(Reuters) - New York state, leading the country in coronavirus infections and deaths, is showing tentative signs of slowing the spread of the disease, Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Wednesday, while the health crisis deepened in hard-hit New Orleans and elsewhere.
The rate of hospitalizations in New York has slowed in recent days, Cuomo said, with numbers he called “almost too good to be true.” He also hailed 40,000 retired nurses, physicians and other medical professionals who signed up for a “surge health care force,” but warned that much remains to be done.
In an ominous sign of a potential catastrophe, New York, North Carolina and Hawaii requested the Federal Emergency Management Agency send special mortuary teams that can be deployed for mass casualties.
New Orleans, where large crowds celebrated Mardi Gras a month ago, was on track to become the next US epicentre, as Louisiana’s Gulf Coast metropolis recorded the world’s highest growth rate in coronavirus cases.
On Capitol Hill, the US Senate was set to vote on Wednesday on an unprecedented $2 trillion bill to cushion the economic blow of the pandemic, after top aides to Republican President Donald Trump said they had reached agreement on the measure with leaders of both parties.
The top Democrat in the US House of Representatives, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, said her chamber could take up the relief bill as soon as it cleared the Senate.
Cuomo announced new steps aimed at containing the virus. New York City - home to over 8 million people - made some streets pedestrian-only to allow more room for foot traffic and greater “social distancing.”
At a news conference, Cuomo said the city also would ban basketball and other contact sports in public parks, urging individuals to comply on a voluntary basis.
“Our closeness makes us vulnerable,” said Cuomo, who has emerged as a leading voice on the coronavirus.
Nationwide, at least 65,000 people have been diagnosed with COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the highly contagious virus, as the death toll surpassed 940.
Only two other nations - China and Italy - have more cases of the virus, which is particularly perilous to elderly people and those with underlying chronic health conditions.
Cuomo said more than 30,800 people had tested positive for the virus in his state and more than 17,800 in New York City alone. The state, which has reported 285 deaths and roughly half the country’s known infections, was among the earliest to close non-essential businesses and direct residents to stay home as much as possible.
As of Wednesday, the governors of at least 21 states, representing more than half the U.S. population of 330 million, have imposed such restrictions, designed to curb transmission of the virus by limiting congregations of people.
PANDEMIC AND POLITICS
Even before states began adopting those measures last week, the pandemic paralysed parts of the US economy and upended daily life as schools and colleges closed and workplaces shuttered voluntarily or under local government orders.
The crisis, sparking projections of a global recession amid tumbling stock prices, has put public health authorities at odds with President Donald Trump, who had pointed to a robust economy and stock market in making his case for reelection in November.
While more states joined the procession of stay-at-home orders, Trump this week has pushed to reopen commerce by April 12, Easter Sunday, and on Wednesday blamed news outlets for exerting pressure to keep restrictions in place.
“The LameStream Media is the dominant force in trying to get me to keep our Country closed as long as possible in the hope that it will be detrimental to my election success,” Trump wrote in a tweet. “The real people want to get back to work ASAP.”
Health experts insist that reopening businesses and schools too soon would only risk fuelling transmission of the virus, overwhelming a hospital system already facing equipment and personnel shortages, and ultimately worsen the economic fallout.
Cuomo cited recent coronavirus hospitalization figures in his state as evidence that social distancing was starting to work. While hospitalizations had been doubling every two days as of Sunday, those numbers were doubling every 3.4 days by Monday, and by Tuesday the rate was every 4.7 days, Cuomo said.
“This is a very good sign and a positive sign, again not 100% sure it holds ... but the arrows are headed in the right direction,” Cuomo said.
Diagnostic testing remained a challenge in New York and around the country. At Elmhurst Hospital Center in New York’s Queens borough, scores of people, most wearing surgical masks, lined up on Wednesday to be tested at a tent outside.
CRUSH IN LOUISIANA
The deteriorating situation in New Orleans dashed hopes that less densely populated cities and those in warmer climates might escape the worst of the pandemic. Local authorities have warned that hospitals in the Mississippi River port city could reach the point of collapse by April 4.
Trump issued federal disaster declarations for Louisiana and Iowa late on Tuesday and for Texas and Florida on Wednesday, freeing up federal funds to help states cope. The three states hardest hit so far - New York, California and Washington - were given such status previously.
Dr. Rebekah Gee, head of Louisiana State University’s healthcare services division, said that Mardi Gras, when 1.4 million tourists descended on New Orleans for celebrations that included tightly packed street parades, fed the city’s outbreak.
New Orleans restaurant owner Ronnie Evans said everyone in New Orleans was “freaking out.”
“People don’t know what to expect or how long this will last. Everyone is worried about their jobs,” said Evans, 32, whose restaurant Blue Oak BBQ is a few steps from the renowned Bourbon Street. The restaurant is offering takeout orders only.
“This is as bad as Katrina or worse,” he said, referring to the hurricane that devastated the city in 2005.