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Coronavirus Update: Unemployment Numbers Keep Growing Across The U.S.


The coronavirus pandemic keeps draining the U.S. economy. Today the Labor Department said another 2.4 million Americans applied for unemployment last week. That means more people keep losing their jobs even as businesses slowly start to reopen. Meanwhile, there is some good news out of South Korea about people who test positive for the virus long after they have recovered. Joining us to talk more about that is NPR science correspondent Richard Harris and chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley.

Good to have you both here.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good afternoon.


SHAPIRO: Scott, we've seen stay-at-home orders relax now in some states, but we're still seeing millions of people filing for unemployment. Why?

HORSLEY: Yeah, Ari. The - last week claims were down from the week before, but they're still really high by conventional standards. Over the last couple months, we've seen more than 38 million people filing for unemployment. That's about 1 out of 4 who was working back in February. Franklin Hessler ordinarily works as a tour guide in Yellowstone National Park, but Montana's visitor industry is under quarantine until at least the beginning of next month. Hessler has also been trying to collect unemployment benefits but says he hasn't had any luck so far.

FRANKLIN HESSLER: It's just impossible to actually get through and talk to someone. So it's just waiting, waiting, waiting. They send you a paper. You mail it back in, wait, wait, wait, wait. But hopefully, it'll all go through eventually, you know? I mean, times are tough - not too tough, though. I mean, we're still surviving.

HORSLEY: Hessler's in good company. While there are people going back to work now, they appear to be outnumbered by those who are still getting pink slips. The official unemployment rate last month was close to 15%. That's the highest since the Great Depression. And Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin warned this week it's going to get worse before it gets better.

SHAPIRO: And some of the reopening is slowed by new infections. Is that right?

HORSLEY: That is right. For example, the big Detroit automakers reopened their North American plants this week, and they've taken a lot of precautions to try to keep workers safe. But almost right away, Ford had to shut down two of its plants temporarily after workers tested positive for COVID-19. Now, those plants have since opened back up again, but it just goes to show this is not going to be easy and it's not going to be quick. A lot of smaller companies are also wrestling with this.

I spoke today with Nicholas Mancuso (ph). He used to work for a metal fabricator in upstate New York. That company has brought back about half its workers, but so far, Mancuso has not been recalled.

NICHOLAS MANCUSO: The assembly room where they - you know, they have us assembling, it's really close quarters in there. And I don't think they want us that close to each other.

HORSLEY: Mancuso has also struggled to collect unemployment. He's been out of work for a couple months, but he didn't start receiving benefits until just a few weeks ago.

MANCUSO: We're all right. I mean, we have food. They haven't turned the lights off. Eight hundred and seventy-three dollars was yesterday put onto the Key Bank card that they give you, a debit card. And I've given 700 of that to the landlord.

HORSLEY: Before that unemployment started coming through, Mancuso had fallen about two months behind on his rent, and he was about to be three months behind.

SHAPIRO: Richard Harris, I want to turn to you to talk about some news that's come out of South Korea today. One of the lingering questions about the coronavirus is how long people can spread the disease after they've recovered. Tell us what we've learned.

HARRIS: Right. One of the concerns is that people - some people, at least - still test positive for the virus long after they have recovered. Doctors don't know for sure whether those people still pose a risk, so they tend to be kept in isolation. And that's a big issue, say, for people who live in nursing homes, and they can't go back until they test negative. So this study from South Korea's CDC has some reassuring news on this topic. They followed almost 300 people who had recovered from COVID-19. They at first tested negative but then surprisingly tested positive again some time later.

I talked to Dr. Aaron Hess at the University of Wisconsin, who has also studied people who tested positive after they've recovered. And he's encouraged by the report from the South Korean health officials.

AARON HESS: They followed up a lot of contacts, but none of these people seemed to have infected anybody else.

HARRIS: It appears that, at least for people who have tested negative for a while and then tested positive again, the test was actually just picking up on traces of the coronavirus that didn't really pose a health risk.

SHAPIRO: How had South Korea been handling cases like this?

HARRIS: Well, health officials had been putting these people into isolation, and their contacts had been quarantined. But given the new findings, the South Korean CDC has decided those measures are no longer necessary.

SHAPIRO: Do you think health officials here in the U.S. are going to follow suit?

HARRIS: That's hard to say. Dr. Hess points out that South Korea is set up much better than we are to react if it turns out that, on occasion, one of those people who still tests positive turns out to be able to spread the virus.

HESS: You know, unfortunately, what we don't have here in the U.S. is the kind of widespread testing and systematic contact tracing that might make you feel more confident in saying that you would be comfortable not reisolating people who are positive.

HARRIS: Even so, though, it's pretty reassuring to see that a positive test in someone who has recovered is not a strong signal that they pose a risk to others.

SHAPIRO: Scott, to go back to the economic recovery, how will people's worries about the virus affect their willingness to go back to work or back to the department store or the movie theater?

HORSLEY: That's a really important question, Ari. You know, did a survey. They found just over a third of the respondents feel comfortable going back to restaurants and theaters and hair salons right now even if those businesses are taking extra precautions. What's more, 43% of those surveyed say they expect to shop less out in public than they used to. So even as businesses start to open their doors, customers are not necessarily going to be coming streaming through them.

Tourism could certainly be hard-hit both because people are nervous and also because they might have less money to spend after being out of work or having their hours cut. That said, our tour guide Franklin Hessler says he's eager to start showing people around Yellowstone again just as soon as the state of Montana gives the green light.

HESSLER: I'm excited. I want to get into the park. Like, this is literally the best time in Yellowstone. You know, you get all the bison babies, little baby bears, wolves all over the place. I mean, there's a lot of action going on in Yellowstone that's being missed right now.

SHAPIRO: So, Richard, with Memorial Day coming up and the start of the traditional summer vacation season, do you have any advice for people thinking about taking a camping trip?

HARRIS: Well, first, make sure the park you want to camp in is open. The CDC also has advice that applies to camping trips and more generally. Bear in mind, of course, that you'll be in public restrooms, most likely. You'll be in gas stations, maybe even restaurants. Make sure you can still wash your hands often and thoroughly.

Being outdoors appears to be much safer than being indoors, but, you know, the CDC says it's still important to keep six feet apart and wear face coverings as appropriate. And don't travel if you're feeling sick, and isolate yourself if you don't feel well when you're - either when you're on the road or when you get home. And to that advice, I'd add enjoy the view.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) And one more thing - the FDA announced today that it is continuing to crack down on antibody tests that don't meet minimal standards. What did they do today?

HARRIS: Well, the FDA initially set a very low bar for antibody tests, and that led to a flood of tests of poor or of unknown quality. So on May 4, the FDA announced that these tests would have to apply for emergency use authorization. That's still far short of actual FDA approval, but it's a step up from where they were before. So today the FDA announced that 27 tests are now off the list that's lining up for FDA authorization. There still are well over 100 tests that are planning to meet this standard and at least a dozen that already do.

And remember, Ari; these tests measure past exposure to the coronavirus. They don't diagnose the disease, and they don't tell you if you're immune. There's always the chance that the results are wrong. But, you know, some of the big testing companies like LabCorp and Quest say they use the tests - that they report really low error rates.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR science correspondent Richard Harris and chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley. Thank you both.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

HARRIS: Any time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.
Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.
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