The streets are so dead now you can hear the ambulance sirens from a long way off. And you hear them more and more.
Yesterday, one came for an old lady at the end of my block, a squad of masked medics milling around the stretcher as she was wheeled into an ambulance and away to a hospital system that many fear will be overwhelmed when the stream of patients becomes a deluge.
The ambulance sirens are now competing to be heard over 1,000 police cars cruising the city, blaring out a recorded message outlining the social distancing rules to anyone gathered outside in groups. With New York fast threatening to become the global epicentre of coronavirus, the state governor, Andrew Cuomo, has warned that it has spread there faster than a ‘bullet train’.
A man crosses a nearly empty 5th Avenue in midtown Manhattan as the coronavirus crisis hits New York City
Whether the train can be slowed or will crash spectacularly largely depends on a mercurial President whose assurances that the pandemic is under control – he’s pushing for business as usual by Easter – flatly contradict his medical experts.
Donald Trump’s obstinacy is compounding a sense of dread in a city facing its greatest challenge since 9/11 and perhaps the country’s greatest domestic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
There were scenes of chaos across the city’s hospitals as doctors told of being overwhelmed by a ‘cacophony of coughs’. Staggering figures revealed almost 31,000 have tested positive for the virus in New York State. That is more per capita than in Italy and almost 7 per cent of the world’s confirmed cases, with more than 5,000 new ones in the last 24 hours alone.
In a dire warning, Mr Cuomo described the number of infections as ‘breathtaking’ and warned that the city’s healthcare system would crumble without support.
He added: ‘New York is just the canary in the coal mine. What happens to New York is going to end up happening to California, in Washington State and Illinois.’
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention yesterday reported 54,453 cases across the country, an increase of 10,270 from its previous count. It said the death toll had risen by 193 to 737, marking America’s deadliest day so far. Cases have been reported in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
Times Square, pictured, remains mostly empty as staggering figures revealed almost 31,000 have tested positive for the virus in New York State
Mr Cuomo said with cases doubling every three days in New York City alone, 140,000 people might need urgent care in the next few weeks. New York doctor Craig Spencer, who survived ebola after contracting it in Guinea in 2014, said: ‘What we are seeing in the emergency room now is dire. It is only a matter of time now before this spills out on to the streets.’
New York City’s population density – 28,000 people per square mile – has been a key factor in its vulnerability. All non-essential workers have been told to stay at home while White House officials have advised people who have passed through or left New York to quarantine themselves for 14 days. The silence on the streets is perhaps more sharply felt here than anywhere else in the world. This, after all, is the city that never sleeps.
There is none of that famous vibrancy now. The National Guard has been called in to help turn a convention centre into a 1,000-bed hospital.
A giant US Navy hospital ship is on its way, too, but experts fear these won’t be nearly enough. Soldiers have been building a makeshift morgue outside a Manhattan hospital – the first of several planned around the city.
New York state has 53,000 hospital beds but is estimated to need 140,000. Hospitals are reporting they are already nearing full capacity, with some saying they are putting a breathing tube into a new virus-hit patient at the rate of one an hour.
The crisis is not only uncomfortable for New York, it’s also shameful. More billionaires have homes in New York than anywhere else and yet the richest city in the richest country in the world is scrambling to get hold of even the most basic tools to combat the virus.
Much like in the UK, all non-essential workers have been told to stay home, which has seen the usually busy Union Square Park, Manhattan, pictured, almost deserted
One reason is the escalating feud between Mr Trump and Mr Cuomo, the city’s Democrat governor, who wants the President to enforce a law that could compel US manufacturers to make much-needed medical supplies. Mr Trump has complained it smacks of socialism while Mr Cuomo has accused him of playing politics with people’s lives. Just as in London, hospital staff are short of protective gear. Some are wearing makeshift masks made from coffee filters.
Maintaining law and order is a growing concern. The New York Police Department has 200 confirmed cases of the virus, with 3,000 more officers off sick. It is also working its way through New York’s prisons – up 34 per cent in a day – and infecting, among others, rapist film mogul Harvey Weinstein.
Officials have started releasing the most medically-vulnerable inmates and those jailed for lesser offences.
They’ll join a New York population whose famous devil-may-care spirit has been ground down by a lockdown that started on Sunday night.
All ‘non-essential’ shops have closed, all ‘non-essential’ gatherings have been banned and those who must go out have to stay at least six feet apart – just like in the UK.
Yellow cabs line an empty 42nd St. waiting for fares outside Grand Central Terminal in a city facing its biggest challenge since 9/11
New Yorkers love their brash image. But they now move cautiously, always on the look-out for anyone getting too close.
With restaurants only allowed to deliver food or sell takeaways, many New Yorkers are discovering cooking for the first time – and the average Manhattan kitchen is minuscule. To make things worse, New Yorkers adore their therapists but can’t see them any more. It’s left to radio stations to offer tips on coping with anxiety.
After five days of bickering, Democrats and Republicans have finally agreed a $2trillion economic aid plan – the biggest in modern US history.
Extraordinarily, Mr Trump’s popularity is actually rising in the polls. His critics cannot understand it given his bizarre handling of the crisis, regularly contradicting the advice of his experts. ‘Please do not take medical advice from a man who looked directly at a solar eclipse,’ Hillary Clinton tweeted yesterday, alongside a video of the President doing just that.
There is a very real concern here that he may start to distance himself from public health messages in a matter of weeks rather than let the pandemic further damage the economy – and his political prospects.
And that is making many Americans sick with worry.