Europe’s hospitals bow under the weight of coronavirus crush


By John Leicester and Aritz Parra - Associated Press



MADRID (AP) — Setting up makeshift ICU wards in libraries and conference centers, embattled European medical workers strained Friday to save thousands of desperately ill coronavirus patients as stocks of medicine, protective equipment and breathing machines grew shorter by the hour.

A maelstrom of coronavirus deaths and job losses slammed the United States and Europe. Some 10 million Americans have been thrown out of work in just two weeks, the most stunning collapse the U.S. job market has ever witnessed. Global confirmed infections surged past 1 million and deaths hit 53,000, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.

Experts say both numbers are seriously under-counted, due to the lack of testing, mild cases that were missed and governments that are deliberately underplaying the impact of the pandemic.

Europe’s three worst-hit countries — Italy, Spain and France — surpassed 30,000 dead, over 56% of the world’s death toll. From those countries, the view remained almost unrelentingly grim, a frightening portent even for places like New York, the epicenter of the U.S. outbreak, where trucks have been fork-lifting bodies outside overflowing morgues.

One Spanish hospital turned its library into a makeshift intensive-care unit. In France, space was being set aside for bodies in a vast food market. 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 in intensive care.

Philippe Montravers, an anesthesiologist in Paris, said medics are preparing to fall back on older drugs, such as the opiates fetanyl and morphine, that had fallen out of favor, as newer painkillers are now in short supply.

“The work is extremely tough and heavy,” he said. “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.”

Some glimmers of hope emerged that Italy, with nearly 14,000 dead, Spain and France might be flattening their infection curves and nearing or even past their peaks in daily deaths.

Spain on Friday reported 932 new daily deaths, just slightly down from the record it hit a day earlier. The carnage most certainly included large numbers of elderly people 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 10,935 deaths have come in the last seven days alone.

Some European officials are tentatively talking about the future, how to lift the nationwide lockdowns that have staved off the total collapse of strained health systems. Still, the main message across the continent was “stay at home.”

In France, the government warned Parisians not to even think about going anywhere for the Easter school vacation starting this weekend, setting up roadblocks out of the city to nab those with antsy children trying to escape lockdowns.

Beyond Europe, coronavirus deaths mounted with alarming speed in New York, the most lethal hot spot in the United States, which has seen at least 1,500 virus deaths. One New York funeral home had 185 bodies stacked up — more than triple its normal capacity.

“It’s surreal,” owner Pat Marmo said, adding that he’s been begging families to insist hospitals hold their dead loved ones as long as possible. “We need help.”

Roughly 90% of the U.S. population is under stay-at-home orders, and many factories, restaurants, stores and other businesses are closed or have seen sales shrivel. Economists warned that U.S. unemployment would almost certainly top that of the Great Recession a decade ago and could reach levels not seen since the Great Depression in the 1930s.

“My anxiety is through the roof right now, not knowing what’s going to happen,” said Laura Wieder, laid off from her job managing a sports bar in Bellefontaine, Ohio.

The pandemic will cost the world economy as much as $4.1 trillion, or nearly 5% of all economic activity, the Asian Development Bank said Friday.

At least a million people in Europe are estimated to have lost their jobs over the past couple of weeks as well. Spain alone added more than 300,000 to its unemployment rolls in March. But the job losses in Europe appear to be far smaller than in the U.S. because of countries’ greater social safety nets.

Estimates in China, the world’s second-largest economy, of those who have lost jobs or are underemployed run as high as 200 million. The government said Friday it would would provide an additional 1 trillion yuan ($142 billion) to local banks to lend at preferential rates to small- and medium-sized businesses.

With more than 245,000 people infected in the U.S. and the death toll topping 6,000, sobering preparations were underway. The Federal Emergency Management Agency asked the Pentagon for 100,000 more body bags.

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 and lead to death. The World Health Organization said this week that 95% of the deaths in Europe were of people who were over 60 years old.

White House coronavirus task force coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx said U.S. infection data suggested that Americans need to emulate those European nations that have started to see the spread of the virus slowing through strict social distancing.

The Trump administration was getting ready to recommend that ordinary Americans wear non-medical masks or bandannas over their mouths and noses when out in public so stocks of medical-grade masks could be preserved for those on the front lines.

Shortages of critical equipment led to fierce competition between buyers from Europe, the U.S. and elsewhere. A regional leader in Paris described the scramble to source masks a “worldwide treasure hunt.”

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said worldwide usage of essential drugs and disposable equipment, such as ventilator mouthpieces, used by intensive care units is “exploding in unimaginable proportions,” with a “nearly 2,000 percent increase” in demand “because it is happening everywhere in the world and at the same time.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo warned that New York could run out of breathing machines in six days.

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Leicester reported from Le Pecq, France. Associated Press writers around the world contributed.

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Follow AP news coverage of the coronavirus pandemic at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.

By John Leicester and Aritz Parra

Associated Press