New York sees glimmer of progress against coronavirus thanks to 'social distancing'; New Orleans on track to become next US epicentre

People maintain social distancing while standing in line to enter a Trader Joe's in Los Angeles, US, on March 25, 2020.
People maintain social distancing while standing in line to enter a Trader Joe's in Los Angeles, US, on March 25, 2020.PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK/AUSTIN (REUTERS) - New York state, leading the country in coronavirus infections and deaths, has begun showing tentative signs of slowing the spread of the disease, Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Wednesday (March 25), while the health crisis deepened in hard-hit New Orleans and elsewhere.

The rate of hospitalisations in New York has slowed in recent days, Mr Cuomo said, with numbers he called "almost too good to be true". But the governor warned that much more work needed to be done.

In an ominous sign, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said the states of New York, North Carolina and Hawaii had requested special mortuary teams that can be deployed for mass casualties.

New Orleans, where large crowds celebrated Mardi Gras a month ago, was on track to become the next US epicentre, as Louisiana's Gulf Coast metropolis recorded the world's highest growth rate in coronavirus cases.

Mr Cuomo announced new "density-control" steps aimed at containing the virus, with New York City, home to more than 8 million people, closing some public streets to vehicles and opening them instead to pedestrians to allow more space for foot traffic and greater "social distancing" to avoid infections.

At a news conference, Mr Cuomo said the city also would ban basketball and other contact sports in public parks, urging individuals to comply on a voluntary basis.

"Our closeness makes us vulnerable," said Mr Cuomo, who has emerged as a leading voice on the coronavirus.

Nationwide, at least 60,000 people have been diagnosed with Covid-19, the respiratory illness caused by the highly contagious virus, with the number of deaths surpassing 900. The infection is particularly perilous to elderly people and those with underlying chronic health conditions.

Mr Cuomo said more than 30,800 people had tested positive for the virus in his state and more than 17,800 in New York City alone. The state, which has reported 285 deaths and roughly half the country's known infections, was among the earliest to close non-essential businesses and direct residents to stay home as much as possible.

As of Wednesday, the governors of at least 20 states, representing more than half the US population of 330 million, have imposed such restrictions, designed to curb transmission of the virus by limiting congregations of people and putting more space between them.


Even before states began adopting those measures last week, the pandemic had virtually paralysed parts of the US economy and upended daily life as schools and colleges closed and workplaces shuttered voluntarily or under local government orders.


The crisis, sparking projections of a global recession amid tumbling stock prices, has put public health authorities at odds with President Donald Trump, who had pointed to a robust economy and stock market in making his case for reelection in November.

While more states joined the procession of stay-at-home orders, Mr Trump this week has pushed to reopen commerce by April 12, and on Wednesday blamed news outlets for exerting pressure to keep restrictions in place.

"The LameStream Media is the dominant force in trying to get me to keep our Country closed as long as possible in the hope that it will be detrimental to my election success," Mr Trump wrote in a tweet. "The real people want to get back to work ASAP. We will be stronger than before!"

Health experts insist that reopening businesses and schools too soon would only risk fuelling transmission of the virus and ultimately worsen the economic fallout.

Mr Cuomo cited recent coronavirus hospitalisation figures in his state as evidence that social distancing measures were starting to work.

While hospitalisations had been doubling every two days as of Sunday, those numbers were doubling every 3.4 days by Monday, and by Tuesday the rate was 4.7 days, Mr Cuomo said.

"This is a very good sign and a positive sign, again not 100 per cent sure it holds, or it's accurate, but the arrows are headed in the right direction," Mr Cuomo said.

Testing for the virus remained a challenge in New York and around the United States. At Elmhurst Hospital Centre, which serves about 1 million people in New York's Queens borough, scores of people, most wearing surgical masks, queued up on Wednesday to be tested at a tent outside.


The impact was increasingly being felt beyond the hot spots of New York, California and Washington state as Louisiana and other states faced a severe crush on their healthcare systems.


The deteriorating situation in New Orleans dashed hopes that less densely populated cities and those in warmer climates might escape the worst of the pandemic. Local authorities have warned that hospitals in the Mississippi River port city could reach the point of collapse by April 4.

Mr Trump issued federal disaster declarations for Louisiana and Iowa late on Tuesday and for Texas and Florida on Wednesday, freeing up federal funds to help states cope. New York, California and Washington state were given such status previously.

Dr Rebekah Gee, head of Louisiana State University's healthcare services division, said that Mardi Gras, when 1.4 million tourists descended on New Orleans for celebrations that included tightly packed street parades, fed the city's outbreak.

New Orleans restaurant owner Ronnie Evans said everyone in New Orleans was "freaking out".

"People don't know what to expect or how long this will last. Everyone is worried about their jobs," said Mr Evans, 32, whose restaurant Blue Oak BBQ is a few steps from the renowned Bourbon Street. The restaurant is offering takeout orders only.

"This is as bad as Katrina or worse," he said, referring to the hurricane that devastated the city in 2005.