NEW YORK: The coronavirus outbreak snapped the United States’ record-breaking hiring streak of nearly 10 years, while U.S. and European medical workers struggling to save ailing patients Friday watched supplies of medicine, protective equipment and breathing machines dwindle by the hour.
Jobs numbers released in the U.S. showed the virus dealt a swift end to the nation’s 50-year-low unemployment rate, with employers reporting hundreds of thousands of job cuts in March. The true picture, though, is far worse, because the government figures do not include the last two weeks, when nearly 10 million thrown-out-of-work Americans applied for unemployment benefits.
Worldwide, confirmed infections surged past 1 million and deaths topped 54,000, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.
Experts say both numbers are seriously undercounted because of the lack of testing, mild cases that were missed and governments that are underplaying the extent of the crisis.
Europe’s three worst-hit countries — Italy, Spain and France — surpassed 30,000 dead, or over half of the global toll. From those countries, the view remained almost unrelentingly grim, a frightening portent for places like New York, the epicenter of the U.S. outbreak, where bodies are being loaded by forklift into refrigerated trucks outside overwhelmed hospitals.
Shortages of critical equipment led to fierce competition among buyers from Europe, the U.S. and elsewhere. A regional leader in Paris described the scramble to find masks a “worldwide treasure hunt.” Gov. Andrew Cuomo warned that New York could run out of ventilators in six days.
With more than 245,000 people infected in the U.S. and the death toll topping 6,000, sobering preparations were underway. The Federal Emergency Management Agency asked the Pentagon for 100,000 more body bags.
In Florida, hundreds of passengers on a cruise ship where four people died were finally being allowed to disembark after a days-long standoff. More than a dozen critically ill patients were taken to hospitals, while people healthy enough to travel were taken to the airport for chartered flights home.
One Spanish hospital turned its library into an intensive care unit. In France, space was set aside for bodies in a vast food market. The French prime minister said he is “fighting hour by hour” to ward off shortages of essential drugs used to keep COVID-19 patients alive.
Philippe Montravers, an anesthesiologist in Paris, said medics are preparing to fall back on older drugs such as the opiates fetanyl and morphine that had fallen out of favor, because newer painkillers are in short supply.
“The work is extremely tough and heavy,” he said. “We’ve had doctors, nurses, caregivers who got sick, infected ... but who have come back after recovering. It’s a bit like those World War I soldiers who were injured and came back to fight.”
France canceled its high-school exit exam known as the Baccalaureat, a first in the 212-year history of the test.
Some glimmers of hope emerged that Italy, with nearly 14,000 dead, as well as Spain and France might be flattening their infection curves and nearing or even passing their peaks in daily deaths.
Spain on Friday reported 932 new deaths, down slightly from the record it hit a day earlier. The carnage most certainly included large numbers of elderly who authorities admit are not getting access to the country’s limited breathing machines, which are being used first on healthier, younger patients. More than half of Spain’s nearly 11,000 deaths have come in the last seven days alone.
In a vast exhibition center in Madrid that was hastily converted into a 1,300-bed field hospital, bed No. 01.30 held patient Esteban Pinaredo, age 87.
“I’m good, I love you,” Pinaredo told his family via Skype. “I will run away as soon as I can.”
The facility’s organizer, Antonio Zapatero, said Spain’s nationwide lockdown must be maintained.
“Otherwise, this is what you are facing,” he said, pointing at the rows of beds.
Elsewhere in Europe, officials began talking tentatively about how to lift lockdowns that have staved off the total collapse of strained health systems but also battered economies.
Austria said it will set out a timetable next week for what could be “a slow startup” of closed parts of the economy. The head of Germany’s national disease control center said he expects that any easing of the country’s lockdown, which this week was extended to April 19, will be staggered.
Even in Spain, still in the thick of a fight so intense that authorities have suggested that medics can withhold life-support from elderly patients, talk turned toward possibly relaxing the lockdown in place since March 13.
Other countries went in the opposite direction. Singapore said it will close schools and most workplaces for a month. Thailand banned public gatherings and imposed a curfew.
French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said European neighbors must coordinate when the time comes to ease lockdowns and that restrictions must be lifted “progressively” to prevent waves of fresh infections.
With forecast glorious spring weather likely to tempt stir-crazy families out of lockdown this weekend, the firm message across the continent remained: “Stay home.”
Paris police set up roadblocks out of the city to stop those trying to escape for Easter vacation.
In Britain, which locked down later than its European neighbors, the infection peak is still ahead, threatening the National Health Service with the biggest test in its 72-year history after austerity cuts that have strained the institution and its promise of quality care for all. Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who tested positive last week, said in a video message on Twitter that he is feeling better but still has a fever and will remain in isolation.
Beyond Europe, coronavirus deaths mounted with alarming speed in New York City, the most lethal hot spot in the United States, which has seen at least 1,500 deaths. One New York funeral home had 185 bodies stacked up — more than triple its normal capacity.
“It’s surreal,” owner Pat Marmo said, adding that he’s been begging families to insist hospitals hold their dead loved ones as long as possible.
Roughly 90% of the U.S. population is under stay-at-home orders, and many factories, restaurants, stores and other businesses are closed or have seen sales shrivel. Economists warned that U.S. unemployment could reach levels not seen since the Depression in the 1930s.
The pandemic will cost the world economy as much as $4.1 trillion, or nearly 5% of all economic activity, the Asian Development Bank said.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for others, especially older adults and people with health problems, it can cause pneumonia. The World Health Organization said this week that 95% of the deaths in Europe were of people over 60.
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