Europe’s three worst-hit countries — Italy, Spain and France — surpassed 30,000 dead, over 56% of the global toll, in an April 3, 2020 story. (Photo by THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Europe’s hospitals buckle under the crush of the coronavirus

MADRID — Setting up makeshift ICU wards in libraries and conference centres, embattled European medical workers strained Friday to save thousands of desperately ill coronavirus patients as stocks of medicine, protective equipment and breathing machines grew shorter by the hour.

A maelstrom of coronavirus deaths and job losses slammed the United States and Europe. Some 10 million Americans have been thrown out of work in just two weeks, the most stunning collapse the U.S. job market has ever witnessed. Global confirmed infections surged past 1 million and deaths hit 53,000, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.

Experts say both numbers are seriously under-counted, due to the lack of testing, mild cases that were missed and governments that are deliberately underplaying the impact of the pandemic.

Europe’s three worst-hit countries — Italy, Spain and France — surpassed 30,000 dead, over 56% of the global toll. From those countries, the view remained almost unrelentingly grim, a frightening portent even for places like New York, the epicenter of the U.S. outbreak, where trucks have been fork-lifting bodies outside overflowing morgues.

One Spanish hospital turned its library into a makeshift intensive care unit. In France, space was set aside for bodies in a vast food market. The French prime minister said he is “fighting hour by hour” to ward off shortages of essential drugs used to keep COVID-19 patients alive.

Philippe Montravers, an anesthesiologist in Paris, said medics are preparing to fall back on older drugs, such as the opiates fetanyl and morphine, that had fallen out of favour, because newer painkillers are in short supply.

“The work is extremely tough and heavy,” he said. “We’ve had doctors, nurses, caregivers who got sick, infected … but who have come back after recovering. It’s a bit like those World War I soldiers who were injured and came back to fight.”

Some glimmers of hope emerged that Italy, with nearly 14,000 dead, as well as Spain and France might be flattening their infection curves and nearing or even passing their peaks in daily deaths.

Spain on Friday reported 932 new daily deaths, slightly down from the record it hit a day earlier. The carnage most certainly included large numbers of elderly who authorities admit are not getting access to the country’s limited breathing machines, which are being used first on healthier, younger patients. More than half of Spain’s 10,935 deaths have come in the last seven days alone.

In a vast exhibition centre in Madrid that was hastily converted into a 1,300-bed field hospital, bed No. 01.30 held patient Esteban Pinaredo, aged 87.

“I’m good, I love you,” Pinaredo told his family via Skype. “I will run away as soon as I can.”

The makeshift facility’s organizer, Antonio Zapatero, said Spain’s nationwide lockdown must be maintained.

“Otherwise, this is what you are facing,” he said, pointing at the rows of beds.

Elsewhere in Europe, officials began talking tentatively about how to lift lockdowns that have staved off the total collapse of strained health systems but also battered economies and, on Friday, prompted France to cancel its high-school leaving exam known as the Baccalaureat, a first in the 212-year history of the test.

Austria said it will set out a timetable next week for what could be “a slow startup” of closed parts of the economy. The head of Germany’s national disease control centre said he expects that any easing of the country’s lockdown, which this week was extended to April 19, will be “staggered.”

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said European neighbours must co-ordinate when the time comes to ease lockdowns and that restrictions must be lifted “progressively” to prevent waves of fresh infections.

With forecast glorious spring weather likely to tempt stir-crazy families out of lockdown this weekend, the firm message across the continent remained: “Stay home.”

Paris police set up roadblocks out of the city to nab those trying to escape for Easter vacation.

In Britain, which locked down later than its European neighbours, the infection peak is still ahead, threatening the National Health Service with the biggest test in its 72-year history after austerity cuts that have strained the revered institution and its promise of quality care for all.

Beyond Europe, coronavirus deaths mounted with alarming speed in New York, the most lethal hot spot in the United States, which has seen at least 1,500 deaths. One New York funeral home had 185 bodies stacked up — more than triple its normal capacity.

“It’s surreal,” owner Pat Marmo said, adding that he’s been begging families to insist hospitals hold their dead loved ones as long as possible. “We need help.”

Roughly 90% of the U.S. population is under stay-at-home orders, and many factories, restaurants, stores and other businesses are closed or have seen sales shrivel. Economists warned that U.S. unemployment would almost certainly top that of the Great Recession a decade ago and could reach levels not seen since the Great Depression in the 1930s.

The pandemic will cost the world economy as much as $4.1 trillion, or nearly 5% of all economic activity, the Asian Development Bank said Friday.

With more than 245,000 people infected in the U.S. and the death toll topping 6,000, sobering preparations were underway. The Federal Emergency Management Agency asked the Pentagon for 100,000 more body bags.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for others, especially older adults and people with health problems, it can cause pneumonia and lead to death. The World Health Organization said this week that 95% of the deaths in Europe were of people over 60.

Shortages of critical equipment led to fierce competition between buyers from Europe, the U.S. and elsewhere. A regional leader in Paris described the scramble to find masks a “worldwide treasure hunt.” Gov. Andrew Cuomo warned that New York could run out of breathing machines in six days.

Worldwide usage of essential drugs and disposable equipment, such as ventilator mouthpieces, used by ICUs is “exploding in unimaginable proportions,” with a “nearly 2,000 per cent increase” in demand, said Philippe, the French prime minister.

“Because it is happening everywhere in the world and at the same time.”

By The Associated Press

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