America’s death toll from coronavirus has overtaken the number of people killed in the September 11 attacks as the outbreak continues to gather pace across the country.
On Monday more than 3,000 people in the US had been killed from the virus, according to a tracker from John Hopkins University. It is now rising by around 400 a day, while its 163,429 cases are by far the highest national number ahead of Italy, Spain and China.
The latest increase saw it surpass the near 3,000 people killed in 9/11 when the World Trade Centre and Pentagon were attacked by jihadists in 2001.
Potential death tolls were a point of debate on Monday after Donald Trump abandoned hopes of lifting strict nationwide guidelines by Easter during a press conference on Sunday.
The US president announced that the guidelines, which were due to expire on Monday, will instead be extended until April 30 and possibly beyond that.
That means Americans will continue to be told to avoid discretionary travel and eating in restaurants, not gather in groups of more than 10 and work from home if possible.
Speaking in stark terms, Mr Trump said he had been told 2.2 million could die in America without social distancing rules but that number could be 100,000 to 200,000 with the guidelines.
The remark – that America could see a fifth of a million deaths due to coronavirus even with current restrictions – offered a grim insight into how White House health experts believe the pandemic will develop.
Mr Trump, who has repeatedly talked of his desire to get the US economy open again, backed away from lifting restrictions before Easter after meeting his senior health officials.
“The worst that could happen is you do it too early and all of a sudden it comes back,” Mr Trump said during a nearly hour-long call-in interview with “Fox & Friends” as members of his coronavirus task force fanned out across other media outlets to warn the virus’ spread was only just beginning.
Dr Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, and Dr Deborah Birx, the response coordinator for the White House coronavirus task force, had given Mr Trump the stark death projections and urged him to extend the guidelines.
“It would not have been a good idea to pull back at a time when you really need to be pressing your foot on the pedal as opposed to on the brakes,” Dr Fauci said on CNN on Monday.
Describing the conversation with Mr Trump, Dr Fauci said: “We showed him the data. He looked at the data. He got it right away… He just shook his head and said, ‘I guess we got to do it.'”
Mr Trump mentioned harrowing stories from his home city of New York and a friend who was in a coma after catching coronavirus as he explained his new thinking, indicating the personal connections may have shaped his view.
“I’ve been watching that for the last week on television, body bags all over in hallways,” Mr. Trump said at the White House press conference on Sunday evening.
“I have been watching them bringing in trailer trucks, freezer trucks because they can’t handle the bodies. There are so many of them. This is in essentially my community in Queens, New York. I have seen things that I have never seen before.”
There were more signs of the seriousness with which the outbreak was being treated in New York, the centre of the US outbreak, on Monday.
The USNS Comfort, a navy hospital ship normally deployed to war zones and areas hit by natural disasters, docked in New York on Monday to help with the shortage of hospital beds.
The ship passed the Statue of Liberty on its way to Pier 88 in Manhattan and has around 1,000 beds and a dozen operating rooms. It was last deployed to the city after 9/11.
In Central Park, a stretch of lawn usually used by sun-bathers and families enjoying the outdoors is now the site of a 68-bed field hospital set up by the charity Samaritan’s Purse.
It has been located opposite Mount Sinai hospital and will act as a respiratory care unit. Meanwhile medical emergency calls have risen 40 per cent to about 6,500 a day, according to a union that represents emergency workers – levels not seen since the September 11 attacks.
Other US cities are fast emerging as coronavirus hotpots including New Orleans, Detroit and Los Angeles. There are now more than 140,000 known Covid-19 cases in America, far exceeding any other country in publicly announced cases.
In Las Vegas, scores of homeless people were made to sleep in a disused parking lot less than six feet apart after a resident at a Catholic Charities homeless shelter in the city tested positive for coronavirus, forcing it to close.
Mr Trump discussed the outbreak with Vladmir Putin, the Russian president, on Monday.
“Getting along with Russia’s a good thing,” Mr Trump said before the call.