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Coronavirus Latest: Unemployment Numbers, Federal Guidelines For Local Governments

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The toll of the coronavirus pandemic is steep - hundreds of thousands of confirmed infections around the world, tens of thousands of lives lost.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

And in the U.S., one more measure - today we learned that more than 3 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits last week, by far the biggest one-week spike in history. Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell was candid on NBC's "Today" show. He said, technically, we may well be in a recession. And as for a recovery...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TODAY")

JEROME POWELL: It will really depend on the spread of the virus. The virus is going to dictate the timetable here.

SHAPIRO: This afternoon, a new strategy coming out of the White House - the Trump administration is working on guidelines based on testing data to help categorize counties as high, medium or low risk for the coronavirus. For more, we're joined now by NPR's Quil Lawrence - our correspondent in New York - chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley and science correspondent Richard Harris. Hello to all of you.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good evening.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Hello.

SHAPIRO: Richard, let me start with you and those new guidelines the administration is working on. What more can you tell us about them?

HARRIS: Well, President Trump sent a letter to governors, and it provides a small window into the process that has been actually quite opaque, hinting about what the next steps are as people around the country are limiting their movements. The idea is to rank countries and - counties - pardon me - into low, medium or high risk. Doesn't really get you anywhere, though, unless you can act on that information.

Counties everywhere will need to be people to run tests at will and have an army of people to track down not only people who are sick but their contacts. And unfortunately, the country's not set up at all to do that. The testing part is still struggling to get up to speed, and there are supply shortages there, and that's actually the easy part compared with the challenge of training people to track down cases in their contacts.

I talked via Skype today to Jeremy Konyndyk, a former official in the Obama administration who's now at the Center for Global Development, and he says it just doesn't make sense to be talking about setting Easter or any other time as a goal.

JEREMY KONYNDYK: The White House is arguing over when do we lift this as if that's even a relevant question right now; it's not. The relevant question right now is, holy God, how do we build a Manhattan Project for public health over the next two months so that we can avoid losing hundreds of thousands of American lives?

SHAPIRO: So Richard, how does this plan compare with what China did to bring its epidemic under control?

HARRIS: Well, China did social isolation, but on top of that, they very early on did massive testing, contact tracing and also isolating sick people. And they were able to confine most of their epidemic to just one limited area. Konyndyk says ours is like a bonfire that has sent sparks into all 50 states, many of which have now already flared into serious problems, with others just getting going.

And Ari, the U.S. now has 75,000-plus cases. By the time China reached that number, their epidemic was on the wane. Tomorrow I expect that the U.S. will surpass China in the total number of cases, with Italy neck and neck for the dubious title. But our case count is still rocketing up.

SHAPIRO: That is really sobering. Well, let's talk about what's happening in New York, where, Quil, yesterday Governor Cuomo was sounding an optimistic note about hospital admissions slowing down. Today the news was not as bright.

LAWRENCE: Yeah. I mean, it's a point in time compared to a trend, but still, the latest statistics were a 40% jump in hospitalizations. We're, in New York state, hitting 40,000 cases soon; 385 deaths as of today, and that's a hundred more dead than yesterday. That is probably undercounted. I'm hearing anecdotally from people who - for example, paramedics who are showing up at houses in - where someone has died and had - and having, you, know trouble breathing, but you can't say for sure that that's a COVID death.

Governor Andrew Cuomo said that social distancing measures may be working but that New York is basically going to run out of hospital beds next month if it doesn't act fast.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANDREW CUOMO: Keep the curve down as low as you can. But you cannot get the curve down low enough so that you don't overwhelm the hospital capacity, and that's why we're literally adding to the hospital capacity every way we can.

LAWRENCE: So he said that you're (ph) going to stand up thousand-bed capacity facilities in each borough of New York City and each downstate county.

SHAPIRO: So when people in New York in the middle of this crisis hear about this White House plan to rank counties, I mean, what does that look like from where you sit?

