‘A battlefield behind your home’: Deaths mount in New York City

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A funeral director and a Wycoff Heights Medical Center, employee transport a body, Wednesday, April 1, 2020, in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

NEW YORK (AP) — New York authorities rushed to bring in an army of medical volunteers Wednesday as the statewide death toll from the coronavirus doubled in 72 hours to more than 1,900, and the wail of ambulances in the otherwise eerily quiet streets of the city became the heartbreaking soundtrack of the crisis.

As hot spots flared in places like New Orleans and Southern California, the nation’s biggest city was the hardest hit of all, with bodies loaded onto refrigerated morgue trucks by gurney and forklift outside overwhelmed hospitals, in full view of passing motorists.

”It’s like a battlefield behind your home,” says 33-year-old Emma Sorza, who could hear the sirens from severely swamped Elmhurst Hospital in Queens.

And the worst is yet to come.

“How does it end? And people want answers,” Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo says. “I want answers. The answer is nobody knows for sure.”

Stocks tumbled on Wall Street and markets around the world a day after President Donald Trump warned Americans to brace for “one of the roughest two or three weeks we’ve ever had in our country,” with 100,000 to 240,000 deaths projected in the U.S. before the crisis ends. The Dow Jones Industrial Average lost more than 970 points, or over 4%.

Under growing pressure, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis belatedly joined his counterparts in more than 30 states by issuing stay-home orders, taking action after conferring with fellow Republican Trump. The governors of Pennsylvania and Nevada, both Democrats, took similar steps.

Meanwhile, European nations facing extraordinary demand for intensive-care beds are putting up makeshift hospitals, unsure whether they will find enough healthy medical staff to run them. London is days away from unveiling a 4,000-bed temporary hospital built in a huge convention center.

In a remarkable turnabout, rich economies where virus cases have exploded are welcoming help from less wealthy ones. Russia sent medical equipment and masks to the U.S.; Cuba supplied doctors to France; and Turkey dispatched protective gear and disinfectant to Italy and Spain.

Worldwide, more than 900,000 people have been infected and over 45,000 have died, according to a tally kept by Johns Hopkins University. Experts believe real figures are much higher due to testing shortages, differences in accounting for the death toll, and massive numbers of unreported and/or mild cases.

The U.S. recorded about 200,000 infections and about 4,400 deaths, with New York City accounting for about a quarter of fatalities.

More than 80,000 people have volunteered as medical reinforcements in New York, including recent retirees, health care professionals taking a break from their regular jobs, and people between gigs.

Few have made it into the field yet, as authorities vet them to figure out how to use them, but hospitals are expected to begin bringing them in later this week.

Those who have hit the ground already, many brought in by staffing agencies, have discovered a hospital system driven to the breaking point.

“It’s hard when you lose patients. It’s hard when you have to tell the family members: ‘I’m sorry, but we did everything that we could,’” says Florida nurse Katherine Ramos, working at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. “It’s even harder when we really don’t have the time to mourn, the time to talk about this.”

To ease the crushing caseload, the city’s paramedics have been told they shouldn’t take fatal heart attack victims to hospitals to have them pronounced dead. Patients have been transferred to the Albany area. A Navy hospital ship has docked in New York. The mammoth Javits Convention Center has been turned into a hospital, and the tennis center that hosts the U.S. Open is being converted to one, too.

With New York on near-lockdown, the normally bustling streets in the city of 8.6 million are empty, and sirens are no longer easily ignored as urban ambiance.

“After 9/11, I remember we actually wanted to hear the sound of ambulances on our quiet streets because that meant there were survivors, but we didn’t hear those sounds, and it was heartbreaking. Today, I hear an ambulance on my strangely quiet street and my heart breaks, too,” says 61-year-old Meg Gifford, a former Wall Streeter who lives on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

Cuomo moved to close the city’s playgrounds because of too much crowding, but people can still use wide-open green spaces as long as they stay 6 feet apart. Police went around in patrol cars, blaring warnings to obey the rules.

Nearly 6,200 New York City police officers, one-sixth of the department, are out sick Wednesday, including about 4,800 who reported flu-like systems. Still, it is not clear how many have the virus.

Cuomo warns the crisis in New York is likely to peak at the end of April, with a high death rate continuing through July.

“Let’s cooperate to address that in New York because it’s going to be in your town tomorrow. If we learn how to do it right here—or learn how to do it the best we can, because there is no right, it’s only the best we can—then we can work cooperatively all across this country.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo

Elsewhere around the country, Louisiana dead number over 270. In Southern California, officials report at least 51 residents and six staff members at a single nursing home east of Los Angeles have been infected, with two have dead.

Florida’s DeSantis was locked in a standoff over whether two cruise ships carrying sick and dead passengers and over 300 Americans aboard could dock in his state. Two deaths were blamed on the virus, and nine people tested positive, Holland America cruise line says.

Close to Trump, DeSantis says the state’s health system is stretched too thin to accommodate the passengers. But the president said he would speak with him. “They’re dying on the ship,” Trump says. “I’m going to do what’s right. Not only for us, but for humanity.”

Even as the virus appears to have slowed its growth in overwhelmed Italy and in China, where it first emerged, European hospitals are buckling under the load.

“It feels like we are in a Third World country. We don’t have enough masks, enough protective equipment, and by the end of the week we might be in need of more medication too,” says Paris emergency worker Christophe Prudhomme.

Spain reported a record 864 deaths in one day, for a total of more than 9,000, while France registered an unprecedented 509 in a day, and more than 4,000 in all. In Italy, with over 13,000 dead, the most of any country, morgues overflow with bodies, caskets pile up in churches, and doctors must choose which desperately ill patients should get breathing machines.

England’s Wimbledon tennis tournament was canceled for the first time since World War II.

India’s highest court ordered news media and social media sites to carry the government’s “official version” of developments, echoing actions taken in other countries to curb independent reporting.

The strain facing some of the world’s best health care systems has been aggravated by hospital budget cuts over the past decade in Italy, Spain, France, and Britain. They have called in medical students, retired doctors, and even laid-off flight attendants with first aid training.

High numbers of infected personnel have worsened staffing shortages. In Italy alone, nearly 10,000 medical workers have contracted the virus, and over 60 doctors have died.

China, where the outbreak began late last year, reported just 36 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday.

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