MINNEAPOLIS — The coronavirus pandemic took an increasingly bleak toll Saturday in the U.S. and in Europe, producing staggering caseloads in New York and Italy and setting off a desperate scramble to set up thousands of additional hospital beds as the disease notched another grim advance.
Italy, at the heart of Europe’s rampaging outbreak, announced 793 new deaths and 6,557 new cases on Saturday — its biggest day-to-day increase yet. In New York, state officials sought out desperately needed medical supplies and hospital beds as confirmed coronavirus cases soared above 10,000 statewide, with 56 deaths.
“Everything that can be done is being done,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said, adding, “We are literally scouring the globe looking for medical supplies.”
Across the world, streets, squares and highways in major cities were deserted as curfews and lockdowns multiplied to try to stop the spread of COVID-19. In the U.S., New Jersey and St. Louis were added to a growing list of areas where residents were ordered to stay home. Health care workers from Oklahoma City to Minneapolis sought donations of protective equipment. Staff at a Detroit hospital began creating homemade face masks for workers. Even rural hospitals were strained as people increasingly felt the pandemic closing in.
“There’s definitely this underlying fear in the community. You can see it,” said Dr. Robert Wagner, an emergency room doctor in the farming community of Vidalia, Georgia, which has not yet seen a confirmed COVID-19 infection, But the 50-bed Meadows Regional Medical Center felt the pressure.
“People are scared, and they don’t know where else to turn, so they’re turning to us,” Wagner said, adding that so far, the hospital has had enough tests for any patient who warrants one, and supplies of masks, gloves and protective gowns were holding up for now.
But Wagner said he’s concerned supplies may start to run out as patient volumes increase. And he worries about staffing shortages if nurses and doctors start to get sick.
In Washington, negotiators from Congress and the White House resumed top-level talks on a ballooning $1 trillion-plus economic rescue package, urged by President Donald Trump to strike a deal to steady a nation thoroughly upended by the coronavirus pandemic.
In Nebraska, 81 counties are without intensive-care beds, and 28 of the most rural counties have no hospital at all. In western Minnesota, three counties are exploring converting part of a former prison into a centre to care for coronavirus patients.
The shortage of medical equipment and protective gear was a concern in major cities too. Supplies including protective gear, respirators and hand sanitizer, were dwindling. New Hampshire’s largest hospital, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical centre, encouraged volunteers to sew face masks for patients, visitors and staff so medical-grade protective equipment could be conserved for health care workers. Integris Health, in Oklahoma, was asking the public to donate masks, hand sanitizers, disposable gloves, and other supplies.
“On a national and global basis, the key supplies are in very short supply,” said Jim O’Connor, vice-president of Supply Chain Management for Henry Ford Health System in the Detroit area. “We’re all struggling to obtain supplies at the level we would like. We are currently providing our supplies as required.”
“It’s just the perfect storm of a worldwide pandemic, health care systems around the country and around the world are needing the same things at the same time,” Integris spokeswoman Brooke Cayot said.
The virus was slower in coming to Oklahoma, Cayot said, but there are now 53 confirmed cases and one death.
When people realize that the virus is in their community, “the anxiety kicks in, and they are rushing to the emergency room,” Cayot said. “It’s the emergency rooms that are feeling overrun at the moment (by) people who are frightened and understandably so.”
For most people, the new virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority recover.
More than 297,000 cases have been confirmed globally, including 12,755 deaths, according to a running tally by Johns Hopkins University. More than 91,540 people people have recovered.
The United States has seen 276 deaths so far. Italy, which has Europe’s largest outbreak, now has at least 4,825 dead.
Italian Health Minister Roberto Speranza called for a “great alliance” between citizens and institutions, saying “what counts more is the behaviour of every individual.” Giuseppe Sala, mayor of Milan, capital of the hardest-stricken region of Lombardy, tried to rally the city’s 1.4 million citizens, tweeting that “by now, we have understood, this is a marathon, not a sprint.”
Spain now has the third-highest number of infections worldwide. On Saturday it reported a total of nearly 25,000 cases, including 1,326 deaths. Spanish health authorities have acknowledged that some intensive care units in the hardest-hit areas are close to their limit; the army was building a field hospital with 5,500 beds in a convention centre in Madrid, where hotels are also being turned into wards for virus patients without serious breathing problems.
Dr. Olga Mediano, who treated victims of a 2004 jihadist bomb attack in Madrid that killed nearly 200 people and wounded many times more, said nothing prepared her for the national health tragedy that Spain is now enduring.
“I have been through many situations,” she said from the central city of Guadalajara. “But nothing is like this.”
“If we keep seeing daily increases of 23%, this cannot be withstood much longer,” Mediano said. “We are doubling up on our shifts. We have strategies to hang in there this week, but beyond that we need the situation to improve because we professionals are bearing a lot of pressure, including emotional.”
In Germany’s southern state of Bavaria, town squares were empty. Pigeons outnumbered people in London’s usually bustling Trafalgar Square and Leicester Square a day after the British government ordered the closure of all bars, restaurants, movie theatres and other places where people congregate.
But shoppers still flocked to street markets in both countries, in a sign that restrictions were being interpreted in a patchwork fashion.
The number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 recorded in Africa rose above 1,000 Saturday, according to the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At least 40 of Africa’s 54 countries now have cases.
Britain still lags behind Italy, Spain and France in the spread of the virus, but the country’s overstretched health system is creaking. Britain, which has recorded 3,983 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 177 deaths, has already asked 65,000 retired nurses and doctors to return to work.
Workers near Moscow are rushing to build a clinic to treat hundreds of coronavirus patients as Russia prepares for a wave of infections. Placards in the style of Soviet propaganda posters have been erected near the site, with one showing Mayor Sergei Sobyanin pointing at the viewer and the slogan “Builders — Minutes count!”
Back in the U.S., restrictions on movement were scheduled to take effect Saturday in Illinois and New Jersey and Sunday in New York. All workers in nonessential businesses will be required to stay home and gatherings of any size are banned in New York. Exceptions will be made for important errands, such as buying groceries and medicine, and for exercise.