The US economy contracted 3.5 percent in 2020 amid COVID-19 fallout, the largest annual decline of US gross domestic product (GDP) since 1946, according to data released by the US Commerce Department on Thursday.
The estimated drop in GDP for 2020 was the first such decline since a 2.5% fall in 2009. That was the deepest annual setback since the economy shrank 11.6% in 1946.
The data also showed that the US economy grew at an annual rate of 4 percent in the fourth quarter of 2020 amid a surge in COVID-19 cases, slower than 33.4 percent in the previous quarter.
The economy fell into recession in February, a month before the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic.
The economy contracted at a post-Depression record 31.4% in the second quarter then rebounded to a 33.4% gain in the following three months.
Thursday's report was the Commerce Department's initial estimate of growth for the quarter.
"The increase in fourth quarter GDP reflected both the continued economic recovery from the sharp declines earlier in the year and the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, including new restrictions and closures that took effect in some areas of the United States," the department said in a statement.
Despite a partial economic rebound in the second half of last year, the US economy shrank 3.5 percent for the whole year of 2020, compared with an increase of 2.2 percent in 2019, according to the department.
The data came as the United States has recorded more than 25.6 million COVID-19 cases with over 430,000 related deaths as of Thursday morning, according to a tally from Johns Hopkins University.
Also Thursday, the Labor Department reported that first-time claims for jobless benefits totaled 847,000 last week
The outlook for 2021 remains hazy. Economists warn that a sustained recovery won't likely take hold until vaccines are distributed and administered nationwide and government-enacted rescue aid spreads through the economy — a process likely to take months. In the meantime, millions of Americans continue to struggle.
"Growth is likely to be very weak in the first quarter of 2021, below 1% annualized," said Gus Faucher, chief economist at PNC. "With record-high caseloads early in the year consumers have turned more cautious and states have re-imposed additional restrictions on economic activity, although in a more targeted fashion than in the early stages of the pandemic."
"There's nothing more important to the economy now than people getting vaccinated," Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said Wednesday.
"There is good evidence to support a stronger economy in the second half of this year," he added, though he noted "considerable risks" to the forecast depending on the path of the virus.