Unemployment claims jumped last week, as the delta variant of the coronavirus sparked rising caseloads around the country and renewed fears about the potential for more restrictions and business closures.
The number of new claims grew to 419,000 from 368,000, the third time in six weeks that they had ticked up, according to data from the Department of Labor.
Economists said the uptick was concerning but cautioned that it was too early to tell whether it was a one week aberration or telegraphed a more concerning turn for the labor market.
“The unexpected bump in claims could be noise in the system, but it’s also not hard to see how the rise of the covid-19 delta variant could add thousands of layoffs to numbers that already are double what they were pre-Covid,” said Robert Frick, corporate economist at Navy Federal Credit Union.
Overall, unemployment numbers have been falling gradually from the peaks at other stages of the pandemic, but they are still well above pre-pandemic averages.
The jobless numbers have provided a jarring catalogue about the economic devastation wrought by the pandemic — spiking to records as the pandemic unfolded in March 2020, and remaining at historic high levels throughout most of 2020.
The coronavirus surge last fall helped precipitate a rise in claims that saw the labor market, as seen in the monthly jobs report, slide backward too.
But until recently, the last few months been marked by strong jobs growth and a sense of optimism as vaccinations picked up, giving economists hope that the country was back on track to recovering the nearly 7 million jobs it is still down from before the pandemic.
Now, the delta variant is driving an alarming increase in covid-19 cases around the country, according to public health officials: the number of new cases increased more than 40 percent in the last week, sending jitters through the stock market, and is raising questions about whether state and local health authorities will reinstitute restrictions to slow the virus’ spread.
Frick said that the report showed the potential for unemployment claims to start trending upward after months of steady declines.
“There’s definitely a correlation, however loose, that the rise in covid does cause a rise in claims,” he said. “My fear is that the rise in the delta variant could cause claims to go back up…Certainly one week doesn’t show that. But I wouldn’t be surprised if we start to see claims rise.”
However, there are also lots of signs that the economy continues to rebound despite rising caseloads.
The more than 2.2 million people that the Transportation Security Administration said it screened at airports on Sunday was the most since late February 2020 — and nearly three times the amount it was on the same day last year.
Restaurant dining has largely rebounded in recent months, at times surpassing the levels from before the pandemic — on Saturday the number of diners was 1 percent higher than the same day in 2019, according to data from Open Table.
Last week, some 12.5 million claims were filed for unemployment insurance overall, according to the most recent numbers — down from 32.9 million filed at the same point last year.
Nevada, Rhode Island and California topped the list of states with the highest number of people on unemployment, the Labor Department said.
Economic concerns in recent months have been more focused on the ways that workers are still held back from filling some of the more than 9 million job openings in the country, than unemployment, with high hopes that school re-openings in the fall will help many parents get back into the labor force.
While CFOs, on the whole, remain optimistic about an economic rebound this year, they’re concerned about labor availability and accompanying cost pressures,according to a quarterly survey by Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and the Federal Reserve Banks of Richmond and Atlanta.
Over 75% of CFOs included in the survey said their companies faced challenges in finding workers. More than half of that group also said worker shortage reduced their revenue—especially for small businesses. The survey panel includes 969 CFOs across the U.S.
“CFOs expect revenue and employment to rise notably through the rest of 2021,” Sonya Ravindranath Waddell, VP and economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond said. “[But] over a third of firms anticipated worker shortages to reduce revenue potential in the year.”
As many companies struggle to find employees and meet renewed product demand, it’s unsurprising CFOs anticipate both cost and price increases, Waddell said.
About four out of five CFO respondents reported larger-than-normal cost increases at their firms, which they expect will last for several more months. They anticipate the bulk of these cost increases will be passed along to the consumer, translating into higher-priced services.
Despite labor concerns, CFOs are reporting higher optimism than last quarter, ranking their optimism at 74.9 on a scale of zero to 100, a 1.7 jump. They rated their optimism towards the overall U.S. economy at an average of 69 out of 100, a 1.3 increase over last quarter.
For many CFOs, revenue has dipped below 2019 levels due to worker shortage, and in some cases, material shortages, Waddell told Fortune last week. Even so, spending is on the rise, which respondents chalked up to a reopening economy.
