FILE PHOTO: People gather at the entrance for the New York State Department of Labor offices, which closed to the public due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in the Brooklyn borough of New York City, U.S., March 20, 2020. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly/File Photo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits in the last three weeks has topped 15 million, as weekly new claims topped 6 million for the second straight time last week as tough measures to control the novel coronavirus outbreak abruptly ground the country to halt.

The Labor Department said first-time claims for unemployment benefits in the week ended April 4 totaled about 6.6 million, down modestly from an upwardly revised 6.87 million the week before.

Economists in a Reuters survey were looking for 5.25 million new claims in the latest week, with estimates ranging as high as 9.295 million.

Thursday’s weekly jobless claims report from the Labor Department, the most timely data on the economy’s health, will strengthen economists’ expectations of job losses of up to 20 million in April. The government reported last Friday that the economy purged 701,000 jobs in March. That was the most job losses since the Great Recession and ended the longest employment boom in U.S. history that started in late 2010.

“These dismal numbers suggest another record-breaking April jobs report,” said Beth Ann Bovino, chief U.S economist at S&P Global Ratings in New York. “America is now in recession and as it appears to deepen, the question is how long it will it take before the U.S. recovers.”

With more than 95% of Americans under “stay-at-home” or “shelter-in-place” orders, reports continue to mount of state employment offices being overwhelmed by a deluge of applications.

Mike Ricci, a spokesman for Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, wrote on Twitter on Wednesday that “we have approximately 1,000 calls coming through in every two hour period of time,” noting that “currently, federal employees and people who have worked in multiple states.

The breadth of businesses shuttered because of the stringent measures to curb the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, has expanded from bars, restaurants and other social gathering venues to transportation and factories. The United States has the highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the world.

“The labor market has entered a traumatic period,” said Gregory Daco, chief U.S. economist at Oxford Economics in New York. “We foresee the unemployment rate spiking to 14% in April.”

Reporting By Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Dan Burns and Chizu Nomiyama

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