By Doina Chiacu and Susan Heavey
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A record 6.6 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits last week, the U.S. government said on Thursday, after another four states told residents to stay at home in the latest signs of the human and economic cost of the coronavirus.
Initial jobless claims rocketed as stay-at-home orders to stop the spread of the pandemic – now affecting more than 80 percent of Americans in 39 states – have forced large and small businesses to curtail output or shut altogether.
Florida, Georgia, Mississippi and Nevada told residents to stay home on Wednesday, when the death toll soared by 925 to more than 4,800 nationwide. Confirmed U.S. cases climbed to 214,000, nearly double that of Italy, with the second most.
Globally, the number of confirmed infections approached 1 million with nearly 47,000 fatalities, led by Italy with over 13,000 dead.
More gloomy news came on Thursday when the Labor Department reported a whopping 6.6 million people filed for jobless claims in the past week, double the previous record set a week ago.
“It takes your breath away,” said Justin Hoogendoorn, head of fixed income strategy and analytics at Piper Sandler in Chicago. “Obviously the immediate reaction to something like that is going to be fear, especially when (jobless claims) were just about double what economists were even predicting, thinking dire scenarios.”
The fresh evidence of the pandemic’s impact on the economy follows a growing consensus by health experts that the respiratory illness could kill 100,000 to 240,000 people even if lockdown orders remain in place and Americans abide by them.
To deal with the mounting number of fatalities, the U.S. Defense Department is looking to provide up to 100,000 body bags after the Federal Emergency Management Agency placed an order for that many, a Pentagon official told Reuters on Wednesday.
SOCIAL DISTANCING THE KEY
The outbreak would get worse and social distancing was the only way to contain it, said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
“We just have to do it,” Fauci told NBC’s Today show on Thursday. “That is our major weapon against this virus right now. We don’t have a vaccine that’s deployable. This is the only thing we have.”
He called on U.S. states to review the exemptions they have granted to their stay-at-home orders when he was asked whether businesses such as hair salons and florists should remain open.
“I urge the people at the leadership at the state level to really take a closer look at those kinds of decisions,” Fauci said.
An emergency stockpile of medical equipment maintained by the U.S. government has nearly run out of protective gear for doctors and nurses.
New York City, the epicenter of the U.S. outbreak, has appointed former police commissioner James O’Neill to oversee the city’s medical supply chain.
“We’re going to have to do our best to get the equipment to keep … the healthcare workers safe,” O’Neill told CNN, adding that it was too soon for him to know where the bottleneck was in the supply chain.
“Our goal here is to save as many lives as possible,” O’Neill said. “And I can’t tell you definitely right now how we’re going to do that.”
Reporting by Doina Chiacu, Susan Heavey and Barbara Goldberg; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Howard Goller.