Europe’s south strains under pandemic; 10,000 die globally

PARIS — Southern Europe buckled under the strain of the coronavirus pandemic, with gasping patients filling the wards of hospitals in Spain and Italy as the global death toll surpassed 10,000 people worldwide.

In the U.S., California’s governor expanded restrictions on nonessential movement for all 40 million residents, and the Trump administration warned Americans abroad to return home or risk spending an “indefinite” period away.

The World Health Organization noted the dramatic speed of the virus’ spread.

“It took over three months to reach the first 10,000 confirmed cases, and only 12 days to reach the next 100, 000,” the U.N. health agency said Friday.

WHO released new protocols to help countries identify the extent of COVID-19 infection among their populations, which age groups are most affected and the percentage of people who are infected without any symptoms.

In Bergamo, the epicenter of the virus in Italy, cemeteries were overwhelmed. Sky News video from inside the city’s main hospital showed patients lined up in a narrow ward, struggling for breath as doctors and nurses moved swiftly from one beeping machine to the next.

“When the virus arrived here, there was no containment and it spread through the valleys very quickly. … Some said it was the normal flu. We doctors knew it was not,” said Dr. Luca Lorini, head of intensive care at the hospital, where nearly 500 beds are dedicated to people suffering severe symptoms of the virus, 80 of those in intensive care.

At a convent on the outskirts of Rome, 19 of 21 nuns were infected, according to the Italian daily Il Messaggero. The Vatican published a decree absolving the faithful who are sick or in quarantine as well as their caregivers if they met certain conditions.

Wuhan, China, where the outbreak began, offered a ray of hope with no new infections reported for a second day in a row and only 39 cases reported nationwide — all of them brought from the outside, the government said.

The effects of a global economy grinding to a halt were also taking a toll, from millions of unsold flowers rotting in piles in Kenya to the slow emptying of the world’s skies. The U.N. chief warned of a looming global recession “perhaps of record dimensions.”

In a measure of how the fortunes of East and West have shifted, a Chinese Red Cross official heading an aid delegation to Milan castigated Italians for failing to take their national lockdown seriously. Sun Shuopeng said he was shocked to see so many people walking around, using public transportation and eating out in hotels, adding: “All people should be staying at home in quarantine.”

China also sent medical equipment to the Czech capital, Prague.

Globally, governments are trying to balance locking down residents with the need to keep food, medicine and other essentials flowing. In Britain, the category of vital workers includes doctors, nurses and paramedics — and also vicars, truckers, garbage collectors and journalists.

French President Emmanuel Macron urged employees to keep working in supermarkets, production sites and other necessary businesses amid stringent movement restrictions.

“We need to keep the country running,” Macron said.

Worldwide, the death toll from COVID-19 passed 10,000 and infections exceeded 244,000, according to a Johns Hopkins University tally. Italy, with 60 million citizens, has recorded 3,405 deaths, exceeding the 3,248 in China, a country with a population over 20 times larger. Spain, second behind Italy in Europe, reported 1,002 deaths and 19,980 infections. The U.S. death toll rose to 205.

“Certain medical centres are suffering stress that is reaching the limit,” said Fernando Simón, director of Spain’s centre for health alerts and emergencies. “The difficult days in which we must bear down are coming now. We must keep our focus.”

Though the illness is mild in most people, the elderly are particularly susceptible to serious symptoms. Italy has the world’s second-oldest population, and the vast majority of its dead — 87% — were over 70.

Jonas Schmidt-Chanasit, a virologist at Germany’s Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine, offered another reason for Italy’s high mortality rate: “That’s what happens when the health system collapses.”

More than 86,000 people have recovered, mostly in China, but the pace is much slower than the spread of the virus. Recovery takes two weeks or so for mild cases but can be up to six weeks for those that turn serious, according to the WHO.

Iran’s official toll was rising quickly as well amid fears it is underreporting its cases. Iran accused the United States of helping spread the virus by retaining sanctions that prevent it importing desperately needed medicine and medical equipment.

“While the U.S. is trying to curb the virus internally, it is helping the spread of the virus externally,” Iran’s U.N. mission said in a statement.

Nations are imposing ever-stricter border controls and lockdowns to keep people at home and keep away outsiders, hoping to slow the spread of the virus while preparing for an onslaught of sick patients.

Italy was the first to act in Europe, and — despite the criticism from the Chinese official — other leaders held up Italians as an example to encourage their own citizens to endure far-reaching restrictions. Austria and Germany warned that they would continue at least through Easter.

“We must not ease off. We must continue the measures we have taken,” said Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz. “This is a marathon … everyone who goes along with the measures is a lifesaver.”

The Trump administration upgraded its warning to Americans against all international travel, and the State Department announced new restrictions on issuing passports to U.S. citizens. In Morocco, several hundred Americans are scattered in cities around the country, sleeping on floors in the Marrakech airport, holed up in one of the last hotels open in Rabat and banding together on a Facebook group — U.S. Citizens Trapped in Morocco.

The U.S. chartered flights to evacuate hundreds stranded in Morocco after the North African country suspended all international passenger flights.

For California’s 40 million residents, Gov. Gavin Newsom expanded restrictions on nonessential movement outside of homes, saying it was necessary to control the spread of the virus, which was threatening to overwhelm California’s medical system.

The U.S. Army prepared mobile military hospitals for deployment in major cities, and motorists waited in long lines for nurses to swab their nostrils at new U.S. drive-thru testing sites. New York City is rapidly becoming a U.S. epicenter, with more than 4,000 cases.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the state needs thousands of ventilators before the outbreak overwhelms hospitals. At a video conference with President Donald Trump, governors complained of difficulties obtaining such things as swabs and protective gear for doctors and nurses.

“We literally have people in China shopping for ventilators which is one of the largest manufacturers,” Cuomo said.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio lashed out at the president as “the Herbert Hoover of your generation,” referring to the president during the stock market crash in 1929 that began the Great Depression.

Damage to the world’s largest economy kept increasing, with the number of Americans filing for unemployment benefits surging by 70,000 last week.

Congress is weighing a proposed $1 trillion emergency package that would dispense relief checks to households. The one-time $1,200 stipends would be sent to individuals — $2,400 for couples — phased out at income thresholds of $75,000 for individuals and $150,000 per couple. Additionally, there would be $500 payments for each child.

A Houston hospital that opened its doors to drive-thru testing quickly saw a line of hundreds of vehicles stretching more than a mile. At a white tent, workers in masks and head-to-toe protective gear swabbed motorists. Petra Sanchez waited to find out whether she had the virus.

“I have an 80-year-old dad, and I haven’t been around him for the same reason,” she said. ”I don’t know what I have.”

___

Perry reported from Wellington, New Zealand. Associated Press reporters around the world contributed.

___

The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Lori Hinnant And Nick Perry, The Associated Press

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