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Healthcare sector lost 1.4M jobs in April as COVID-19 halts elective procedures

The healthcare sector lost over 1.4 million jobs in April as hospitals cancelled elective procedures to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

Meanwhile, across the economy, total nonfarm payroll employment fell by 20.5 million jobs in April and the unemployment rate jumped from 4.4% in March to 14.7% in April, according to a monthly report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The agency said the drop was the largest since at least January 1948, the earliest point for which seasonally adjusted data is available. Jobless claims have totaled 33.5 million over the last seven weeks.

Overall healthcare job losses were fueled by a decline of about 1.2 million jobs in ambulatory healthcare services, which includes the offices of dentists, physicians and other health practitioners.

"I don't think it was a huge surprise to see a decline of that size or even something a little bigger, potentially, just given the fact that everyone had cut back on elective surgeries and doctors' offices are closed everywhere," said Dante DeAntonio, an economist at Moody's Analytics, in an interview. "It sort of fit with what we were expecting."

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Dentist offices had the largest decline in the healthcare sector with 503,300 jobs lost in April, according to the BLS report. Physicians and offices of other health practitioners followed with losses of 243,300 and 205,100, respectively. Nursing and residential care facilities saw a decline of about 113,100 jobs in the month, according to the data.

April's numbers for the healthcare industry eclipse the 38,500 lost in March, which BLS revised down from 42,500 in the latest release. After the March report was issued, Dan White, head of fiscal policy research for Moody's Analytics, projected that the numbers would increase because the March survey was conducted early in the month before the pandemic had fully taken hold in the U.S.

Healthcare jobs could be among the first sectors to benefit as states re-open because of the restart in elective or nonemergent care, according to DeAntonio.

"I would expect to get a much sharper rebound, initially, in the next couple months in healthcare, and then I think you'll see a return to normal, or something close to normal, a lot more quickly than the broader economy," DeAntonio said.

While healthcare could see a "pretty full rebound" by early or mid-2021, healthcare and the rest of the U.S. economy may not see the beginning of economic recovery until a vaccine for the coronavirus is available, according to DeAntonio. He added that the U.S. could "be waiting the better part of a decade" for overall job growth to recover.

Over 1.3 million COVID-19 cases and 79,500 deaths have been confirmed in the U.S. as of May 11, according to a tracker from Johns Hopkins University's Center for Systems Science and Engineering.

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Impact on hospital industry

Hospitals specifically were one of the worst affected sub-sectors in healthcare, with approximately 134,900 fewer jobs in April.

The industry has seen a substantial decline as the pandemic accelerates in the U.S., primarily from the cancellation or delay of elective care. The strategy was used to stop the spread of the virus and conserve resources like hospital beds, staff and personal protective equipment. The American Hospital Association, an industry trade group, projected that hospitals would lose over $200 billion by June, with about $161 billion of that coming from the decline in revenue from elective care and other services.

Top U.S. hospital companies — HCA Healthcare Inc., Universal Health Services Inc. and Tenet Healthcare Corp. — all reported significant admission and surgery volume declines in the last two weeks of March and April due to the crisis. Hospitals and other healthcare providers are restarting elective procedures as states begin to re-open. However, executives have cautioned that the speed of recovery will vary by market.

Some procedures are essential for patients and likely to return soon, while others are not expected to come back until 2021, said Rick Gundling, senior vice president of healthcare financial practices for the Healthcare Financial Management Association.

Because elective care is just restarting and jobs data for May will be collected this week, the next employment report will not reflect the restart of procedures, DeAntonio said.

"We've almost certainly seen the worst of what's going to happen in April, in healthcare and across the board," DeAntonio said. "I think June is probably the month where you see it level off ... and then, hopefully, moving on from there into the third quarter, we'll start to see a little bit of a pick up."