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U.S. states, hospitals plead for help as Trump approves coronavirus aid bill

U.S. doctors and nurses on the front lines of the coronavirus outbreak were under increasing stress on Friday as the number of cases continued to grow. Meanwhile, Trump both approved a $2.2-trillion US coronavirus aid bill, and ordered General Motors to produce ventilators for hard-hit hospitals.

Trump also signs order under Defense Production Act, requiring GM to produce ventilators

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, accompanied by other legislators, signs the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act after it passed in the House on Capitol Hill on Friday. (Andrew Harnik/The Associated Press)

U.S. doctors and nurses on the front lines of the coronavirus outbreak pleaded for more equipment to treat a wave of new patients expected to swamp capacity on Friday, shortly before President Donald Trump invoked emergency powers compelling the production of medical equipment. In a later address, Trump further pledged the United States would produce 100,000 ventilators, sending any unneeded units to Italy and other countries with high caseloads.

The United States' coronavirus-related death toll now ranks sixth worldwide, with over 1,500 fatalities recorded, according to a tally from Johns Hopkins University. Worldwide, confirmed cases of the virus have risen above 590,000, with more than 26,800 deaths.

Hospitals in New York, New Orleans and other virus hot spots in the U.S. sounded the alarm about a shortage of medicine, supplies and trained staff, while on Friday the U.S. became the first country to record 100,000 COVID-19 cases.

"This is past a movie plot. Nobody could ever think of this, or be totally prepared for this. You're going to have to wing it on the fly," said Dr. Eric Neibart, an infectious disease specialist and clinical assistant professor at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. "The scale is unbelievable."

Meanwhile, Trump signed a sweeping $2.2-trillion US coronavirus aid bill into law on Friday, just hours after it was approved by the House of Representatives.

The bill, along with unprecedented policy easing by the Federal Reserve, helped the S&P 500 surge 10.2 per cent for the week — its best week since 2009. But the U.S. stock market benchmark is still down about 25 per cent from its February high.

Examination tents are set up at the Michigan State Fairgrounds in Detroit on Friday, where the city is preparing for drive-thru testing for COVID-19. (Carlos Osorio/The Associated Press)

Democrats and Republicans in the Democratic-led House approved the package using a voice vote, turning back a procedural challenge from Kentucky Republican Thomas Massie, who had sought to force a formal, recorded vote.

"Today, we've all acknowledged our nation faces an economic and health emergency of historic proportions," said Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

While most of the House's 430 members are in their home districts because of the outbreak, several travelled to Washington. As debate commenced, lawmakers sat several seats apart from each other, maintaining distance as they waited for a chance to speak.

"Just passed the $2.2 trillion stimulus," tweeted Democrat David Cicilline, of Rhode Island. "Took longer than it should've (and required travel to DC) because of one member of Kentucky who couldn't put our country ahead of his own ego. He owes all Americans an apology for this reckless stunt."

The measure includes $500 billion to help hard-hit industries and a comparable amount for payments of up to $3,000 to millions of families. The legislation will also provide $350 billion for small-business loans, $250 billion for expanded unemployment aid and at least $100 billion for hospitals and related health systems.

Friction between states, Trump administration

New York could see a peak in the demand for hospital capacity in three weeks due to the coronavirus, and is planning to build a total of eight temporary hospitals to meet the surge, Gov. Andrew Cuomo told a news conference Friday.

The death toll in the state is now 519, an increase of 134 from the previous day.

At least one New York City hospital, New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center in Manhattan, has begun a trial of sharing single ventilators between two patients.

After turning a convention centre into a temporary hospital in a week, the state plans to build eight temporary hospitals in a campaign to increase the number of hospital beds from 53,000 to 140,000.

Some hospitals are converting cafeterias and atriums into space to house intensive care patients.

In an interview with Fox News on Thursday night, Trump had dismissed calls from Cuomo and other governors who pleaded for additional ventilators, the machines needed by some sufferers of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus, to help them breathe.

"I don't believe you need 40,000 or 30,000 ventilators," Trump said, referencing New York's request of the federal government.

But nearly a day later, Trump signed an order under the Defence Production Act, requiring General Motors to produce the machines for hard-hit hospitals. 

"We're going to make a lot of ventilators," Trump said, pledging to take care of U.S. needs while also helping other countries. He further pledged that they would produce 100,000 of the units in 100 days, and named his trade adviser Peter Navarro as co-ordinator of the effort.

A later White House memo said that Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar would determine the number of ventilators GM itself must now produce.

'Haunted' by potential scenarios

Governors have complained that they are competing with each other and even the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in negotiations with private suppliers.

Asked about guidelines being drafted on how to allocate ventilators to patients in case of a shortage in his state, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy told reporters such bioethical discussions "haunted him" but were unavoidable.

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said New Orleans would be out of ventilators by April 2 and potentially out of bed space by April 7 "if we don't flatten the infection curve soon."

A man exits a subway station in the Seaport District in Boston on Thursday. Many people are working from home, while many businesses have closed indefinitely because of coronavirus, leaving portions of the city nearly empty. (Steven Senne/The Associated Press)

"It's not conjecture. It's not some flimsy theory," Edwards told a news conference. "This is what is going to happen."

Scarcities of protective masks, gloves, gowns and eyewear for doctors and nurses — reports abound of health-care workers recycling old face masks, making their own or even using trash bags to shield themselves — have emerged as a national problem.

"Our nurses across the country do not have the personal protective equipment that is necessary to care for COVID patients, or any of their patients," Bonnie Castillo, head of the largest U.S. nurses union, National Nurses United, told MSNBC.

WATCH | Maryland resident describes feeling unsafe amid misconceptions about Asian Americans and the coronavirus:

Maryland resident Jonathan Yeung explains why the coronavirus pandemic has prompted him to buy his first gun. He says U.S. President Donald Trump's use of the term 'Chinese virus' has potentially put Asian Americans in danger. 0:52

In addition to New York, New Jersey and Louisiana, the U.S. military is watching coronavirus infection trends in Chicago, Michigan, and Florida with concern as it weighs where else it may send field hospitals, after boosting aid to New York, California and Washington, a top general said on Friday.

Lt.-Gen. Todd Semonite, commander of the Army Corps of Engineers, said the they were looking at potentially converting 114 facilities in the United States into hospitals. He said there could be a particularly high demand in Florida, because of the aging population.

With files from CBC News

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