New York — The coronavirus outbreak reached a somber milestone in the U.S. on Thursday (March 26) — the nation now has more coronavirus cases than any other country in the world.
There are now at least 85,377 cases of the new coronavirus disease, COVID-19, in the United States, according to worldometer, a website that tracks coronavirus cases. That's higher than the case count in either Italy (which has 80,589 cases) or China (which has 81,285 cases).
Nearly half of all U.S. coronavirus cases are in New York, which has reported more than 37,700 cases.
Just a few days ago, the World Health Organization warned that the U.S. had the potential to become the new epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic.
U.S. coronavirus cases have soared in recent weeks — at the beginning of March, the county had reported only about 100 cases total, according to worldometer.
Coronavirus cases in China, where the outbreak began, initially increased rapidly, but leveled off after about Feb. 20.
Medical facilities were running low on ventilators and protective masks and were hampered by limited diagnostic testing capacity.
At least 1,290 people in the United States have died from COVID-19, which has proven especially dangerous to the elderly and people with underlying chronic health conditions, according to a running tally based on reports from state and local public health authorities.
An expected shortfall of ventilators - machines that support respiration for people who have lost the ability to breathe on their own - was substantial, as a surge of cases overwhelms New York hospitals, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo told a news conference.
“Any scenario that is realistic will overwhelm the capacity of the healthcare system,” he said. “The number of ventilators we need is so astronomical - it’s not like they have them sitting in the warehouse,” Cuomo added. “There is no stockpile available.”
At least one New York hospital has begun a trial of sharing single ventilators between two patients.
Dr. Craig Smith, surgeon in chief at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center in Manhattan, wrote to staff that teams had worked “day and night” to get the split-ventilation experiment going.
While New York was the coronavirus epicenter in the United States this week, Louisiana could be the next. In New Orleans, the state’s biggest city, Mardi Gras celebrations last month were believed to have fueled the outbreak.
Demand for ventilators has doubled in Louisiana, with some 80% of intensive care unit patients now on the breathing machines, said Warner Thomas, chief executive of Ochsner Health System, the state’s healthcare group.
Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards warned that his state, reporting about 1,800 infections, including at least 83 deaths is rapidly running out of beds and ventilators.
“If we don’t flatten the infection curve soon, we will be out of ventilators in New Orleans by April 2, and we would potentially be out of bed space for individuals by April 7,” he said at a press conference.
“It’s not conjecture, it’s not some flimsy theory, it’s not some scare tactic. This is what is going to happen.”
In New York state, the goal is to make as many as 140,000 hospital beds available, up from the current capacity of 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.
New York hospitals were scrambling to comply with Cuomo’s directive that they increase capacity by at least 50%. At Mount Sinai Hospital’s Upper East Side location, rooms were being constructed within an atrium to open up more space for beds.
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 city coroner’s office has posted refrigerated trucks outside Elmhurst and Bellevue Hospital to temporarily store bodies of the deceased.
Deborah White, vice chair of emergency medicine at Jack D. Weiler Hospital in the city’s Bronx borough, said 80% of its emergency room visits were patients with coronavirus-like symptoms.
The projected ventilator shortfall and surge in hospitalizations has already raised the prospect of rationing healthcare.
Asked about guidelines being drafted on how to allocate ventilators to patients in case of a shortage, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy said such bioethical discussions “haunted him” but were unavoidable in the current situation.
“We have to hope for the best, but plan for the worst,” Murphy told a news conference.
Desperate to slow the spread of the virus by limiting physical contact among people, state and local governments have issued stay-at-home orders covering about half the U.S. population. A major side effect has been the strangulation of the economy, unleashing a wave of layoffs.
The U.S. Labor Department reported Thursday the number of Americans filing claims for unemployment benefits last week soared to a record of nearly 3.28 million - almost five times the previous weekly record of 695,000 during the 1982 recession.
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 Northern Hemisphere’s next 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.
Outside New York and New Orleans, other hot spots appeared to be emerging around the country, including Houston and Detroit.
Brandon Allen, 48, bought groceries in Detroit for his 72-year-old mother who has tested positive for the coronavirus and was self-quarantining at home.
“It’s surreal,” Allen said. “People around me I know are dying. I know of a couple people who have died. I know a couple of people who are fighting for their lives. Everyday you hear of another person who has it.”
Reporting by Maria Caspani in New York and Daniel Trotta in Milan; Additional reporting by Daniel Trotta, Gabriella Borter, Catherine Koppel, Lucia Mutikani, Doina Chiacu, Susan Heavey, Nathan Layne, Lisa Lambert, Michael Martina, Rebecca Cook, Barbara Goldberg, and Rich McKay; Writing by Will Dunham and Steve Gorman; Editing by Howard Goller, Bill Tarrant and Cynthia Osterman