New York authorities moved to avert a public health disaster in the city on Wednesday as its emergence as America’s biggest coronavirus hot spot sent warnings to the rest of the country.
A makeshift morgue was set up outside Bellevue Hospital, and the city’s police – their ranks dwindling as more fall ill – were told to patrol nearly empty streets to enforce social distancing.
Public health officials sought beds and medical equipment and issued calls for more doctors and nurses for fear the number of sick will explode the next few weeks, overwhelming hospitals as has happened in Italy and Spain.
New York University offered to let its medical students graduate early so they could join the battle.
Late on Wednesday night in Washington, the US Senate passed a $2.2 trillion (£1.85 trillion) economic rescue package in response to pandemic. The House of Representatives will vote on the package on Friday.
President Donald Trump said of the greatest public-health emergency in anyone’s lifetime: “I don’t think its going to end up being such a rough patch.”
He said he anticipated the economy soaring “like a rocket ship” when the crisis was over, yet he implored Congress late in the day to move on critical aid without further delay.
The measure is the largest economic relief bill in US history, and both parties’ leaders were desperate for quick passage as the virus took lives and jobs by the hour.
The package is intended as relief for an economy spiralling into recession or worse and a nation facing a grim death toll.
Asked how long the aid would keep the economy afloat, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said: “We’ve anticipated three months. Hopefully, we won’t need this for three months.”
Underscoring the package’s magnitude, the bill finances a response with a price tag equivalent to half the size of the nation’s entire $4 trillion annual budget.
Worldwide, the death toll climbed past 20,000, according to a running count kept by Johns Hopkins University. The number of dead in the US topped 900, with more than 60,000 infections.
New York State alone accounted for more than 30,000 cases and close to 300 deaths, most of them in New York City.
Governor Andrew Cuomo, again pleading for help in dealing with the onslaught, attributed the cluster to the city’s role as a gateway to international travellers and the sheer density of its population, with 8.6 million people sharing subways, apartment buildings and offices.
“Our closeness makes us vulnerable,” he said. “But it’s true that your greatest weakness is also your greatest strength. And our closeness is what makes us who we are. That is what New York is.”
Some public health experts also attributed the city’s burgeoning caseload in part to the state’s big push to test people.
Troy Tassier, a Fordham University professor who studies economic epidemiology, suggested the increase showed New York would have fared better had it acted sooner to order social distancing.
Nearly 7 million people in the San Francisco area were all but confined to their homes on March 17, and California put all 40 million of its residents under a near-lockdown three days later.
The order to stay at home in New York State did not go into effect until Sunday evening, March 22, and New York City’s 1.1 million-student school system was not closed until March 15, well after other districts had shut down.
After New York’s first positive test came back on March 1 — in a health care worker who had travelled to Iran and secluded herself upon returning — Mayor Bill de Blasio and Cuomo initially cast the disease as a dangerous threat but one that the city’s muscular hospital system could handle. That message soon changed.
Dr. Deborah Birx, the coordinator of the White House’s coronavirus task force, said at a briefing the number of new cases in New York City had been relatively constant over the last three days.
But she warned hospital cases wouls continue to increase because they reflected people who contracted the illness before full mitigation efforts kicked in, and urged city residents to follow White House recommendations.
“To every American out there, where you are protecting yourself, you are protecting others,” Dr Birx said.
Around the US, other states braced for a version of New York’s nightmare, with fears surrounding public events held in the weeks before the virus exploded.
A month after Mardi Gras in and around New Orleans, Louisiana now has the third-highest rate among states per capita in the US, according to the governor, with 65 dead, and the virus confirmed in three-quarters of the state’s 64 parishes.