NEW YORK (Reuters) – The governors of New York and New Jersey pointed to tentative signs on Monday that the coronavirus outbreak was starting to plateau but warned against complacency as the nationwide death toll topped 10,000 and the number of known U.S. infections surpassed 350,000.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said coronavirus-related deaths statewide reached 4,758 as of Monday, an increase of 599 from Sunday, on par with an increase of 594 during the previous 24 hours. On Friday, the state’s death toll increased by 630.
The overall tally of confirmed cases in the state, the U.S. epicenter of the pandemic, grew by 7 percent from the previous day to 130,680. But hospitalizations, admissions to intensive care units and the number of patients put on ventilator machines to keep them breathing had all declined – signs that crisis may be leveling off, Cuomo said.
“While none of this is good news, the possible flattening of the curve is better than the increases that we have seen,” Cuomo told a daily briefing, referring to the shape of the curve when case numbers, deaths and other data are plotted on a graph.
The tentative signs of progress sent U.S. stocks sharply higher, with the S&P 500 index up nearly 5.5%. The broadly based index is now down about 22 percent from its Feb. 19 peak, compared with its March low, when it was off 30 percent from its apex.
Cuomo warned it was still too soon to know whether the state has turned the corner, saying: “If we are plateauing, we are plateauing at a high level.”
In neighboring New Jersey, the state with the second-highest number of cases and deaths, Governor Phil Murphy told a briefing, “Our efforts to flatten the curve are starting to pay off.” There was a 24 percent-per-day increase in positive cases on March 30, but the rate of growth had slowed to 12 percent on Monday.
All told, New Jersey has confirmed more than 41,000 cases and more than 1,000 deaths from COVID-19, the highly contagious respiratory illness caused by the virus.
Murphy warned that if social-distancing and hand-washing guidelines were relaxed, a surge of cases would yet overwhelm the healthcare system with “disastrous” results.
To keep his state from backtracking, Cuomo extended until April 29 an order to keep non-essential businesses and schools closed. He also doubled the maximum fines for ignoring social distancing rules to $1,000.
“This virus has kicked our rear-end,” Cuomo said. “Now is not the time to slack off from what we are doing.”
At least one key analysis offered hope that the death rate was slowing in the United States. The University of Washington’s research model – one of several cited by leading health authorities – now projects 81,766 U.S. coronavirus fatalities by Aug. 4, down about 12,000 from a projection over the weekend.
White House medical experts have forecast that between 100,000 to 240,000 American lives may be lost in the pandemic, even if sweeping orders to stay home are followed.
‘PEAK DEATH WEEK’
Despite the hopeful tone in New York and New Jersey, a national U.S. health official said the country was entering what is likely to be its most lethal week of the pandemic.
U.S. fatalities, numbering 10,297 on Monday, were rapidly closing in on Italy and Spain, the countries with the greatest loss of life to date at nearly 16,000 and more than 13,000, respectively, according to a Reuters tally of official data.
“It’s going to be the peak hospitalization, peak ICU week and unfortunately, peak death week,” Admiral Brett Giroir, a physician and member of the White House coronavirus task force, told ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Monday.
He said New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and the city of Detroit, Michigan, would be especially hard hit.
“Whether you live in small-town America or you live in the ‘Big Apple,’ everyone is susceptible to this, and everyone needs to follow the precautions we’ve laid out,” Giroir said on NBC’s “Today” show.
More than 90% of Americans are under stay-at-home orders issued by state governors in recent weeks, while eight states have yet to impose such restrictions.
Political leaders and medical professionals have voiced alarm for weeks over crippling scarcities of personal protective gear for first-responders and front-line healthcare workers, as well as shortages of ventilators, drugs and other supplies.
Citing the dire needs of New York and other states, California Governor Gavin Newsom said his state would loan 500 of its ventilators to the largely depleted Strategic National Stockpile of medical equipment.
California still faces a projected ventilator shortage of its own next month. Newsom said California was in the process of procuring additional machines but had enough to spare for the time being.
In Michigan, the governor said three major health systems are expected to exhaust their supplies of face shields in less than three days, and surgical gowns in less than six.
Medications administered to patients on ventilators are also running low, said John Fox, president of Beaumont Health, one of Michigan’s largest healthcare systems.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said a shortage of medical professionals was replacing a lack of equipment as the city’s main difficulty, with an additional 45,000 clinical personnel needed to get through April.
“More and more, the challenge is going to be personnel,” de Blasio told reporters outside a surgical gown manufacturing facility. “We need these supplies, but we also need heroes to wear them.”
The city has reported more than 3,100 deaths, and it may resort to temporarily burying the dead in a park, said Mark Levine, chair of the New York City Council health committee.
“Trenches will be dug for 10 caskets in a line,” Levine wrote on Twitter. “It will be done in a dignified, orderly – and temporary – manner. But it will be tough for NYers to take.”
Reporting by Nathan Layne, Peter Szekely and Barbara Goldberg; additional reporting by Doina Chiacu and Susan Heavey; Writing by Daniel Trotta and Grant McCool; Editing by Frank McGurty, Howard Goller and Cynthia Osterman