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Virus pushes US unemployment toward highest since Depression

Together Omaha food pantry workers load supplies into a vehicle driving up to the pantry in Omaha, Neb., Thursday.

NEW YORK — Unemployment in the U.S. is swelling to levels last seen during the Great Depression of the 1930s, with 1 in 6 American workers thrown out of a job by the coronavirus, according to new data released Thursday. In response to the deepening economic crisis, the House passed a nearly $500 billion spending package to help buckled businesses and hospitals.

More than 4.4 million laid-off Americans applied for unemployment benefits last week, the government reported. In all, roughly 26 million people — the population of the 10 biggest U.S. cities combined — have now filed for jobless aid in five weeks, an epic collapse that has raised the stakes in the debate over how and when to ease the shutdowns of factories and other businesses.

In the hardest-hit corner of the U.S., evidence emerged that perhaps 2.7 million New York state residents have been infected by the virus — 10 times the number confirmed by lab tests.

A small, preliminary statewide survey of around 3,000 people found that nearly 14% had antibodies showing they had been infected, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said. Just in New York City, with a population of 8.6 million, Health Commissioner Oxiris Barbot said as many as 1 million may have been infected.

In Washington, many House lawmakers wore face masks and bandannas — and some sat in the otherwise vacant visitors gallery to stay away from others — as they debated the latest spending package. A near-unanimous vote sent it to President Donald Trump in the evening.

Anchoring the bill is the administration’s $250 billion request to replenish a fund to help small- and medium-size businesses with payroll, rent and other expenses. Trump said the bill “will help small businesses to keep millions of workers on the payroll.”

Abroad, there was mixed news about the epidemic. Some countries, including Greece, Bangladesh and Malaysia, announced extensions of their lockdowns. Vietnam, New Zealand and Croatia were among those moving to end or ease such measures.

In Africa, COVID-19 cases surged 43% in the past week to 26,000, according to John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The figures underscored a recent warning from the World Health Organization that the virus could kill more than 300,000 people in Africa and push 30 million into desperate poverty.

Brazil’s health ministry confirmed 407 deaths due to the outbreak in the last 24 hours, a daily high for the country.

Huge lines have formed at food banks from El Paso, Texas, to the Paris suburbs, and food shortages are hitting Africa especially hard.

At a virtual summit, European Union leaders agreed to set up a massive recovery fund to help rebuild the 27-nation bloc’s ravaged economies. While no figure was put on the plan, officials said 1-1.5 trillion euros ($1.1-1.6 trillion) would be needed.

The coronavirus has killed nearly 190,000 people worldwide, including more than 100,000 in Europe and about 47,000 in the United States, according to a tally compiled by John Hopkins University from official government figures. The true numbers are almost certainly far higher.

In the U.S., the economic consequences of the shutdowns have sparked angry rallies in state capitals by protesters demanding that businesses reopen, and Trump has expressed impatience over the restrictions.

Some governors have begun easing up despite warnings from health authorities that it may be too soon to do so without sparking a second wave of infections. In Georgia, gyms, hair salons and bowling alleys can reopen Friday. Texas has reopened its state parks.

Few Americans count on Trump as a reliable source of information on the outbreak, according to a survey from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. About 23% said they have high levels of trust in what he tells the public, while 21% said they trust him a moderate amount.

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