New York, New Orleans hospitals reel as U.S. coronavirus death toll tops 1,000

(Reuters) – As the coronavirus pandemic’s U.S. death toll topped 1,000 people, hospitals and government authorities in New York, New Orleans and other hot spots grappled on Thursday with a surge in cases and a dire shortage of supplies, staff and sick beds. Medical facilities were running short of ventilators and protective masks and were hampered by limited testing capacity as the number of confirmed U.S. cases of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus, stood at about 70,000. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said that under almost any realistic scenario his state’s existing hospital capacity would be overwhelmed. The expected shortfall of ventilators – machines that support breathing for people who have lost the ability on their own – was substantial, the governor said. “The number of ventilators we need is so astronomical – it’s not like they have them sitting in the warehouse,” Cuomo told a news conference. “There is no stockpile available.” The state’s death toll stood at 385, up from 285 a day earlier, the highest in the country. The number of infections rose to 37,000, or about half the U.S. total. The goal is to get to a capacity of 140,000 hospital beds, up from the current 53,000, and authorities are scouting new sites, Cuomo said. Asked about media reports of some New York City healthcare workers resorting to using plastic trash bags to try to protect themselves, Cuomo acknowledged issues with the distribution of protective equipment and said there was enough in stock for the “immediate need” but not for the longer term. At Elmhurst Hospital in New York’s borough of Queens, about a hundred people, many wearing masks with their hoods pulled up, stood in line behind barriers outside the emergency room entrance, waiting to enter a tent to be screened for the coronavirus. The federal government was sending “everything we can” to help New York including ventilators, gloves and protective masks for use in hospitals, White House trade adviser Peter Navarro said. “But we’ve also got an emerging problem in New Orleans. We got Detroit, we’ve got Chicago, Seattle, California, my home state. Like I said, there’s planes in the air everywhere now,” Navarro added. A running tally kept by Johns Hopkins University showed that at least 1,070 people in the United States had died from COVID-19, which has proven especially dangerous to the elderly and people with pre-existing medical conditions. While New York is the current coronavirus epicenter in the United States, Louisiana – driven by a dire situation in New Orleans, its biggest city – could be the next one. Dr. Rebekah Gee, head of Louisiana State University’s healthcare services division, said that Mardi Gras, when 1.4 million tourists descended on New Orleans for celebrations that included tightly packed street parades, fueled the city’s outbreak. “You can manufacture masks, you can create more beds. But what you can’t manufacture is workforce. You can make a mask in a day. You can’t make a pulmonary critical care doc in a day,” Gee said on Wednesday. Warner Thomas, chief executive at Ochsner Medical Center, Louisiana’s largest hospital system, added: “We are seeing an escalation in cases across our system.” Underscoring the threat to healthcare workers striving to cope with the pandemic, Thomas said 300 Ochsner employees were under quarantine, including 60 diagnosed with COVID-19. UNEMPLOYMENT ZOOMS About half the United States was under stay-at-home orders to try to curb the spread of the virus, with its side effects of strangling the economy and unleashing a wave of layoffs. The number of Americans filing claims for unemployment benefits last week soared to a record of nearly 3.28 million, the Labor Department reported, nearly five times the previous weekly record of 695,000 during the 1982 recession. The report may understate the problem as the official statistics typically have not included the self-employed or independent contractors. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell said the United States already “may well be in recession.” The statistics showed that services industries, especially bars and restaurants as well as hotels, were hammered. For the first time in his life, Travis Cumbo, 37, a bartender in St. Augustine, Florida, filed for unemployment. His bar, The Ice Plant, a few blocks from the beach, was closed because of the coronavirus. “My skill set is this: I can make a Dirty Rotten Scoundrel, a whiskey drink, or an Old Fashioned or a mean Moscow Mule,” Cumbo said. “I don’t really know how to do anything else.” Hospitals, laid-off workers and struggling companies will receive badly needed aid under $2 trillion economic stimulus legislation approved by the U.S. Senate late on Wednesday in a 96-0 vote. House of Representatives leaders said they hoped to pass the bill on Friday. President Donald Trump has said he will sign it into law. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told WNYC public radio that the changing weather could help fight the virus because generally warm and moist conditions are better than a cold, dry winter. Fauci said the virus could return for the next Northern Hemisphere winter. “We hope we get a respite as we get into April, May and June. It is likely to come around next season because it’s a very vigorous virus,” Fauci said. “We’re already seeing more infected people in the Southern Hemisphere now as we head into their winter. So I hope and I think we might get a respite with the weather, which will hopefully give us more time to then prepare for what might be a second round or a seasonal cycling,” Fauci said. Dr. Madalina Opreanu, who practices internal medicine in Lansing, Michigan, said many patients were demanding tests and some were clearly panicking. “Today one patient called our office requesting a prescription for toilet paper and hand sanitizer – no kidding,” Opreanu said. “The whole world got crazy, can you believe it? Not sure if I want to laugh or cry at this request.”

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