New York takes new steps against coronavirus as impact spreads across U.S.

New York takes new steps against coronavirus as impact spreads across U.S.
By Maria Caspani and Susan Heavey

NEW YORK/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – While the burdens of the coronavirus intensified across the United States, New York City on Wednesday took aggressive new steps to battle the crisis, closing streets and asking people to stop playing basketball and other contact sports in public parks.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said more than 30,800 people had tested positive for the virus in his state, the epicenter of the U.S. outbreak, and more than 17,800 in New York City alone. The state has reported 285 deaths and roughly half the country’s reported infections.

State measures to control the coronavirus appear to be working as the rate of hospitalizations has slowed in recent days, Cuomo said. “Now that is almost too good to be true,…” he said. “This is a very good sign and a positive sign, again not 100% sure it holds, or it’s accurate but the arrows are headed in the right direction.”

He described street closures in New York City, where more than 8 million people live, as a pilot program and said sports like basketball would be banned in city parks, first on a voluntary basis as long as people comply.

With closures to vehicles, the intention is to allow pedestrians to walk in the streets to enable greater “social distancing” to avoid infections.

“Our closeness makes us vulnerable,” said Cuomo, who has emerged as a leading national voice on the coronavirus.

“We will overcome. And we will show the other communities across this country how to do it.”

Even as city officials struggled to contain the health crisis, the impact was increasingly being felt beyond the hot spots of New York, California and Washington state as Louisiana and others faced a severe crush on their healthcare systems.

U.S. President Donald Trump issued the latest major federal disaster declarations for Louisiana and Iowa late on Tuesday, freeing up federal funds to help states cope with the increasing number of cases of the dangerous respiratory disease caused by the virus that threaten to overwhelm state and local resources.

That brings to five the number of states receiving major disaster declarations from the Republican president. New York – the state with by far the most infections and deaths – was given such status last weekend as well as California and Washington state.

Louisiana, where large crowds last month celebrated Mardi Gras in New Orleans and other locations, reported a spike in infections with 1,388 total confirmed cases and 46 deaths as of mid-Tuesday, according to the Louisiana Department of Health.

Dr. Rebekah Gee, who until January was Louisiana’s health secretary and now heads up Louisiana State University’s healthcare services division, said that it was the Mardi Gras, when 1.4 million tourists descended on New Orleans, that fueled the city’s outbreak.

“It’s a highly infectious virus and Mardi Gras happened when the virus was in the United States but before the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and national leaders had really educated the public or even acknowledged the extent to which it was in the U.S.,” Gee said. “We had the president saying, ‘It’s just a few people, don’t worry about it.'”

‘FREAKING OUT’

New Orleans restaurant owner Ronnie Evans said everyone in New Orleans was “freaking out.”

“People don’t know what to expect or how long this will last. Everyone is worried about their jobs,” said Evans, 32, whose restaurant Blue Oak BBQ is just few steps from the city’s renowned Bourbon Street. The restaurant is offering takeout orders only.

“People are still coming out, but they’re scared. This is as bad as Katrina or worse,” referring to the hurricane that devastated the city in 2005.

The governors of at least 18 states have issued stay-at-home directives affecting about half the U.S. population of roughly 330 million people. The sweeping orders are aimed at slowing the spread of the pathogen but have upended daily life as schools and businesses shutter indefinitely.

A number of other U.S. states have also applied for major disaster relief status in recent days including Florida, Texas, New Jersey, North Carolina, Missouri, Maryland and South Carolina, as well as Northern Mariana Islands U.S. territory.

Nationwide, more than 53,000 people have been diagnosed with COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus that is particularly perilous to the elderly and people with pre-existing medical conditions, with at least 730 deaths. World Health Organization officials have said the United States could become the global epicenter of the pandemic, which first emerged late last year in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

World Health Organization expert Dr. Bruce Aylward told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program: “The U.S. is a gigantic country so it is very difficult to say something is going to happen right across the whole country. You are going to see this evolve differently in each part of the country.”

Trump on Tuesday said he wanted to re-open the country by Easter Sunday – far sooner than public health officials have said is warranted – but later told reporters he would listen to recommendations from the nation’s top health officials.

Wall Street on Wednesday was unable to sustain strong gains from Tuesday’s session as fears about the pandemic’s economic toll overshadowed optimism about sweeping fiscal and monetary stimulus to aid businesses and households.

U.S. lawmakers and the Trump administration reached a deal for a bipartisan $2 trillion stimulus package to help businesses and millions of Americans hit by the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Senate was due to vote on the legislation on Wednesday. The House of Representatives was not expected to act before Thursday.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey, Brad Brooks, Maria Caspani, Stephanie Kelly, Richard Cowan, Doina Chiacu, Patricia Zengerle and Stephanie Nebehay; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Howard Goller)

#MeToo effect: Calls flood U.S. sexual assault hotlines

Volunteers on the National Sexual Assault Hotline work both over the phone and via web chat at the offices of the U.S.'s largest anti-sexual violence organization, the Rape Abuse Incest National Network, in Washington, U.S., January 12, 2018.

By Lisa Lambert

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The phones at U.S. sexual assault hotlines have been ringing in record numbers as the #MeToo social movement spurs victims to reach out for help, sending organizations scrambling to keep up.

Calls spiked when the movement began in October, with people waiting up to three hours to talk to someone at the country’s largest one, the National Sexual Assault Hotline.

The number of calls to the hotline operated by the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) surged 25 percent in November from a year earlier, and another 30 percent in December, according to RAINN. Its 209,480 total calls in 2017 were the most for any year since its founding in 1993.

Last fall, actress Alyssa Milano of the television show “Charmed” asked women who had been sexually assaulted or harassed to post “Me Too” in response to allegations made against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein.

Weinstein, accused of sexual abuse by dozens of women, has denied having nonconsensual sexual contact with anyone. Reuters has not been able to independently confirm the accusations.

At the national hotline’s call center, the lights that workers flip on to indicate they are on the phone never seemed to turn off, said Celia Gamboa, a manager at the national hotline. The chat app most callers prefer was flooded with messages, she said. The #MeToo movement almost always came up.

“It wasn’t just a one-time thing,” Gamboa said. “We’re just going to continue to see that type of flow into the future.”

RAINN added 40 employees to its staff of 200 and stepped up volunteer recruiting, said CEO Scott Berkowitz. That has helped chip away at the wait times, he said.

Elsewhere, Network for Victim Recovery of D.C. saw a spike in calls about sexual harassment. Executive Director Bridgette Stumpf said that unfortunately, the center can often only recommend private attorneys for people whose harassment did not include violence, adding such help may be too expensive for many victims.

The DC Rape Crisis Center now sees an average of 70 people a week seeking legal, physical or psychological help, up from 30 to 40 before #MeToo, said Executive Director Indira Henard. It also saw a bump in donations last fall following the #MeToo postings.

“It is for the record books,” Henard said. “I don’t believe there has ever been a time in our history when we talked about sexual violence and its impact this way.”

(Reporting by Lisa Lambert; Editing by Scott Malone and David Gregorio)