Focus turns to US as coronavirus continues to spread around world

Jon Henley
Photograph: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The focus of the coronavirus crisis has switched decisively from continental Europe to the US, with the country reporting the highest daily death toll of any nation so far.

The number of Americans killed by Covid-19 was 1,169 on Thursday, while the US’s total of 245,000 confirmed cases is also by far the highest recorded by any country worldwide.

The pandemic continues to spread rapidly around the globe, infecting more than 1 million people and killing nearly 55,000.

Italy has suffered the most deaths with a tally of 14,681, followed by Spain with 10,935, but the toll in the US – which now accounts for about a quarter of the world’s known infections – is rising fast and has topped 6,000.

Hospitals and morgues in New York struggled to treat or bury casualties as the state governor, Andrew Cuomo, predicted similar misery for the rest of the country. New York suffered its deadliest single day on Friday, with 562 additional deaths across the state for a total of 2,935, Cuomo said, with 102,863 confirmed cases.

He warned that people were going to die in the near term due to a lack of ventilators, adding that he would use his authority to take ventilators and protective gear from private hospitals and companies that are not using them. “If they want to sue me for borrowing their excess ventilators to save lives, let them sue me,” Cuomo said.

Related: Coronavirus world map: which countries have the most cases and deaths?

Staff at one Brooklyn medical centre were seen disposing of their protective gear in a street refuse bin after loading bodies into refrigerated trucks. Officials have said between 100,000 and 240,000 Americans could ultimately die from the virus. The US disaster response agency, Fema, has asked the US military for 100,000 body bags.

About 90% of Americans are under some kind of stay-at-home order as the country tries to slow the spread by enforcing physical distancing guidelines, although a handful of governors are still resisting issuing statewide confinement orders.

Donald Trump sparked fresh alarm when his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, said the president became concerned about a shortage of vital medical equipment after hearing about it from “friends of his in New York”, suggesting he was responding to anecdotes rather than the state governor or public health officials.

Jared Kushner joins Donald Trump at a White House briefing. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

The US president drew fresh criticism by deploying Kushner, who is married to his daughter, Ivanka, at a White House coronavirus taskforce briefing. He also accused opposition Democrats, who have said a new congressional committee will oversee “all aspects” of the federal response to the crisis, of launching a “witch-hunt”.

According to the Johns Hopkins University tracker, more than 1.04 million people have contracted the illness worldwide with more than 55,000 deaths. Nearly half the world’s population is living under some form of confinement in an effort to curb Covid-19.

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China, where the pandemic originated, has succeeded in stabilising its outbreak, with the number of new domestic – as opposed to imported – transmissions reportedly reduced to zero. Authorities in the city of Wuhan, the initial centre of the outbreak, on Friday began loosening lockdown restrictions imposed in late January.

Europe has been the focus of the crisis for the past several weeks, but signs have emerged this week that the epidemic could be approaching its peak there. Italy and Spain together account for almost half of the global death toll, but experts say the number of new infections in both countries is continuing to slow.

A police officer checks the papers of a driver in Spain. Photograph: Jon Nazca/Reuters

For the second day running, more than 900 people died in Spain over the past 24 hours, the government said on Friday, but health ministry figures confirmed a consistent downward trend in the rate of both new cases and fatalities. A total of 932 people have died in the past 24 hours, a slight drop from the 950 deaths recorded one day earlier and marking the first decline in the daily death toll this week.

The latest figures show the rate of infections up by 6.8%, compared with 7.9% on Thursday and 20% in the middle of last week. The daily rise in deaths also slowed, to 9.3% on Friday, down from 10.5% on Thursday and well down on the 27% increase on 25 March.

Figures from Italy tell the same broad story. Officials on Friday reported 766 new deaths, in line with Thursday’s figure, and 4,585 more cases – also slightly down – for a total of 119,827 infections. The number of infections is now increasing at a rate of 3-4% a day, compared with earlier highs of 15%.

In other developments:

  • Italy’s prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, called for “more ambition, unity and courage” from the EU, writing in La Repubblica that proposals for a rescue package for the hardest-hit member states were “not worthy of Europe”.

  • Germany’s measures are starting to work and spread of the virus there is slowing, the head of the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for disease control said. The chancellor, Angela Merkel, returned to her office after ending her self-quarantine.

  • French high-school students will not sit the baccalaureate exam in its traditional form this summer, for the first time since its inception in 1808 under Napoleon Bonaparte. Tens of thousands of extra police and gendarmes will ensure people remain in lockdown and do not leave for Easter holidays.

  • The Russian prime minister, Mikhail Mishustin, said the situation in Russia could yet develop into a worst-case scenario, and that the epidemic has not peaked there yet.

  • Iran announced 134 more deaths, bringing its official total to 3,294.

  • Looking increasingly isolated, Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, again played down the pandemic, saying it is “not all it’s being made out to be”.

With airlines largely grounded, businesses closed and unemployment surging, the economic fallout is set to surpass that of the 2008 financial crisis, with some experts comparing it to the Great Depression.

The ratings agency Fitch predicted the US and eurozone economies would shrink this quarter by up to 30%, while the Asian Development Bank warned on Friday that the global economy could take a $4.1tn (£3.35tn) hit, equivalent to 5% of worldwide output.

The pandemic is also beginning to get a grip on the developing world, where experts have warned of looming disasters among communities with little or no healthcare provision and populations already weakened by poverty.