europe, where it has already been approved, about 20 devices have been implanted. Aeson is being tested in the United States for final approval by the federal Food and Drug Administration.

“I am proud that UofL, Jewish Hospital and their doctors are leading the world in implanting this promising and innovative device that could offer hope and time to thousands of people, including our wives, mothers and other loved ones, in [the] coming years,” said Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, weighing in on the new development.

Edited by Siân Speakman and Kristen Butler

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