New York transformed as US virus death toll exceeds China's

AFP New York, United States Mar 31, 2020, 11.54 PM(IST)

File photo. Photograph:( AFP )

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Declared coronavirus cases in the US surged past 175,000 on Tuesday, according to a running tally by Johns Hopkins University.

Emergency field hospitals are going up in Central Park and at the home of the US Open as the number of coronavirus deaths in America surpassed on Tuesday those reported by China.

The pandemic has killed more than 1,000 New Yorkers and America's financial capital is in a race against time to dramatically ramp up hospital capacity before cases hit their peak.

Around a dozen tents -- equipped with 68 beds and ten ventilators -- have been erected in Manhattan's iconic park, with COVID-19 patients expected to start arriving there later Tuesday.

"You see movies like 'Contagion' and you think it's so far from the truth, it will never happen. So to see it actually happening here is very surreal," 57-year-old passerby Joanne Dunbar told AFP.

Declared coronavirus cases in the US surged past 175,000 on Tuesday, according to a running tally by Johns Hopkins University, with over 3,415 deaths: more than the number killed in the 9/11 attacks.

That is also more than the 3,309 fatalities reported by China.

The majority of cases and deaths are in New York, which quickly became the epicenter of America's outbreak after the state announced its first confirmed infection on March 1.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said Tuesday that the city was "tripling" hospital capacity in a bid to get ready for the peak of the pandemic expected in two to three weeks.

"(We) will require a level of hospital capacity we've never seen, (that) we've never even conceived of," he told NBC.

Areas of the Big Apple are being quickly transformed to prepare for the influx that is already overwhelming stretched hospitals and putting a strain on medical supplies.

Hospital ship

South of Central Park, the Javits Convention Center is now operational with nearly 3,000 beds after it was adapted by soldiers from the Army Corps of Engineers over eight days.

It will take non-COVID-19 patients to ease the burden on hospitals focusing on the virus.

A few blocks away at Pier 90 sits the white, imposing USNS Comfort hospital ship with 1,000 beds and 12 operating rooms -- also for non-coronavirus patients.

Other sites are being earmarked, including a 350-bed facility at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, where the US Open tennis takes place every summer.

"The people in New York are in a difficult situation, and what they're trying to do appropriately is make the best of it by opening up facilities that might decompress the surge of cases that they're having," infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci told CNN.

"We hope, and I believe ... that we may start seeing a turnaround, but we haven't seen it yet," he added.

Governor Andrew Cuomo, whose brother CNN anchor Chris Cuomo announced he had the virus Tuesday, warned New Yorkers that the fight to defeat COVID-19 was going to be a long one.

"Calibrate yourself and your expectations so you're not disappointed every day you get up," he told reporters.

'Sneeze shields'

Tim Mosher -- nurse team leader at the Samaritan's Purse field hospital in Central Park -- said the site's 70 staff, mostly volunteers, will stay for as long as needed.

Mosher, more used to operating in disaster zones after spells treating Ebola victims in Liberia and Cholera patients in Haiti, said it was "sad" they were in New York.

"But we want it to be hopeful also that it sends a signal to the city that we care, (and) we're here," the 58-year-old told AFP.

New York's normally teeming streets are near empty, with face masks a common sight and building cleaning crews working harder than ever.

At D'Agostino supermarket on First Avenue, manager Larry Grossman has installed glass partitions to protect cashiers from ill customers and put up signs about social distancing.

"(Still) we have a lot of people getting sick, a lot of people refusing to work", he told AFP.