“Our calculations indicate that, if we extrapolate from the CFO survey results, the labor shortage has reduced revenues across the country by 2.1%,” Waddell added. “In 2019, we didn’t face [the] conundrum of nine million vacancies combined with nine million unemployed workers.”
The delta variant of the coronavirus is sweeping through the United States, raising the average number of cases to 30,000-per-day, crowding hospitals in areas with large number of unvaccinated people and spurring questions about the nation’s recovery from the pandemic.
Stocks tanked on Monday, with the Dow Jones Industrial average dropping 725 points after being down more than 900 points at one time.
It was the worst one-day performance in the Dow since last October, and followed losses in markets around the world as investor fears about how the delta virus might slow both the health and economic recovery took hold.
Health officials have described the latest stage of the coronavirus as a pandemic of the unvaccinated while emphasizing that those who have had their shots are relatively safe.
Yet Los Angeles County on Saturday reinstated a mask mandate for indoor public settings, a sign that local communities may decide to reimpose restrictions as a safety measure.
An Olympic gymnast and an Olympic women’s basketball player both announced they had tested positive as they prepared for the Games, which is being held in a state of emergency in Tokyo where the rate of vaccinations is behind the United States.
Canada had also been well behind the U.S. in its vaccination rate but surpassed its southern neighbor on Monday, a sign of how much more slowly the vaccination rate now is in the United States. A big reason is that many people who are unvaccinated do not want to get the vaccine, something the Biden administration has increasingly blamed on social media and some conservative media outlets.
While the 30,000 cases per day on average is more than double the 13,000 average at the end of June, that rate is still well below highs from last fall and earlier this year.
Still, deaths are also ticking back up, at around 240 per day.
Because vaccinated people are still overwhelmingly protected, especially from severe outcomes, case and death numbers are likely to stay well below the worst of last winter’s surges, before vaccines were widely available.
But unvaccinated people are at increasing risk, especially given the rise of the highly transmissible delta variant, and the vaccination campaign is hitting a wall, leaving more than 30 percent of adults without any shots and exposed to the full dangers of the virus.
States with lower vaccination rates are seeing the worst outbreaks. Arkansas, Missouri, Florida and Louisiana are the four states with the highest per capita new cases per day, according to data from the Covid Act Now tracking site. The percentage of the population with at least one shot in those states is 44 percent, 47 percent, 56 percent, and 40 percent, respectively.
In contrast, Vermont and Massachusetts, where the vaccination rate is over 70 percent, are faring much better.
Vaccine resistance among some leading conservative commentators and lawmakers is raising fears that many of the remaining unvaccinated may never get the shots.
Sten Vermund, a professor at the Yale School of Public Health, said he is “not particularly worried” about COVID-19 for himself, because he is fully vaccinated.
“What worries me is my fellow Americans who for a variety of reasons choose not to get vaccinated; they continue to be in harm’s way,” Vermund said.
In the rare instances where vaccinated people do get COVID-19 cases, symptoms are likely to be much milder.
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said Friday that 97 percent of people entering the hospital with COVID-19 are unvaccinated, part of why she said it “is becoming a pandemic of the unvaccinated.”
Conservative resistance to vaccination is stiffening. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released earlier this month found that 47 percent of Republicans said they were unlikely to get vaccinated, compared to just six percent of Democrats. Among Republicans, 38 percent said they definitely would not get the shots.
Former President Trump has previously encouraged people to get vaccinated, though he has not made a forceful push, for example by recording a public service announcement or getting his own shots in public.
On Sunday, though, Trump appeared to justify people not taking the vaccine, blaming President Biden.
“He’s way behind schedule, and people are refusing to take the Vaccine because they don’t trust his Administration, they don’t trust the Election results, and they certainly don’t trust the Fake News, which is refusing to tell the Truth,” Trump said in a statement.
Asked if Biden would request Trump film a public service announcement on vaccination, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said “we don’t believe that requires an embroidered invitation to be a part of.”
“Certainly any role of anyone who has a platform where they can provide information to the public that the vaccine is safe, it is effective, we don’t see this as a political issue,” Psaki said. “We’d certainly welcome that engagement.”
She also emphasized, though, that the administration is focusing on local doctors and community leaders to try to boost vaccination rates, not national officials.
The effort is hitting its limits, though. The pace of vaccinations has fallen to around 500,000 per day, down from over 3 million at the peak in April, according to Our World in Data.
