The numbers: The number of Americans who applied for unemployment benefits in early February rose by 13,000 to 196,000, but that number is still hovering near pandemic-era lows in a sign the jobs market remains quite strong.

New applications moved up from a nine-month low of 183,000 in the previous week, the government said Thursday.

Economists polled by the Wall Street Journal had forecast that new claims would total 190,000 in the seven days ending Feb. 4. The figures are seasonally adjusted.

The number of people applying for jobless benefits is one of the best barometers of whether the economy is getting better or worse. New unemployment filings remain near historically low levels.

Key details: Twenty-eight of the 53 U.S. states and territories that report jobless claims showed a decrease last week. Twenty-five posted increases, mostly in California and Ohio.

New claims have zigzagged since Thanksgiving, ranging from a high of 241,000 to a low of 183,000. They show little sign of erosion in a strong labor market, however.

Last week, the government said the U.S. created an estimated 517,000 new jobs in January, pushing the unemployment rate down to a 54-year low of 3.4%.

Many economists doubt the jobs report was quite as good as it looked, however.

The number of people already collecting unemployment benefits, meanwhile, rose by 38,000 to 1.69 million in the week ending Jan. 28. They are reported with a one-week lag.

While these so-called continuing claims are still low, a gradual increase since last spring suggests it’s taking a bit longer for people who lose their jobs to find new ones.

Big picture: Jobless claims are one of the first indicators of trouble when the U.S. is headed toward recession.

Yet even though a number of large companies have announced layoffs — the latest being Walt Disney Co. DIS, 2.18% and Zoom Video Communications Inc. ZM, -0.33% — the job losses haven’t shown up in the claims filings. That suggests the economy is still doing OK, even as other indicators point to slower growth.

Economists say unemployment filings are sure to rise, perhaps even sharply, in the months ahead as higher interest rates slow U.S. growth.