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People wait in line to be tested for coronavirus disease while wearing protective gear, outside Elmhurst Hospital Center in the Queens borough of New York City on March 25, 2020. Image Credit: Reuters

New York: White House officials expressed growing alarm on Tuesday about the coronavirus outbreak in New York City, advising people who have passed through or left the city to place themselves in a 14-day quarantine.

Officials warned that the outbreak could reach its peak in New York City much sooner than expected and said they had begun treating the region as a coronavirus hot zone, akin to areas of China and Europe overwhelmed by the virus.

About 60 per cent of the new cases in the country were in the New York City metropolitan area, and the infection rate was eight to 10 times greater than other parts of the country, officials said at a briefing with the White House Coronavirus Task Force.

“Anyone in the New York metropolitan area who has travelled: Our task force is encouraging you to monitor your temperature, be sensitive to symptoms, and we are asking anyone who has travelled out of the New York City metropolitan area to anywhere else in the country to self-isolate for 14 days,” Vice-President Mike Pence said.

“We have to deal with the New York City metropolitan area as a high-risk area,” he added.

Dr Deborah L. Birx, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, and Dr Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said they were very concerned about people from New York City spreading the virus.

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People wait in line to be tested for coronavirus disease (COVID-19) while wearing protective gear, outside Elmhurst Hospital Center in the Queens borough of New York City on March 25, 2020. Image Credit: Reuters

“We are starting to see new cases across Long Island that suggest people have left the city,” Birx said. “We can have a huge impact if we unite together.”

It was not clear if the White House had alerted Gov. Andrew Cuomo about the quarantine. “We’re talking to them about it,” President Donald Trump said.

Grim forecast

The White House warning came as Cuomo offered a grim forecast for the outbreak in New York, saying that it would flood the state’s strained hospitals with as many as 140,000 stricken patients in the next few weeks.

Cuomo said that in New York City, new cases appeared to be doubling every three days. The crisis has already claimed the lives of more than 200 people statewide.

Despite the city’s growing efforts to slow the spread of the virus, Cuomo said the number of infections could reach its peak by mid-April, far outrunning earlier projections.

“We haven’t flattened the curve and the curve is actually increasing,” Cuomo said. “The apex is higher than we thought and the apex is sooner than we thought. That is a bad combination of facts.”

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Members of the NYC Medical Examiner’s Office at the site as workers build a makeshift morgue outside Bellevue Hospital to handle an expected surge in coronavirus victims on March 25, 2020 in New York. Image Credit: AFP

Confronting what he called these “astronomical numbers,” Cuomo, who has generally been restrained in his criticism of Trump during the crisis, lashed out for the first time at Washington’s response. He chastised the Trump administration for sending too few ventilators and drew an instant rebuke from the president.

The governor’s warnings came as millions of city residents sat hunkered in their homes and as all of its nonessential businesses - such as retail stores, barber shops and nail salons - were shuttered. One survey showed about a third of city residents had lost a job because of the epidemic or lived with someone who had.

Schools have been closed for more than a week and the typically crowded subways and buses were running at record-low capacities. Normally bustling streets were ghostly and empty.

New series of police patrols

As the number of cases in the city neared 16,000, the police launched a new series of patrols to encourage people to stay inside and to practice the appropriate “social distancing” that health experts recommend in order to stop the spread of the virus.

In the expanding web of the outbreak, emotions ran high: More and more New Yorkers were starting to discover that their colleagues, friends and relatives were falling ill and some even dying. So far, 192 have died in the city.

“This crisis again, it’s not just numbers,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio. “It’s not just something happening somewhere else or to somebody else. This is something we all will feel very directly in our lives before it’s over.”

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Speaking at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in Manhattan, a sprawling complex that the US Army Corps of Engineers was scrambling to turn into a 1,000-bed hospital, Cuomo painted a bleak picture of the days and weeks ahead.

He projected that the state would soon require up to 140,000 hospital beds when only about 53,000 were now available for use. He also said that doctors could ultimately need as many as 30,000 ventilators when only a fraction of that number - somewhere around 5,000 - were currently available.

Ventilators needed

On Monday, federal emergency officials announced that they were sending 400 ventilators to the state, a figure that Cuomo said barely dented what local officials desperately required.

“You want a pat on the back for sending 400 ventilators,” Cuomo said. “What are we going to do with 400 ventilators when we need 30,000 ventilators? You’re missing the magnitude of the problem.”

Not long after Cuomo spoke, Pence announced that an additional 4,000 ventilators were either on their way or would soon be sent to New York state.

The breathing machines were only one part of a landslide of medical equipment being rushed to hospitals in the city and its suburbs: 340,000 N95 respirator masks; 145,000 surgical gowns; and 350,000 pairs of gloves.

Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez, an emergency room nurse at a hospital in the Bronx affiliated with Montefiore Medical Center, said that staff members at her facility, like many in the city, had been told to reuse their masks and other protective equipment.

On Sunday, she said, a shipment that Cuomo promised finally arrived, providing a reprieve for panicked workers.

“It was like Santa Claus came for Christmas,” said Sheridan-Gonzalez, the president of the New York State Nurses Association. “It was an unbelievable scene. It was like getting party favors. I never saw anything like it.”

Though the New York area was the current epicenter of the outbreak in United States, Cuomo cautioned that it was also “the canary in the coal mine” for the rest of the country.

“What happens to New York is going to wind up happening to California and Washington state and Illinois - it’s just a matter of time,” he said. “We’re just getting there first.”