NEW YORK – New York authorities mobilized to head off a potential public health disaster in the city Wednesday, with its emergence as the nation's biggest coronavirus hot spot a warning flare – and perhaps a cautionary tale – for the rest of the country.
A makeshift morgue was set up outside Bellevue Hospital, and the city's police, their ranks dwindling as more fall ill, were told to patrol nearly empty streets to enforce social distancing.
Public health officials hunted down beds and medical equipment and put out a call for more doctors and nurses for fear the number of sick will explode in a matter of weeks, overwhelming hospitals as has happened in Italy and Spain.
Worldwide, the death toll climbed past 20,000, according to a running count kept by Johns Hopkins University. The number of dead in the U.S. topped 900, with more than 60,000 infections.
New York State alone accounted for more than 30,000 cases and close to 300 deaths.
Some public health experts attributed the city's burgeoning caseload in part to the state's big push to test people.
Troy Tassier, a Fordham University professor who studies economic epidemiology, suggested the increase shows New York would have fared better had it acted sooner to order social distancing.
Nearly 7 million people in the San Francisco area were all but confined to their homes March 17, and California put all 40 million of its residents under a near-lockdown three days later.
The order to stay at home in New York State did not go into effect until Sunday evening and New York City's 1.1 million-student school system was not closed until March 15, well after other districts had shut down.
Dr. Mark Dworkin, an epidemiology professor at University of Illinois-Chicago, said he hadn't followed New York's situation closely enough to say whether he would have done it differently, but noted that moving quickly is critical – and sometimes difficult to do at early points, when the public doesn't sense an imminent threat.
“At first, I think there's a certain amount of disbelief that goes on,” he said. “I think that contributes, to some extent, to the lack of putting the foot on the gas pedal on some of the control measures that we know we need to do.”
After New York's first positive test came back March 1 – in a health care worker who had traveled to Iran and secluded herself upon returning – Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo initially cast the disease as a dangerous threat but one that the city's muscular hospital system would be able handle.
But their message shifted, as it did with many other leaders, who found themselves acting on new information in an uncharted, fast-changing situation.
Dr. Deborah Birx, the coordinator of the White House's coronavirus task force, said at a briefing that the number of new cases in New York City has been relatively constant the last three days.
In other developments around the globe:
• Prince Charles, the 71-year-old heir to the British throne, tested positive for the virus but was showing only mild symptoms and was isolating himself at a royal estate in Scotland, his office said.
• Spain's death toll rose past 3,400, eclipsing China's, after a one-day spike of 700 fatalities. It is now second only to Italy, with over 7,500 deaths. “We are collapsing. We need more workers,” said Lidia Perera, a nurse at Madrid's 1,000-bed Hospital de la Paz. Parliament agreed to extend by two more weeks a state of emergency that has allowed it to maintain a national lockdown.
• China's Hubei province, where the outbreak first emerged late last year, started lifting its lockdown. Authorities reported 67 new cases in the country, all imported in recent arrivals from abroad, and once again there were no new cases reported in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei.
• Russian President Vladimir Putin postponed a nationwide vote on proposed constitutional amendments that could enable him to extend his hold on power. The decision came as Russia reported its first deaths from the virus, two elderly patients who had underlying conditions.
• The French Riviera city of Cannes opened the site of its world-famous film festival to the homeless.
• British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said more than 400,000 people responded within a day to the government's call for volunteers to help the country's most vulnerable people. They will deliver medicine, drive people home from doctor's appointments and make phone calls to check on patients.
• The Pentagon halted for 60 days the movement of U.S. troops and Defense Department civilians overseas, a measure expected to affect about 90,000 troops scheduled to deploy or return from abroad. A Marine became the first person stationed at the Pentagon to test positive for the virus.