Governor to take ventilators for New York City as hospitals buckle

  • Medical staff of a mobile unit take samples from people in cars Friday to test for COVID-19 at a drive-through position at the Santa Maria della Pieta' hospital complex, in Rome. The new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people, but for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death.

    Medical staff of a mobile unit take samples from people in cars Friday to test for COVID-19 at a drive-through position at the Santa Maria della Pieta' hospital complex, in Rome. The new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people, but for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death. Associated Press

Updated 4/3/2020 3:58 PM

NEW YORK -- With coronavirus deaths surging in New York, the governor announced Friday he will use his authority to seize ventilators and protective gear from private hospitals and companies that aren't using them -- one of the most aggressive steps yet in the U.S. to relieve severe shortages of equipment needed to fight the scourge.

"If they want to sue me for borrowing their excess ventilators to save lives, let them sue me," Gov. Andrew Cuomo said. He characterized it as a "sharing of resources," not a seizure, and promised to eventually return the equipment or compensate the owners.


The executive order that he said he would sign is aimed at the kind of shortages around the nation and the world that authorities say have caused front-line health care workers to fall sick and forced doctors in Europe to make life-or-death decisions about which patients get a breathing machine.

Cuomo has said New York, the worst hot spot in the nation, could run out of ventilators next week, while Louisiana's governor said New Orleans could exhaust its supply by Tuesday.

The number of the people infected in the U.S. exceeded a quarter-million and the death toll climbed past 6,600, with New York state alone accounting for more than 2,900 dead, an increase of over 560 in just one day. Most of the dead are in New York City, where hospitals are getting swamped with patients. About 15,000 people were hospitalized statewide, most of them in the city.

The Democratic governor was praised by a metropolitan-area hospital association, but elected officials from some areas outside the city objected to the move. Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Reed called the order dangerous and reckless and said it would cost lives.

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"Taking our ventilators by force leaves our people without protection and our hospitals unable to save lives today or respond to a coming surge," he said.

The economic damage from the lockdowns and closings mounted. The U.S. snapped its record-breaking hiring streak of nearly 10 years when the government reported that employers slashed over 700,000 jobs last month. But the true picture is far worse, because the figures do not include the last two weeks, when 10 million thrown-out-of-work Americans applied for unemployment benefits.

Worldwide, confirmed infections rose past 1 million and deaths topped 58,000, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University. Experts say both numbers are seriously undercounted because of the lack of testing, mild cases that were missed and governments that are underplaying the crisis.

Europe's three worst-hit countries -- Italy, Spain and France -- accounted for more than 32,000 dead, or over half of the global toll. The crisis there was seen as a frightening portent for places like New York, where bodies already are being loaded by forklift into refrigerated trucks outside overwhelmed hospitals.


Shortages of such things as masks, gowns and ventilators have led to fierce competition among buyers from Europe, the U.S. and elsewhere.

A regional leader in Paris described the scramble to find masks a "worldwide treasure hunt," and 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.

Cuomo, who has complained in recent days that states are being forced to compete against each other for vital equipment in eBay-like bidding wars, called for a coordinated national approach that would send supplies and people to different areas as their needs peak.

More than 1,200 miles south, the situation grew more dire by the day in Louisiana, where over 10,000 people have tested positive and deaths reached at least 370, up nearly 20 percent from the day before. Gov. John Bel Edwards warned that the hard-hit New Orleans area is projected to run out of hospital beds in a little more than a week.

Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge has gone from one unit dedicated to coronavirus patients to seven. Nurse Christen Hyde said nurses call family members twice a day to update them on how their family members are doing, in some cases delivering bleak news.

"To have to call a family member and tell them that their family member is not doing well and they are probably going to be passing soon is just devastating," said Hyde, who has had four patients die.

As for the patients, "the last thing that they see is us telling them that they are going to have a tube placed down their throat to help them breathe," she said. "It's awful. It's horrible. It's really affected me."

In Florida, hundreds of passengers on a cruise ship where four people died were finally being allowed to disembark after a days-long standoff. More than a dozen critically ill patients were taken to hospitals, while people healthy enough to travel were taken to the airport for chartered flights home.

Italy, the hardest-hit country on the continent, with about 14,700 dead, continued to see signs that infections and deaths might be leveling off.

France reported a surge of more than 1,000 deaths Friday, bringing its overall toll to more than 6,500. It canceled its high school exit exam known as the Baccalaureat, a first in the 212-year history of the test.

"The work is extremely tough and heavy," said Philippe Montravers, an anesthesiologist in Paris. "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."

Spain recorded over 900 new deaths, down slightly from the record it hit a day earlier. The carnage almost certainly included large numbers of elderly who authorities admit are not getting access to the country's limited breathing machines, which are being used first on healthier, younger patients.

In a vast exhibition center in Madrid that was hastily converted into a 1,300-bed field hospital, bed No. 01.30 held patient Esteban Pinaredo, age 87.

"I'm good, I love you," Pinaredo told his family via Skype. "I will run away as soon as I can."

The facility's organizer, Antonio Zapatero, said Spain's nationwide lockdown must be maintained.

"Otherwise, this is what you are facing," he said, pointing at the rows of beds.

With glorious spring weather likely to tempt stir-crazy families out of lockdown this weekend in Europe, the message across the continent remained "Stay home." Paris police set up roadblocks outside the city to stop those trying to escape for Easter vacation.

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. Over 200,000 people have recovered, by Johns Hopkins' count.

Smith reported from Providence, Rhode Island, Villenueve reported from Albany, New York, and Santana reported from New Orleans. Associated Press writers around the world contributed.

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