U.S. death toll from coronavirus approaches 1,000

By Doina Chiacu and Maria Caspani

By Doina Chiacu and Maria Caspani

WASHINGTON/NEW YORK, March 26 (Reuters) - The U.S. death toll from the coronavirus approached the milestone of 1,000 on Thursday as hospitals in New York and other hot spots struggled to treat a flood of patients and the U.S. Congress neared approval of $2 trillion in aid to counter the pandemic's economic impact.

As of 1 a.m. (0500 GMT) Thursday, 999 people had died of the respiratory illness caused by the virus, according to a Reuters tally of reports from state and local officials. One-third of those deaths were in New York state, where the governor has warned hospitals could soon run out of beds and ventilators. The state accounted for nearly half the national total of some 68,000 cases. https://tmsnrt.rs/3dBvs2P

Globally, the virus has killed at least 21,238 and infected 470,873. https://tmsnrt.rs/2JeehWL

Hospitals, laid-off workers and struggling companies will receive badly needed economic aid under the record-setting relief bill approved by the U.S. Senate late on Wednesday in a 96-0 vote. House leaders said they hoped to pass the bill on Friday, and U.S. President Donald Trump has said he would sign the bill into law.

"Every day matters so we want to get this done quickly," House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy said in an interview with Fox News.

Asked if lawmakers were expecting two or three more rounds of rescue packages, McCarthy said Americans should let this $2 trillion take effect.

"We don't need to be crafting another bill right now," he said. "Let these $2 trillion go to work for us."

The relief package moved through Congress as Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell said the United States "may well be in recession."

Jobless claims soared to a record 3.3 million on Thursday, nearly five times the previous weekly record of 695,000 from the recession of 1982.

Roughly half the United States was under "stay at home" orders to arrest the virus, with the side effect of strangling the economy.

Powell warned that reactivating the economy would have to wait until the virus was under control, despite Trump's stated desire to resume economic activity by Easter, April 12.

"The first order of business will be to get the spread of the virus under control and then resume economic activity," Powell told NBC's Today Show.

"We know that economic activity will decline probably substantially in the second quarter, but I think many expect, and I would expect, economic activity to resume and move back up in the second half of the year," Powell said.

Powell also said he would defer to experts such as Anthony Fauci, head of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, for guidance on when to lift restrictions.

Fauci told WNYC public radio in New York on Thursday that the changing weather could help combat the virus because generally warm and moist weather provides better conditions than a cold and dry winter.

But he also warned the virus could return for the next northern winter and that experts could not predict this novel coronavirus because it was "unique."

"We hope we get a respite as we get into April, May and June. It is likely to come around next season because it's a very vigorous virus," Fauci said.

"We're already seeing more infected people in the southern hemisphere now as we head into their winter. So I hope and I think we might get a respite with the weather, which will hopefully give us more time to then prepare for what might be a second round or a seasonal cycling," Fauci said.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has been sounding the alarm about an expected shortage of hospital beds and ventilators. In Italy, the country with the highest number of coronavirus deaths, overwhelmed hospitals have become vehicles of contamination with up to one-fifth of personnel testing positive for the virus at one Milan hospital.

Workers at one New York hospital posted social media pictures of personnel using trash bags as protective gowns because they had run out of supplies.

Fauci called the acceleration of cases in New York "quite disturbing."

"What they're seeing already, and we expect more, is an influx of cases which they're trying to deal with both locally and with the help of the federal government," Fauci said.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu and Maria Caspani; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)