President Trump prayed for the nation to begin healing Thursday as the coronavirus penetrated the president’s inner circle at the White House and the total number of Americans who have lost their jobs in the pandemic rose to more than 33 million.
“America is engaged in a fierce battle against a very terrible disease,” the president prayed. “We ask our Lord in heaven for strength and solace, for courage and comfort, for hope and healing, for recovery and for renewal.”
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Mr. Trump said the country has endured “grave hardship,” both in lives lost and livelihoods disrupted.
The Labor Department reported Thursday that 3.2 million Americans filed claims for unemployment benefits last week, bringing the seven-week jobless total during the crisis to 33.5 million.
Analysts say the April unemployment rate, due out Friday, likely rose to a staggering 16% or higher, with numbers not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Neel Kashkari, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, said the true jobless rate is probably near 24% and that the nation should steel itself for a “long, gradual” recovery.
“A lot of people who have just lost their jobs and were all sheltering in place — they’re not actively looking for work,” Mr. Kashkari said on NBC’s “Today” show. “It’s devastating.”
In February, before the coronavirus outbreak took hold in the U.S., the jobless rate was 3.5%.
Neiman Marcus, a high-end department store chain, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Thursday on the heels of retailer J.Crew’s bankruptcy action earlier this week. And venerable retailer Lord & Taylor plans to liquidate once coronavirus restrictions are lifted, sources told Reuters. The Dallas-based Neiman Marcus, with 43 stores nationwide, said it had secured $675 million in financing from creditors to keep operating during the restructuring.
Mr. Trump said the unemployment numbers “will start coming down at an appropriate time.”
“I’m viewing the third quarter as being a very important quarter because that will be a transition,” he told reporters during an Oval Office meeting.
Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joseph R. Biden called the jobless statistics “the cost of complacency.”
“President Trump had months to take action and stave off the worst of this crisis. He should have been deploying tests, marshaling medical supplies and bracing the public to slow the spread from the minute he was briefed on its dangers this winter,” Mr. Biden said.
The president met with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, about the state’s reopening on the same day that the governor issued an order freeing salon owner Shelley Luther from jail, where she had been sentenced for one week for operating her business in violation of a local stay-at-home order.
“These people who spent their life building up a business and being told to shut it down and lose every penny they have, and then … they are subject to arrest,” Mr. Abbott said. “That is wrong. No one can be put behind bars because they’re not following an executive order.”
The president agreed with the governor’s move.
“We’re working very hard now. Texas is opening up,” Mr. Trump said. “I’m not sure we even have a choice. I think we have to do it. This country can’t stay closed and locked down.”
The number of deaths from COVID-19 rose to more than 75,000 on Thursday. More than 1.2 million Americans have been infected with the virus in a population of almost 330 million.
The White House confirmed that a member of the Navy who serves as a personal valet to the president has tested positive for COVID-19. CNN said the aide started showing symptoms Wednesday.
The president said he had “very little contact” with the aide.
“It’s a little bit strange, but it’s one of those things,” Mr. Trump said. “Right now, we’re all warriors together.”
He said his valets wear masks, as do many other White House staffers.
It is the second time the president is known to have come into contact with someone infected with the virus. Mr. Trump hosted a Brazilian delegation in early March for dinner at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida where one or more people tested positive.
Widespread testing is considered the critical piece in reopening the American economy. The diagnostics root out who is carrying the disease, especially those who don’t show symptoms, and make sure they are isolated for a sufficient amount of time instead of spreading it.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican and chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said the U.S. has conducted more than 7.5 million tests and soon will be conducting 2 million per week.
“But to contain the disease and give confidence to Americans that it is safe to leave our homes, we will need tens of millions of tests, many more than our current technologies can produce,” he said. “Testing is necessary to identify the small number of those with the disease and those exposed to it so they can be quarantined, instead of quarantining the whole country.”
Mr. Alexander said it will be important to conduct sweeping testing at nursing homes, hospitals and prisons to limit the spread of the disease.
The National Institutes of Health is running a “Shark Tank” competition to find technologies that can radically scale up testing capacity over the summer, as colleges reopen and the health care system prepares to deal with the virus and flu season at the same time in the fall. The name of the contest refers to the television show in which entrepreneurs compete for investors.
Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, said 1,000 developers submitted applications after the agency called for new ideas “from the basement to the boardroom.”
Nearly 80 applications are complete, and 20 of those are ready to move into the first phase of scrutiny. A panel of business and clinical experts will vet the technologies to determine which make it to the next phase.
“I have honestly never seen anything move this quickly,” Dr. Collins told the Senate health committee. “The game is on, and it’s going to be a wild ride.”
The goal of the project, he said, is to “help make millions more accurate and easy-to-use tests per week available to all Americans by the end of summer and even more in time for the flu season.”
Dr. Collins said the technologies must produce tests that are accessible, spit out fast results and be sensitive enough to flag people who are infected but don’t show symptoms.
He said some innovators in the shark tank might be “big enough fish” to skip initial steps in development.
“We don’t hold anybody back,” Dr. Collins said.
At the same time, the technology has to be validated and sound.
“Anything that fails will basically fall out of the tank,” he said.
• David Sherfinski contributed to this report.