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NEW YORK — With coronavirus deaths surging in New York, the governor announced Friday he will use his authority to seize ventilators and protective gear from private hospitals and companies that aren’t using them, complaining that states are competing against each other for vital equipment in eBay-like bidding wars.
“If they want to sue me for borrowing their excess ventilators to save lives, let them sue me,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said. He added that he will eventually return the equipment or compensate the owners.
The executive order he said he would sign represents one of the most aggressive efforts yet in the U.S. to deal with the kind of critical shortages around the world that authorities say have caused health care workers to fall sick and forced doctors in Europe to make life-or-death decisions about which patients get a breathing machine.
The number of people infected in the U.S. reached a quarter-million and the death toll climbed past 6,500, with New York state alone accounting for more than 2,900 dead, a surge of over 560 in just one day. Most of the dead are in New York City, where hospitals are getting swamped with patients and are facing shortages of ventilators.
The move by Cuomo came as the outbreak snapped the United States’ record-breaking hiring streak of nearly 10 years. The U.S. government said employers slashed over 700.000 jobs in March, bringing a swift end to the nation's 50-year-low unemployment rate.
The true picture, though, is far worse, because the government figures do not include the last two weeks, when nearly 10 million thrown-out-of-work Americans applied for unemployment benefits.
Worldwide, confirmed infections surged past 1 million and deaths topped 55,000, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University. Experts say both numbers are seriously undercounted because of the lack of testing, mild cases that were missed and governments that are underplaying the crisis.
Europe's three worst-hit countries — Italy, Spain and France — surpassed 30,000 dead, or over half of the global toll. The crisis there was seen as a frightening portent for places like New York, the epicenter of the U.S. outbreak, where bodies are being loaded by forklift into refrigerated trucks outside hospitals.
Shortages of such things as masks, gowns and ventilators have led to fierce competition among buyers from Europe, the U.S. and elsewhere.
A regional leader in Paris described the scramble to find masks a “worldwide treasure hunt," and the French prime minister said he is “fighting hour by hour” to ward off shortages of essential drugs used to keep COVID-19 patients alive.
Cuomo warned on Thursday that New York could run out of ventilators in six days. He called for a coordinated national approach that would send supplies and people to different areas as their needs peak.
More than 1,200 miles south, the situation grew more dire by the day in Louisiana, where nearly 10,000 people have tested positive and more than 300 have died.
Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge has gone from one unit dedicated to coronavirus patients to seven. Nurse Christen Hyde said nurses call family members twice a day to update them on how their family members are doing, in some cases delivering bleak news.
“To have to call a family member and tell them that their family member is not doing well and they are probably going to be passing soon is just devastating,” said Hyde, who has had four patients die.
Among the patients, “the last thing that they see is us telling them that they are going to have a tube placed down their throat to help them breathe,” she said. “It’s awful. It’s horrible. It’s really affected me.”
In Florida, hundreds of passengers on a cruise ship where four people died were finally being allowed to disembark after a days-long standoff. More than a dozen critically ill patients were taken to hospitals, while people healthy enough to travel were taken to the airport for chartered flights home.
Some glimmers of hope emerged that Italy, with about 14,700 dead, as well as Spain and France might be flattening their infection curves and nearing or even passing their peaks in daily deaths.
Still, "the work is extremely tough and heavy,” said Philippe Montravers, an anesthesiologist in Paris. “We’ve had doctors, nurses, caregivers who got sick, infected ... but who have come back after recovering? It’s a bit like those World War I soldiers who were injured and came back to fight.”
France canceled its high school exit exam known as the Baccalaureat, a first in the 212-year history of the test.
Spain reported 932 new deaths, down slightly from the record it hit a day earlier. The carnage most certainly included large numbers of elderly who authorities admit are not getting access to the country's limited breathing machines, which are being used first on healthier, younger patients. More than half of Spain's death toll of nearly 11,000 has come in the last seven days alone.
In a vast exhibition center in Madrid that was hastily converted into a 1,300-bed field hospital, bed No. 01.30 held patient Esteban Pinaredo, age 87.
“I’m good, I love you,” Pinaredo told his family via Skype. “I will run away as soon as I can."
The facility's organizer, Antonio Zapatero, said Spain's nationwide lockdown must be maintained.
"Otherwise, this is what you are facing,” he said, pointing at the rows of beds.
In some places in Europe, officials began talking tentatively about how to lift lockdowns that have staved off the total collapse of the health systems but have also battered economies.
But Chancellor Angela Merkel, speaking in her first video message after emerging from two weeks of quarantine at home, urged Germans to stay home over Easter, saying it would be irresponsible for her to set a date now for loosening restrictions that include a ban on public gatherings of more than two people.
With forecast glorious spring weather likely to tempt stir-crazy families out of lockdown this weekend, the firm message across the continent remained: “Stay home.” Paris police set up roadblocks out of the city to stop those trying to escape for Easter vacation.
Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who tested positive last week, said in a video message on Twitter that he is feeling better but still has a fever and will remain in isolation.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for others, especially older adults and people with health problems, it can cause pneumonia. The World Health Organization said this week that 95% of the deaths in Europe were of people over 60.