“I’m not that hopeful that we’re going to get to people who have refused to be vaccinated,” said Preeti Malani, an infectious disease expert at the University of Michigan.
Experts increasingly say the best remaining hopes of reaching the remaining unvaccinated are school and employer mandates for their workers or students to get vaccinated.
France is experiencing a surge in vaccinations after President Emmanuel Macron announced this month that proof of vaccination, or a negative test, would be required for everyday activities like going to restaurants. The Biden administration has repeatedly ruled out a national vaccine passport in the U.S., though, and Republicans have rebelled against the idea.
Full approval of the vaccines from the Food and Drug Administration, as opposed to the current emergency authorization, could also help assuage some people’s fears, and some experts have called on the FDA to move faster on issuing a full approval.
The Biden administration has stepped up its calls for Facebook and other technology companies to do more to fight vaccine misinformation on their platforms.
Biden on Friday said social media companies are “killing people” with misinformation. On Monday, though, he dialed the criticism back down, instead pointing to 12 people responsible for much of the disinformation.
“Facebook isn’t killing people, these 12 people are out there giving misinformation,” Biden said.
“My hope is that Facebook, instead of taking it personally, that somehow I’m saying Facebook is killing people, that they would do something about the misinformation, the outrageous misinformation about the vaccine,” Biden added. “That’s what I meant.”
For its part, Facebook said over the weekend, before Biden’s walk-back, that the administration was “finger pointing” and the company was not the reason the president’s goal of getting 70 percent of adults at least one shot by July 4 was missed.
Los Angeles County’s move to return to an an indoor mask mandate, even for vaccinated people,
got mixed reviews from experts, but either way, it is unlikely to be replicated in places that are the hardest hit, given that places that are resistant to vaccines tend to also be resistant to masks.
“Vaccines are really the only way out,” Malani said. “We can’t live in masks forever.”
S&P Global Ratings on Wednesday upgraded its view on the nonprofit healthcare sector to stable. It had been at negative since March 2020, a view that was affirmed in January.
Analysts said the change results from coronavirus vaccination rates and decreasing COVID-19 cases as well as a drop in the unemployment rate that should reduce payer mix shakeup. They also pointed to generally healthy balance sheets across the sector.
Headwinds remain, most notably labor expenses as burnout among staff was heavily exacerbated by the pandemic. Increased salaries and benefit expenses will dampen margins going forward, according to the report.
The change is another sign for providers that their financial situation is on a rather swift recovery from the upheaval caused by the pandemic. Although some facilities, especially those that are smaller and in rural areas, are certainly still struggling, that was the case before COVID-19 as well.
Most nonprofit health systems reported first-quarter results that showed improved volumes and investment returns. Some are still sporting more than a year’s worth of cash on hand.
The S&P analysts warned, however, that potential COVID-19 outbreaks this fall would be a setback. That remains a concern with some parts of the country lagging in vaccination rates and the increasing prevalence of more contagious COVID-19 variants.
Other risks include the end of enhanced federal reimbursement and the return of the Medicare sequester cuts when the public health emergency ends, which is expected to be after the end of this year.
But the analysts said agile management teams should be able to combat these challenges.
“[T]o the extent that the pandemic has enabled faster decision making and allowed management teams to pivot and identify new opportunities for expense base restructuring and revenue enhancement, we believe these risks are manageable within our view of the stable sector view,” according to the report.
Medicare Advantage (MA) focused companies, like Oak Street Health (14x revenues), Cano Health (11x revenues), and Iora Health (announced sale to One Medical at 7x revenues), reflect valuation multiples that appear irrational to many market observers. Multiples may be exuberant, but they are not necessarily irrational.
One reason for high valuations across the healthcare sector is the large pools of capital from institutional public investors, retail investors and private equity that are seeking returns higher than the low single digit bond yields currently available. Private equity alone has hundreds of billions in investable funds seeking opportunities in healthcare. As a result of this abundance of capital chasing deals, there is a premium attached to the scarcity of available companies with proven business models and strong growth prospects.
Valuations of companies that rely on Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement have traditionally been discounted for the risk associated with a change in government reimbursement policy. This “bop the mole” risk reflects the market’s assessment that when a particular healthcare sector becomes “too profitable,” the risk increases that CMS will adjust policy and reimbursement rates in that sector to drive down profitability.
