Coronavirus Updates: The Latest Unemployment Data In The U.S.

Apr 23, 2020
Originally published on April 23, 2020 9:27 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

After nearly 4.5 million Americans applied for unemployment last week, bringing the climbing number of jobless claims to more than 25 million in just five weeks. That means that the last month, the pandemic has cost the jobs of 1 out of 6 workers in this country.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The latest job numbers come as House representatives, many of them wearing masks, passed a bill with nearly half a trillion dollars in additional aid for small businesses and hospitals and for coronavirus testing. Meanwhile, a more detailed picture is emerging showing the extent of COVID-19 infections. In his daily briefing today, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo estimated, based on limited antibody tests, that some 14% of his state could have already been infected. But the infection rates varied a lot from region to region.

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ANDREW CUOMO: Upstate New York is 3.6%. New York City is 21%. What you do in a place with 21% is not the same thing, necessarily, that you would do in a place with 3.6%. It's just not. It's the same theory that some states open now and New York doesn't because the facts should dictate the action.

CHANG: Just a hint of the complexity that mayors and governors will face as they strive to reopen cities and states. For more on all of this, I want to bring in now NPR science correspondent Richard Harris, chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley and congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell.

Hey to all three of you.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Hi there.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good evening.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Hello.

CHANG: All right, Kelsey. Let's start with you. This legislation that we just talked about - it just passed the House. It's being called a stopgap to replenish the small-business loans that ran out after less than two weeks. Can you just tell us more about this legislation? How is more money going to get to more people and businesses that need it?

SNELL: Yeah, the overall package is about a half a trillion dollars, which is just an astounding number. The money going to small businesses is about $321 billion. Now, we're calling that a stopgap in this environment, and there is an expectation that more may be needed in the future.

Now, I think what's really interesting about this is that it was the first time the House members have all been called back to Washington since mid-March. And there was this big bipartisan approval for this bill, like all of the previous aid bills so far. Only five members voted no, including Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who was the only Democrat to do so.

One of the things I think was interesting to watch was the use of face masks and, you know, seeing members having to space themselves out. It took hours to vote on this because...

CHANG: Yeah, I can imagine.

SNELL: ...They had to come to vote in small groups. Right. You've seen the way that Congress...

CHANG: I've been there. Yeah.

SNELL: ...Normally operates. And it was really just truly a unique moment. Members were disinfecting the tables and microphones between speakers. And to give some context to this money, in just eight weeks, Congress has approved almost $2.8 trillion in spending. That's more than the entire two-year budget agreement they did last year...

CHANG: Wow.

SNELL: ...More than the total revenue that Treasury normally gets in a normal year. So there's a lot to oversee here. And Democrats also approved a new committee to do that work, despite resistance from Republicans.

CHANG: Well, Scott, I want to talk about these latest job numbers. I mean, who is affected by these millions of new jobless claims?

HORSLEY: Ailsa, it's really a wide swath of the workforce. I mean...

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CHANG: Oops.

HORSLEY: The 4.4 million filings last week is actually down about 15% from the previous week, but we're still talking about extremely high jobless claims by historical standards. When you have 1 out of 6 workers suddenly unemployed in the course of a month, you are obviously talking about a lot of different kinds of workers being affected. It does seem like we saw fewer layoffs in bars and restaurants in the most recent reporting period, but only because so many of those jobs had already been cut in earlier weeks.

We continue to see job losses in construction, in manufacturing, all kinds of services and, somewhat surprisingly, in health care. Usually, health care is pretty recession-proof, but a lot of doctors who don't treat COVID-19 patients have closed their offices. Hospitals have been canceling elective surgery. We did hear Vice President Pence talk in the briefing tonight about some of that being reversed in the near future. But even in the midst of this health care crisis, we have seen health care workers filing for unemployment.

CHANG: Well, these numbers that you're seeing - are these actually new filings, or are they people from the previous four weeks who were finally able to get through to their state unemployment offices? I mean, do we even know?

HORSLEY: It's probably a combination. As the number of new filings goes down, states have been able to make some headway against the backlog. Some of the 4.4 million people who filed last week may have been out of work before last week, and that's just when they finally managed to get through to somebody at the unemployment office. Others are newly jobless.

