New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, has issued his most dire statement yet about the coronavirus pandemic, warning that coronavirus infection rates are rising much faster than expected and the state’s hospitals are woefully unequipped for the deluge.
“The inescapable conclusion is that the rate of infection is going up,” Cuomo said at a press conference on Tuesday morning. “It is spiking. The apex is higher than we thought, and the apex is sooner than we thought. That is a bad combination of facts.”
In New York state, 25,665 cases of coronavirus were confirmed as of Tuesday morning, with 210 deaths – far higher numbers than elsewhere in the US – as 14,776 cases and 131 fatalities were concentrated in New York City alone. New York is conducting more testing per capita than countries such as South Korea, which may partially explain the spike in numbers.
The Democratic governor also attacked the Trump administration’s handling of the crisis, saying federal authorities had offered his state just 400 ventilators when an estimated 30,000 additional machines will be needed.
“We need to be smarter about this … we need the federal help and we need it now,” he said, calling on Donald Trump to utilise the Defense Production Act (DPA) to force companies to produce medical equipment and provide them the necessary financial support to do so. So far, the administration has relied on volunteer efforts that Cuomo said were not appropriate for the urgency of crisis.
He also rejected the suggestion, floated by the president in recent days, that advice from public health officials could be rowed back in a matter of weeks to protect the US economy, saying that sensible steps in both areas could be made now without increasing risk to more vulnerable people in society.
“My mother is not expendable,” Cuomo said. “We will not put a dollar figure on human life.”
Speaking later in the day, the vice-president, Mike Pence, said the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) had sent New York 2,000 ventilators and plans to send 2,000 more on Wednesday. Trump said he wanted restrictions to be lifted by Easter Sunday on 12 April, and to see churches “packed” with people.
At the daily White House briefing, coronavirus coordinator Dr Deborah Birx said New York was the country’s hardest hit area, and advised people who have travelled from New York City to other parts of the country in recent days to self-quarantine for 14 days to try to contain the spread of the virus.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio directly contradicted Trump during his press conference Tuesday, saying it was “inconceivable” that the city would return to normal by April. De Blasio predicted that, in terms of the pandemic, April will be worse than March, and May may even be worse than April.
With cases surging, Cuomo said new projections estimate his state will need 140,000 hospital beds once the crisis reaches its apex, which could happen within 14 to 21 days instead of in May as previously forecast. New York hospitals can currently support only 53,000 beds, and even the mandated 50% increase in capacity Cuomo announced yesterday will do little to undercut this severe dearth in resources.
“One of the forecasters said we were looking at a freight train coming across the country. We’re now looking at a bullet train,” Cuomo said.
Cuomo’s urgent message comes as a spokesperson for the World Health Organization (WHO) warned the US has the potential to become the next global hotspot for the pandemic. The country already has more than 46,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases, resulting in close to 600 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
“What happens to New York is gonna wind up happening to California, and Washington state and Illinois. It’s just a matter of time. We’re just getting there first,” Cuomo said. “Look at us today … where we are today, you will be in four weeks or five weeks or six weeks. We are your future.”
The outbreak has led to a dramatic change in America’s social fabric: as of Monday, the New York Times estimated that more than 158 million people in 16 states would soon be under strict orders to stay at home – approaching half of the population. In New York, bars, restaurants, clubs and gyms have shuttered, Broadway productions have gone dark, airports have emptied out and streets normally filled with activity have largely become ghost towns.
But even as state and local governments took drastic measures to promote social distancing and self-isolation, Trump on Monday indicated the country may restart its economy long before expected, and before some health experts recommend.
“America will again, and soon, be open for business – very soon – a lot sooner than three or four months that somebody was suggesting,” Trump said during a press briefing. “A lot sooner. We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself.”
The shift in messaging came after James Bullard, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis, predicted unemployment could reach 30% nationwide, according to Bloomberg News, and as negotiations for a coronavirus stimulus package dragged on for days in the US Senate. For weeks, suddenly jobless workers have been imploring the government for help, and Trump is staring down what could become a historic recession during an election year.
Even still, medical experts have cautioned against such an abrupt restart to the economy while the virus continues to spread exponentially.
“You can’t call off the best weapon we have, which is social isolation, even out of economic desperation, unless you’re willing to be responsible for a mountain of deaths,” Arthur Caplan, founding head of the division of medical ethics at NYU School of Medicine, told the New York Times. “Can’t we try to put people’s lives first for at least a month?”
On Tuesday, Cuomo said he understood that shutting down the economy is unsustainable, but he plans to develop a refined public health strategy that’s also an economic strategy instead of sacrificing one for the other.
“If you ask the American people to choose between public health and the economy, then it’s no contest,” Cuomo said. “No American is going to say, accelerate the economy at the cost of human life, because no American is going to say how much a life is worth.”