However, there appears to be consensus among both political parties that MA is the right policy to help manage the rise in overall Medicare costs and, thus, incentives for MA growth can be expected to continue. This factor combined with strong demographic growth in the overall senior population means investors apply premiums to companies in the MA space compared to traditional providers.
Large pools of available capital, scarcity value, lower perceived sector risk and overall growth in the senior population are all factors that drive higher valuations for the MA disrupters.However, these factors pale in comparison the underlying economic driver for these companies. Taking full risk for MA enrollees and dramatically reducing hospital utilization, while improving health status, is core to their business model. These companies target and often achieve reduced hospital utilization by 30% or more for their assigned MA enrollees.
In 2019, the average Medicare days per 1,000 in the U.S. was 1,190. With about $14,700 per Medicare discharge and a 4.5 ALOS, the average cost per Medicare day is approximately $3,200. At the U.S. average 1,190 Medicare hospital days per thousand, if MA hospital utilization is decreased by 25%, the net hospital revenue per 1,000 MA
enrollees is reduced by about $960,000. If one of the MA disrupters has, for example, 50,000 MA lives in a market, the decrease in hospital revenues for that MA population would be about $48 million. This does not include the associated physician fees and other costs in the care continuum. That same $48 million + in the coffers of the risk-taking MA disrupters allows them deliver comprehensive array of supportive services including addressing social determinants of health. These services then further reduce utilization and improves overall health status, creating a virtuous circle. This is very profitable.
MA is only the beginning. When successful MA businesses expand beyond MA, and they will, disruption across the healthcare economy will be profound and painful for the incumbents. The market is rationally exuberant about that prospect.
The signs of progress are encouraging, but the metrics are still down slightly when compared to last month.
Slowly, the financial health of the nation’s healthcare institutions are improving. Hospitals and health systems continued to see performance improvements in April compared to the devastating losses experienced in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hospital margins, volumes, and revenues were up across most performance metrics, both year-to-date and year-over-year, but were down compared to March, according to the latest issue of Kaufman Hall’s National Hospital Flash Report. There was no explicit reason given for the dip, but any number of factors small and large could play into the results. It’s possible that clearer trend lines will develop over time.
WHAT’S THE IMPACT?
While any signs of progress are encouraging, the April results draw a clear contrast to the severity of record-low performance seen during the first two months of the pandemic in 2020, rather than strong overall performance so far this year.
Operating margin, for example, rose 101.9% (or 8.6 percentage points) compared to January-April 2020, not including federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funding. With the funding, operating margin was up 90.6% year-to-date, or 6.9 percentage points.
Operating margin was up 113.1% (39.3%) without CARES and 109.5% (21.4%) with CARES, compared to the first full month of the pandemic in April 2020, when nationwide shutdowns and broad restrictions on outpatient procedures caused operating margins to plummet 282% year-over-year.
April 2021 hospital margins, however, remained relatively thin. The median Kaufman Hall hospital operating margin index was 2.4% for the month, not including CARES. Even with the funding, it was 3.3%.
When it came to volumes, hospitals saw them increase across most metrics compared to 2020 levels, but decrease slightly compared to March. Adjusted discharges were up 5.9% year-to-date and jumped 66.4% year-over-year, while adjusted patient days rose 10% year-to-date and 64.8% year-over-year. Both metrics fell 1% month-over-month.
Emergency department visits were mixed, falling 7% compared to the first four months of 2020, but rising 57.2% year-over-year and 5.3% month-over-month. Operating room minutes were down 3.6% from March, but increased 26.1% year-to-date, and shot up 189.2% compared to April 2020, when COVID-19 abruptly halted most outpatient procedures.
Revenues followed a similar pattern, with gross operating revenue (not including CARES) up 16.7% year-to-date and 71.8% year-over-year, but down 2.5% compared to the prior month. Inpatient revenue rose 10.6% year-to-date and 37.1% year-over-year, but was down 1.9% month-over-month. Outpatient revenue rose 20.3% year-to-date, jumped 114.8% compared to April 2020, but fell 2% from March.
Total expenses continued to increase both year-to-date and year-over-year, but saw moderate decreases month-over-month. Total expense was up 6.6% year to date and 13.1% year over year. Total labor expense increased 6.1% year-to-date and 9.4% year-over-year, and total nonlabor expense rose 7% year-to-date and 16.3% year-over-year.
