NEW YORK — The United States passed the grim milestone of 20,000 coronavirus deaths Saturday as huge swathes of the globe celebrated the Easter holiday weekend under lockdown at home.
The outbreak has now claimed the lives of at least 20,389 people in the US, which leads the world in deaths and in the number of declared infections — at least 524,903, according to a tally maintained by Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins University.
Italy, the hardest-hit country in Europe with a population a fifth the size of the US, was also approaching the bleak marker, with 19,468 confirmed virus fatalities.
Worldwide, the disease has claimed over 108,200 people.
The death rate — that is, the number of dead relative to the population — is still far higher in Italy than in US, which has more than five times as many people. And worldwide, the true numbers of dead and infected are believed to be much higher because of testing shortages, different counting practices and concealment by some governments.
About half the deaths in the US are in the New York metropolitan area, where hospitalizations are nevertheless slowing and other indicators suggest lockdowns and social distancing are “flattening the curve” of infections and staving off the doomsday scenarios of just a week or two ago.
New York state on Saturday reported 783 more deaths, for a total over 8,600. Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the daily number of deaths is stabilizing “but stabilizing at a horrific rate.”
“What do we do now? We stay the course,” said Cuomo, who like other leaders has warned that relaxing restrictions too soon could enable the virus to come back with a vengeance.
With authorities warning that the crisis in New York is far from over, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the city’s 1.1 million-student school system will remain closed for the rest of the academic year. But Cuomo said the decision is up to him, and no such determination has been made.
Hopes began to rise in Western Europe and heavily infected parts of the United States that the pandemic was peaking, however, with many looking to China’s Wuhan, the disease’s original epicenter, where officials were lifting stay-indoors restrictions and life began to return to normal.
Numbers out of Spain offered a shred of hope Saturday: 510 new deaths, a dip in fatalities for the third day in a row.
Newly-reported coronavirus deaths in France fell by one-third from Friday to 635 on Saturday.
“A very high plateau for the epidemic appears to have been reached but the epidemic remains very active,” said French health official Jerome Salomon.
“We must absolutely remain vigilant,” he added.
Italy meanwhile said the number of daily deaths was starting to level off — though the government resisted pressure to lift its lockdown, extending confinement measures until May 3.
Many experts and the World Health Organization are cautioning countries against lifting lockdown measures too quickly.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned Friday that jumping the gun could lead to a “deadly resurgence” of the novel coronavirus, known as SARS-CoV-2.
From the crowded slums of Mexico City, Nairobi and Mumbai to conflict hotspots in the Middle East, there are fears that the worst is yet to come for the world’s poorest.
War-torn Yemen reported its first COVID-19 case, and in Brazil, authorities confirmed the first deaths in Rio de Janeiro’s sprawling favelas.
With China already ending its once-severe lockdown in Wuhan, US President Donald Trump said this week that the disease was near its peak in the United States and he was considering ways to re-open the world’s biggest economy as soon as possible.
“But you know what? Staying at home leads to death also,” Trump said.
Easter in lockdown
Churches were expected to be empty on Easter Sunday, the climax of Holy Week for the world’s two billion-plus Christians, with congregations shuttered at home by global stay-at-home directives aiming to stem a pandemic that has infected 1.7 million and killed more than 100,000.
Pope Francis was due to livestream his Easter Vigil from an empty St Peter’s Basilica later Saturday, after he presided over a Good Friday service — also with no attendees — to kick off the weekend.
In a call to an Italian television show Friday, he extolled doctors and nurses battling to confront the pandemic.
They “died on the front lines, like soldiers, who have given their lives out of love,” he said, according to the Vatican.
The pontiff was praised by Italy’s prime minister Giuseppe Conte for his “gesture of responsibility” to observe Easter in private.
“His words, although spoken far from Saint Peter’s Square, which was wrapped in an unreal silence, have reached everyone,” said Conte.
Worshipers in Rome stocked up on traditional Easter cakes ahead of the weekend, some piling them onto scooters outside of grocery stores, eager to maintain parts of the holiday tradition.
In the United States a handful of priests and pastors snubbed rules and medical advice and risked arrest announcing they would hold public services in their churches on Sunday.
But most were putting services online, and some were innovating with “drive-in” blessings — though that also risked enhancing the spread of the virus.