Largest relief package in U.S. history moves to Congress as global crisis deepens.
Congress was set to take up a $2 trillion economic stabilization plan designed to save jobs and bail out companies that will also fundamentally transform the relationship between the government and private industry.
In a sign of the times, the House is expected to approve the measure on Friday by voice vote, rather than having hundreds of lawmakers travel from their homes and violate restrictions on mass gatherings.
The relief could not come soon enough for the more than three million Americans who joined the ranks of the unemployed last week — another “largest ever” number in a week filled with superlatives.
The total number of infections in the United States, more than 85,000, for the first time exceeded those in China. More than 1,200 Americans have died as the outbreak spread exponentially into new territory in the Midwest and the South.
New York City, where 385 people have died, remains the hardest hit by the virus. But Michigan, which had only 350 cases a week ago, now has more than 3,000. The mayor of Los Angeles and the governor of Louisiana both warned that their populations were following the same path as New York.
Despite progress on developing a vaccine, sheltering in place remains the best way to slow the spread of the virus, and billions of people around the world have been told to stay in their homes.
The more rapidly the virus spreads, the sooner hospitals are overwhelmed and the more people die. And it can happen with horrifying speed, as evidenced by the dire situations in Italy and Spain, which have suffered a combined total of more than 12,500 deaths.
The spread of the virus in Britain seems to be a bit behind continental Europe, and officials recently expressed cautious optimism that the health system would be able to handle the expected surge in patients. Nevertheless, 578 people have died so far, with the daily total exceeding 100 for the first time, and hospitals in London are now being inundated.
But even as most of the world clamps down further on the movement of people, President Trump remains focused on restarting the economy. He suggested on Thursday that the White House might soon recommend that restrictions be eased in parts of the country where the virus has yet to be widely detected.
But public health experts warned that slicing and dicing the restrictions would lead to disaster, and local officials — who have the final say in such matters — for the most part did not seem inclined to follow the president’s lead.
Residents of Wuhan, the Chinese city where the virus originated, took advantage of an easing of harsh restrictions to start the grim process of collecting the ashes of loved ones. But even in China, victory could prove fleeting.
On Saturday, the country will close its borders to foreigners, to prevent the virus from circling back and reinfecting the population.
Coronavirus Map: Tracking the Global Outbreak
The virus has infected more than 523,700 people in at least 171 countries.
How did the U.S. overtake the world in new infections?
Scientists warned that the United States someday would become the country hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic. That moment arrived on Thursday.
With 330 million residents, the United States is the world’s third most populous nation, meaning it provides a vast pool of people who can potentially get Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus.
And it is a sprawling, cacophonous democracy, where states set their own policies and President Trump has sent mixed messages about the scale of the danger and how to fight it, ensuring there was no coherent, unified response to a grave public health threat.
A series of missteps and lost opportunities dogged the nation’s response.
Among them: a failure to take the pandemic seriously even as it engulfed China, a deeply flawed effort to provide broad testing for the virus that left the country blind to the extent of the crisis, and a dire shortage of masks and protective gear to protect doctors and nurses on the front lines, as well as ventilators to keep the critically ill alive.
“This could have been stopped by implementing testing and surveillance much earlier — for example, when the first imported cases were identified,” said Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University.
For now, at least, China has contained the coronavirus with draconian measures. But the pathogen had embarked on a Grand Tour of most countries on Earth, with devastating epidemics in Iran, Italy and Spain. More videos emerged of prostrate victims, exhausted nurses and lines of coffins.
The United States, which should have been ready, was not.
The public health system, limping along on local tax receipts, kills mosquitoes and traces the contacts of people with sexually transmitted diseases. It has been outmatched by the pandemic.
States plead for more federal help, but White House cancels ventilator production plan.
As the United States became the global epicenter of the pandemic, state and local leaders urged President Trump to take more aggressive steps to mobilize the production of critically needed supplies. Instead, the White House suddenly called off a venture to produce as many as 80,000 ventilators, out of concern that the estimated $1 billion price tag would be prohibitive.
In a White House briefing, Deborah L. Birx, the administration’s coronavirus response coordinator, insisted that talk of ventilator and hospital bed shortages was overwrought, but she warned of new hot spots developing in and around Chicago and Detroit.
