US cases today hit 81,378 on Thursday, with China second on 81,285 and Italy third with 80,539.
At least 1,178 people in the US have died from COVID-19, according to a running tally based on reports from state and local public health authorities, including about 400 in New York.
An expected shortfall of ventilators – machines that support respiration for people who have lost the ability to breathe on their own – was substantial, as a surge of cases overwhelms New York hospitals, Governor Andrew Cuomo said.
“Any scenario that is realistic will overwhelm the capacity of the healthcare system,” he said. “The number of ventilators we need is so astronomical – it’s not like they have them sitting in the warehouse,” Cuomo added. “There is no stockpile available.”
At least one New York hospital has begun a trial of sharing single ventilators between two patients.
The state aims to make as many as 140,000 hospital beds available, up from the current capacity of 53,000, and authorities are scouting new sites, Cuomo said.
The projected ventilator shortfall and surge in hospitalisations has already raised the prospect of rationing healthcare.
Asked about guidelines being drafted on how to allocate ventilators to patients in case of a shortage, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy said such bioethical discussions “haunted him” but were unavoidable in the current situation.
“We have to hope for the best, but plan for the worst,” Murphy said.
Other infection hot spots are emerging around the US, including New Orleans, Houston and Detroit.
But the Chinese province of Hubei, home to some 60 million people, reported no new cases on Wednesday and opened its borders.
The lockdown of Hubei’s capital Wuhan, where the virus first appeared late last year, will be lifted on April 8, a milestone in China’s war against the epidemic.
The fatality rate in Wuhan stood at about 5 per cent, said Qiu Haibo, a medical expert on a panel led by the central government, according to the official People’s Daily.
In Xianning, a city in southeastern Hubei, public transport restarted and residents strolled the streets wearing masks.
Mainland China reported no new locally transmitted cases of coronavirus for the sixth time in eight days, but the number of imported cases rose.
All 67 new cases reported by the end of Wednesday and all 47 on Tuesday were imported, the National Health Commission said.
China’s Vice Foreign Minister Luo Zhaohui said 90 per cent of imported cases were Chinese passport holders, with 40 per cent of those being overseas Chinese students returning home.
China has now ramped up ramped up quarantine and screening measures in major cities including Beijing, where any travellers arriving from overseas must submit to centralised quarantine.
“We understand some overseas students are eager to come home…but under the current circumstances, by staying put, they can avoid being cross-infected in the hurried journey home or getting stuck mid-journey when the countries they transit in tighten border controls,” Luo said.
China recorded a total of 3287 virus deaths at the end of Wednesday, up six from the previous day but down sharply from the peak in February.
Italy deaths surge again
But hopes that Italy’s coronavirus crisis might have peaked have been dashed as the number of new cases and deaths ticked higher.
Officials say 712 people died of the diseases in the last 24 hours, pushing the total tally to 8215 – well over double that seen in anywhere else in the world – while new infections rose by 6153.
The relentless rise in Italy is despite stringent lockdown measures introduced progressively since February 23 to try to stop the spread, which authorities had hoped would be having more of an effect by now.
There had been slight declines in both new cases and deaths earlier this week, but the northern region of Lombardy, the epicentre of the outbreak, saw its numbers climb on Thursday.
“I do not know if we have hit the peak or if we have missed something … all I can say is that I am worried,” Lombardy governor Attilio Fontana told reporters, adding that the situation would soon become clearer.
“I think that in two or three days we will understand if the measures we have taken are working,” he said.
However, he warned that when new cases finally receded, the government would not necessarily be able to relax the lockdown, which is due to be lifted on April 3.
“Even if the number of cases declines, I think we will have to carry on with (the restrictions) until we are quite certain that this contagion has been stopped.”
The situation appeared particularly worrying in Lombardy’s capital Milan, which is also Italy’s financial hub, where new infections jumped by more than 800 to almost 7000.
Only the neighbouring provinces of Bergamo and Brescia have a higher number of cases.
Highlighting the scale of the drama, Bergamo said that over the last 10 years it had recorded on average of 45 deaths a week.
This ticked up to 64 at the end of February and then soared, hitting a peak of 313 deaths between March 15 and 21.
Spain recorded 655 virus deaths over the past 24 hours – down from over 700 the previous day, as the death toll climbed past 4000.
Spain’s number of cases soared to 56,188 on Wednesday from 47,610 on Tuesday.
Indonesia confirmed 103 new coronavirus cases to bring its total to 893, while 20 deaths overnight brought the toll to 78.
In India, where the country’s 1.3 billion people were under orders to stay home, legions of poor were suddenly thrown out of work, and many families were left struggling for something to eat.
The Indian government announced a 1.7 trillion rupee ($A37 billion) economic stimulus package that will deliver monthly rations of grain and lentils to a staggering 800 million people.
The number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits last week was nearly five times the old record, set in 1982.
But stocks rallied on Wall Street for the third straight day after an unprecedented $US2.2 trillion economic rescue package to help businesses, hospitals and ordinary Americans pull through the crisis cleared the Senate.
The plan, which is expected to be voted on in the House on Friday, would dispense checks of $US1,200 ($A2000) per adult and $US500 ($A840) per child.
In Europe, companies are laying off workers at the fastest pace since 2009, according to surveys of business managers.
The British government unveiled another relief effort, this time aimed at the gig economy, many of whose workers are facing financial ruin.
The government will give the self-employed grants equal to 80 per cent of their average monthly profits, up to STG2500 ($A5000) per month.
South Africa, with the most industrialised economy in Africa, heads into a three-week lockdown on Friday.
The country is already in recession, with an unemployment rate of 29 per cent.
Italy, the eurozone’s third-biggest economy and a major exporter of machinery, textiles and other goods, became perhaps the first Western developed nation to idle most of its industry, extending a shutdown on smaller, non-essential businesses to heavy manufacturers.
The companies in Italy that have shut down or rolled back production include Fiat Chrysler, Ferrari, Pirelli tires and Luxottica eyewear, maker of Ray-Bans and Oakleys.
The industrial lobby Confindustria estimates a cost of 70 billion euros ($A128 billion) to 100 billion euros ($A184 billion) of national wealth a month if 70 per cent of companies are closed, as anticipated.
“We are entering a war economy,” Confindustria President Vincenzo Boccia said.
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