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Hospitals overwhelmed as virus death toll rises


Virus-hit nations are building field hospitals, using navy hospital ships and moving patients by army helicopter in a desperate attempt to treat the daily influx of desperately-ill patients arriving at intensive care units.

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Three-quarters of a million people around the world have become infected and more than 35,000 have died, according to a running count kept by Johns Hopkins University.

Italy’s death toll climbed to nearly 11,600 with another 800 deaths overnight. But in some rare positive news, newly released numbers showed a continued slowdown in the country’s rate of new confirmed cases and a record number of people cured.

In Spain, bells tolled in Madrid’s deserted central square and flags were lowered in a day of mourning as the death toll passed 7300 and the nation continued to build field hospitals to treat an onslaught of coronavirus patients.

At least six of Spain’s 17 regions were at their limit of intensive care unit beds, and three more were close to it, authorities said.

Nearly 15 per cent of all those infected in Spain, almost 13,000 people, are health care workers.

France recorded its worst daily coronavirus death toll to exceed 3000, while army helicopters transported critical patients from the east to hospitals overseas as the country battled to free up space in life-support units.

The Grand Est region was the first in France to be overwhelmed by a wave of infections that has rapidly moved west to engulf the greater Paris region, where hospitals are desperately adding intensive care beds to cope with the influx.

The number of coronavirus deaths since March 1 climbed by 16 per cent to 3024, while the number of intensive care cases rose more than 10 per cent to 5107, rising after two days of falls.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe has warned the country’s 67 million people the toughest weeks in the fight against epidemic are still to come and doctors in the capital say they are close to saturation point.

Britain’s deaths from coronavirus jumped by 180 to 1408 on Monday, marginally below the increases reported in the previous three days.

The government has confirmed more than 22,000 infections but estimates by health advisers suggest hundreds of thousands of people could be infected and that Britain should expect up to 20,000 deaths.

In the United States, New York’s governor issued an urgent appeal for medical volunteers from across the country amid a “staggering” number of deaths from the virus, saying: “Please come help us in New York, now.”

The plea from Governor Andrew Cuomo came as the death toll in the state of New York rose past 1200 – with most of the victims in the big city – and authorities warned that the crisis pushing New York’s hospitals to the breaking point is just a preview of what other cities across the US could soon face.

Cuomo said the city needs a million additional health care workers.

“We’ve lost over 1000 New Yorkers,” he said. “To me, we’re beyond staggering already. We’ve reached staggering.”

At the same time the governor’s appeal went out, a US navy hospital ship pulled into port with 1000 beds to help relieve pressure on New York’s hospitals.

WHO emergency chief Michael Ryan said on Monday there was no time to let up on tough containment measures.

“We have to now push the virus down, and that will not happen by itself,” he said.

Britain’s near-lockdown is having a “big effect” on social contacts as it races to limit the spread of coronavirus and avoid overwhelming the country’s intensive care units, the government says.

“It’s important that we do this now to get the numbers below NHS (National Health Service) ICU capacity,” Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance told reporters when asked about the measures.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is infected with the coronavirus, last week ordered everyone to stay at home except for trips for food shopping, medical needs or one form of exercise per day.

Vallance said the lockdown and other social distancing measures are already having a “very big effect on contacts”.

But he said it was “premature” to discuss how long the restrictions might last.

Moscow locked down its 12 million people as Russia braced for sweeping country-wide restrictions.

Israel said 70-year-old Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is quarantining himself after an aide tested positive for the virus.

But the crisis in China where the outbreak began in late December continued to ease.

China on Monday reported 31 new COVID-19 cases, among them just one domestic infection, and the city at the centre of the disaster Wuhan began reopening for business as authorities lifted more of the controls that locked down tens of millions of people for two months.

Japanese car maker Toyota halted production at its auto plants in Europe but all of its factories in China resumed work on Monday.

Virus mutating

The coronavirus is mutating – as viruses do – and eight strains are now making the rounds globally, medical experts say.

The good news is that the mutations are not more lethal, said Trevor Bedford, whose website is tracking the virus’ genome from samples provided to him from throughout the world.

Researchers are dissecting the genomes of coronavirus and discovering the strains that have emerged since the virus is thought to have first jumped from animals to humans in a Wuhan, China, wildlife market late last year.

The work shows how the virus is migrating and splitting into similar but new subtypes.

“In the literal sense of ‘is it changing genetically?,’ the answer is absolutely yes,” Harvard University infectious disease epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch said.

“What is in question is whether there’s been any change that’s important to the course of disease or the transmissibility or other things that we as humans care about.”

The strains emerging are only slightly tweaked, with no variations in lethality, experts said.

“The observed rate of mutation (about two mutations per month) is completely normal for a virus,” Bedford wrote on Twitter.

“Flu and the common cold have similar mutation rates. Even a bit faster for flu.”

While the genomes retrieved so far are providing reassuring information about how the virus can be stopped and whether social distancing is working – indications are that it is – they do not provide more than a sketch, the experts said.

Scientists agree that there is much more to be discovered. But the microscopic changes are helping them map the pathogen’s pathway through the human population.

“The outbreaks are trackable,” Charles Chiu, a professor of medicine and infectious disease at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine, told USA Today.

“We have the ability to do genomic sequencing almost in real-time to see what strains or lineages are circulating.”

-with AAP

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