One thing that forecasters have been looking at is people searching on Google and other search engines for, how do you apply for unemployment? And while those searches are going down, we are still seeing people Googling for that, so you can assume those are folks who are new to the unemployment line.

CHANG: Right.

HORSLEY: Remember as well, you know, Congress has expanded the eligibility for unemployment now to people like gig workers and the self-employed. And it's taken a while for states to put that into action. So in some cases, states are just now beginning to process those claims even if the workers have been out of work for some time.

CHANG: And while that's going on, Richard, I want to turn to you because as we mentioned, Governor Cuomo in New York announced some pretty startling numbers today about just how far the coronavirus has spread there. Where is he getting his data?

HARRIS: Right. Well, the state of New York took about 3,000 blood samples from across the state, looking for antibodies to the coronavirus. People produce these antibodies after they've been infected. And the sample wasn't ideal, although the people were over the age of 18, and they were all out and about at grocery stores and so on. But this unpublished survey did find a lot of past exposure to coronavirus. In New York City, for example, 21% of the samples were positive. Among other implications, that means that a smaller percentage of people who are infected actually have died.

CHANG: Well, this sounds like good news, right? I mean, it means less - it's been less deadly than people had thought.

HARRIS: That's true. But it's - this figure still makes it five times more deadly than a case of the flu - actually, more than that because this is only counting the 15,000 deaths in New York, and there are substantially more that - have just - have not been counted yet. This tells us a lot about the spread of this disease and that it's happening silently. I talked to Lauren Ancel Meyers, a scientist at the University of Texas at Austin, about this today.

LAUREN ANCEL MEYERS: This just confirms that this thing spread very extensively in a short amount of time when we were going about life as normal. And the primary reason why New York is - maybe has kind of, you know, gotten the situation under control is because we social distance.

HARRIS: Right. And she says that New York lets up on social distancing too soon, the spread will just return - the silent spread. And the city could face another agonizing battle with the disease.

CHANG: Right, that I get. But what I want to know is, are people with antibodies immune from the coronavirus going forward?

HARRIS: Yeah. Scientists don't know. It's possible that they are. And if it turns out that they are, that means now that 14% of New Yorkers could conceivably relax a bit. But you know, the testing to do that on an individual basis is pretty rough. So we - so even if that's theoretically possible, it's hard to figure out who's going to get that passport.

CHANG: Right.

HARRIS: So there's, you know - in any event, New York has a long way to go before most people are out of danger.

CHANG: Well, one thing I also want to ask you about is at the White House briefing today, we learned that the Department of Homeland Security has been experimenting with the virus at a lab in Maryland. What did they find?

HARRIS: Well, again, this is science via press conference and not peer-reviewed.

CHANG: (Laughter).

HARRIS: But William Bryan from the department - yeah, I know. Welcome to coronavirus land. But William Bryan from the Department of Homeland Security said the coronavirus doesn't survive well in direct sunlight, and it doesn't live as long in conditions with high temperature and humidity. President Trump used that to bolster his hope that the virus will disappear this summer.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I once mentioned that maybe it does go away with heat and light, and people didn't like that statement very much. The fake news didn't like it at all. And I just threw it out as a suggestion. But it seems like that's the case because when it's on a surface that would last for a long time, when that surface is outside, it goes away very quickly. It dies very quickly with the sun.

CHANG: OK. That's what the president said, but is that supported by scientific evidence?

HARRIS: Well, viruses are killed by sunlight. That's not new. But that doesn't mean this disease will disappear in the summer. For example, Singapore is having a horrible resurgence of the virus right now, and the forecast there today is 90 degrees and 100% humidity. Respiratory viruses don't - generally don't do so well in the summer. But you know, new outbreaks don't necessarily follow that pattern.

And William Bryan pointed out that harsh sunlight is hardly a panacea against the virus. He said that basically, you might kill it on the top of a piece of playground equipment. But if a child touches the underside of a piece of playground equipment, then that person could still be infected. So it's hardly a cure-all. And the president also suggested that strong light, bleach or rubbing alcohol could be investigated as a way to kill coronaviruses inside patients.

CHANG: All right.

HARRIS: Bryan sidestepped that by saying he doesn't experiment on people.

CHANG: That is NPR science correspondent Richard Harris. We also heard from congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell and chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley.

Thanks to all three of you.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

SNELL: Thanks for having me.

HARRIS: Sure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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