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Wednesday, March 25, 2020

By Lori Hinnant and Foster Klug

 

PARIS (AP)—The hunt for masks, ventilators and other medical supplies consumed the U.S. and Europe, as more than 1.5 billion people—one-fifth of the world’s population—were asked or ordered to stay home on Monday to try to blunt the spread of the coronavirus.

Political paralysis stalled efforts for a quick aid package from Congress, and U.S. stocks fell at the opening bell even after the Federal Reserve said it will buy as much government debt as necessary and lend to small and large businesses and local governments to help them cope with the economic damage from the outbreak.

In New York, where a near-lockdown took effect statewide over the weekend amid fears the city could become one of the world’s biggest hot spots, the mayor warned that hospitals are 10 days away from shortages in “really basic supplies” needed to protect health care workers and patients alike.

“If we don’t get the equipment, we’re literally going to lose lives,” Mayor Bill de Blasio told CNN.

The risk to doctors, nurses and others on the front lines has become plain: Italy has seen at least 18 doctors with coronavirus die. Spain reported that more than 3,900 health care workers have become infected, accounting for roughly 12% of the country’s total cases.

“There’s a wild race to get surgical masks,” François Blanchecott, a biologist on the front lines of testing, told France Inter radio. “We’re asking mayors’ offices, industries, any enterprises that might have a store of masks.”

Health care workers say they are being asked to reuse and ration disposable masks and gloves. A shortage of ventilators, crucial for treating serious COVID-19 cases, has also become critical, as has a lack of test kits to comply with the World Health Organization’s exhortations to test as many people as possible.

With the crisis easing in China, where it began late last year, only the area around the city of Wuhan was still considered high-risk, with people asked to stay inside.

In the United States, a fierce political battle over ventilators has emerged, especially after President Donald Trump told state governors that they should find their own medical equipment if they think they can get it faster than the U.S. government. Alaska is expected to run out of money imminently to pay doctors, hospitals and clinics who treat Medicaid patients.

China has been the one nation to counter this trend, sending planeloads of equipment like masks, gloves and protective gear as well as doctors to countries across Europe, including hard-hit Italy, France and Spain as well as places with weaker medical systems like Bulgaria, Greece and Serbia.

“The U.S. is completely wasting the precious time that China has won for the world,” said Geng Shuang, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S government’s top infectious-disease expert, promised that medical supplies are about to start pouring in and will be “clearly directed to those hot spots that need it most.”

Meanwhile, efforts for a quick economic relief package from Congress faltered. The U.S. Senate voted against advancing the nearly $2 trillion plan. Democrats argued it was tilted toward corporations rather than workers and health care providers. Another vote was expected Monday.

Worldwide, nearly 350,000 people have been infected and 15,000 have died from the virus. As cases in China ebbed, the dangers to Europe and the U.S. have grown exponentially, although Germany on Monday cautiously reported some flattening of its infection curve.

After just a few weeks, the U.S. has more than 33,000 cases and more than 400 deaths. New York, California and Illinois have ordered residents to stay home unless they have essential reasons to go out.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever or coughing. But for some older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. Over 100,000 people have recovered, mostly in China.

While other countries struggled to contain the virus, the central Chinese city of Wuhan, where the virus outbreak first emerged, said Monday it is now allowing residents limited movement as its months-long lockdown gradually eases.

Scientists in London predicted that the pandemic’s death toll could easily top 1 million people in the U.S. alone.

But Trump suggested that the remedies to fight the pandemic—including worldwide financial pain—may be more harmful than the outbreak itself and vowed to reassess government restrictions after the 15-day mark of the U.S. shutdown.

“WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF,” he tweeted.