Economic Fallout Mounts, Along With Competition For Masks

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NEW YORK  — The coronavirus outbreak has thrown 10 million Americans out of work in just two weeks, in the swiftest, most stunning collapse the U.S. job market has ever seen, and the losses could double by the end of the month, as the economic damage from the crisis piles up around the world.

The bleak economic news Thursday — 6.6 million new unemployment claims on top of 3.3 million last week — came as the competition for masks and other protective gear intensified amid growing evidence that people who are infected but have no symptoms can spread the virus. Deaths continued to mount in Italy and Spain with alarming speed, and the crisis deepened in New York City.

There were sobering preparations for a rise in U.S. deaths: The Federal Emergency Management Agency has asked the Pentagon for 100,000 body bags because of the possibility funeral homes will be overwhelmed, the military said.

The mounting economic fallout almost certainly signals the onset of a severe global recession, with job losses that are likely to dwarf those of the Great Recession more than a decade ago.

With large portions of America under lockdown to try to contain the scourge, job losses for the world’s biggest economy could reach as high as 20 million and the unemployment rate could spike to as high as 15% by the end of the month, many economists have said. Unemployment in the U.S. hasn’t been that high since the tail end of the Depression.

“This kind of upending of the labor market in such a short time is unheard of,” said Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank.

Roughly 90% of the U.S. population is now under stay-at-home orders, and many factories, restaurants, stores and other businesses are closed or have seen sales shrivel.

Laid-off workers can tap money made available in the $2.2 trillion rescue measure passed by Congress. It adds $600 a week to unemployment benefits, extends eligibility to 39 weeks and for the first time wraps in part-timers and workers in the so-called gig economy, such as Uber drivers.

Kathryn Lickteig, a cook in Kansas City, signed up for unemployment compensation last week after the city shut down dine-in restaurants. She is hoping the extra $600 will help her ride out the shutdown instead of having to look for another job.

“It has eased my mind so much,” she said. “I do not have to actively go out and expose myself to the public and possibly get sick. I can stay home now and do my part in social distancing.”

Many recently unemployed workers have reported frustrations with jammed phone lines and overloaded websites as they try to apply for unemployment aid.

Altogether, close to 1 million people around the world have contracted the virus and more than 48,000 have died, according to Johns Hopkins University. Over 200,000 have recovered.

Spain reported a record number of daily virus-related deaths, 950 in 24 hours, bringing its total deaths to about 10,000, despite signs that the infection rate is slowing. Italy had the most virus deaths in the world at over 13,000. Over 200,000 people have been infected in the U.S., and the death toll climbed past 5,100.

The race to protect people from the virus — and the cut-throat competition for ventilators, masks and other vital supplies — seemed to intensify.

A study by researchers in Singapore on Wednesday estimated that 10% of new infections may be sparked by people who carry the virus but have not yet developed symptoms.

In response, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed how it defines the risks of infection, saying essentially that anyone may be a carrier, with or without symptoms. But neither it nor the World Health Organization changed its stand that most people do not need to wear masks.

Still, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti recommended the city’s 4 million people wear masks, saying even a “tucked-in bandanna” could slow the spread of the virus and remind people to keep their distance from each other.

“I know it will look surreal,” he said, donning a mask. “We’re going to have to get used to seeing each other like this.”

A top health official in France’s hard-hit eastern region said American officials swooped in at a Chinese airport to spirit away a planeload of masks that France had ordered.

“On the tarmac, the Americans arrive, take out cash and pay three or four times more for our orders, so we really have to fight,” Dr. Jean Rottner, an emergency room doctor in Mulhouse, told RTL radio.

Nine leading European university hospitals warned Thursday they will run out of essential medicines for COVID-19 patients in intensive care in less than two weeks. The European University Hospital Alliance said countries should cooperate, not compete, to ensure a steady supply.

President Donald Trump acknowledged on Wednesday that the federal stockpile is nearly depleted of the protective equipment needed by doctors and nurses.

“We’re going to have a couple of weeks, starting pretty much now, but especially a few days from now, that are going to be horrific,” he said.

In Japan, where masks are a household staple, the government planned to mail two gauze masks each to the country’s 50 million households.

The U.S. government’s top infectious-disease official, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said medical experts are no closer to figuring out why some seemingly healthy people infected by the virus develop only mild or no symptoms while others become very sick. Fauci said Thursday on NBC’s “Today” show that he has been “puzzled from the beginning” of the epidemic.

“How does it end? And people want answers,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in the state that has become the worst hot spot in the nation. “I want answers. The answer is nobody knows for sure.”

Cuomo said projections suggest the crisis in New York will peak at the end of April, with a high death rate continuing through July.

New York state’s coronavirus death toll doubled in 72 hours to more than 1,900 on Wednesday. Cuomo has complained that states are competing against each other for protective gear and breathing machines, or being outbid by the federal government, in a competition he likened to being on eBay.

In Greece, authorities placed an entire refugee camp of 2,400 people under quarantine after discovering that one-third of the 63 contacts of just one infected woman tested positive — and none had showed symptoms.

The real figures are believed to be much higher because of testing shortages, differences in counting the dead and mild cases that have gone unreported. Critics also say some governments have been deliberately under-reporting cases in order to avoid criticism.

Frank Ulrich Montgomery, chairman of the World Medical Association, called China’s recent low figures on infections “nonsense” but added that many countries are working with uncertain data.

In Italy, a new study found a hidden toll from coronavirus in the province of Bergamo, more than doubling the official number of dead there to a new estimate of 4,500.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for others, especially older adults and people with health problems, it can cause severe symptoms like pneumonia.

People in Wuhan, the Chinese city was once the epicenter of the crisis, are starting to return to work, tracked by a color-coded smartphone app that shows if they are free of symptoms.

Green means the user is symptom-free; it is required to board a subway, check into a hotel or enter the city of 11 million. Serious travel restrictions still exist for those who have yellow or red symbols.

By MICHAEL R. SISAK, LORI HINNANT and MARK SHERMAN – Apr 2. 2020 – 11:44 AM ET

AP

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Hinnant reported from Paris. Sherman reported from Washington. Associated Press writers around the world contributed to this report.

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Follow AP news coverage of the coronavirus pandemic at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.

 
 

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