First-time claims for U.S. unemployment compensation dropped sharply last week after three straight weeks of increasing numbers of jobless workers filing for benefits, the Labor Department reported Thursday.

A total of 326,000 jobless workers filed for assistance, down 38,000 from the revised figure of the week before, an indication that the U.S. economy, the world’s largest, remains on a general recovery from the worst economic effects of the 18-month coronavirus pandemic.

Still, the claims figure remains well above the 218,000 average in 2019. The jobless claims total has fallen steadily but unevenly since topping 900,000 in early January. Filings for unemployment compensation have often been seen as a current reading of the country’s economic health, but economists and Washington officials will also be closely watching the September job growth number set for release on Friday.

Even as the U.S. said last month that its world-leading economy grew by an annualized rate of 6.7% in the April-to-June period, in August it added a disappointing 235,000 more jobs, a figure economists said was partly reflective of the then surging delta variant of the coronavirus inhibiting job growth.

The August total was down sharply from the more than 2 million combined figure added in June and July. The unemployment rate dipped to 5.2%, which is still nearly two percentage points higher than before the pandemic started in March 2020.

About 8.4 million workers remain unemployed in the U.S. There are nearly 11 million available jobs in the country, but the skills of the available workers often do not match what employers want, or the job openings are not where the unemployed live.

The size of the U.S. economy — nearly $23 trillion — now exceeds its pre-pandemic level as it recovers faster than many economists had predicted during the worst of the business closings more than a year ago. Policy makers at the Federal Reserve, the country’s central bank, have signaled that in November they could start reversing the bank’s pandemic stimulus programs and next year could begin to increase its benchmark interest rate.

How fast the U.S. economic growth continues is unclear, with the delta variant of the coronavirus posing a threat to the recovery even as the number of new cases has been declining in recent weeks, now down to about 100,000 a day from the 150,000 or so that were being recorded. The number of deaths each day has also been dropping somewhat below the 2,000 figure of a few weeks ago.

While more than 68 million eligible Americans remain unvaccinated — and many are refusing to get inoculated — thousands of workers have gotten shots in the last two weeks, some under the threat from their employers that they would be fired from their jobs if they did not.  

U.S. President Joe Biden has ordered workers at companies with 100 or more employees to get vaccinated or be tested weekly for the coronavirus. In addition, he is requiring 2.5 million national government workers and contractors who work for the government to get vaccinated if they haven’t already been inoculated, but it will be weeks before the mandates take full effect.

More than 67% of U.S. adults have now been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, and overall, 56.1% of the U.S. population of 332 million, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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