Ground Zero: How New York became the epicentre of the global coronavirus outbreak

Makeshift morgues outside of hospitals, sirens in the streets and soon a quarantine. Richard Hall reports on the fight against the coronavirus in New York.  

Richard Hall
New York
Saturday 28 March 2020 19:40 GMT
De Blasio says New Yorkers should be 'ready' for the city to stay closed until the end of May

In every Hollywood disaster movie, New York somehow finds itself at the centre of it all. It is a peril of being the most recognisable city in the world that it always seems to bear the brunt of the alien invasions, environmental collapse and the deadly storms. This time is no different.

Over the past week, this city has become the new epicentre of the global coronavirus pandemic. New York now accounts for roughly a quarter of the 100,000 infections in the whole United States. More than 450 people have now died of the virus here, as of Saturday.

The city has not yet reached the peak of its crisis, and yet medical facilities are already close to breaking point. On the same day that the United States overtook China as the country with the most infections in the world, 13 people died in one day, at just one hospital, in Queens.

Makeshift morgues, made from white dome tents, have appeared outside of several hospitals in preparation for the dead. A line of refrigerated trucks stood in waiting at Bellevue hospital. Sirens blaze through the night all over the five boroughs.

“One of the floors in the hospital is just a coronavirus floor,” one exhausted hospital worker, taking a break outside of a Manhattan hospital, told The Independent. “The emergency room is only dealing with coronavirus patients, nothing else.”

At that same hospital, The Independent witnessed a steady stream of ambulances arrive to drop off patients, all of them elderly. Ambulance drivers carrying the patients were wearing only rudimentary face masks, rather than the full protective equipment needed for dealing with infected people.

Medical staff, already overwhelmed, are themselves contracting the virus. At Mount Sinai West, a hospital in Manhattan, a nurse who was treating coronavirus died this week. Staff at the hospital had been using garbage bags to protect themselves due to shortages of proper equipment.

“We’re all worried that we just won’t have enough staff soon. We’ve had people get sick here,” said the hospital employee, who works in the emergency department.

“Our closeness makes us vulnerable. But it’s true that your greatest weakness is also your greatest strength. And our closeness is what makes us who we are. That is what New York is.”

New York governor Andrew Cuomo

New York is experiencing what previous epicentres have already gone through — Wuhan in China, Lombardy in Italy and Seattle, Washington. But the strict quarantine measures that have been put in place across the world seem particularly jarring in New York, the city that never sleeps. Manhattan’s iconic avenues are empty of people and cars. The bright lights of Times Square bounce off the bare pavements.

“I’ve had one customer today,” said Mohammad Noor, who runs a hot dog stand on the edge of the square. “Everyone is scared. They are at home.”

The only people moving are those who don’t have the luxury of staying home — not just the doctors and nurses, but construction workers, delivery drivers, janitors and grocery clerks. Their presence disguises the true scale of the crisis.

In a grim milestone that demonstrated just how badly the city has been affected, New York received more emergency calls on Wednesday than it did on the day of its greatest trauma, September 11, 2001. More than 6,000 people dialled 911, according to emergency worker unions. It was not for nothing that the New York Daily News declared the city the “Ground Zero” of the coronavirus on its front page earlier this week.

New York’s Times Square in the middle of the day during the coronavirus outbreak. (Richard Hall / The Independent )

The scale of the crisis has left many contemplating how it came to happen here, and how one of the richest states in the country was so unprepared. New York governor Andrew Cuomo, who has attracted praise for his handling of the crisis, posited that it was the city’s unique openness that made it vulnerable.

“Answer one is because we welcome people from across the globe... And I have no doubt that the virus was here much earlier than it was in any other state because those people come here first. That’s the first answer,” he said on Wednesday.

“The second is because we are close, because we live close to one another, because we’re close to one another on the street, because we live in close communities, because we’re close to one another on the bus,” he added.

“Our closeness makes us vulnerable. But it’s true that your greatest weakness is also your greatest strength. And our closeness is what makes us who we are. That is what New York is.”

New York is the most densely populated city in the US, with some 27,000 residents per square mile. It dwarves the closest city of San Francisco, which has 18,000. That is true of other global cities, however, which haven’t seen the same explosion of cases.

