Body count mounts, medical supplies dwindle in coronavirus-hit New York

Nathan Layne and Maria Caspani, Reuters

Posted at Apr 03 2020 02:20 AM

Nurses at Montefiore Medical Center Moses Division hospital hold a protest demanding N95 masks and other critical Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to handle patients during the outbreak coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in the Bronx borough of New York City, on April 2, 2020. Brendan Mcdermid, Reuters

NEW YORK - The coronavirus pandemic's mounting death toll began to overwhelm New York City morgues on Thursday as hospitals struggled to treat thousands of infected patients with a dwindling supply of ventilators and protective equipment.

Funeral homes and cemetery directors described a surge in demand unseen in decades as COVID-19 cases, the respiratory ailment caused by the novel coronavirus, surpassed 50,000 infections in the city, killing nearly 1,400. "In many ways New York state is a microcosm of the United States and that's why I think it is going to be illustrative to the rest of the nation as to what is going to happen," New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said.

The human costs were underscored by staggering new evidence of the economic devastation.

With more than 90% of Americans ordered to ride out the crisis at home, the US government reported that a record 6.6 million Americans filed for jobless benefits last week. That was double the previous all-time high set a week earlier.

"It takes your breath away," Justin Hoogendoorn, head of fixed income strategy and analytics at Piper Sandler in Chicago, said of the jobless data. "Obviously the immediate reaction to something like that is going to be fear."

Texas became the 40th state to issue a stay-at-home order on Thursday to help contain the spread of the virus. Combined with city and county orders, more than 90% of the U.S. population was on some form of lockdown.

As if 10 million Americans losing their jobs in two weeks were not enough, the US death toll soared by 950 on Wednesday, marking the third day in a row of record increases. Additional deaths reported on Thursday increased the national toll to more than 5,600 dead, according to a Reuters tally of official data.

Confirmed US cases surpassed 233,000 on Thursday, double that of Italy, the country with the second most.

Globally, the number of confirmed infections approached one million with more than 50,000 fatalities as of Thursday, led by Italy with over 13,000 dead, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.

To deal with the mounting number of fatalities, the U.S. Defense Department was looking to provide up to 100,000 body bags after the Federal Emergency Management Agency placed an order for that many, a Pentagon official told Reuters on Wednesday.

New York City crematories were extending their hours and burning bodies into the night, with corpses piling up so quickly that city officials were surveying cemeteries elsewhere in the state for temporary interment sites.

"We've been preparing for a worst-case scenario, which is in a lot of ways starting to materialize," said Mike Lanotte, director of the New York State Funeral Directors Association.

The White House task force on the pandemic estimates the pandemic could kill 100,000 to 240,000 people even if lockdown orders are respected.

NEW ORLEANS HIT HARD

The coronavirus is even more lethal in New Orleans, which has a per-capita death rate three times higher than New York City. Doctors, public health officials and available data say the Big Easy's high levels of obesity and related ailments may be part of the problem.

"We're just sicker," said Rebekah Gee, head of Louisiana State University's healthcare services division.

An emergency stockpile of medical equipment maintained by the US government has nearly run out of protective gear for doctors and nurses, as governors and healthcare providers across the country clamor for protective gear and medical equipment such as ventilators, which help COVID-19 patients breathe.

After New York City appointed former police commissioner James O'Neill to oversee its medical supply chain, U.S. Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer of New York called on Trump to follow suit and appoint a national czar with military experience to oversee the production and distribution of medical supplies.

"The system that the administration has in place is horrible," Schumer told MSNBC.

Trump tweeted that New York has received more federal aid than any other state and said the man he describes as "Cryin' Chuck Schumer" and local officials should stop complaining, saying they should have stocked up long ago.

Cuomo, who reported another 432 deaths and 8,669 new cases in his state in the past 24 hours, said his state was creating its own central stockpile, asking hospitals to contribute supplies that the state would then redistribute based on need.

New York City received 400 badly needed ventilators on Wednesday, but Cuomo warned the state's reserve of 2,200 ventilators would run out within six days.

In one ray of light, Florida officials agreed to allow two Holland America Line cruise ships afflicted with the coronavirus to dock at a port in Fort Lauderdale, resolving a days-long impasse, NBC reported.

After 27 days at sea in which four passengers aboard one of the ships died, they can dock in Fort Lauderdale.