(Reuters) – New York’s governor on Wednesday said there were tentative signs that restrictions were slowing the spread of the coronavirus in his state, even as the public health crisis deepened in hard-hit New Orleans and other parts of the United States.
The rate of hospitalizations in New York state, the epicenter of the U.S. outbreak, has slowed in recent days, said Governor Andrew Cuomo, with numbers that he called “almost too good to be true.” But New Orleans, where large crowds last month celebrated Mardi Gras, was on track to become the next U.S. epicenter, with the world’s highest growth rate in coronavirus cases.
Despite the encouraging news, Cuomo said New York City, home to more than 8 million people, would close some public streets to vehicles, opening them up to pedestrian traffic to facilitate “social distancing” to avoid infections.
Cuomo told a news conference the city would ban basketball and other contact sports in parks, first on a voluntary basis as long as people comply.
“Our closeness makes us vulnerable,” said Cuomo, who has emerged as a leading national voice on the coronavirus.
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 has reported 285 deaths and roughly half the country’s reported infections. The state was among the earliest to close non-essential businesses and take other measures to keep people apart to prevent infections.
Hospitalizations were doubling every two days as of Sunday, but by Monday the trend showed hospitalizations were doubling every 3.4 days, and by Tuesday the rate was 4.7 days, Cuomo said.
“This is a very good sign and a positive sign, again not 100% sure it holds, or it’s accurate but the arrows are headed in the right direction,” Cuomo said.
Testing for the virus remained a challenge in New York and around the United States. At Elmhurst Hospital Center, 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 special tent set up outside.
The White House on Tuesday advised people who had visited or left New York to isolate themselves for 14 days, but Cuomo and his medical adviser played down that White House advice.
Nationwide, about 60,000 people have been diagnosed with COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus that is particularly perilous to the elderly and people with pre-existing medical conditions, with at least 812 U.S. deaths.
CRUSH IN LOUISIANA
The impact was increasingly being felt beyond the hot spots of New York, California and Washington state as Louisiana and others faced a severe crush on their healthcare systems.
The deteriorating situation in New Orleans dashed hopes that less densely populated and warmer-climate cities would 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.
U.S. President Donald Trump issued new major federal disaster declarations for Louisiana and Iowa late on Tuesday, freeing up federal funds to help states cope.
New Orleans is the biggest city in Louisiana, the state with the third-highest case load of coronavirus in the United States on a per capita basis after the major epicenters of New York and Washington. The number of cases in New Orleans rose by 30% in the 24 hours before noon on Wednesday. Louisiana has reported 65 deaths and nearly 1,800 infections.
Dr. Rebekah Gee, who until January was Louisiana’s health secretary and now heads up Louisiana State University’s healthcare services division, said that it was the Mardi Gras, when 1.4 million tourists descended on New Orleans, that fueled the city’s outbreak.
“It’s a highly infectious virus and Mardi Gras happened when the virus was in the United States but before the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and national leaders had really educated the public or even acknowledged the extent to which it was in the U.S.,” Gee said. “We had the president saying, ‘It’s just a few people, don’t worry about it.’”
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 Evans, 32, whose restaurant Blue Oak BBQ is just few steps from the city’s renowned Bourbon Street. The restaurant is offering takeout orders only.
“People are still coming out, but they’re scared. This is as bad as Katrina or worse,” he said, referring to the hurricane that devastated the city in 2005.
Bruce Hamilton, 48, an attorney, said people in New Orleans were on edge.
“A huge swath of our service economy is on life support right now. And culturally, we’re a city where people like to gather together. We just can’t do that now,” Hamilton said.
Five states have received major disaster declarations from the Republican president. New York – the state with by far the most infections and deaths – was given such status last weekend as well as California and Washington state.
Trump on Tuesday said he wanted to reopen the country by Easter Sunday – far sooner than public health officials have said is warranted – but later told reporters he would listen to recommendations from the nation’s top health officials.
Reporting by Maria Caspani in New York and Brad Brooks in Austin, Texas; Additional reporting by Rich McKay, Dan Trotta, Peter Szekely, Susan Heavey, Stephanie Kelly, Richard Cowan, Doina Chiacu, Patricia Zengerle and Stephanie Nebehay; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Howard Goller