By Doina Chiacu and Maria Caspani
WASHINGTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) - The U.S. coronavirus death toll topped the 1,000 milestone as the pandemic's mounting economic burden was illustrated by government data on Thursday showing a record number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits and hospitals struggled to treat a surge of infected patients.
Roughly half the United States was under "stay at home" orders to try to curb the spread of the virus, with the side effects of strangling the economy and unleashing a wave of layoffs. Help may be on the way as the U.S. Congress neared approval of a $2 trillion economic stimulus package.
The number of Americans filing claims for unemployment benefits surged to a record of nearly 3.28 million last week, the Labor Department reported, nearly five times the previous weekly record of 695,000 from the recession of 1982.
And the Labor Department report may understate the problem as the official statistics typically have not included the self-employed or independent contractors. The economy is already in recession, according to some economists.
Louis DeAngelis, 26, worked as a bar tender in Plymouth, New Hampshire, until early last week, when the state's governor closed all bars and restaurants because of the virus threat. After applying without any problems, he found out he will receive $159 a week, or slightly less than half of his weekly income.
"I'm fortunate to have some family who are willing to help," said DeAngelis, who also worked as a substitute teacher. "I've got options, but a lot of folks don't."
A running tally kept by Johns Hopkins University showed that at least 1,046 people had died from COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus. COVID-19 has been particularly dangerous to the elderly and people with pre-existing medical conditions. New York state leads the nation in both deaths and infections.
Hospitals, laid-off workers and struggling companies will receive badly needed economic aid under the record-setting economic stimulus legislation approved by the Senate late on Wednesday in a 96-0 vote. House of Representatives leaders said they hoped to pass the bill on Friday, and President Donald Trump has said he would sign it into law.
"Every day matters so we want to get this done quickly," House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy said in an interview with Fox News.
The weekly jobless claims report offered the clearest evidence yet of the pandemic's impact on the economy, putting an end to nearly 9-1/2 years of job growth.
"The number has sent chills through the markets. If these numbers continue for three or four weeks, there will be demand for more fiscal support," said Quicky Krosby, chief market strategist for Prudential Financial in Newark, New Jersey.
Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell said the United States "may well be in recession."
Powell said reactivating the economy would have to wait until the virus is under control, despite Trump's stated desire to resume economic activity by Easter, April 12.
"The first order of business will be to get the spread of the virus under control and then resume economic activity," Powell told NBC's Today Show.
"We know that economic activity will decline probably substantially in the second quarter, but I think many expect, and I would expect, economic activity to resume and move back up in the second half of the year," Powell said.
Powell also said he would defer to experts such as Anthony Fauci, head of U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, for guidance on when to lift restrictions.
Fauci told WNYC public radio in New York on Thursday that the changing weather could help combat the virus because generally warm and moist weather provides better conditions than a cold and dry winter.
But he also warned the virus could return for the next northern winter and that experts could not predict this novel coronavirus because it was "unique."
"We hope we get a respite as we get into April, May and June. It is likely to come around next season because it's a very vigorous virus," Fauci said.
"We're already seeing more infected people in the southern hemisphere now as we head into their winter. So I hope and I think we might get a respite with the weather, which will hopefully give us more time to then prepare for what might be a second round or a seasonal cycling," Fauci said.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has been sounding the alarm about an expected shortage of hospital beds and ventilators. In Italy, the country with the highest number of coronavirus deaths, overwhelmed hospitals have become vehicles of contamination with up to one-fifth of personnel testing positive for the virus at one Milan hospital.
(Reporting by Doina Chiacu and Maria Caspani; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Will Dunham)