US deaths from coronavirus could reach 200,000 with millions of cases, the government's top infectious disease expert warned on Sunday as New York, New Orleans, and other major cities said they would soon run out of crucial medical supplies.
Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, estimated in an interview with CNN that the pandemic could cause between 100,000 and 200,000 deaths in the United States.
But Fauci, a leading member of President Donald Trump's coronavirus taskforce, quickly added: "I don't want to be held to that ... It's such a moving target that you can so easily be wrong and mislead people."
By way of comparison, the flu has killed between 12,000 and 61,000 Americans a year, since 2010, according to the website of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the 1918-19 flu pandemic killed 675,000 in the US, according to the CDC.
Asked about the persistent shortage of tests for the COVID-19 disease, Fauci struck a slightly more optimistic tone, saying, "If you compare a couple of weeks ago to where we are right now, we have an amazingly larger number of tests than we had."
Asked how soon the wider availability of testing might allow a lifting of travel and work restrictions, Fauci said, "It's going to be a matter of weeks. It's not going to be tomorrow and it's certainly not going to be next week. It's going to be a little bit more than that."
The US coronavirus death toll topped 2,300 on Sunday, after deaths on Saturday more than doubled from the level two days prior. The United States has now recorded more than 130,000 cases, the most of any country in the world.
New York state - the hardest hit in the US - reported nearly 60,000 cases and a total of 965 deaths on Sunday, up 237 in the past 24 hours with one person dying in the state every six minutes. The number of patients hospitalised is slowing, doubling every six days instead of every four, Governor Andrew Cuomo said.
Dr Craig Smith, who heads the surgery department at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center, said the hospital will probably be forced into "apocalyptic scenarios" in the coming weeks, in which ventilators and intensive care unit beds will need to be rationed.
New York City will need hundreds more ventilators in a few days and more masks, gowns and other supplies by April 5, Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Sunday.
New Orleans will run out of ventilators around April 4 and officials in Louisiana still do not know whether they will receive any ventilators from the national stockpile, the governor said.
Louisiana has tried to order 12,000 ventilators from commercial vendors and has received 192, Governor John Bel Edwards said on CBS's Face the Nation.
"We haven't yet been approved for ventilators out of the national stockpile. I continue to press that case, and I hope we will be cut in for a slice of what they have left," Edwards said. "It is the one thing that really keeps me up at night."
Doctors are also especially concerned about a shortage of ventilators, breathing machines needed by many of those suffering from the pneumonia-like respiratory ailment.
'We are scared'
Arabia Mollette, an emergency medicine physician at Brookdale and St Barnabas Hospital in the Bronx, has started praying during the cab ride to work in the morning before she enters what she describes as a "medical warzone". At the end of her shift, which often runs much longer than the scheduled 12 hours, she sometimes cannot hold back tears.
"We're trying to keep our heads above water without drowning," Mollette said. "We are scared. We're trying to fight for everyone else's life, but we also fight for our lives as well."
Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, whose state has become one the fastest growing areas for the virus, especially in the county that includes Detroit, called the rapid spread "gut-wrenching".
"We have nurses wearing the same mask from the beginning of their shift until the end, masks that are supposed to for one patient at one point in your shift. We need some assistance and we're going to need thousands of ventilators," Whitmer said.
On Saturday, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned residents of New York, Connecticut and New Jersey against non-essential domestic travel for 14 days.
Tests to track the disease's progress also remain in short supply, despite repeated White House promises they would be widely available.
Since the virus first appeared in the US in late January, Trump has vacillated between playing down the risks of infection and urging Americans to take steps to slow its spread. [Source: Aljazeera and news agencies]