In New York, now the hardest-hit area in the United States, doctors scrambled as the number of hospitalized patients jumped by 40 percent in a day — to 5,327 patients, of whom 1,290 were in intensive care, according to Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Several medical schools in Massachusetts and New York said this week that they intended to offer early graduation to their fourth-year students, making them available to care for patients eight weeks earlier than expected.
To further support New York, the Navy hospital ship U.S.N.S. Comfort is expected to arrive at Manhattan on Monday, three weeks earlier than previously thought. The ship will take patients from area hospitals who do not have symptoms of the virus.
Despite bleak jobs data — more than three million people filed for unemployment benefits last week — Wall Street was in rally mode on Thursday. Investors bid up shares of companies that were set to receive support from Washington’s $2 trillion coronavirus aid bill. Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the House would pass the bill on Friday “with strong bipartisan support.”
And Ohio will move its presidential primary election to late April and hold it almost entirely by mail, to avoid the health risks posed by crowded voting locations.
One nation salutes its health workers, as another mourns a casualty.
In an emotional tribute to the workers of the National Health Service, millions across Britain took to their windows, doorsteps and balconies to simultaneously applaud those risking their own health to help others.
From stone cottages in the Lake District to apartment buildings in London, an explosion of sound pierced the darkness as people clapped, played instruments and rang bells in a show of solidarity.
Tower Bridge, Westminster Abbey and the London Eye were among the London landmarks bathed in blue light in tribute.
Even as the country prepared for the worst, with an army of 500,000 volunteering to help ease the burden on government workers, London hospitals were already struggling to meet the demands of the first wave of patients.
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And there was a deep awareness that much more will be asked of medical workers in the days ahead.
The dangers facing doctors, nurses and other caregivers has been demonstrated in every country where the virus has insinuated itself.
And the strains on strong health care systems — with protective gear and vital equipment in desperately short supply — underscored the possible tragedy in developing nations.
In Spain, health care workers have been infected at an alarming rate, accounting for more than 10 percent of cases.
The toll on doctors in Italy continues to grow, with at least 37 dying after contracting the virus.
In New York, the story Kious Kelly, an assistant nurse manager at Mount Sinai West hospital in Manhattan, has gripped the nation.
Mr. Kelly texted his sister, Marya Patrice Sherron, on March 18 to say he had contracted the coronavirus and was on a ventilator in the intensive care unit.
He said he could text, but not talk.
“‘I’m OK,’” he wrote, Ms. Sherron recalled in an interview on Thursday. “‘Don’t tell Mom and Dad. They’ll worry.’”
Mr. Kelly, 48, died late Tuesday.
In a shift in tone, Trump praises China’s handling of the outbreak.
After weeks of rising tensions, President Trump called China’s leader, Xi Jinping, and offered words of sympathy and praise for the Chinese government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
“China has been through much & has developed a strong understanding of the Virus,” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter. “We are working closely together. Much respect!”
Even for Mr. Trump, the shift in tone was striking, coming only days after he made a point of referring to the coronavirus as a “Chinese virus.”
A day before the call, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters in Washington that “the Chinese Communist Party poses a threat to our health and way of life, as the Wuhan virus outbreak clearly has demonstrated.”
Mr. Trump and Mr. Xi last spoke directly in February, and both took part in a video conference call of leaders of the Group of 20 nations on Thursday.
China’s readout of the two leaders’ conversation was more restrained. Perhaps mindful of criticism of the country’s early handing of the epidemic, Mr. Xi stressed in the call that China had been sharing information in “an open, transparent and responsible manner” with the World Health Organization and the United States.
“I am paying very close attention and worried about the development of the epidemic in the United States,” Mr. Xi said.
“China understands the difficult situation the U.S. is currently in and is willing to provide as much support as it can within its power,” China’s foreign ministry said, referring to Mr. Xi’s comment.
A new problem in Wuhan: Cremating thousands.
The peak of the outbreak appears to have passed in Wuhan, the central Chinese city where the coronavirus crisis started three months ago, but for some residents, the mourning process is only beginning.
Images circulating online and in Chinese state media showed people standing in a long line outside a funeral home in Wuhan on Thursday, waiting to collect the ashes of loved ones who died during the epidemic. For many residents, it was a long-awaited moment.
