U.S. COVID-19 response: $2.2 trillion relief highlights news for week of March 23

coronavirus mask, market, down arrow
The Senate and House have passed a $2.2 trillion economic relief package for business and individuals affected by the coronavirus pandemic. (Pixabay)

While the deadly coronavirus continues to drive up the number of infections, hospitalizations, and deaths, the U.S. this past week made what would appear to be a major stride in trying to help restaurants, hotels, and other businesses that have closed or drastically scaled back operations and laid off many employees. The Senate had earlier this week passed a $2.2 trillion economic relief package for business and individuals. Early Friday afternoon, the House approved the package. 

The relief bill reportedly includes $250 billion for direct payments to individuals, $350 billion in small business loans, $250 billion in unemployment insurance benefits and $500 billion for loans to distressed companies. Airlines would also reportedly get bailed out as long as they avoid layoffs.

The relief package increased investor confidence that the slumping economy would eventually rebound, driving the declining stock market to stage its largest three-day surge since 1931. However, their confidence stands in stark contrast to the dismal news that initial unemployment claims surged by over 3 million to 3,283,000, the largest seasonal rise since 1982 according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Most industry observers expect the numbers to rise even further.

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With no end for the coronavirus pandemic in sight, the U.S. electronics industry is clearly concerned for its near-term future, as many states have ordered shutdowns of all but non-essential businesses. The Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA) has called on governments at all levels to classify electronics manufacturing as an essential business to allow continuity in operation during the current crisis. The SIA argues that China enabled its electronics companies to operate during the COVID-19 outbreak, albeit with appropriate worker safety precautions.

While the near-term future of electronics manufacturing is uncertain, what’s clear is that U.S. manufacturers are scrambling to meet drastic shortages of medical supplies such as surgical masks, respirator masks, ventilators, gowns, gloves and other goods. But transitioning to manufacturing such products is not that easy, according to Buckley Brinkman, executive director and CEO of the Wisconsin Center for Manufacturing & Productivity, part of the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership (NIST MEP).

In an interview with FierceElectronics, Brinkman said that raw material shortages, learning how to manufacture new types of products, and the all-important need for certifications and qualifications are challenges. Brinkman’s organization helps companies smooth the transition to working with new processes and materials.

Large manufacturers such as Ford, 3M, and General Motors have teamed with United Auto Workers to boost production of respirators, ventilators and other medical gear. But the dire situation has also prompted ad-hoc efforts by startup companies and even individuals sewing cloth surgical masks for local hospitals.

The coronavirus situation has become such a dominant part of everyday life for people worldwide, that research and development on projects that could ultimately help with detecting or curing COVID-19 has seen an uptick. This work is in addition to the ongoing efforts to develop an effective vaccine to tame the disease.

Dragonfly, a maker of commercial Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), announced that Australian authorities have selected the company to use its drone fleet to detect infections among people at a distance. According to the company, the drones not only detect infectious and respiratory conditions, they can monitor temperatures and heart and respiration rates of people gathered at convention centers, border crossings, places of employment, aboard cruise ships and even in some locations at senior care centers. 

With coronavirus is forcing many engineers to work remotely, there’s much more time spent at home. Assuming that engineers do make some leisure time available, FierceElectronics surveyed what Sci-Fi shows were the most popular. The top-rated show was Westworld, with Mr. Robot second. StarTrek, arguably considered the best-known and influential Sci-Fi program, came in fourth.

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