LAWRENCE: Oh, I don't think it's entered anyone's mind. They're just scrambling to try and take care of the crisis right now.

SHAPIRO: All right. So Scott, it remains to be seen how this plan might work in New York, but the administration's plan could hopefully help state and local leaders around the country make decisions about when it might be safe to relax social distancing rules and reopen businesses. Three-and-a-quarter million people have applied for unemployment benefits just in the last week. What does that number tell us about the national scale of this shutdown?

HORSLEY: Ari, it dwarfs anything we've seen before. It's nearly five times what we saw during the worst week of the Great Recession. We are witnessing an abrupt and unprecedented shutdown of a big chunk of the U.S. economy. And as big as those numbers are, they don't tell the whole story. A lot of people who were out of work last week still haven't been able to file for unemployment because government telephone lines and websites have been overwhelmed. What's more, we continue to see more businesses closing their doors this week, so the pain's not over yet.

SHAPIRO: So why did the stock market go up today in the face of that?

HORSLEY: Yeah, the Dow is up more than 1,300 points, the S&P 500 also up more than 6%. Investors seem to be encouraged by the Senate passing that $2 trillion rescue package. That will provide some cushion for the newly unemployed and also, of course, direct payments for most Americans and a ton of money for businesses that have been adversely affected. It's possible that investors are also reacting to this suggestion from the White House that the most restrictive public health measures might be lifted sooner rather than later.

SHAPIRO: Explain, then, why the Fed chairman is saying that maybe if we are in a recession, it could be a brief one.

HORSLEY: Well, Powell says there's nothing fundamentally wrong with the U.S. economy, or at least there wasn't before the coronavirus hit. But we have now slammed on the brakes in an effort to control the virus. Both the Fed and Congress are putting a whole lot of money out there as a kind of economic air bag in an effort to cushion the sudden stop. If that works, Powell told NBC, it's possible we could see a pretty robust recovery.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TODAY")

POWELL: If we get the virus spread under control fairly quickly, then economic activity can resume.

HORSLEY: Now, obviously, the president is eager to open up the economy quickly. But I should note, there were a trio of economists from both the Fed and MIT who did a study looking back at the 1918 flu. What they found was the places in the country that were the most aggressive in their public health measures also enjoyed the strongest economic rebound. So it may be that short-term pain is worth it in the long run.

SHAPIRO: Quil, I'd like to go back to you in New York. You talked about the city trying to stand up thousand-bed hospitals on short notice. What about masks and gowns? We're hearing about nurses improvising personal protective equipment. Do they have the supplies they need?

LAWRENCE: Well, we're getting kind of a mixed message. The governor says that he's talked to the heads of hospitals, and there's enough. We are hearing anecdotally from doctors about bringing in homemade masks or things that they've ordered online. The supplies are under lock and key in the hospitals. So it may just be that the improvising is against a shortage that everyone presumes is coming. They're also improvising on ventilators. They've approved splitting vents, which means you set it up so that one ventilator can conserve two patients at the same time, and maybe even converting anesthesia machines into ventilators.

SHAPIRO: You told us yesterday that the city is still short about 30,000 ventilators. Is there movement to fill that gap?

LAWRENCE: Well, you know, the governor alluded to COVID patients using these ventilators for a much longer time than they're usually used, like, 11 to 21 days, and still not recovering. So it's sort of a poor turnaround. I mean, he's been struggling, everyone's been struggling here to come up with an optimistic tone and I guess talk - he mentioned today 52,000 volunteers, health care volunteers, who have stepped up to say they'll work.

But really, it just brings home the gravity of the problem and the projected number of casualties. One health care worker said to me - and this is one of the heroes that the governor's talking about - said that it's a sobering reality that some of us in health work are going to die, and a few already have.

SHAPIRO: Wow. NPR's Quil Lawrence, Scott Horsley and Richard Harris. Thanks to all three of you.

HARRIS: You're welcome.

HORSLEY: Sure.

LAWRENCE: Thanks, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.