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Coronavirus Updates: Another Unemployment Surge, Genome Information

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Over the last three weeks, with businesses across the U.S. closing up in the fight against the coronavirus, nearly 17 million people have filed for unemployment.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

People like Angelita Wynn. She drives a school bus in Pittsburgh when school is in session, which it hasn't been since March 20.

ANGELITA WYNN: My bank account is in the negative. It has meant that I've had to rely on savings that will not last forever. It has led to sleepless nights and anxious days.

SHAPIRO: David Roode is a professional musician in Cincinnati, and he's been trying to apply for unemployment. But it hasn't been easy.

DAVID ROODE: I literally sat on hold for an hour and a half the first day before giving up, sat on hold for three hours the second day before giving up. And that was right around the time when my phone actually ran out of minutes.

KELLY: Will Thompson ran audiovisual systems for big conferences, which are not happening these days. He says he and his wife are relatively fortunate. They have some savings, so they've got a little time for the unemployment checks to come through.

WILL THOMPSON: You know, if we can't get unemployment on Sunday, when it's supposed to be here - you know, immediately - we're not going to drown. But I know there's a lot of people who are. It's really a hard time right now.

SHAPIRO: For more on this really hard time, we are joined by NPR science correspondent Richard Harris, national correspondent Jeff Brady and chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley. Good to have all three of you back here.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good afternoon.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: So, Scott, these numbers are just staggering. In the last week alone, 6 1/2 million people filed for unemployment. We learned that number today. It seems like whether we are bending the curve on the health front, on the economic front, it is just this terrible spike.

HORSLEY: It really is. The tsunami of unemployment claims last week was almost as high as what we saw the week before, and that shattered all existing records. The three-week total you mentioned - 17 million people who've lost jobs, Ari - that's about 10% of the American workforce. So we are about to see the highest unemployment rate this country has witnessed since the 1930s. And Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell says, you know, it's such a complete reversal of where we were just a month or so ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEROME POWELL: We are moving with alarming speed from 50-year lows in unemployment to what will likely be very high, although temporary, levels. All of us are affected, but the burdens are falling most heavily on those least able to carry them.

SHAPIRO: Scott, each week these numbers have been so high, and we're still hearing about people who can't get through to unemployment offices to file their claims. How many more people do you think are still waiting in line?

HORSLEY: States are really struggling with this high volume of claims. Some have tried to spread out the workload. They've been telling people, for example, whose names begin with, you know, A to M to file on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and those whose names are at the end of the alphabet to file Monday, Wednesday, Friday just to stretch it out a little bit. They are trying to work through the backlog, but it is still a crush.

And timing here is important. You know, I talked to a worker in New York who lost his job almost a month ago on Friday, March 13. At the time, he felt pretty unlucky. But it turned out that was just before the big wave of layoffs began, so he was actually able to start collecting unemployment pretty quickly. His fiancée and some of his co-workers who got pink slips a week or 10 days later, they're still struggling to work through the system. He told me, we're all in the same boat, but we're in different seats on that boat.

SHAPIRO: All right. Well, let's stay in New York but shift to the science of this disease because, Richard, I understand there's new information out about the origin of the coronavirus epidemic in New York. Where do scientists think it came from?

HARRIS: Well, genetic studies of the virus show that there wasn't just one initial case in the New York area, but there've been multiple introductions. Of course, the epidemic started in Wuhan, China, but these early cases in New York City came by way of infections that had cropped up in Europe. I talked to Dr. Emilia Sordillo, an infectious disease specialist at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.

EMILIA SORDILLO: There are at least seven separate introductions that we have identified so far.

HARRIS: And while most of those came from Europe, some of the viruses had actually apparently been circulating in the United States and also in Canada. So some came from closer to home.

SHAPIRO: How did scientists figure that out?

HARRIS: They've been studying the genetic sequence of the virus. There's an international database of this information that's cataloging more than 2,000 individual viruses - and growing rapidly - that have been isolated from around the world.

Now, the trick is that as a virus replicates, small spelling errors creep into its genetic code. And by comparing those misspellings from one virus to a next, scientists can figure out how the viruses are related to one another. And you can also learn something about the timing of all this because these small errors generally appear at a predictable rate. Harm van Bakel at Mt. Sinai talked to me about that.

HARM VAN BAKEL: I would say, based on our estimates, that it has at least been in the city probably since the end of January.

HARRIS: And the first recorded case in New York was in February 29. But, you know, surveillance was inadequate because there were so few tests available. So really, for that month of February, people really didn't know what was going on in New York. It is now evident that the disease took hold in New York really quite a while ago.

SHAPIRO: Well, the administration has been talking so much about their early efforts to limit international travel. It sounds like that actually didn't prevent much.

