ALISA CHANG, HOST:
Today another glimpse of the severe economic toll of the coronavirus outbreak - 6 1/2 million Americans applied for unemployment benefits last week, bringing the total number of jobless Americans seeking help to 10 million in just the last two weeks.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Meanwhile, Johns Hopkins University today confirmed more than a million cases of COVID-19 worldwide, nearly a quarter of them here in the United States. And tens of thousands of new infections are being confirmed in this country every day, which could put further stress on the economy if current efforts to flatten the curve don't work fast enough.
CHANG: At tonight's coronavirus task force briefing, President Trump announced that he has taken a second COVID test and again tested negative. Here to catch us up on the latest is NPR science correspondent Richard Harris, White House correspondent Tamara Keith and chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley.
Hey to all three of you.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hello.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good evening.
RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Hey.
CHANG: Hey. All right, Scott, let's start with you. Can you just walk us through what these latest unemployment figures mean? I mean, they're just staggering.
HORSLEY: Yeah, jaw-dropping to see more than 6 1/2 million people filing for unemployment in just one week. That's about 10 times what we saw during the worst week of the Great Recession but not really surprising. I mean, the aggressive stay-at-home measures that are now covering much of the country have just brought big chunks the economy to a sudden standstill. One economist I spoke with likened the speed of this shutdown to what we saw on the Gulf Coast back in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit. But, of course, this is a economic storm that's blowing across the whole country.
CHANG: And I understand the state unemployment phone lines and websites are overwhelmed right now. So could there be a lot more than 10 million people out there who don't have jobs and are looking for jobs right now?
HORSLEY: There may be some backlog. But frankly, it's pretty impressive that they managed to process 6.6 million claims last week. People are still waiting to get through on phone lines. Some are still dealing with balky websites, and, of course, then more and more people continue to be laid off. One forecast says we could see 20 million jobs lost before the pandemic is under control. That means the unemployment rate would easily top what we saw during the Great Recession. In fact, it would be the highest probably since World War II.
CHANG: Incredible. Tam, let's turn to you now. I know there was a lot of talk today during the White House briefing about how supplies are getting distributed, like protective equipment for health care workers and ventilators. Tell us what you learned.
KEITH: So the Coronavirus Task Force and others who are working on this are trying to match supplies with what data are telling them about where the coronavirus is the worst or where it will be getting worse. And they say, though, that states still need to take the lead on getting their own supplies, that the federal government is there as a backstop. And they gave an example. The federal government is sending 200,000 N95 masks - those respirators - to New York's public hospitals. But the story about how that was executed actually highlights some concerns that people have had about the nature by which supplies are being distributed. Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law and adviser, came to the briefing today. He has been helping with supply chain issues. He said he got a call early this morning from President Trump.
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JARED KUSHNER: He told me he was hearing from friends of his in New York that the New York public hospital system was running low on critical supplies. I called Dr. Katz, who runs the system, asked him which supply was the most supply he was nervous about. He told me it was the N95 masks. Called up Adm. Polowczyk, made sure we had the inventory. We went to the president today, and earlier today, the president called Mayor de Blasio to inform him that we are going to send a month of supply.
KEITH: So New York hospitals are getting this supply, but it took getting to the president, like, some friend calling the president.
CHANG: Right. And what about ventilators?
KEITH: So the senior naval officer who's running the supply chain task force said that FEMA has pushed out to states nearly 8,000 ventilators. That means there are maybe about - there are more left, but he said that the government is holding them back, the rest of them, to see where the need is greatest. And then they would ship them off when needed on an as-needed basis.
The White House has been hailing a major boost in production of ventilators - they say 100,000 this year when normally 30,000 are made - but they won't be ready for the immediate crisis. Maybe a few thousand will be pushed out in the next couple of months, but most won't be available until June or the end of June.
CHANG: The end of June. And the president said that he took another COVID-19 test. Why did he have to get tested again?
KEITH: It's really not clear. It seems possible - they didn't say anything about additional exposure. It seems possible he just wanted to try out the new technology. The White House physician in a letter said this was a new rapid point-of-care test. It did not require a swab to go all the way up into your nasal cavity to the point where it feels like you're hitting your brain. The president said it was much more pleasant, and the results took 15 minutes. And it was negative.
CHANG: OK. Let's turn to Richard now for some news, I understand, in the world of medicine. We hear that the Food and Drug Administration has approved a new kind of test, one that looks for antibodies in the blood. Tell us how that's going to be useful.
HARRIS: Well, it's a very simple test which requires just a drop of blood. And in 20 minutes, it can tell if you've been exposed to the coronavirus by looking to see if your body has produced antibodies. Now it can take a week or longer for a person to develop antibodies, so this isn't a good way to diagnose the coronavirus disease. But someone recently infected could still test negative. That's important to remember. But one possible use could be to test medical workers. If it turns out they have already been infected, they won't have to worry so much about getting sick.
This test is made by Cellex, a company that manufactures its products in China. And despite the simplicity of the test, it's only approved for use in highly specialized labs with no information about how reliable it is, how soon it will be available and in what quantities. But this is the first of what's sure to be many tests like this.
CHANG: And there was another bit of news out of the FDA. I saw that they relaxed rules for blood donors today. What was behind that?
HARRIS: Well, blood banks are having trouble getting people to donate right now even though they assure people that they can maintain social distancing while drawing blood. The new FDA guidelines will make it easier for gay men and women who have recently had sex with gay men to donate blood. There had been a 12-month waiting period for blood donations following that potentially risky behavior. But, you know, blood is also tested rigorously for HIV and other disease organisms. And today the FDA decided a three-month waiting period is a good safety margin, so the agency is permanently changing that guideline.
CHANG: And, Tam, there was also news of the coronavirus affecting the Democratic convention this summer, right? Tell us about that.
KEITH: That's right. It was supposed to take place in mid-July. Democrats are pushing it to mid-August so they have more time to see what happens with the coronavirus. And they're leaving the door open to major modifications to format depending on what is required for health and safety.
CHANG: OK. Scott, let's circle back to you. There are still a lot of questions about how long all of this economic fallout is going to last. What are forecasters saying to you about - yeah - the long-term effect of all this economically?
HORSLEY: Alisa, the best-case scenario is we are in for a really deep but fairly brief recession, you know, sorting pushing the pause button on the economy while we get a handle on the pandemic and then hitting the play button again relatively quickly so that businesses can then open their doors, turn on the lights and have their workers and customers come back.
That's the rosy scenario. The less rosy scenario is that this drags on for many months, workers scatter, some businesses fold altogether. Policymakers are really trying to prevent that more dire scenario by pouring a lot of cash into the economy as kind of a life preserver to keep it afloat while we deal with the pandemic.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin talked tonight about the loans that the government is going to start making to small businesses tomorrow in the hopes that they will keep more workers on the payroll.
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STEVEN MNUCHIN: We need to get money to small business and American workers. And that's what we're doing.
HORSLEY: Mnuchin also stressed those direct payments we've talked a lot about that the government is going to be sending out to most Americans. They're working to get that money out quickly as well - beginning in just a couple of weeks.
CHANG: All right, that's NPR chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley, White House correspondent Tamara Keith and science correspondent Richard Harris.
Thank you to all three of you.
KEITH: You're welcome.
HORSLEY: You're welcome.
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