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US coronavirus cases top 100,000 as 'bullet train' speeds up

Trump orders GM to make ventilators under Cold War-era law

NEW YORK -- Confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. topped 100,000 on Friday, the day after the country surpassed China to become the global epicenter of the pandemic.

Data collected by Johns Hopkins University put the cumulative American count at 100,717, doubling in just three days and further widening the gap with China, which stood at 81,897.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has called the pandemic a "bullet train" heading toward his state, citing its sudden acceleration, but the outbreak here is also a disaster to unravel over weeks, potentially killing thousands.

"Now we're looking at about 21 days for a possible apex," Cuomo said Friday at a press briefing out of the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, which within a week has been turned into a makeshift hospital reminiscent of Wuhan's Huoshenshan.

The death toll came to 527, Johns Hopkins reported -- a surge from less than 400 the day before. Nearly 1,600 of the state's 6,481 currently hospitalized COVID-19 patients are in intensive care, according to Cuomo's slides.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo speaks during a news conference at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center. The governor has clashed with Washington over a shortage of ventilators.   © Reuters

Amid the acceleration, U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday invoked a 1950 law to order General Motors to produce ventilators for COVID-19 patients, following urgent entreaties from lawmakers.

"Our negotiations with GM regarding its ability to supply ventilators have been productive, but our fight against the virus is too urgent to allow the give-and-take of the contracting process to continue to run its normal course," Trump wrote in a statement explaining the order. "GM was wasting time. Today's action will help ensure the quick production of ventilators that will save American lives."

The Defense Production Act, enacted shortly after the start of the Korean War, empowers the president to require businesses to fulfill orders deemed necessary for national defense.

Later Friday, Trump said that in the next 100 days, the U.S. will either make or secure in other ways over 100,000 ventilators.  

"We're going to make a lot of ventilators," he told reporters at the White House. Some can go to other countries if not that many are needed, he said.

Friday morning, he rage-tweeted against GM for dragging its feet.

"They said they were going to give us 40,000 much needed Ventilators, 'very quickly,'" Trump wrote. "Now they are saying it will only be 6000, in late April, and they want top dollar. Always a mess with Mary B" -- a reference to GM CEO Mary Barra.

"General Motors MUST immediately open their stupidly abandoned Lordstown plant in Ohio, or some other plant, and START MAKING VENTILATORS, NOW!!!!!!" Trump fumed in another tweet. "FORD, GET GOING ON VENTILATORS, FAST!!!!!!"

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the signing ceremony for the $2 trillion coronavirus relief package as he sits at the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office of the White House on March 27.   © Reuters

In Washington, the House of Representatives passed Friday a $2 trillion stimulus bill that aims to blunt the pandemic's economic impact. The bill, which Trump signed into law that day, involves checks sent directly to households, expanded unemployment benefits, aid for health care workers and small businesses, and $500 billion in loans for distressed companies.

Even with the peak still weeks away, emergency medical service workers in New York were told Tuesday night that a record 6,406 people had called 911 seeking medical help in the preceding 24 hours, surpassing even Sept. 11, 2001, The Washington Post reported.

To prepare for the peak of hospitalizations, Cuomo said New York state needs 140,000 beds but has only 53,000. It also started out with only 3,000 intensive care units of the 40,000 needed.

"That's why we're scrambling," he said.

New York is racing to utilize hotels and college dormitories to meet the demand and has enlisted a volunteer health care team including many retired medical workers.

The state also faces a shortage of ventilators in the tens of thousands, over which it has clashed with Washington.

Thursday evening, Trump dismissed New York's plea for help, questioning numbers "in some areas" and saying he does not "believe you need 40,000 or 30,000 ventilators."

Without naming the president, Cuomo said Friday that "everybody's entitled to ... their own opinion, but I don't operate here on opinion. I operate on facts, and on data, and on numbers, and on projections."

The number of deaths will "continue to go up, and that is the worst news that I could possibly tell the people of the state of New York," he said.

Cuomo cites New York's status as a hub for international travel and its population density as possible reasons contributing to the eruption of cases but warns that what is happening here could happen to other states later.

The state's projected outbreak apex will come after the Easter timeline by which Trump would like Americans to return to work as he seeks to reduce the pandemic's damage to the economy, on which his reelection chances hinge.

Up to 2,000 U.S. patients could die from COVID-19 at the outbreak's peak, assistant professor Xi Chen of the Yale School of Public Health told the Nikkei Asian Review.

"The concentration of cases in a few cities put further strain on [their] health care system, making them more and more overstretched each day," Chen said.

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