NEW YORK – With refrigerated morgue trucks parked on New York City's streets to collect the surging number of dead, public health officials projected Tuesday that the coronavirus could ultimately kill more than 100,000 people across the U.S. Some states that have become hot spots warn they're running low on ventilators, while two cruise ships pleaded for Florida to allow them to dock to carry off the sick and dead.
The number of U.S. deaths could range from 100,000 to 240,000 even if Americans continue to stay home and limit contact with others, experts predicted at a media briefing with President Donald Trump. But they said they hope the figure won't soar that high if everyone does their part to prevent the virus from spreading.
“I want every American to be prepared for the hard days that lie ahead,” said Trump, who has extended social distancing guidelines to April 30. “We're going to go through a very tough two weeks.”
Elsewhere around the world, hard-hit Italy reported that the infection rate appears to be leveling off and new cases could start declining, but that the crisis is far from over. Spain struggled to fend off the collapse of its hospital system. Vladimir Putin's Russia moved to crack down on quarantine violations and “fake news” about the outbreak. And China edged closer to normal as stores in the epicenter city of Wuhan began reopening.
Worldwide, nearly 860,000 people have been infected and over 42,000 have died, according to a tally kept by Johns Hopkins University. Italy and Spain accounted for half the deaths, while the U.S. had over 185,000 infections and about 3,900 dead. That's above the official toll of about 3,300 in China, where the virus began.
New York was the nation's deadliest hot spot, with about 1,550 deaths statewide, most of them in New York City, which braced for things to get much worse in the coming weeks.
At Elmhurst Hospital in Queens, critically ill COVID-19 patients are filling intensive care units, surgical floors and operating rooms and waiting in the emergency room for beds to become available, said Dr. Eric Wei of the city's hospital agency.
“I’ve practiced emergency medicine for a long time, and I’m seeing things that I never could have imagined in terms of the things this virus can do to all ages, including people who were previously healthy,” he said.
A 1,000-bed emergency hospital set up at the mammoth Javits Convention Center began taking non-coronavirus patients to help relieve the city's overwhelmed health system. A Navy hospital ship with 1,000 beds was expected to accept patients soon.
The indoor tennis center that is the site of the U.S. Open tournament is being turned into a hospital as well.
The city worked to bring in 250 out-of-town ambulances and 500 paramedics to deal with a crush of emergency calls. The fire commissioner said ambulances are responding to double their normal daily total of 3,000 calls to 911.
New York authorities also sought more volunteer health care professionals and hoped to have them on board by Thursday. Nearly 80,000 former nurses, doctors and others are said to be stepping forward.
Around the city, workers in protective gear have been seen putting bodies of victims into refrigerated trailers. At some hospitals, like Lenox Hill in Manhattan, the trucks are parked on the streets, along sidewalks and in front of apartments. Cars and buses passed by as corpses were loaded by forklift at Brooklyn Hospital Center. People captured some of the scenes by cellphone.
Meanwhile, two ships carrying passengers and crew from an ill-fated South American cruise are urging Florida officials to let them dock. Dozens aboard have reported flu-like symptoms, and four people have died. Two of the deaths have been blamed on COVID-19, and nine people have tested positive.
Gov. Ron DeSantis says Florida’s health care resources are already stretched too thin. Trump said he would speak with DeSantis and “do what's right."
Figures on deaths and infections around the world are supplied by government health authorities and compiled by Johns Hopkins.
But the numbers are regarded with skepticism by public health experts because of different counting practices, a lack of testing in places, the numerous mild cases that have been missed, and perhaps government efforts to downplay the severity of the crisis.
For example, in Italy, where the death toll was put at about 12,400, the country's emergency coordinator, Domenico Arcuri, acknowledged that officials don’t have a handle on how many people are dying at home or in nursing homes.
Still, there was a glimmer of hope there: Dr. Silvio Brusaferro, head of Italy's institutes of health, said that three weeks into a nationwide lockdown, the hardest-hit country in Europe is seeing the rate of new infections level off.
“The curve suggests we are at the plateau," he said. But "arriving at the plateau doesn’t mean we have conquered the peak and we’re done. It means now we should start to see the decline if we continue to place maximum attention on what we do every day.”
With the country's health care system buckling under the pressure, a field hospital, built in just 10 days, was unveiled at the Milan fairgrounds.
“We made a promise and we kept it,” said the head of the project, former civil protection chief Guido Bertolaso, who ended up catching the virus while on the job and had to work from his hospital bed.
In Russia, lawmakers approved harsher punishments, including prison sentences of several years, for violating quarantine rules and spreading misinformation. The chief doctor at Moscow’s top hospital for coronavirus patients said he tested positive, a week after shaking hands with Putin.
Spain reported more than 840 new deaths, pushing the toll above 8,000 and forcing Madrid to open a second temporary morgue after an ice rink pressed into service last week became overwhelmed.
Dozens of hotels across Spain have been turned into recovery rooms, and authorities are building field hospitals in sports centers, libraries and exhibition halls.
Israel’s Defense Ministry said it has converted a missile-production facility into an assembly line for ventilators.
The hot spots of Louisiana and Michigan were running out of ventilators, despite promises by the White House of more equipment.
Louisiana's governor said the hard-hit New Orleans region is on track to run out of breathing machines by the weekend and hospital beds a week later. The Trump administration has committed to sending 150 ventilators from the national stockpile, but the state hasn’t received an arrival date. Michigan said it needs 5,000 to 10,000 more.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause severe symptoms like pneumonia.
Among the few positive signs: In Britain, where the number of dead reached nearly 1,800, the medical director of the National Health Service's operations in England said there is evidence that social distancing is working. And China reported just one new death from the coronavirus and 48 new cases, all of them from overseas.
Rising contributed from Berlin, Long from Washington. Associated Press writers around the world contributed.