Another reason for New York’s high rate of infection could have something to do with the number of tests being carried out. Following a slow start, during which time people with symptoms struggled to get tested, New York is now testing more aggressively than any other state — some 700 tests per 100,000 people.

Ted Steinberg, a historian of natural disasters in America and a Brooklyn native, agreed with Mr Cuomo that the city’s closeness can be a blessing and a curse when disaster strikes.

“The city’s vibrant street life, the pounding excitement that people feel as they come up the stairs of Penn Station onto Seventh Avenue — these are the result of packing millions of people into one small spot on the planet,” he said.

Density has positive social impacts and potentially positive ecological ones. But density also exacts a price when coastal storms make evacuation difficult if not impossible, and in cases like the current one in which closeness is looking every day more and more like the kiss of death,” said professor Steinberg, who teaches history at Case Western Reserve University.

As the worst-affected area in the country, the city and state of New York is now serving as a test case for America’s response to the crisis, both political and practical.

Governor Cuomo’s press briefings have become essential viewing not just for New Yorkers, but for the rest of the country — places which may soon find themselves facing the same issues.

The problem for New York, much like elsewhere, has been capacity — having enough beds and medical equipment to deal with the surge of patients flooding the hospitals. Much of Mr Cuomo’s daily televised appeals have focused on bridging the gap between the number of hospital beds needed for the coming apex of the crisis, from the 53,000 it has now to an estimated 140,000. More crucially, he added, New York will also need an additional 30,000 ventilators to deal with the coming increase in severe hospitalisations.

That peak is expected to arrive roughly three weeks from now. But these shortfalls cannot be met by the state alone. Washington passed a $2 trillion stimulus bill this week to counter the impact of the outbreak on the economy, but governors across the US have criticised the government for being too slow to help states deal with shortages of medical equipment.

Mr Cuomo has repeatedly assailed the Trump administration for not providing help quickly enough, sparking a public row with president Donald Trump that has seen the pair trade blows in their respective press conferences.

“The president said it’s a war ... then act like it,” Mr Cuomo said on Tuesday. “They’re doing the supplies? Here’s my question: Where are they?”

“You pick the 26,000 people who are going to die,” he said, warning of the high numbers of deaths that would follow if ventilators were not found.

The president has refused to take responsibility for shortfalls across the country, and has instead pushed blame back on state governors. On Thursday evening, he cast doubt on Mr Cuomo’s requirements to deal with the crisis.

“I don’t believe you need 40,000 or 30,000 ventilators. You go into major hospitals sometimes, and they’ll have two ventilators. And now all of a sudden they’re saying, ‘Can we order 30,000 ventilators?’” said during an appearance on Hannity.

The public battle between the two continued on into this weekend, as Mr Trump said on Saturday that he was considering a quarantine of New York.

“We’re thinking about certain things. Some people would like to see New York quarantined because it’s a hotspot. ... We might not have to do it, but there’s a possibility that sometime today we’ll do a quarantine, short-term, two weeks on New York. Probably New Jersey, certain parts of Connecticut,” he told reporters.

That came as news to Mr Cuomo, who said he doubted it would have the desired effect.

“I don’t even know what that means. I don’t know how that could be legally enforceable. And from a medical point view, I don’t know what you would be accomplishing,” he said.

The row between the president and the two Democratic leaders of New York has highlighted a troubling aspect of the federal government’s response to the crisis: the politicisation of federal aid.

Mr Trump has gone so far as to suggest that life-saving supplies would be contingent on how governors across the country treat him.

“I think we’re doing very well,” he told Fox News of the White House’s coordination with governors. “But, you know, it’s a two-way street. They have to treat us well, also. They can’t say, ‘Oh gee, we should get this, we should get that.’”

He has also attacked two other Democratic governors, in Michigan and Washington state, after they criticised the federal response to the pandemic.

Mr Trump initially played down the threat of the coronavirus, but slowly came around as US cases skyrocketed. The virus was initially worse in coastal blue states, but according to an analysis by FiveThirtyEight, cases are now rising fast in states that supported Mr Trump in the 2016 election.

It was in that spirit that Mr Cuomo issued a warning to the rest of the country this week.

“What happens to New York is going to wind up happening to California and Washington state and Illinois. We’re just getting there first,” he said.

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