The ranks of the unemployed swelled yet again in the latest week, as a marginal improvement in weekly jobless claims provided cold comfort in a labor market battered by a relentless wave of COVID-19 infections.

The Department of Labor released its weekly report on new jobless claims Thursday morning at 8:30 a.m. ET. Here are the numbers compared to what Wall Street was expecting, according to consensus estimates compiled by Bloomberg:

Initial jobless claims, week ended Jan. 23: 847,000 vs. 875,000 expected, and an upwardly revised 914,000 in the prior week

Continuing claims, week ended Jan. 16: 4.771 million vs. 5.088 million expected, and a downwardly revised 4.794 million in the prior week

Although jobless claims dipped unexpectedly, the high-frequency barometer of the labor market has hovered perilously close to the one million mark — a psychologically important barrier that hasn’t been breached since last year.

The weekly data have become a proxy for an economy that’s been buffeted by COVID-19, forcing many service-sector workers out of their jobs as Washington wages partisan battles over ways to backstop growth.

“The level of initial claims is obviously still way too high, but we are only a few more months away from hopefully seeing a sharp drop as more service businesses reopen as we get vaccinated,” Peter Boockvar, CIO of Bleakley Advisory Group, said in a research note.

“Likely also keeping it high is another round of generous federal benefits, as the extra $300 allows about 50% of people collecting claims to make more than what they were earning while working,” he added.

In the final months of 2020, growth faltered as skyrocketing infections prompted new restrictions on public life, new data showed on Thursday. Although the newly-inaugurated Biden administration has pledged a nearly $2 trillion stimulus, the plan isn’t expected to be debated and voted upon by Congress for weeks.

JPMorgan Chase economist Daniel Silver said last week that recent claims data “look consistent with some weakening in the labor market that is likely tied to an intensification of COVID-19 issues over the past couple of months.”

Continuing claims, a measure of the total number of individuals still receiving regular state unemployment benefits, have remained on a mostly steady downtrend since peaking at nearly 25 million in May. Yet pockets of weakness remain in several of the hardest-hit states such as Florida (+8,643), Maryland (+7,935), Kansas (+6,746), Ohio (+5,665), and Rhode Island (+2,998), according to Labor Department data.

Meanwhile, California — an epicenter of the U.S. outbreak — continued to show improvement, registering the largest drop in new claims, by 65,383. New York, Texas, and Pennsylvania also posted a drop in claims, the Labor Department said.

However, the inability to control the outbreak, and the rocky start to the vaccine rollout, bodes poorly for first-quarter growth, which economists were counting on to help put a helter-skelter 2020 in the rearview mirror. Growth hopes are riding heavily on the effort to mass vaccinate the public.

“This latest reading beat expectations and filings have now moved down in two straight weeks,” JPMorgan’s Silver said on Thursday.

Still, “the four-week moving average for initial claims kept drifting up through today’s report (now at 868,000), and we think that the labor market has softened over the past few months due to virus-related issues,” he added.

The spread of COVID-19 vaccines will power a stronger global economic recovery in 2021, the International Monetary Fund forecast Tuesday.

After sinking 3.5% in 2020, the worst year since World War II, the global economy will grow 5.5% this year, the 190-country lending organization predicted. The new figure for 2021 is an upgrade from the 5.2% expansion the IMF forecast in October and would mark the fastest year of global growth since 2007.

The vaccines should contain the spread of the virus and allow governments around the world to ease lockdowns and encourage a return to normal economic activity. The world economy also got a boost from government stimulus programs late last year in the United States and Japan.

But the IMF also says economies worldwide will need support from their governments to offset the damage from the pandemic and warns that coronavirus mutations could cloud the outlook for global health and economic growth.

“Much depends on the outcome of this race between a mutating virus and vaccines and the ability of policies to provide effective support until the pandemic ends,” IMF chief economist Gita Gopinath said at a press briefing Tuesday. “There remains tremendous uncertainty.”

In an update to its World Economic Outlook, the IMF said that it expects the U.S. economy -- the world’s biggest -- to expand 5.1% this year after collapsing 3.4% in 2020. No. 2 China is expected to record 8.1% growth after eking out a 2.3% increase in 2020.

The 19 countries European countries that share the euro currency will collectively register 4.2% growth this year after seeing economic output crater 7.2% in 2020, the IMF says. The Japanese economy is forecast to grow 3.1%, reversing a 5.1% decline in 2020.

The IMF gave India a big upgrade, thanks to a faster-than-expected recovery at its factories and farms: The Indian economy is forecast to expand 11.5% in 2021, the fastest among major economies, and a turnaround from 2020’s decline of 8%.

The agency also expects global trade to rebound this year: recording 8.1% growth after falling 9.6% last year.