(CN) – In a single day, the toll in Spain and Italy rose by a staggering 1,257 new deaths on Tuesday in a pandemic bringing the world to a standstill and threatening to engulf the United States in misery.
On Tuesday, the World Health Organization warned the U.S. has the potential to become the new epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic based on a surge in new confirmed cases of infections and steady rise in deaths linked to the highly contagious respiratory disease. More than 50,000 people in the U.S. have been infected with virus known as Covid-19.
In the past day, 85% of new cases of infection worldwide were reported in Europe and the U.S., WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris told reporters. Of those, 40% were in the U.S., the Geneva-based WHO said. The U.S. has begun to test many more people, which partly explains the rise in numbers.
“We are now seeing a very large acceleration in cases in the U.S. So it does have that potential,” she said about the U.S. becoming the next epicenter. “We cannot say that is the case yet but it does have that potential.”
For the past month, Europe has been the epicenter of the spread of this new deadly disease after Italy found an alarming number of infections in Lombardy and Veneto, two of the country’s richest regions.
The victims just keep mounting in Italy, in particular in Lombardy’s provinces of Brescia and Bergamo. On Tuesday, authorities reported 743 more deaths in Italy, an increase of 102 over Monday. On a hopeful note, Italian authorities reported fewer new infections for the third day in a row with 3,612 new people testing positive.
In all, 6,820 deaths are attributed to Covid-19 in Italy, more than twice as many as China, where the disease is believed to have first emerged in humans in December and possibly earlier.
Tuesday marked a devastating day for Spain, where 514 new deaths were reported in a single day. The previous day, Spain reported 462 deaths.
The epidemic in Spain is alarming because it has exploded so quickly.
El Pais, a major Spanish newspaper, reported that the epidemic is spreading faster and more widely than it has in Italy. Nearly 2,700 people have died, nearly tripling the number of victims since Friday. This pace in deaths is faster than what happened in either China and Italy, the newspaper said.
Also of major concern is the outbreak in Spain is happening in several parts at the same time and spreading. Initially, the virus hit Madrid, the Basque Country, La Rioja and Aragon but a spike in deaths is being reported in Catalonia, Castilla y León, Castilla-La Mancha and in Valencia.
The disease’s spread may be linked to Spain’s hesitation to restrict the movement of people. The country imposed a nationwide lockdown on March 14 when it had already recorded 193 deaths and 6,251 cases, nearly a week after the number of infections reached about 1,000.
Still, Spanish officials are hopeful that the lockdown will pay off and deaths and new infections will decline in the coming days.
Madrid is Spain’s worst-hit area with more than 1,500 deaths and more than 12,350 cases. Its hospitals are struggling to save more than 1,050 people who are critically ill in intensive care units.
As in Italy, Spain is reporting many medical workers are becoming infected. Health workers make up about 14% of the total number of confirmed infections, officials said. That is even higher than Italy, where 9% of those infected are health workers. Several medics and health workers have died in Italy after becoming infected.
The situation has gotten so bad that state prosecutors have opened an investigation into the discovery of bodies allegedly abandoned at nursing homes. The military is disinfecting dozens of nursing homes in a race to stop the spread of the virus among vulnerable elderly residents. The virus is most lethal for the elderly, though it also has killed younger people.
As deaths mount in Madrid, the city turned its Palacio de Hielo, an Olympic-sized ice rink, into a makeshift mortuary.
Across Europe, more than 11,500 people have died from the virus. Deaths continue to mount in France, Germany, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and elsewhere. After Italy and Spain, the virus is hitting France and the U.K. the hardest where 860 and 422 people have died, respectively, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University. Worldwide, more than 18,240 people have died and about 409,000 people have tested positive.
But the number of people infected by the virus is much higher, scientists say, because many people have not been tested.
Angelo Borrelli, the head of Italy’s Civil Protection, said in an interview with La Repubblica, an Italian newspaper, that the number of infections is far higher than those officially reported.
He said there could be as many as 10 people infected for each person who tests positive. By Tuesday, Italy had reported that nearly 70,000 people have tested positive, which could mean as many as 700,000 have been infected, according to his estimate. Many infected people may not show any signs or become ill with flu-like symptoms, scientists say. But the virus is causing serious respiratory illness in many people and scientists warn it has caused lung damage in some people who recover.
To stop the spread, European countries are taking unprecedented measures to shut down society by forcing many businesses to close and telling people to stay home unless they need to fetch necessities or go to work considered essential. On Monday, the United Kingdom joined other major countries and imposed a nationwide lockdown.
Experts say these drastic measures will bring about a fall in new infections and deaths, but it remains unclear how long it will take Europe to contain Covid-19 and begin to lift restrictions.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.