Compared to March, though, all three metrics were down about 3%. Expense results were mixed when adjusted for the month’s volumes. Total expense per adjusted discharge, for example, increased 2% compared to January-April 2020, but fell 32.3% from April 2020 and 2% from March.
THE LARGER TREND
Despite the ongoing pandemic, the 2021 financial outlook for the global healthcare sector is mostly positive, as strong demand for products and services – including those related to COVID-19 – will more than offset lingering pressures from the public health emergency, Moody’s Investors Service found in December.
The demand will remain strong, largely due to aging populations, the improvement in access and the introduction of new and innovative products. There is one caveat: steadily rising healthcare expenditures, which will cause payers to continue to restrict utilization and lower prices.
In October, Moody’s found that owning a public hospital during the COVID-19 pandemic carriedoperational risk, which will compound the fiscal and credit difficulties facing many large urban counties across the U.S.
Whether recovery from the coronavirus this year is relatively rapid or relatively slow, America’s hospitals will face another year of struggle to regain their financial health.
Though the COVID-19 pandemic hampered Providence’s operational performance in 2020, the regional nonprofit powerhouse still ended the year in the black with net income of $1 billion, down about 9% from 2019.
Providence ended 2020 with an operating loss of $306 million, compared to an operating income of $214 million in 2019. However, healthy non-operating income recouped operating losses and offset reimbursement shortfalls from Medicaid and Medicare coverage, Providence said in full-year financial results released Monday.
The system, which operates 51 hospitals spanning seven states, posted drastic net losses in the first half of 2020 due to the pandemic, but seems to have closed out the year on more stable financial footing though volumes remain down.
Like other major systems, the pandemic railroaded Providence’s operational performance in 2020, as state and local lockdowns and orders to pause non-emergency procedures contributed to an unprecedented drop in patient volumes starting in March. As a result, the West Coast system reported a significant dip in patient revenue, along with skyrocketing expenses for personal protective equipment, pharmaceuticals and labor.
Volumes as measured by adjusted admissions were down 9% for the fiscal year ended Dec. 31, Providence said. Despite the lower volume, operating revenues were actually up 3% year over year to $25.7 billion, driven by growth in capitation, premium and diversified revenue streams — and supported by the recognition of $957 million in federal COVID-19 grants to providers from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act passed a year ago.
However, operating expenses climbed 5% year over year to $26 billion, resulting in operating earnings before interest, depreciation and amortization of $1.1 billion, compared with $1.6 billion in 2019.
Overall, Providence’s financial results suggest the system was able to sidestep the worst of the pandemic’s financial effects, and mirrors 2020 reports from other major nonprofits.
Kaiser Permanente,which reported in early February, was also able to stay in the black despite COVID-19 deflating operating and net income, which fell about 19% and 15% respectively from 2019. Similarly, nonprofit Mayo Clinic reported a shrinking bottom line, with net income down almost 24% from 2019 though it remained profitable.
California-based nonprofit Sutter Health also squeaked to overall profitability in 2020 despite a operational loss of $321 million. The system, which said it expected to take several years to fully recover from COVID-19, launched a systemwide operational and financial review as a result of its weak operational performance.
A number of hospital executives have called out CARES grants and other federal aid as a key help in turning their finances around in 2020. However, despite the pandemic’s financial pressures, numerous major operators, including Kaiser Permanante, Mayo Clinic and HCA said they would return all or a portion of congressional aid, even as powerful hospital lobbies call on Washington for additional funds.
A recent Kaufman Hall report suggests providers could be overwhelmed by ongoing COVID-19 expenses following a surge in cases over the winter. Researchers estimate hospitals could lose anywhere from $53 billion to $122 billion in revenue in 2021 if pandemic pressures don’t abate, despite the glimmer of hope brought by ongoing vaccination efforts.
Despite increasing distribution of coronavirus vaccines, Moody’s Investors Service has placed a negative outlook on nonprofit hospitals in 2021.
Providence came together in 2016 with the merger of Washington-based Providence Health & Services and California-based St. Joseph Health to create the nation’s fourth-biggest Catholic hospital chain. Its full-year earnings come a week after California Attorney General and Biden nominee for HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra disclosed his office is investigating whether Providence violated legal commitments in applying religious restrictions to medical care at a hospital in Orange County.