HARRIS: Right. Early cases may have been spreading in New York even before President Trump limited travel from China at the end of January and certainly long before the president placed some limits on travel from Europe. But, you know, at least those measures could have prevented the disease from being even worse than it is. We really don't really know that at this point. But, you know, there's one more interesting finding from this study related to this topic. Van Bakel says two travelers they had studied who'd come from Europe and one from the Middle East apparently did not spread the disease to anyone else in New York.

VAN BAKEL: They self-quarantined. They kept distance. And we have not seen in the dataset that we've examined so far any forward transmission arising from those cases.

HARRIS: So the important message here, he says, is that self-isolation really works, so it's worthwhile to keep up all of our struggling efforts at social distancing. And I should mention that a second research group at NYU Langone is doing similar work and also talked in general about their results today. And The New York Times was the first to report this story.

SHAPIRO: I want to shift to you, Jeff Brady, because you are in Philadelphia, which has been identified as one of the next potential hot spots. Vice President Mike Pence called it an area of concern during yesterday's briefing. Local officials are disputing that. They're more optimistic. So what's the view from the ground where you are?

BRADY: Well, the federal officials, they appear to be focused on different numbers. And, you know, of course, there's a lot of data coming out. But Philadelphia's health commissioner, Dr. Tom Farley, he said today that the feds seem more focused on the rate of infections. And compared to other cities around the country, it is relatively high here in Philadelphia. We're close to New York. We're close to New Jersey, where outbreaks have been more severe. But instead of that rate of infection, Dr. Farley said during a video press conference today that he's focused on something else.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

TOM FARLEY: What's our trend? And I am more optimistic about our trend that it's not - it's been rising quite quickly. But in the last few days, it has been rising much more slowly. I can't guarantee that will continue, but if it does, that would be a good sign.

BRADY: Yeah, we've heard a lot about flattening the curve, and Dr. Farley thinks that might be starting to happen here in Philadelphia.

SHAPIRO: If infections and hospitalizations do spike, how's the city in terms of the hospital beds and ventilators that it needs?

BRADY: Well, Dr. Farley says the city is in pretty good shape. Currently, there are about 630 people with COVID-19 in city hospitals. There are about twice that in hospitals around southeast Pennsylvania. But Farley says there are still many free hospital beds, many ICU beds that are available, plenty of available ventilators. And given that and that the curve might be starting to flatten, he says he's cautiously optimistic.

SHAPIRO: Let me ask you to look beyond Philadelphia now because I know you've been reporting that the federal government planned to withdraw funding for 41 community-based testing sites around the country. A lot of people were stunned by that news because the country still has not approached the peak of this pandemic. So what have you learned today about that?

BRADY: Well, the Department of Health and Human Services, they just confirmed that the agency is essentially reversing itself. The HHS says it will continue to offer support to local officials who still want it. They must have expressed that desire before now. There's a very short deadline on this. The agency says there are some officials who want to transition to their own programs, go without federal help. This allows them to do that, too. I've been following one testing site outside of Philadelphia in Montgomery County. The county commission chair there also is a physician. Dr. Val Arkoosh says she got the news from the HHS this morning.

VAL ARKOOSH: Well, I'm thrilled and relieved. It would have been impossible for us to replicate this amount of testing on our own, and it is going to make it so much easier for us.

BRADY: Arkoosh said this help is especially needed now. There was a big windstorm here today, and the drive-through testing site - the only one in the county that's run by the feds, with their support - that was damaged. They had to shut it down. They're going to move to a local community college parking lot. They hope to be back open next Wednesday. And they'll have some catching up to do because they've been collecting about 250 samples a day there.

SHAPIRO: What reason did HHS give for eliminating the funding?

BRADY: Well, they said that this program was always meant to be kind of a short-term stopgap program mostly to test health care workers and first responders while local hospitals and other medical facilities got their own test sites up and running. There are quite a few of those sites now, but public health officials say there's still a really big need for testing even with all those new sites.

SHAPIRO: In our last minute, Scott, I want to return to you with an economic question because the Federal Reserve announced another big surge in lending today. The central bank says it is ready to pump another $2.3 trillion into the economy. This is separate from the congressional relief measures we've been talking about. Where is that money going?

HORSLEY: About 500 billion's going to go to struggling state and local governments, another 600 billion to a new Main Street program for small- and mid-sized businesses. Both of these represent new forays for the central bank. Fed Chairman Powell and his colleagues say they are determined to provide a lifeline to both workers and businesses that have been forced to stop working and shut their doors in an effort to slow the pandemic.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

POWELL: People have been asked to put their lives and their livelihoods on hold at significant economic and personal cost. As a society, we should do everything we can to provide relief to those who are suffering for the public good.

HORSLEY: What the Fed is really trying to do here is just keep people and businesses afloat until we come out the other side of this pandemic.

SHAPIRO: That is NPR chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley, national correspondent Jeff Brady in Philadelphia and science correspondent Richard Harris. Good to have all three of you here.

BRADY: Thanks, Ari.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

HARRIS: Sure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MELLOTRON VARIATIONS' "WALTZING RIVERBED WAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.