The U.S. now leads the world in confirmed coronavirus cases.
Scientists warned that the United States someday would become the country hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic. That moment arrived on Thursday.
In the United States, at least 85,000 people are known to have been infected with the coronavirus, including more than 1,200 deaths — more cases than China, Italy or any other country has seen, according to data gathered by The New York Times.
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.
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.”
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. 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.
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.
In Wuhan, a new problem: Cremating the 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.
On economic aid, the E.U. is split between wealthy north and virus-ravaged south.
European Union heads of state and government spent six hours on Thursday struggling through a summit by teleconference on how best to raise funds to support some of 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 to combat the crisis 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.
According to the official, 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.
But Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, a consistent opponent 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.
Governors, seeing a sea of red ink, warn that the federal stimulus will fall short.
With the economic slowdown wrought by the coronavirus draining states of much-needed tax revenues as responding to the crisis is driving up their expenses, governors across the country are warning that the new federal stimulus bill will not give states the money they need.
While several governors said that the bill was a positive — and appreciated — start, they also said that it was not nearly enough to deal with plummeting state revenues and growing pleas for assistance from their residents.
“It does include some money that Maryland needs — not nearly enough for us or the other states,” said Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland, a Republican and chairman of the National Governors Association.
The stimulus includes block grants to states, as well as money that states can draw from to address various needs. It allocates, for instance, $30 billion for states to use on education, $45 billion for disaster relief and $1.4 billion for National Guard deployments.
Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat from California, thanked his party’s leadership in Congress, but said there also needed to be more. During a news conference on Wednesday, Governor Newsom said the state was slated to receive about $10 billion in a block grant.
“No one is naive about the magnitude of this crisis,” he said. “I’m not suggesting that the magnitude of this stimulus will even meet the moment. I certainly have strong points of view that there needs to be more in the future.”
Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota, a Republican, said the benefits of the stimulus will depend in part on how the Treasury Department interprets how some of that money flows to her state.
“We do see that there is some reimbursement for costs associated with our response to Covid-19 in the state of South Dakota,” she said during a Thursday news conference. “There is some concern on what we do about revenue loss at the state level because we do have revenue loss dramatically impacting our state right now.”
Perhaps the most critical state leader was New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat. He has complained that the bill was “terrible” for his state, which has been the hardest hit by the virus. Mr. Cuomo, who said New York faces a projected shortfall of between $10 billion and $15 billion due as tax collections plummet due to the economic slowdown, said that the roughly $3.1 billion to address New York’s budget gap was disproportionately low.
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.
Reporting was contributed by Donald G. McNeil Jr., Maya Salam, John Eligon, Amy Qin, Michael Crowley and Lara Jakes, Jesse Drucker, Carl Hulse, Emily Cochrane, Steven Lee Myers, Matina Stevis-Gridneff, Steven Erlanger and Neil MacFarquhar.