As the virus ravaged Wuhan — killing more than 2,500 people, according to official figures — the city was kept under a strict lockdown for more than two months, and residents were barred from holding funerals. In China, where rituals of death are highly prescribed, many have had no choice but to grieve at home in private.
According to a report in Caixin, a respected Chinese newsmagazine, residents began receiving calls from funeral homes this week notifying them to come pick up the ashes. Some who showed up at funeral homes without appointments waited for up to six hours, Caixin reported.
But residents hoping to hold proper funerals for their loved ones will have to wait until May or later. Local officials issued new guidelines on Thursday prohibiting Wuhan residents from holding public commemoration services until at least April 30. With the annual Tomb Sweeping Festival — when Chinese honor their ancestors by tending to their family graves — coming next week, officials are urging the public to hold online memorials instead.
Though Wuhan has accounted for nearly two-thirds of China’s total infections and more than three-quarters of its deaths, many residents and experts believe that the real death toll in the city during the epidemic was likely higher. Medical workers have said that a lack of test kits, particularly in the early weeks of the outbreak in Wuhan, meant that many deaths from the coronavirus went unaccounted for.
A truck driver cited in the Caixin report said that in one day, he had dropped off 2,500 boxes for storing ashes at Hankou Funeral Home, one of eight funeral homes in the city.
By Thursday evening, censors had begun to delete images from the Wuhan funeral home on Chinese social media, prompting anger among some users who saw the erasures as part of a larger government effort to keep the public focused on China’s success in stamping out the virus.
What you can do to protect yourself and everyone else.
You can take several steps to slow the spread of the coronavirus, and keep yourself safe. Be consistent about social distancing. Wash your hands often. And when you do leave your home for groceries or other essentials, wipe down your shopping cart and be smart about what you are purchasing.
Can Trump legally order the country back to work by Easter?
While the president of the United States is often referred to as the most powerful leader on earth, there are limits to those powers, and one of them is that he cannot order Americans to leave their homes and go to work.
Such a declaration, in the midst of a health crisis, would have to come from local authorities — in state capitals or even from city or county governments.
This longstanding legal principle predates the Constitution, experts say, so Mr. Trump can suggest what counties may go back to work as he did in his announcement on Thursday, but he does not have the authority to overturn state and local decrees.
“States are understood to have a general power to legislate for the health, welfare, safety and morals for the people of their state,” said Andrew Kent, who teaches constitutional law at Fordham University’s School of Law.
There might be some exceptions, Mr. Kent and others noted, as in the case of a military invasion or other national emergency, but a pandemic is not one of them. On health matters, the federal government’s powers are limited to trying to prevent the spread of contagious diseases into the United States or between states.
Mr. Trump could try to use his considerable levers of power like withholding federal aid, as he did with the sanctuary cities that opposed his immigration policies, legal experts said, but states could reject any direct attempt to interfere in their shelter-at-home orders.
On economic aid, E.U. is split between wealthy north and virus-ravaged south.
European Union leaders spent six hours on Thursday struggling through a summit meeting by teleconference on how best to support their economies that have been devastated by the coronavirus.
With leaders roughly split between a more fiscally cautious north and a battered south, they gave themselves two more weeks to work out a plan. A call by Italy, Spain, France and six other nations to jointly issue debt, dubbed “coronabonds,” was blocked, despite broad support from the markets, which want to see the euro area do more to bolster its weakest members.
Germany, Austria and the Netherlands, which oppose the proposal, say there is no need to create new tools when old ones will do, and they are loathe to put their stronger economies and healthier budgets to the service of weaker ones, fearing it will encourage irresponsible behavior down the line.
According to a French official who briefed reporters, President Emmanuel Macron said it was important to help those most hurt by the virus, including Italy and Spain.
Mr. Macron said that the bloc owed those countries solidarity, and that if wealthier members failed to show it, it would be tantamount to accepting that Europe does not have a shared destiny, according to the official.
But Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, a consistent critic of joint eurobonds, said she was opposed to the proposal. “We said that this is not the point of view of all member states,’’ she told journalists from her home, where she is in quarantine.
Detained immigrants are staging hunger strikes.
Immigrants being detained in at least four states have started hunger strikes, according to advocacy groups, arguing that as the virus sweeps across the United States, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency has not done enough to protect them.
