Coronavirus update: N.J. unemployment claims hit record high. Again.

Coronavirus testing site in Camden, New Jersey

Health care workers at a coronavirus testing site at Cooper's Poynt Park in Camden, New Jersey, on Wednesday, April 1, 2020. (Miguel Martinez/WHYY)

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy announced 3,489 new COVID-19 cases Thursday, bringing the state’s total number of cases to 25,590.

The governor also announced 182 new deaths as a result of the illness, increasing the state’s death toll to 537 total fatalities.

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N.J. to commandeer PPE ‘if need be’

New Jersey authorities can now commandeer personal protective equipment and ventilators from any business or other entity that might be holding them.

Gov. Murphy’s latest executive order gives the state yet another tool to scrounge as much gear as possible for its front-line health care workers, who have faced chronic equipment shortages for weeks even as they prepare for an even greater surge of coronavirus patients this month.

The governor granted State Police Supt.Pat Callahan the new power despite seeing hundreds of thousands of masks and other PPE voluntarily donated by New Jersey corporations, unions and other groups in recent weeks. Donations can be initiated through a dedicated state website.

“We would hope that folks would step forward and do the right thing,” Murphy said Thursday. “But if need be, we will use this authority.”

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Up to 10 years in prison for coughing at police

Six people who coughed or spit at police while claiming to have coronavirus are now facing upgraded charges as part of an effort by the Attorney General’s Office to increase compliance with the governor’s social distancing mandates.

Authorities charged all six individuals with making terroristic threats during a state of emergency, a second-degree offense that carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $150,000.

Gov. Murphy on Thursday called those people “the first members of knucklehead row.” They also face charges for the reasons police interacted with them in the first place: drug possession, traffic violations, shoplifting or reports of domestic violence.

In addition, dozens of people around the states have been issued citations — and some businesses have been shut down — for disobeying Murphy’s ban on social gatherings, closure of nonessential businesses and stay-at-home order.

The governor has incorporated into his daily coronavirus briefings a public shaming of those caught by police.

Unemployment claims set grim record for second straight week

A record 206,000 New Jersey residents applied for unemployment benefits in the days immediately after Gov. Phil Murphy imposed sweeping business closures and a stay-at-home order, the state reported Thursday.

Claims for the week ending March 28 surpassed even those for the prior week, when more than 155,000 residents put in for benefits. The state’s prior record had been around 46,000 after Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

The New Jersey figures track those at the national level. The U.S. Labor Department said Thursday that another 6.6 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits last week.

Combined with claims the prior week, nearly 10 million people nationally have now submitted applications — and that’s only those who have been able to navigate states’ overwhelmed and often clunky filing systems.

In neighboring Pennsylvania, the equivalent of 12% of the workforce filed for unemployment in the second half of March.

Some help for jobless workers is on the way from state rule changes and the $2 trillion federal coronavirus stimulus bill, New Jersey Labor Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo said Thursday.

“They are in line for a $600 per week supplement to their unemployment benefit, there’s a federal extension of unemployment benefits for 13 weeks, even for those whose claims have expired, and unemployment benefits are becoming available for freelancers, gig workers and independent contractors, who typically are not eligible,” he said in a statement.

In addition, New Jersey has temporarily suspended the work search requirement for laid-off workers, who also don’t have to wait a week in between getting an application approved and receiving benefits.

The state has set up a hiring portal for job-seekers and employers.

Still, New Jersey and other states are seeing their jobless ranks swell at a speed and scale never seen before. And it comes as the states themselves are under tremendous financial pressure as they pour resources into slowing the spread of the deadly coronavirus.

The latest spike in New Jersey unemployment claims came after Murphy, on March 21, closed non-essential businesses, banned gatherings of any size and asked residents not to leave home unless it was truly necessary.

According to the state, the hardest-hit workers in the last two weeks have been those in food and drink services (17% of claims), doctors’ and dentists’ offices (11%), and administrative and support services (7%).

N.J. gets first pop-up field hospital

Gov. Murphy and U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez spent about 20 minutes Thursday touring the state’s first field hospital set up in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The 250-bed hospital at the Meadowlands Exposition Center in Secaucus should be ready to take non-COVID-19 patients Monday, said Callahan. Two similar sites at the convention centers in Edison and Atlantic City are expected to open within a couple weeks.

Murphy called it an “extraordinary effort” to build the hospital.

“Of course, this is only the end of the beginning as opposed to the beginning of the end,” Murphy said to a room of workers. “God bless you all and thank you for everything you’ve done to get this going.”

The field hospital will serve as a “step-down” facility for patients that would otherwise go to area hospitals to alleviate pressure on them. However, State Police Supt. Callahan said the field hospital could be ramped up for intensive care use.

“It’s rudimentary,” Callahan said, “but the care will be the same as every hospital in the state of New Jersey.”

Rows of one-bed units are set up in blocks inside the exposition center. The beds look similar to Army cots and each has a white curtain for privacy.

Murphy, looking inside one of the units, said it looks like a “very basic setup.” Workers also outfitted the center with a temporary pharmacy, showers, sinks, toilets, nurse’s station and break room for health care workers.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers worked with the State Police to build the hospital over the last seven or eight days, Callahan said. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, National Guard and health officials also worked on the hospital to ensure it met federal specifications.

The USA TODAY NETWORK New Jersey’s Dustin Racioppi contributed reporting via a pool report.

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