Infections near 500,000; European health systems buckle

National

Health officer check temperature passenger in van at a health check point in Bangkok, Thailand, Thursday, March 26, 2020. It is the first day of month long state of emergency enforced in Thailand to allow its government to impose stricter measures to control the coronavirus that has infected hundreds of people in the Southeast Asian country. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

MADRID (AP) — Worldwide infections from the new coronavirus were set top top half a million people on Thursday as both Italy and the United States appeared poised to surpass China, where the pandemic began. Health care systems in Europe and New York buckled under the weight of caring for seriously ill victims as officials desperately searched for enough ventilators to keep them alive.

Faced with the exponential spread of the pandemic, the U.S. Senate passed a $2.2 trillion economic rescue package steering aid to businesses, workers and health care systems. Millions of Americans hoped the measure would give them a lifeline as they lost jobs, income and child care due to the social-distancing rules needed to slow the spread of the virus.

At least 1.5 billion people are now under severe travel restrictions. But the head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, scolded world leaders for wasting precious time in the fight against the virus that has already killed more than 21,000 people, thrown millions out of work and ravaged the world economy. He called it “public enemy No. 1.”

“The time to act was actually more than a month ago or two months ago,” he said. ”We squandered the first window of opportunity … this is a second opportunity, which we should not squander and do everything to suppress and control this virus.”

In the United States, where virus deaths passed 1,050 and some 70,000 people were infected, a fierce political battle raged between those demanding urgent action for a months-long siege against the pandemic, like New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and President Donald Trump.

Trump has expressed hope churches could return to normal by Easter, only 17 days away, and grumbled that “our country wasn’t built to be shut down” — apparently concerned that the outbreak’s devastating effects on financial markets and employment will harm his reelection chances. Democrats say Trump is prioritizing the economy over the health and safety of Americans.

“I’d like to say, let’s get back to work next Friday,” said Joe Biden, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination. ”That’d be wonderful. But it can’t be arbitrary.”

New York has emerged as a global virus hotspot and the governor says infections are doubling nearly every few days. The city’s convention center is being turned into a temporary hospital and the state has hit 280 deaths, according to a count by Johns Hopkins University.

In a preview of what might be ahead for the United States, Spain has converted hotels into makeshift hospitals and turned an ice rink in Madrid into a temporary morgue. The curve of infections has not slowed in Spain, which now has more than 3,600 deaths, second only to Italy’s death toll of 7,503.

“We are collapsing,” said Lidia Perera, a nurse who works at Madrid’s Hospital de la Paz. “We need more workers.”

She said watching patients die alone is “killing all of us inside.”

“Physically this is extremely complicated, but psychologically it is appalling,” said colleague Patricia Núñez, a nurse who is recovering from being infected herself.

In Italy, doctors and nurses have been begging the government daily to provide more masks, gloves and goggles and urged the public to understand how important onerous social distancing measures really are. Scientists say stopping just one person from getting the virus means scores of others will not become infected down the road.

“Please don’t leave us alone. Help us help you,” Dr. Francesca De Gennaro, who heads a small medical clinic in Italy’s hard-hit Bergamo region, wrote in an open letter.

European Union leaders were convening Thursday for their third summit in three weeks as they battled to contain the spread of the coronavirus and manage the havoc the disease is wreaking on their 27 economies. As the number of deaths in Europe soared over 12,000, Spain prolonged a state of emergency that will allow it to impose broader lockdowns while French President Emmanuel Macron launched “Operation Resilience,” a military-backed response to combat the pandemic.

France began evacuating infected citizens from the northeastern hotspot of Alsace using a special medicalized high-speed train that its health minister called a “first in Europe.” Around 20 patients were being taken from Strasbourg to hospitals in the Pays-de-la-Loire and other regions.

Britain ordered 10,000 ventilators to grapple with the COVID-19 crisis, working with engineers from Dyson. The government wants to increase its ventilators from 8,000 to 30,000.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.

So far, more than 115,000 people have recovered from the virus, and health care experts say the key to fighting it is to “flatten the curve” — slow the spread of the outbreak so that hospitals aren’t overwhelmed with seriously ill patients all at once. Slowing the rate of infections will also cut the eventual death rate.

China’s cases have slowed, with only 67 new cases reported, all recent arrivals.

The leaders of the Group of 20 largest economies were holding a special video conference to better coordinate a response to the pandemic, amid criticism that the world’s wealthiest countries have not taken cohesive action. The conference was being chaired by Saudi Arabia’s King Salman.

As the virus spreads into new territories, many countries were taking drastic measures.

India on Thursday began enforcing the world’s largest coronavirus lockdown, trying to keep its 1.3 billion people indoors. In neighboring Pakistan, a caseload of nearly 1,100 infections propelled government efforts to persuade the country’s more than 200 million people to stay home.

As cases start to rise in Russia, President Vladimir Putin ordered the military in to help. The government announced it would halt all international flights starting Friday and will have troops build 16 new medical centers to treat virus victims by mid-May. Russia says it has 658 cases, but experts say those figures underreport the crisis there and may be due to the lack of testing.

Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House’s coronavirus task force, urged people to understand just how important each one of them is to stopping the pandemic.

“To every American out there, where you are protecting yourself, you are protecting others,” Birx said.

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Long reported from Washington, Rising reported from Berlin. Associated Press journalists around the world contributed to this report.

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