By LORI HINNANT and DANICA KIRKA
LONDON — The United States and Britain braced for one of their bleakest weeks in living memory on Monday as the social and financial toll of the coronavirus pandemic deepened. New infections in Italy and especially Spain showed signs of slowing, with emergency rooms in the hard-hit Madrid region returning almost to normal a week after scenes of patients sleeping on floors and in chairs.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who was infected last month, was hospitalized overnight in what his office described as a “precautionary step” after persistent symptoms. The 55-year-old Conservative leader, who had a fever for days, is the first known head of government to fall ill with the disease.
“The issue is that his symptoms have remained persistent,” said Johnson’s spokesman, James Slack, adding that the prime minister was continuing to receive regular briefings.
World shares rose after some hard-hit European areas saw glimmers of hope — deaths and new infections appeared to be slowing in Spain, Italy and France. Leaders cautioned, however, that any gains could easily be reversed if people did not continue to adhere to strict social distancing measures and national lockdowns. Benchmarks were up about 3% in Paris and Frankfurt and Tokyo jumped more than 4%.
In Washington, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams offered a stark warning about the surge of coronavirus deaths the nation is facing.
“This is going to be our Pearl Harbor moment, our 9/11 moment,’ he told “Fox News Sunday.”
More than 9,600 people have died of the virus in the United States, and it leads the world in confirmed infections at more than 337,000.
In New York City, the U.S. epicenter of the pandemic, daily confirmed deaths dropped slightly, along with intensive care admissions and the number of patients who needed breathing tubes. But New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo warned it was “too early to tell” whether the good news would hold.
U.S. President Donald Trump later suggested the hard weeks ahead could foretell the turning of a corner.
“We’re starting to see light at the end of the tunnel,” Trump claimed at an White House briefing.
Louisiana health officials reported 68 more coronavirus-related deaths, the state’s biggest jump since the outbreak began. In all, the state where New Orleans hosts millions of tourists yearly has 477 reported deaths and over 13,000 infections. A report from a federal watchdog agency found that three out of four U.S. hospitals surveyed are already treating patients with confirmed or suspected COVID-19, and warned that different, widely reported problems are feeding off each other in a vicious cycle.
Italy still has, by far, the world’s highest coronavirus death toll — almost 16,000 — but the pressure on northern Italy’s intensive care units has eased so much that Lombardy is no longer airlifting patients to other regions.
Yet elderly Italians like Enrico Giacomoni were still dying alone even after being put on a breathing machine. The octogenarian’s family had to rely on a single daily update from a busy doctor.
“He wasn’t expecting this,” said his son, Roberto. “He was there hoping things would get better, and all I could do was tell him, ‘Papa, be strong. You’ll see, this will pass.’”
“But his eyes were sad, in the sense that he obviously knew,” he added.
In Spain, deaths and new infections dropped again Monday. The health ministry reported 637 new deaths, the lowest toll in 13 days, for a total of over 13,000 dead since the pandemic hit. New recorded infections were also the lowest in two weeks.
Patients awaiting treatment in emergency rooms across the Madrid region of 6.6 million went down Monday to 390 cases, one-tenth of the arrivals last week, the regional government said. The number of people being treated for coronavirus in intensive care stabilized at about 1,500 for five straight days.
“What we are considering now is the return of beds that have been used for positive COVID patients to transform them back to the normal activity in hospitals,” Madrid’s regional health minister Enrique Ruíz Escudero said.
Yet Britain’s outbreak was headed in the opposite direction as the country reported more than 600 deaths Sunday, surpassing Italy’s daily increase for the second day in a row.
In a rare televised address, Queen Elizabeth II appealed to Britons to rise to the occasion, while acknowledging they face enormous disruptions, grief and financial difficulties. In the midst of the speech Sunday night, Johnson was admitted to the hospital.
“I hope in the years to come, everyone will be able to take pride in how they responded to this challenge,” the 93-year-old monarch said. “And those who come after us will say that the Britons of this generation were as strong as any.”
Lacking enough for protective gear against the virus, British doctors and nurses were wearing goggles from school science classes, holding their breath when close to patients, and repeatedly reusing single-use masks, Dr. Rinesh Parmar, head of Doctors’ Association UK, told Sky News.
Worldwide, more than 1.2 million people have been confirmed infected and nearly 70,000 have died, according to Johns Hopkins University. The true numbers are certainly much higher, due to limited testing, different ways nations count the dead and deliberate under-reporting by some governments.
The virus is spread by droplets from coughs or sneezes. For most people, the virus causes mild to moderate symptoms such as fever and cough. But for some, especially older adults and the infirm, it can cause pneumonia and death. Over 263,000 people have recovered worldwide.
There is no known treatment, but some drugs have shown promise and patients are rushing to join studies.
Illness has been compounded by shocking economic pain as all the world’s largest economies have ground to a halt, with 10 million jobs lost in the United States in the last two weeks alone.
Two weeks ago, Sergio Chavira, a 33-year-old truck driver in New Mexico, was advertising on Craigslist for other drivers to help him haul crude oil. Now he hasn’t driven his truck for a week.
“Everything is slowing down,” Chavira said. “They give us less loads to haul every day.”
Austria and the Czech Republic both began openly discussing how to ease some of the crippling restrictions. Austria’s chancellor said the plan is to let small shops and garden centers reopen next week, limiting the number of customers inside, and the rest on May 1. The Czech government is proposing an end to the ban on travel abroad as of April 14 and the reopening of small stores.
In Asia, Japan’s prime minister said he will declare a state of emergency for Tokyo and six other prefectures as early as Tuesday. Infections are soaring in the country that has the world’s third-largest economy and its oldest population.
The disease emerged in China late last year, and every week seems to bring an unwelcome surprise to those trying to fight it. A tiger at the Bronx Zoo has tested positive in what is believed to be the first known infection in an animal in the U.S. or a tiger anywhere.
The zoo’s’ director, Jim Breheny, said he hoped the finding can contribute to the global fight against the virus.
Hinnant reported from Paris. Associated Press writers around the world contributed.