A Solemn Day: After 6 Weeks of the Coronavirus Crisis, 10,000 People Gone

To date, more than 235,000 have been infected and more than 10,000 people have died in NY, NJ and CT; still, there are signs the curve is flattening

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What to Know

  • Signs show the curve of infections is flattening; Gov. Andrew Cuomo warns the death toll could keep rising, describing it as a "lagging indicator"
  • NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio now says May might not be as difficult as he once feared, but restrictions could remain in place into June
  • More than 235,000 in the tri-state area have now tested positive and more than 10,000 have died

Good Friday is already one of the most solemn days of the year for millions of people in this part of the world. Today, it is almost unimaginably more so.

As of Friday, more than 10,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the tri-state in less than six weeks. While the latest daily death toll in New York is down very slightly from the prior day's record, the numbers are still staggering.

"In terms of lives lost, that this situation should exceed 9/11 is still beyond my capacity to fully appreciate," Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Friday.

The widely cited Gates Foundation-funded IHME model projects New York's daily death rate will decrease going forward; nonetheless, that model still has another 14,000 people dying in the tri-state between now and early June.

Photos captured Thursday showed workers in heavy protective gear burying coffins in trenches on Hart Island, for more than a century one of New York City's burial places of last resort. Volume there has increased almost five-fold during the pandemic, with 125 people per week going unclaimed by family or friends after dying.

"It's a sad topic. Imagine anyone who passes away and there's no one there to claim the body — and there is more of this because of COVID-19," the mayor said.

Meanwhile, the FDNY says "cardiac arrest" deaths at home are up almost 400 percent, almost certainly being driven by COVID-19.

Yet for all that death, there are signs — early, to be sure, but signs nonetheless — of optimism. Cardinal Joseph Tobin, the Archbishop of Newark, hinted as much in his Easter message Thursday.

"This Easter our joy is real, but it has an aspect of anticipation rather than immediate fulfillment," he said.

New York posted its first negative number for ICU admissions on Thursday since the crisis began — more people getting out than going in. Nonetheless, Cuomo warned the death toll will continue to rise. It's a “lagging indicator,” reflecting people who had been hospitalized before this week, he says. The fatalities have overwhelmingly been from the most vulnerable patients, the ones on ventilators.

Cuomo has said the longer people stay on ventilators, the less likely they are to ever come off them. Experts say up to 50 percent of patients with severe respiratory distress die while on the machines. The link is so compelling that some doctors are trying to move away from using them when they can.

To date, at least 10,224 tri-state residents have lost their lives to COVID-19 and more than 235,000 have been infected. Globally, the death toll passed 100,000 on Friday.

The personal tragedy is relentless and heartbreaking.

Overall, New Jersey remains the nation's second most-impacted state, reporting 51,027 cases and 1,700 deaths as of Thursday. NBC New York's Checkey Beckford reports.

Those working on the front lines of the crisis, doctors and nurses at hospitals, are feeling the exhaustion from working day-in, day-out in such relentless conditions — with one doctor saying there is a clear physical, mental and emotional exhaustion among medical workers.

"I'm seeing the physical exhaustion in my colleagues. I'm seeing the indentation of the goggles deep in their face. I'm seeing people just sort of worn out from day after day of doing this," said Columbia University Medical Center's Craig Spencer, who also worked in West Africa during the Ebola crisis (and survived that disease himself, saying he feared this one more).

He added, "you're starting to see a lot more of that mental exhaustion."

Cuomo lauded New Yorkers for complying with social distancing Friday, saying they were doing their part to flatten the curve -- and the guidelines were working better than projected because of their commitment to compliance. But now is not the time to relax, he said.

"What we do today will determine the infection rate two or three days from now," he said.

Mayor de Blasio echoed those sentiments, saying he wouldn't relax any restrictions until there is sustained evidence of improvement. That sustained evidence involves three key metrics -- hospital admissions for suspected COVID-19, ICU admissions for suspected COVID-19 and the percentage of people testing positive -- trending down in unison. Those numbers all have to decline for at least 10 days before the city can move to the next phase, which de Blasio described as low-level virus transmission.

"Even though we are seeing some progress — and we are — we don't know what comes next," the mayor said Friday, sitting in the shadow of a field hospital built at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens.

Even when we reach that next phase, current guidelines will not evaporate overnight, the mayor said. Slowly, they will ease, and slowly, life in New York City will start to look more normalized, as the mayor displayed a chart Thursday showing a plan for graded social distancing. That chart suggested some gatherings could return, but de Blasio declined to get into specifics about what restrictions could be eased, instead just saying "you may relax some and not the other."

That is months away, de Blasio said — perhaps not until late May or June. He specifically said Friday he was close to a decision about the rest of the school year, with an announcement expected by Monday.

"I don't even know what normal will be after this," the mayor said in a WNYC interview Friday.

The mayor has said "serious discussions" are being held on the fate of NYC public schools and a decision on whether they might be able to reopen in time to salvage any part of the academic year is likely a few days away. Previously, he expressed serious doubt schools would reopen before the fall. Pennsylvania's governor Thursday extended his state's closures for the rest of the school year, and Connecticut's governor extended them deep into May.