More than 40,000 adults and children are detained in a patchwork system of prisons, jails and shelters. Two adults in ICE custody have tested positive for the coronavirus; others are being isolated in various facilities because of potential exposure. Several staff members in facilities that house immigrants have also contracted the coronavirus.
The hunger strikes are taking place in Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and New Jersey. ICE detainees are said to have gone on hunger strikes in at least four New Jersey facilities — in Bergen, Essex, Union and Hudson counties — to protest being locked inside what they described as fetid, poorly heated cells for up to 23 hours a day.
Two doctors employed as medical experts by the Department of Homeland Security who have whistle-blower status wrote in a letter to Congress and the White House last week that they thought the agency should consider releasing detainees because of a potential “tinderbox” situation that could result from widespread infections in any of its facilities.
Reporting was contributed by Donald G. McNeil Jr., Maya Salam, John Eligon, Amy Qin, Marc Santora, Megan Specia, Elian Peltier, Raphael Minder, Jason Horowitz, Fabio Bucciarelli, Nikita Stewart, Michael Crowley, Lara Jakes, Jesse Drucker, Carl Hulse, Emily Cochrane, Steven Lee Myers, Matina Stevis-Gridneff, Steven Erlanger, Caitlin Dickerson, Annie Correal and Neil MacFarquhar.
Answers to Your Frequently Asked Questions
Updated March 24, 2020
How does coronavirus spread?
It seems to spread very easily from person to person, especially in homes, hospitals and other confined spaces. The pathogen can be carried on tiny respiratory droplets that fall as they are coughed or sneezed out. It may also be transmitted when we touch a contaminated surface and then touch our face.
Is there a vaccine yet?
No. The first testing in humans of an experimental vaccine began in mid-March. Such rapid development of a potential vaccine is unprecedented, but even if it is proved safe and effective, it probably will not be available for 12 to18 months.
What makes this outbreak so different?
Unlike the flu, there is no known treatment or vaccine, and little is known about this particular virus so far. It seems to be more lethal than the flu, but the numbers are still uncertain. And it hits the elderly and those with underlying conditions — not just those with respiratory diseases — particularly hard.
What should I do if I feel sick?
If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.
How do I get tested?
If you’re sick and you think you’ve been exposed to the new coronavirus, the C.D.C. recommends that you call your healthcare provider and explain your symptoms and fears. They will decide if you need to be tested. Keep in mind that there’s a chance — because of a lack of testing kits or because you’re asymptomatic, for instance — you won’t be able to get tested.
What if somebody in my family gets sick?
If the family member doesn’t need hospitalization and can be cared for at home, you should help him or her with basic needs and monitor the symptoms, while also keeping as much distance as possible, according to guidelines issued by the C.D.C. If there’s space, the sick family member should stay in a separate room and use a separate bathroom. If masks are available, both the sick person and the caregiver should wear them when the caregiver enters the room. Make sure not to share any dishes or other household items and to regularly clean surfaces like counters, doorknobs, toilets and tables. Don’t forget to wash your hands frequently.
Should I wear a mask?
No. Unless you’re already infected, or caring for someone who is, a face mask is not recommended. And stockpiling them will make it harder for nurses and other workers to access the resources they need to help on the front lines.
Should I stock up on groceries?
Plan two weeks of meals if possible. But people should not hoard food or supplies. Despite the empty shelves, the supply chain remains strong. And remember to wipe the handle of the grocery cart with a disinfecting wipe and wash your hands as soon as you get home.
Can I go to the park?
Yes, but make sure you keep six feet of distance between you and people who don’t live in your home. Even if you just hang out in a park, rather than go for a jog or a walk, getting some fresh air, and hopefully sunshine, is a good idea.
Should I pull my money from the markets?
That’s not a good idea. Even if you’re retired, having a balanced portfolio of stocks and bonds so that your money keeps up with inflation, or even grows, makes sense. But retirees may want to think about having enough cash set aside for a year’s worth of living expenses and big payments needed over the next five years.
What should I do with my 401(k)?
Watching your balance go up and down can be scary. You may be wondering if you should decrease your contributions — don’t! If your employer matches any part of your contributions, make sure you’re at least saving as much as you can to get that “free money.”