Speed of coronavirus deaths shocks doctors as New York toll hits new high

The Samaritan's Purse Emergency Field Hospital is seen in Central Park in Manhattan during the Covid-19 outbreak in New York April 8, 2020. — Reuters pic
The Samaritan's Purse Emergency Field Hospital is seen in Central Park in Manhattan during the Covid-19 outbreak in New York April 8, 2020. — Reuters pic

NEW YORK, April 9 — New York, the hardest hit state in America, yesterday reported its highest number of coronavirus-related deaths in a single day with even veteran doctors and nurses expressing shock at the speed with which patients were declining and dying.

The number of coronavirus cases in New York state alone approached 150,000 yesterday, even as authorities warned the state's official death tally may understate the true number.

“Every number is a face,” said New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who ordered flags flown at half-staff across New York in recognition of the toll. “This virus attacked the vulnerable and attacked the weak and it's our job as a society to protect the vulnerable.”

Doctors and nurses say it isn’t just elderly or patients with underlying health conditions who appear to be fine one minute and at death's door the next. It can happen for the young and healthy, too.

Patients “look fine, feel fine, then you turn around and they're unresponsive,” said Diana Torres, a nurse at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States, where the virus has infected more than 415,000 people. “I'm paranoid, scared to walk out of their room.”

New York officials said a recent surge in the number of people dying at home suggests the most populous US city may be undercounting how many have died of Covid-19, the respiratory illness caused by the pathogen.

“I think that's a very real possibility,” Cuomo told his daily news briefing.

Cuomo said 779 people died in the past day in his state. New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy said 275 had died there. Both totals exceeded one-day records reported just a day earlier.

Despite the grim tally, Cuomo said overall trends still appeared positive. Cuomo cited a drop in new hospitalizations and other data points as evidence that New York was “bending the curve” and gaining some control over the infection rate.

Cuomo said the death count would continue at the current level or increase in the coming days as critically ill patients, who have been hospitalised for more than a week and on ventilator machines to assist in breathing, die.

Can't get tested

Healthcare workers on the front lines of the war against Covid-19 told Reuters they have treated patients while experiencing symptoms of the novel coronavirus but couldn't get tested.

In Michigan, one of the few hospital systems conducting widespread staff testing found more than 700 workers were infected with the coronavirus — more than a quarter of those tested.

The continued test shortages — even for the workers most at risk — is “scandalous” and a serious threat to the patients they treat, said Dr Art Caplan, a professor of bioethics at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine.

US President Donald Trump has boasted that the United States has tested more people for the novel coronavirus than anywhere else in the world.

Nevertheless, there were encouraging signs that the virus may not take as great a toll as initially feared.

The University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation model lowered its projected US death toll by 26 per cent, to 60,000 from 80,000 by August 4. The model is one of several that the White House task force has cited.

The task force previously projected 100,000 to 240,000 Americans could die.

Dr Craig Smith, surgeon-in-chief at Presbyterian Hospital's Columbia University Medical Center in Manhattan, heralded encouraging numbers that suggested a turning tide in yesterday's edition of his daily newsletter to staff.

There were more discharges of patients than admissions for two days running, he said, adding: “Hosanna!”

Dying at home

California, like New York, had one of its highest single-day death tolls with 68 people dying of Covid-19 in the past 24 hours, Governor Gavin Newsom said.

Louisiana Governor John Edwards said the number of new coronavirus cases reported in the past 24 hours — 746 — was lower than recent days. Louisiana had been one of the nation's hot spots for the virus.

“We do believe we are beginning to see the flattening of the curve,” he said.

So far New York City's announced death toll has reflected only laboratory-confirmed Covid-19 diagnoses. More than 200 people are dying at home in the city daily during the pandemic, up from 22 to 32 during the March 20 to April 5 period a year ago, authorities said.

The city will now try to quantify how many of those died from coronavirus-related causes and add that to its official toll.

“People are dying outside the hospital, unfortunately. It happens every day,” Oren Barzilay, the president of a labor union representing city paramedics, said. “I think those numbers, those statistics in New York for deaths would significantly go up if they tested everyone that expired.” — Reuters

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