De Blasio said he wants the maximum number of people working from home "for a long time" because strict adherence to social distancing is how we'll get to the next phase. "If you see something, say something," was a collective call to action born out of terror. Today, the virus is the enemy -- and de Blasio said the same message applies. Call 311 to report violations.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, who has asserted the life-changing impact of social distancing perhaps more forcefully and frequently than any governor, says that single factor could be a difference of 420,000 COVID-19 cases for his state. Murphy also enacted a new executive order requiring face coverings in all grocery stores statewide, and on Friday he said the state would move some inmates to parole or home confinement to lessen the spread in prisons.

"We will win this, unequivocally, if each and every one of us does our part," Murphy said.

Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont also took action Friday, issuing an order to extend all existing closures and distancing measures until at least May 20. In addition, he granted renters the kind of relief people in New York and New Jersey have begged for -- an automatic 60-day grace period on April's rent and another 60-day grace on May rent for tenants who have lost income.

Overall, New York has 170,512 cases and 7,844 deaths. New York City specifically stands at 92,384 cases and 5,820 dead. De Blasio said he expected New York City to pass 100,000 cases by the weekend.

New Jersey remains the nation's second-most impacted state, reporting 54,588 cases and 1,932 deaths as of Friday. The situation may only become more dire in coming days. Sources told NBC New York that while deaths in the state have averaged between 200-300 per day as of late, they anticipate that number to double over the next few days as the peak of coronavirus cases hits.

Connecticut could be an emerging hot spot as well, standing at 10,538 confirmed cases and 448 deaths as of Friday evening.

Where Do We Go From Here?

The International Monetary Fund said Thursday it expects the pandemic to bring about the worst economic fallout since the Great Depression, while urging governments around the world to prioritize containment and healthcare measures before shifting their focus to the economy.

Up to 50 million jobs are vulnerable to coronavirus-related layoffs, economists say. Roughly one in 10 workers has lost a job in the last 21 days; a record 16.8 million Americans have filed for unemployment since the outbreak started. President Trump plans to unveil a second White House virus task force, this one focused on the economy, a senior administration official confirmed.

New York alone has seen 810,000 unemployment claims since March 9. It has processed 600,000 of them. With hundreds of thousands still in limbo, the state is launching a new unemployment site that won't require a phone call. For 2 million rent-stabilized tenants in New York City, De Blasio is calling for a rent freeze and a legal change that would let them pay their rent with security deposits.

Public health and the economy aren't mutually exclusive priorities, Cuomo has said. He has had preliminary discussions with Murphy and Lamont about developing a uniform regional approach to rebooting their economies, just as they did several weeks ago in shutting them down.

What might that look like? Cuomo offered no immediate specifics, saying we're not quite there yet. But he did say that "the key to reopening is going to be testing. I've said that from day one." The governor is talking about more than typical COVID-19 tests -- he's talking about newly FDA-approved antibody testing. And bringing that to scale.

Cuomo says antibody testing, which identifies people who have recovered from COVID-19, will hasten a return to the workforce. He, along with some of the nation's top experts, say it's unlikely someone who has had the novel coronavirus will get re-infected because their course with it may grant them the precious immunity no one had before becoming infected with it themselves.

If testing gets to the point where people can be tested for antibodies even without a prior COVID-19 test, many more could get back to work even sooner.

But pace is the issue — Cuomo said the state can do 300 a day today, 1,000 a day by next Friday and 2,000 a day by the following week.

"It's still not enough if you want to reopen on a meaningful scale and reopen quickly," he said, calling on President Trump to use the Defense Production Act to massively increase test availability. "That sounds like a lot. But it's a drop in the bucket."

It seems less likely that the President will comply with Cuomo's wishes. On Friday, Trump said there were hundreds of empty beds on the USNS Comfort and inside the field hospital at the Javits Center, adding that "we never felt we needed the numbers you were talking about, and we were right about that."

Despite the president's statements, there were still 100 COVID-19 patients who arrived at the Billie Jean King Tennis Center in Queens — the venerable home of the U.S. Open now converted into a field hospital. More will arrive in coming days, with a capacity of 470. Another field hospital is set to open soon at Columbia University's Baker Field Athletic Complex in Inwood, and NYC Health + Hospitals opened a temporary, 350-bed center on Roosevelt Island that will treat patients with and without COVID-19 who are stable and don't need ICU care.

All three tri-state governors have pledged to help out other states when their times of need come, as the nation has stepped up to help theirs. Their states have a combined 235,638 cases and 10,224 deaths. That represents nearly half of all cases in America, which NBC News estimates is approaching 500,000; and nearly 60 percent of the country's deaths, which top 18,000.

The ultimate toll on the American psyche from this job- and soul-crushing pandemic is incalculable at this point. As Cuomo has said, this crisis will transform a generation -- and shape another.

The White House has projected anywhere from 100,000 to 240,000 U.S. lives could be lost to the pandemic. Dr. Anthony Fauci said Thursday he's hopeful America's death toll will come in well in under the lower end of those projections -- more like 60,000 -- because of how seriously people are taking mitigation. See how COVID-19 has spread across the U.S. since March 1 using this interactive map.

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