Coronavirus in US: Americans urged to wear masks outside as pandemic worsens

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The Trump administration appeared to join local officials on Thursday in advising Americans to wear masks when venturing out during the still-exploding coronavirus pandemic, as the US death toll rose by 1,000 in a single day for the first time.

Speaking at a White House briefing, Deborah Birx, a member of President Donald Trump's coronavirus task force, said the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would issue guidelines in the coming days on the use of face coverings.

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Birx however cautioned that Americans, who have been admonished to stay at home except for essential outings, should not develop a "false sense of security" that they are fully protected from the respiratory illness by wearing a mask.

Trump, answering questions from reporters at the same briefing, said only that "if people want to wear them, they can."

As of Thursday evening the US death toll from COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by coronavirus, stood at 5,821, with more than 241,000 positive cases across all 50 states.

Global cases surpassed 1 million on Thursday with more than 52,000 deaths, according to a Reuters tally based on country by country data.

White House medical experts have forecast that between 100,000 to 240,000 people could be killed even if Americans follow the sweeping lock-down orders.

The Trump administration, CDC and public health officials have all wavered on the issue of face masks since the pandemic broke out, initially telling healthy people such measures were unnecessary or even counter-productive.

Nowhere to put the dead

In New York City, the center of the US outbreak, Mayor Bill de Blasio urged residents to wear face coverings, citing studies showing that the virus can be transmitted by infected people who are showing no symptoms.

"What that means is when you put on that face covering you're protecting everyone else," de Blasio said. The Democratic mayor suggested New Yorkers use scarves or other home-made masks because medical-grade protective gear was in short supply.

An emergency stockpile of medical equipment maintained by the US government has nearly run out of protective garb for doctors and nurses.

In New York City, where at least 1,400 people have been killed by the virus, hospitals and morgues struggled to treat the desperately ill and bury the dead.

New York City funeral homes and cemetery directors described a surge in demand not seen in decades as cases surpassed 50,000 in the city.

Crematories extended their hours and burned bodies into the night, with corpses piling up so quickly that city officials were looking elsewhere in the state for temporary interment sites.

"We've been preparing for a worst-case scenario, which is in a lot of ways starting to materialize," said Mike Lanotte, director of the New York State Funeral Directors Association.

At Brooklyn's Wyckoff Heights Medical Center, staff were seen disposing of gowns, caps and other protective gear in a sidewalk trash can on Thursday after loading bodies into a refrigerated truck.

Reuters was unable to confirm whether the bodies were those of coronavirus victims and hospital administrators could not be reached for comment. Operator Beatrice Pereira said, "They said that there's no one available right now, that everyone here is busy saving lives."

Disney announces furloughs

With an estimated 90 percent of Americans under unprecedented orders to remain at home during the outbreak, the US government reported that a record 6.6 million workers had filed for jobless benefits last week, double the previous all-time high set a week earlier.

The Walt Disney Company said it would start furloughs of non-essential US employees across the company on April 19. Disney did not say how many workers would be affected.

Vice President Mike Pence, leading the White House response to the outbreak, told Fox News Radio the Trump administration had distributed about 4,400 ventilators to New York over the last week and would be sending more on Thursday. He said 3M would be importing 10 million N95 masks from China.

Tesla co-founder Elon Musk, who previously provided more than 1,000 ventilators to California, said on Twitter that he would start delivery of the "intratracheal Medtronic units" in New York City on Thursday evening.

California Governor Gavin Newsom said at a daily news briefing that 203 people had died in the state, with more than 1,900 patients hospitalized. He said the numbers of cases were not spiraling at the same pace as New York, but cautioned that a spike could still be coming.

The US Navy relieved the commander of the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, who wrote a scathing letter asking for help controlling a coronavirus outbreak onboard, US officials told Reuters on Thursday.

Florida officials on Thursday said they were prepared to allow two Holland America cruise ships with coronavirus patients aboard dock at a port near Fort Lauderdale, resolving a days-long impasse.

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